Police in Riverside, Calif., were responding to a call about a teenage girl who “appeared distressed” while getting into a car with a man Friday morning when reports began rolling in about a house fire on the same street.
By the time firefighters arrived, the teenager and the red Kia Soul she had gotten into were gone. Meanwhile, a blaze was raging on the first floor of the home, where the firefighters soon found three adults lying dead in the entryway, according to a news release from the Riverside Police Department.
Police are investigating the case as a triple homicide. The victims — 65-year-old Sharie Winek; her husband, 69-year-old Mark Winek; and their daughter, 38-year-old Brooke Winek — were the grandparents and mother of the teen, who also lived in the home. Law enforcement officials identified the suspect as 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards, a former Virginia State Police trooper who lived in North Chesterfield, Va.
Hours after firefighters discovered the bodies, Edwards was killed in a shootout with officers. The teenage girl, who had been inside Edwards's vehicle, was not physically harmed.
Edwards had "catfished" the teen, police said, referring to a scheme in which a person pretends to be someone else online. Officials said Edwards formed a relationship with the girl, learned her personal information, then drove the nearly 2,500 miles from Virginia to California.
When he arrived, police said he parked in a neighbor's driveway, walked into the teen's home and killed her mother, grandmother and grandfather before driving off with her.
Hours after the fire was reported, officials said Edwards was still driving with the teen in San Bernardino County. During a car chase, Edwards fired a gun at deputies before losing control of the Kia and driving off the road, the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department said in a news release. He then exited the car and died in a shootout with deputies.
The teen has since been placed in protective custody.
"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 in a statement.
On Sunday, a GoFundMe page was set up to support the family. Brooke Winek was a single mother with "the biggest heart," the fundraiser's description said. Sharie Winek was "sweet and caring." Mark Winek was a "loving" family member.
In the neighborhood where the Wineks lived, mourners held a candlelight vigil Friday night. Outside their home, a memorial with candles and flowers lined the sidewalk.
Ron Smith, a longtime friend of Mark Winek, told the Press-Enterprise that he had a big presence in the high school sports community.
"Mark was a man who was huge in the softball and baseball coaching ranks," Smith told the paper.
Mark Winek coached softball and baseball at Arlington High School in Riverside for nearly a decade, the school said in a statement Monday night. According to the GoFundMe page, Brooke Winek also "found her most immense joy" watching her daughter perform with the high school color guard.
Many questions remain unanswered about the killings, including the cause and manner of the deaths, though police have said the fire appeared to "have been intentionally ignited."
Riverside police are continuing to investigate, with help from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia, where Edwards was most recently employed. He was hired on Nov. 16, the sheriff’s office said in a statement Monday, adding that Edwards’s past employers — including the Virginia State Police — had not “disclosed any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining” to him.
"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," Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said in a statement.
Edwards, who was hired by the Virginia State Police in July 2021, "never exhibited any behaviors to trigger any internal administrative or criminal investigations," spokesperson Corinne Geller said in a statement to The Washington Post. He graduated from the State Police Academy in January but resigned on Oct. 28, Geller said.
In a Facebook post Sunday night, Errick Winek, who said he was Brooke Winek's cousin, shared the fundraiser link to support the family in what lies ahead, including funerals.
“My family suffered an unimaginable tragedy this week that senselessly claimed the lives of my Godfather Uncle Mark, my Aunt Sharie, and my cousin Brooke,” he wrote. “There are so many questions and so few answers. . .”