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Austin Lee Edwards, 28, reportedly drove more than 2,500 miles from Virginia to Riverside, California, to meet the teenager on Friday, the New York Post reported. Once there, Edwards allegedly killed the girl’s grandparents and mother, set fire to her home, and then kidnapped her.
Around 11:08 a.m., Riverside police officers were dispatched to check on the girl after she was seen “distressed” while getting into a vehicle with a man. While officers went to check on the girl, Riverside’s Public Safety Communications Center received calls about a home on fire near where the girl was seen, according to a press release from the Riverside Police Department.
The Riverside Fire Department went to the scene of the fire and entered the home, where they found three adult victims lying in the front entry. Their bodies were removed and determined to be the victims of an apparent homicide. The victims were identified as Mark Winek, 69; his wife Sharie, 65; and their daughter Brooke, 38.
Authorities quickly determined that the girl mentioned in the earlier call lived in the home where the fire was started.
Around 1:15 p.m. San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies saw the vehicle described in the distress call. They followed the vehicle until a SWAT team could catch up, according to a press release from the Sheriff’s office. When SWAT intercepted the vehicle – determined to be driven by Edwards – he fled, firing at the deputies, according to police. Edwards then lost control of the vehicle and drove off the road.
His teenage victim ran from the vehicle and was rescued by sheriff’s deputies. Edwards also exited the vehicle and pointed his gun at the sheriff’s helicopter that had been pursuing his vehicle, the press release says. Deputies then fired at Edwards, killing him at the scene.
“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 in a press release. “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.”
Detectives determined that Edwards met the teenager online, where he apparently catfished her by pretending to be someone he was not. Police believe Edwards developed an online relationship with the girl and obtained her personal information before driving to her home and allegedly murdering her family.
Police also learned that Edwards had worked for the Virginia State Police until recently when he was employed at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia.