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Tipsheet

Virginia Man ‘Catfished’ Teenager, Killed Her Family, Police Say

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Update: 

ABC News reported Wednesday that the San Bernardino County Coroner said an autopsy determined that Austin Lee Edwards' cause of death was suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Previous reports claimed that Edwards was killed by gunshot by officers returning fire after he pointed a gun at them in a shootout on Friday.

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According to KTLA, Edwards was posing as a 17-year-old boy online where he met the teenage girl. He reportedly kidnapped the girl when he arrived at her home in California.

Original:

A former police officer from Virginia traveled across the country to meet up with a teenage girl he “catfished” online and reportedly killed three family members, police said Monday.

The incident occurred on Friday in Riverside, California. It began when Austin Lee Edwards, 28, drove to the west coast to meet up with the teen.

According to a press release from the City of Riverside, police officers were initially dispatched shortly after 11 a.m. to check on the welfare of the teenage girl who “appeared distressed” while getting into a vehicle with a man. As officers responded, the department received calls that a nearby residence was on fire. 

The Riverside Fire Department arrived at the home and reported a working fire. Firefighters entered the home and discovered three adult victims lying on the ground. They were identified as Mark Winek, 69, his wife Sharie Winek, 65, and their daughter Brook Winek, 38. The firefighters pulled the adults outside, and it was determined they were victims of an apparent homicide. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, the police department noted, but “appears at this point to have been intentionally ignited.”

During the preliminary investigation, it was determined that the young woman the officers were dispatched to check on lived at the home where the fire occurred. The man in the vehicle she was with was later identified as Edwards.

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Later that day, Edwards was pinpointed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department driving around with the teen. As police located Edwards, he fired gunshots at law enforcement. Edwards was shot dead by officers returning fire.

Detectives who investigated the fire determined that Edwards met the teenage girl through “online deception” called “catfishing.” Catfishing is when someone pretends to be someone else on social media. Edwards then obtained the young woman’s personal information and traveled to her home in California. He parked in a neighbor’s driveway and walked to the teen’s home. Authorities believe he murdered the teen’s grandparents and mother and likely set the home on fire before leaving with the girl. 

The teen was left unharmed and placed into the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services custody.

According to ABC News, Edwards was hired by the Virginia State Police and entered the police academy in July 2021. He worked within the agency’s Richmond Division until his resignation on October 28.

Corinne Geller, a Virginia State Police spokesperson, reportedly said that Edwards “never exhibited any behaviors to trigger any internal administrative or criminal investigations.” In a comment to the Los Angeles Times, Geller said that during his background and psychological tests, there weren’t “any indicators of concern.” Edwards was hired as a deputy in Washington County, Virginia on Nov. 16.

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“It is shocking and sad to the entire law enforcement community that such an evil and wicked person could infiltrate law enforcement while concealing his true identity as a computer predator and murderer. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officers, and all of those affected by this heinous crime,” Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said in a statement. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office assists California agencies in the investigation.

Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez called the situation “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,” Gonzalez said.

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