RIVERSIDE, Calif. — A Chesterfield man and former Virginia State Police trooper was killed in a shootout with police after he drove to California to meet a teenage girl and killed her family Friday morning, according to authorities.
Riverside Police said Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield, Virginia, had met the girl online and "catfished" her before murdering her family.
Virginia State Police said Edwards was hired and entered their academy on July 6, 2021 and graduated on January 21, 2022. They said he was to assigned Henrico County as part of the Richmond Division until he resigned on Oct. 28.
VSP said they would not release he reasons for resigning because it was a part of his personnel file, but were cooperating with the investigation.
"As a probationary employee, Justin L. Edwards was also given monthly performance evaluations, in accordance with department policy. During Edwards' short tenure with the department, he never exhibited any behaviors to trigger any internal administrative or criminal investigations," said VSP spokesperson Corinne Geller. "The Virginia State Police also conducts a thorough background check as part of its mandatory hiring process for entry into the academy. That background check requires passage of written, psychological, and physical testing, as well as a pre-employment polygraph. At no time during that extensive process were there any indicators of concern."
After resigning from VSP, Edwards was hired by the Washington Count Sheriff's Office in Southwest Virginia and began orientation on Nov. 16.
"Past employers and the Virginia State Police were contacted during the hiring processing; however, no employers disclosed any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards," the department said in a statement.
“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,” added Sheriff Blake Andis who said his department is also working with investigators in California.
Police: Suspect pointed gun at helicopter before deputies opened fire
Edwards is accused of killing three people related to a teenager that he had met online and "catfished" her posing as a younger person.
"It is believed Edwards had developed an online relationship with the teen and obtained her personal information," Riverside, CA police said. "He traveled from Virginia to Riverside where he parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway and walked to the teen’s home."
Police said the 28-year-old then murdered the teen’s grandfather, grandmother, and mother before walking back to his car and driving off with the girl.
Firefighters found Mark Winek, 69, Sharie Winek, 65, and Brooke Winek, 38, dead in the front entryway of their home. An online fundraising campaign was launched Monday to help cover funeral expenses and support the victims' families.
"The Winek Family would like to thank everyone for their love, support, prayers and patience during this horrific time in our lives. Mark, Sharie and Brooke were loving people who didn’t deserve this tragedy," the rest of the Winek family said in a statement. "We are still processing the new information provided by authorities and will be speaking further at a press conference in conjunction with the Riverside Police Department later this week."
"The cause of the house fire continues to be under investigation although it appears at this point to have been intentionally ignited," police said.
Police tracked Edwards' car after they got a call for a welfare check about a teen "who appeared distressed while getting into a Red Kia Soul with a man" just after 11 a.m.
That was around the same time fire crews were called about a house fire a few homes away from where the check the welfare call originated.
As a result, by about 1:15 p.m. deputies spotted a red Kia Soul traveling on Highway 247 in the desert. Aircraft tracked Edwards until SWAT units could get in place. However, officials said that when the team intercepted the vehicle, Edwards did not stop and fired at deputies.
Edwards later lost control of the car and drove off the road. That is when the girl got out and was rescued by deputies.
"Edwards exited the vehicle and pointed a gun at the sheriff’s helicopter and deputies fired at Edwards," deputies said. "Upon contact, Edwards was unresponsive and pronounced deceased at the scene."
The girl, who was not harmed during the pursuit, is currently in protective custody. Police said they are still trying to determine if the teen went with Edwards willingly or not.
CBS 6 reached Edwards' father by phone Monday who said he was "sorry for what happened" and didn't "understand it", but did not want to comment further as the case was under investigation.
“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,” Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said. “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.”
Officials said their investigation is ongoing and are trying to determine if Edwards was in contact with anyone else online and anyone with information about the case or Edwards should contact Detective Josh Ontko at 951-353-7135 or JOntko@RiversideCA.gov, or Detective Bryan Galbreath at 951-353-7105 or BGalbreath@RiversideCA.gov. Those wishing to remain anonymous can email RPDTips@RiversideCA.gov.
Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email email@example.com to send a tip.