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A Virginia law enforcement agent accused of killing the mother and grandparents of a teenage girl he’d catfished online was killed in a shootout with police in California.
Austin Lee Edwards, 28, was shot and killed by authorities near Kelso, California — a ghost town in the Mojave National Preserve in southern California — on Friday, according to the Riverside Police Department.
Officers were dispatched to a Riverside home in the 11200 block of Price Court shortly after 11:00 a.m. on Friday following reports of a “distressed” young female who was seen getting into a Red Kia Soul with a man, later identified as Edwards.
While officers were en route to the address, emergency dispatchers began receiving reports of a structure fire in the same area.
Upon arrival at the residence — the home of the young victim seen getting into a Kia allegedly driven by Edwards — firefighters found three bodies in the front entryway.
"Their bodies were pulled outside, where it was determined they were victims of an apparent homicide," the Riverside Police Department said in a press release statement.
Firefighters ultimately got the blaze under control. Authorities suspect the house fire was started intentionally, though the investigation into its cause is still ongoing.
The three victims were ultimately identified as: Mark Winek, 69; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65; and their daughter Brooke Winek, 38. The teen was Brooke Winek's daughter, according to Los Angeles ABC affiliate KABC.
Following the triple slaying, Edwards fled the location with the teen girl, investigators said.
He was later tracked to an area near Kelso.
“As SWAT intercepted Edward’s vehicle, Edwards fled and led deputies on a pursuit,” a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said in a press release. “During the pursuit, Edwards fired at the deputies. The volley of gunfire struck the SWAT vehicle numerous times.”
Edwards then lost control of his Kia and went off the road. He was ultimately shot by at least one San Bernardino County deputy after he exited the vehicle and pointed a firearm at a circling police helicopter.
Edwards was pronounced dead at the scene. No deputies were injured in the incident. Authorities said the teen victim, who was unharmed, was rescued by law enforcement after Edwards’ Kia was disabled.
Authorities now suspect that Edwards, who lived in Virginia, had catfished the teenager prior to traveling across the country and carrying out the triple murder. The exact nature of Edwards’ online relationship with the teen — including how long he had been in contact with her and the extent of his alleged deception — wasn’t disclosed.
Police did say that Edwards drove from his home in Virginia to the teen's neighborhood in Riverside, California — more than 2,200 miles — parked his car in a neighbor’s driveway and then walked to the minor’s home.
“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. “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 teen has been placed into the protective custody of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services. The case remains open and active.
Edwards was employed by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia, NBC News reported.
He entered the Virginia State Police academy in July 2021 and graduated as a trooper in January, according to a department spokesperson. The 28-year-old was assigned to the Henrico County’s Richmond Division but resigned from his post for undisclosed reasons on Oct. 28, according to ABC News. Virginia law bars state agencies from issuing any information beyond a resignation date.
He was hired by the Washington County, Virginia Sheriff’s Office on Nov. 16, according to ABC News, and had already begun his orientation. Oxygen.com has reached out to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office for comment.
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