Austin Lee Edwards, killed by officers in shootout, worked for police departments in Virginia, investigators say
RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- The murders of a husband and wife and their daughter in Riverside allegedly stemmed from a catfishing incident involving the teenage daughter of one of the victims, police said.
According to an update issued by the Riverside Police Department on Sunday, Mark Winek and his wife Sharie Winek along with their 38-year-old daughter Brooke Winek were killed by a man who was reportedly involved in an online relationship with the teenage daughter of Brooke.
The incident all unfolded the day after Thanksgiving.
At around 11:08 a.m., officers were sent to conduct a welfare check regarding "a young female who appeared distressed" as she was getting into a Red Kia Soul with a man.
While officers were responding, calls began coming in regarding a fire just a few houses down from where the welfare check came from.
Firefighters with the Riverside Fire Department worked to put out the fire and found the bodies of all three Winek family members laying on the ground in the front entry way.
"Their bodies were pulled outside where it was determined they were victims of an apparent homicide," read the statement issued by police.
According to police, a preliminary investigation revealed the young female described in the initial welfare check call was a teen who lived at the home where the fire broke out. She was with a man identified as 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards of North Chesterfield, Virginia.
Detectives said Edwards had met the teen girl online "through the common form of online deception known as catfishing."
Police said Edwards traveled to Riverside from Virginia, where they said he parked his vehicle in a neighbor's driveway and walked to the teen's home. Investigators believe Edwards lured the teen into an online relationship.
"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," said RPD Ofc. Ryan Railsback during an interview with our Los Angeles sister station, ABC7 Eyewitness News, on Sunday. "What happened here in terms of the 'catfishing' as they call it ... that common practice of, you know, online deception where you're pretending to be someone else."
Later that day, police say Edwards was found driving with the teen through San Bernardino County when he was located by the county sheriff's department in the unincorporated area of Kelso.
Police said Edwards fired shots at deputies and was shot and killed by deputies shortly after. The teen was not injured and is safe, according to police.
Edwards had worked for the Virginia State Police until he recently began working for the Washington County Sheriff's Office, according to investigators.
"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," stated Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez. "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."
The exact cause of the Winek family's deaths remain unknown.
The cause of the house fire continues to be under investigation although police said "it appears at this point to have been intentionally ignited."
During a vigil on Saturday, neighbors told Eyewitness News the Winek family was always neighborly and went out of their way to help the community. The victims' family was in attendance but did not wish to speak with the media.
Some said they are devastated.
"I just want everyone to know how loving they were. They don't deserve this. I'm not eating. I'm not sleeping. It just hit me very, very hard," said Bonnie Davis, who said she has lived nextdoor to the Wineks for two decades. "They were just that type people that you would just never wake up to think that you would hear this of them."
A woman who wished to be identified only as Joi organized Saturday's vigil and told Eyewitness News she was new to the Riverside neighborhood before hearing the news.
"When I heard that news, I just dropped to my stomach like, 'What do you mean they didn't make it?'" she said.
Joi recalls Mark Winek stepping up to help when he learned she was a single mom. According to a GoFundMe set up for the family, he coached young athletes at Arlington High School.
"He said right away, 'I'm going to mow your lawn, I'm going to help you out when you're not here,'" said Joi.
Though the family of the victims did not speak to Eyewitness News directly, they did issue a public statement to those who attended the vigil, saying "Thank you for being here honoring my family and respecting our privacy at this time."
The family said they may release another statement on Monday.
The investigation remains ongoing and anyone with information is urged to contact Detective Josh Ontko at (951) 353-7135 or JOntko@RiversideCA.gov, or Detective Bryan Galbreath at (951) 353-7105 or BGalbreath@RiversideCA.gov.