A former Virginia State Trooper has been shot by police officers in San Bernardino, California, after allegedly murdering the mother and grandparents of a teenage girl that he catfished on social media. Twenty-eight-year-old Austin Lee Edwards is believed to have driven from Virginia to California to meet the girl after extensive conversations online.
Police believe that after killing the girl’s family members on November 25, 2022, Edwards set fire to their Riverside home and forced the teen to leave with him. He was subsequently located by deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBCSD). The suspect opened fire on responding officers and was shot dead when they returned fire. The teen was physically unharmed in either altercation and has been taken into protective custody by the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.
An investigation has begun into the events that led to the deaths of 38-year-old Brooke Winek and her parents, 69-year-old Mark Winek and 65-year-old Sharie Winek, and the abduction of the unnamed teenage girl.
Law enforcement officials say that Edwards misrepresented himself to the teen girl in online chats, eventually obtaining her personal information and deciding to drive more than 2,000 miles to meet his victim in person at her home in the 11200 block of Price Court, Riverside, California. Officer Ryan Railsback told reporters:
“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.”
Police were called to the scene of the crime shortly before eleven a.m. on Friday for a welfare check. A neighbor had reported that the teen appeared “distressed” while getting into a red Kia Soul with a strange man after what appeared to be a dispute between the two. As officers arrived on the scene to investigate the first report, additional reports began coming in about a fire only a few houses down the street.
Upon entering the home, first responders with the Riverside Fire Department discovered the bodies of the three adults in the entryway and determined they had been the victims of a homicide. The victims were moved outside before attending the fire, which appeared to have been set intentionally. Though the home was not destroyed, it sustained significant damage to the roof and parts of the interior.
Speaking with witnesses and neighbors, the police quickly discovered that the teen they had been sent to check on also lived in the house. They began an immediate search for her and the vehicle she had been seen entering, notifying law enforcement departments in the surrounding area to be on the lookout for the teen and her kidnapper. Within hours, Edwards and the victim were located in nearby Kelso and brought to a stop by officers. When he opened fire on them, they returned fire and he was fatally struck by at least one bullet.
Police report that Edwards drove from his home in North Chesterfield, Virginia, to Riverside, California, and parked in the driveway of a neighboring home before walking to the teen’s address. Upon arriving at the home, Edwards murdered the girl’s mother and grandparents before setting the house on fire and leaving with the frightened teen. Details of how the victims were murdered or how the house fire was started have not yet been released.
A statement from Police Chief Larry Gonzalez is as follows:
“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. 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.”
Edwards entered the police academy on July 6, 2021, and graduated as a state trooper on January 21, 2022. He was employed in the Richmond Division and assigned to Henrico County until he resigned from his post on October 28, 2022, according to Virginia State Police Public Relations Manager, Corinne Geller. It is unclear why he resigned and no reason has yet been given by the authorities. He had also worked for the Washington County Sheriff’s Department in Virginia.
Brooke Winek was a beloved single mother to two teenage daughters. Mark Winek had been a girls’ softball coach at Arlington High School for years. He and his wife, Sharie, were known to help others out in any time of need. They were well-loved by family and friends in their community, who describe them as “selfless” and “caring.”
The Wineks are survived by Mark and Sharie’s oldest daughter, Shelli, and Brooke’s two daughters. A Go Fund Me has been set up to assist the family with funeral expenses and help support Brooke’s two daughters as they recover from this tragedy. As details continue to emerge on this tragedy, family, friends and the entire community mourn this senseless loss of life. Law enforcement continues to investigate the series of events that led to the murders and abduction.