A Virginia sheriff’s deputy posed online as a 17-year-old boy and solicited nude photos from a teenage California girl before driving across the country and killing her mother and grandparents and setting fire to their home, authorities said on Wednesday .
Austin Lee Edwards, 28, was killed in a shootout with San Bernardino sheriff’s deputies on Friday. The 15-year-old girl, from Riverside, California, was rescued and is in counseling for trauma, family members and police said at a news conference.
Edwards, a resident of North Chesterfield, Virginia, appears to have posed online as a teenager in order to begin a romantic relationship with the girl and obtain her personal information by deceiving her with a false identity known as “catfishing,” he said the police.
Authorities gave no further details about their communications and said they are still combing through online accounts. Officials are investigating whether he has been harassing other minors across the country.
It’s also unclear if this was the girl’s first personal encounter with Edwards or if she knew he was coming to California, officials said.
Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said that due to the girl’s young age and trauma, it will take time to complete interviews with her and get answers to the many questions surrounding the case, such as: B. whether she was forced or threatened to go with him.
“We don’t believe at this point that she had anything to do with the murders,” he said.
At one point, Edwards asked the girl for sexual photos and she stopped communicating with him, Gonzalez said, but detectives don’t yet know when that happened or if Edwards killed her family in retaliation.
Authorities believe Edwards parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway, went to the house and killed the family members before leaving with the girl on Friday.
Officials have not yet determined how he entered the home, killed the victims, or started the fire.
The bodies, found at the Riverside home — about 50 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles in a single-family suburb where the loud roar of freeway traffic can be heard — have been identified as the girl’s grandparents and mother: Mark Winek, 69; Sharie Winek, 65; and their 38-year-old daughter Brooke Winek.
“Nobody could have imagined that this crime would happen to my family, our family,” said Michelle Blandin, Mark and Sharie’s daughter and Brooke’s sister.
A tearful Blandin said her parents and sister “lived and loved unselfishly”. The killing of Brooke, a single mother, means her daughters – the 15-year-old girl and her 13-year-old sister – are now motherless, Blandin said.
A front window of the charred house on the Riverside cul-de-sac was boarded up with a wooden cross on Wednesday. Dozens of candles were set out on the sidewalk, along with bouquets of flowers and stuffed animals.
Edwards is a former Virginia State Police Officer and was the deputy sheriff of Washington County, Virginia at the time of the murders. Law enforcement officials there said he had shown no behavior of concern and no other employer had disclosed any issues during background checks.
Gonzalez called it “really disgusting” to see someone in law enforcement involved in such heinous crimes and wondered how he’d been hired by two Virginia agencies.
“How did this person get past a background investigation? How does this person get past a lie detector test?” said the boss. “From what we know about him so far, there really isn’t a major criminal record on this person or anything that would indicate that they would be able to see that result.”
Police are also investigating whether Edwards used his law enforcement weapon or a government-issued laptop in the crimes.
A neighbor called police on Friday to report the red Edwards Kia Soul as a suspicious car, saying the girl appears to be in distress and involved in an interference with a man, Gonzalez said.
Police were able to check the vehicle’s license plate and discovered Edwards had filed a police report alleging vandalism at the Kia earlier this year, the boss said. The police report included Edwards’ cell phone number, which allowed investigators to ping his phone and quickly locate him in Southern California.
He got into a shootout with the San Bernardino sheriff’s deputies, and the coroner’s office is conducting an autopsy to determine if he was killed by the deputies or a self-inflicted wound.
Blandin said she last saw her parents and sister on Thanksgiving, the day before she was killed.
“We had a family debate, and it got heated over whether the brownies my mom made should be glazed with sprinkles or just left plain,” she said. “I didn’t know that day that my husband and I would be seeing my parents and sister for the last time.”
Blandin asked parents and guardians to use her family’s tragedy to start conversations about internet safety.
“If you are speaking to your children about the dangers of their online activities, please use us as a reference,” she said. “Tell our story to help your parenting. Not out of fear, but out of an example of what happened.”