Riverside County Sheriff
Riverside Sheriff - Photo courtesy of Sundry Photography on Shutterstock

Investigators Monday were still piecing together the chain of events that led a former Virginia state trooper to allegedly kill three members of a Riverside family and abduct the teenage daughter of one victim before trying to flee California, culminating in him being killed in a gunfight with deputies.

Mark Winek, 69, his wife, Sharie Winek, 65, and their daughter, 38-year-old Brooke Winek, were slain Friday morning at their residence at 11261 Price Court.

“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 alleged perpetrator, 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards of North Chesterfield, Virginia, was killed in a shootout with San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies in the unincorporated community of Kelso, west of Needles, Friday afternoon.

Riverside police spokesman Officer Ryan Railsback alleged that Edwards had traveled to Riverside specifically to make personal contact with a teenage girl, whose identity was not released, residing at the house. She is believed to be Brooke Winek’s daughter.

According to Railsback, Edwards likely initiated communication with the girl, who is now under the care of Riverside County Department of Public Social Services staff, while “catfishing” online in social media platforms. The practice involves internet predators assuming false identities to meet underage victims, often for sexual exploitation.

Authorities in Virginia have confirmed that Edwards served as a Virginia State Police trooper for about a year in the Richmond metropolitan area but resigned in October. He was then hired on as a deputy in Washington County, Virginia.

“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. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officers and all of those affected by this heinous crime.”

Railsback said a neighbor of the victims spotted Edwards and the teenager getting into his Kia Soul shortly after 11 a.m. Friday and immediately became suspicious because the youth “appeared distressed.”

The alert resident called police, and officers were heading to the location when dispatchers began receiving additional 911 calls regarding a fire inside the Wineks’ house.

“The Riverside Fire Department arrived first and reported a working fire on the first floor of the residence,” Railsback said. “They initiated a fire attack, made entry, then discovered the three adult victims laying on the ground in the front entry way. Their bodies were pulled outside, where it was determined they were victims … of homicide.”

The causes of death have not yet been confirmed.

Firefighters quickly knocked down the blaze inside the residence, which was ultimately determined to be an act of arson. Railsback said detectives then set about unraveling what allegedly transpired and soon identified Edwards as the man leaving the property with the teen.

Sheriff’s deputies spotted the suspect’s Kia on Highway 247, leading to a chase during which Edwards fired shots at his pursuers, according to officials. Edwards eventually lost control of the car and drove off the road. The girl escaped and was rescued by deputies, but Edwards got out of the car and allegedly pointed a gun at a sheriff’s helicopter, prompting deputies to open fire, killing him.

The teen was not hurt. She is not a suspect in the killings.

A GoFundMe account established to assist the Winek family had raised nearly $30,000 as of Monday morning. The link is rb.gy/yo8ecr.

A vigil was held in the Wineks’ memory Saturday night, with acquaintances remembering them a “neighborly” family that “went out of their way to help the community.”

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