At 11 a.m. on Friday, the morning after Thanksgiving, authorities were called to a Riverside, California neighborhood to check on a visibly distressed teenage girl getting into a car with a man. While en route, however, the officers were soon redirected to a deadly house fire, just a few homes from where they’d been dispatched for the welfare call. It wouldn’t be until hours later that they realized the three victims of the fire were the same teen girl’s mother and grandparents, and the man with her was attempting to kidnap her.
According to a statement from the local police department, the man has been identified as Austin Lee Edwards, a 28-year-old former Virginia state trooper, who drove 2,500 miles to “meet” the girl after catfishing her and then murdered her family before driving away with her.
“This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children,” the Riverside police chief said. “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.”
Riverside detectives have concluded that Edwards met the girl via an unidentified website where he posed as a different individual and developed a relationship with her, obtaining her whereabouts. Until October 2022, Edwards had reportedly worked for the Virginia State Police at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. Weeks after resigning from his job, Edwards then drove from Virginia to the southern California city, parked his car in a driveway near her home, and killed her grandfather, grandmother, and mother before leaving with the teen. The exact causes of death have not been specified.
Edwards was eventually apprehended, while driving with the teen, by authorities in San Bernardino County. Ultimately, a shootout occurred, with Edwards firing at deputies until he was fatally shot by police. According to authorities, the unharmed teen has been placed into protective custody of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.
“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,” said Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officers, and all of those affected by this heinous crime.”