Former trooper accused of ‘catfishing’ teen, killing her family

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — A man who died in a shootout with police on Friday is accused of lying about his identity online in conversations with a teenager, before traveling across the country to kill her family and set their house on fire.

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Austin Lee Edwards was killed in a shootout with members of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department on Friday, while the teenager was taken into protective custody, according to a press release from the Riverside Police Department.

Riverside police officers were dispatched early Friday afternoon to check on a young woman who “appeared distressed” while getting into a car with a man. While officers were responding, dispatchers began to receive calls about a house on fire nearby.

Firefighters with the Riverside Fire Department responded to find three people dead inside the house, but investigators said they did not believe the victims were killed by the flames, The Associated Press reported.

The victims found in the home were identified as Mark Winek, 69; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65; and their daughter, Brooke Winek, 38. Riverside police said Monday the cause and manner of their deaths are pending and the house fire remains under investigation, though it appears to have been intentionally set.

Police said officers determined the teenager who was the subject of the initial welfare check also lived in the house with the victims. The man accompanying her was identified as Edwards.

Riverside police said that detectives determined Edwards had met the teenager online and was engaged in “catfishing,” which is pretending to be a different person than they actually are. Police said Edwards developed a relationship with the teenager and got her personal information before traveling from his home in Virginia to Riverside.

Officers said Edwards parked his car in a neighbor’s driveway once he arrived in Riverside and walked to the teenager’s home, where he murdered her grandmother, grandfather and mother before walking back to his car with the teenager and leaving.

“We had a grandmother, grandfather and a mother of this teen murdered by this suspect who traveled from across the country for, most likely, the sexual exploitation of this teenager,” Riverside Police Officer Ryan Railsback told KABC.

Police said Edwards previously worked for the Virginia State Police and was recently employed by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia.

“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,” said Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez. “This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children.”