By Holly Matkin and Sandy Malone
Riverside, CA – A Virginia sheriff’s deputy allegedly drove cross-country to the home of a teen girl he’d met online and killed her family, kidnapped the teenager, and then was killed in a gunfight with California law enforcement officers in the Mojave Desert on Friday.
Investigators believe that 28-year-old Washington County (Virginia) Sheriff’s Deputy Austin Lee Edwards developed an online relationship with a teenage girl who lived in Riverside, KNBC reported.
Deputy Edwards just recently joined the Washington County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), according to WDBJ.
He was previously employed as a trooper by the Virginia State Police (VSP) after graduating from the law enforcement academy in January.
Deputy Edwards was subsequently assigned to Henrico County, where he remained until resigning in October to join the WCSO, WDBJ reported.
The Riverside Police Department (RPD) received a report at approximately 11:08 a.m. on Nov. 25 about “a young female who appeared distressed” as she was getting into a vehicle with a man in the 11200-block of Price Court, the RPD said in a press release.
The vehicle was described as a red Kia Soul.
As officers were responding to the scene, other calls began pouring in regarding a house fire at a residence just down the block from where the welfare check on the distressed girl had originated, according to the RPD.
The Riverside Fire Department (RFD) arrived at the scene of the fire prior to the RPD and made entry into the first floor of the home.
Once inside, they discovered the bodies of three adult victims lying on the floor near the front door, according to police.
“Their bodies were pulled outside where it was determined they were victims of an apparent homicide,” the RPD said.
As firefighters continued battling the blaze, detectives from the RPD’s Robbery-Homicide Unit and specialists from the agency’s Forensics Unit responded to the scene and took over the investigation with the assistance of the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, the Riverside County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office, and the RFD’s arson investigators.
Police identified the victims as 38-year-old Brooke Winek and her parents, 65-year-old Sharie Winek and 69-year-old Mark Winek, according to the RPD.
Winek Family Fund https://t.co/UV8bQTiKLK
— Angela Minor 💗 (@angminor07) November 27, 2022
“The cause of the house fire continues to be under investigation although it appears at this point to have been intentionally ignited,” the police department noted.
Police said the murdered victims are the teen’s mother and grandparents.
Investigators said they believe Deputy Edwards befriended the girl online while pretending to be someone else.
She is just 15 years old, CBS News reported.
“Detectives determined Edwards had met the female teenager through the common form of online deception known as ‘catfishing,’ where someone pretends to be a different person than they actually are,” the RPD said. “It is believed Edwards had developed an online relationship with the teen and obtained her personal information.”
Deputy Edwards then allegedly drove across the United States from his home in Virginia, parked his car in the driveway of a nearby home, and walked over to the teen’s house.
“At some point, he murdered the teen’s grandfather, grandmother, and mother before walking back to his vehicle with the teen and leaving,” the RPD said.
Police tracked Deputy Edwards’s vehicle down in the Kelso area of San Bernardino County several hours after the triple homicide.
San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBSD) deputies said the suspect had the kidnapped teen with him at the time, according to the RPD.
An aircraft tracked the suspect vehicle from above while SWAT units moved in to intercept him, CBS News reported.
Deputy Edwards allegedly opened fire on deputies as he continued to try to flee.
He ultimately lost control of his vehicle and drove off of the road, then jumped out of the vehicle and pointed a gun at a sheriff’s office helicopter, CBS News reported.
That’s when deputies opened fire.
Deputy Edwards was pronounced dead at the scene.
The teen was not physically injured during the exchange of gunfire, according to police.
She has been placed into protective custody with the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.
Investigators said they do not believe she had any involvement with the murders or the arson, CBS News reported.
“Our hearts go out to the Winek family and their loved ones during this time of tremendous grief, as this is a tragedy for all Riversiders,” RPD Chief Larry Gonzalez said in the press release. “This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children. If you’ve already had a conversation with your kids on how to be safe online and on social media, have it again. If not, start it now to better protect them.”
The WCSO said on Monday that Deputy Edwards was working for the Virginia State Police (VSP) when he applied at the sheriff’s office, CBS News reported.
His background check came back clear.
“No employers disclosed any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards,” the WCSO told CBS News.
Deputy Edwards was officially hired by the sheriff’s office on Nov. 16 and was in the midst of orientation.