By Amanda Watts, Tina Burnside and Zoe Sottile, CNN
A former Virginia police officer, believed to have murdered a teenager’s family in Riverside, California, after “catfishing” her online, was killed in a shootout while trying to flee authorities, the city’s police department said in a news release.
The ex-cop was identified as Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield Virginia. Detectives said they believe Edwards had met the teen through “catfishing,” a form of online deception in which someone pretends to be a different person.
Officers with the Riverside Police were dispatched Friday to check the welfare of a young female who appeared distressed while getting into a red car with a man, police said. While officers were responding, 911 dispatchers began getting calls about a fire in the same neighborhood, just a few houses away from where the welfare check originated.
Firefighters discovered three adult victims lying in the front entryway of the burning home. When they pulled them outside, it was determined they were victims of an apparent homicide, the release stated.
A preliminary investigation determined the young female described in the initial call was a teenager who lived where the house fire and homicides occurred, police said.
According to police, Edwards had developed an online relationship with the teen and obtained her personal information. He then traveled from Virginia to Riverside, where he parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway and walked to the teen’s home, the release stated. At some point, authorities believe Edwards murdered the teen’s grandfather, grandmother and mother before walking back to his vehicle with the teen and leaving.
Several hours after the bodies were found, Edwards was spotted driving with the teen through San Bernardino County, police said.
According to the release, Edwards exchanged gunfire with the San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies attempting to stop him, was shot by deputies, and was later pronounced dead at the scene.
The teen was unharmed and later placed into protective custody of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, police said.
Edwards resigned from the Virginia State Police in October, according to the agency. Detectives in California learned he was “recently employed at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in the state of Virginia.”
“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,” said Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis.
The victims have been identified as Mark Winek, 69, his wife Sharie Winek, 65, and their daughter Brooke Winek, 38. The exact cause and manner of their deaths are still pending.
“Mark, Sharie, and Brooke were loving people who didn’t deserve this tragedy,” the family of the victims said in a Monday statement. The family also thanked “everyone for their love, support, prayers and patience during this horrific time.”
“We are still processing the new information provided by authorities and will be speaking further at a press conference in conjunction with Riverside Police Dept. later this week. Please respect our privacy at this time,” the statement said.
The cause of the house fire continues to be under investigation, although it appears to have been intentionally ignited, according to the police news release.
“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,” city Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said in the 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.”
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