RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — Authorities are investigating whether a man hired as a Virginia sheriff’s deputy posed as a 17-year-old boy online to groom and sexually extort a teenage girl in California before driving across the country and killing her mother and grandparents and setting fire to their home.
Austin Lee Edwards, 28, was killed Friday in a shootout with San Bernardino sheriff’s deputies. 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 Wednesday.
Edwards, a resident of North Chesterfield, Virginia, met the girl online and obtained her personal information by deceiving her with a false identity, known as “catfishing,” police said. Officials are looking into whether he victimized other minors across the country.
Edwards appears to have posed as a teenager to engage in an online romantic relationship with the California girl, according to Riverside police. Detectives are trying to determine how they met online and how long they corresponded.
It’s also unclear whether this was the girl’s first in-person encounter with Edwards or whether she was aware that he was coming to California, officials said. Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said that because of the girl’s young age and trauma it will take time to complete their interviews with her and get answers to the many questions surrounding the case.
“We don’t believe at this point she had anything to do with the murders,” he said.
At some 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 whether Edwards killed her family in retaliation.
Authorities believe Edwards parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway, walked to the home and killed the family members before leaving with the girl on Friday. Officials have not yet determined how the victims were killed or how the fire was set.
The bodies found in the Riverside home, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of downtown Los Angeles, were identified as the girl’s grandparents and mother: Mark Winek, 69; Sharie Winek, 65; and their 38-year-old daughter, Brooke Winek.
“Nobody could imagine this crime happening to my family, to 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 selflessly.”
Edwards is a former Virginia state trooper and was recently hired and undergoing orientation to be a sheriff’s deputy in Washington County, Virginia, at the time of the killings. The law enforcement agencies there said he did not show any concerning behaviors and no other employers disclosed any issues during background checks.
Riverside Police Officer Ryan Railsback, the department’s spokesperson, called it “disgusting really” to see someone in law enforcement involved in such heinous crimes and wondered how he had been hired at two Virginia agencies.
“How did this person get past a background investigation? How did this person get past a polygraph investigation?” Railsback said. “From what we understand so far about him, there’s really not a big rap sheet on this person or anything that would indicate that they can see that outcome.”
An alert neighbor on Friday reported Edwards’ red Kia Soul to police as a suspicious car and said the girl appeared to be in distress and involved in a disturbance with a man, Gonzalez said.
Police were able to run the vehicle’s license plate and discovered that Edwards had filed a police report earlier this year regarding vandalism to the Kia, the chief said. The police report had Edwards’ cellphone number in it, which allowed investigators to ping his phone and quickly locate him in Southern California.
He got into a gun battle with San Bernardino sheriff’s deputies and the coroner’s office is doing an autopsy to determine whether he was killed by the deputies or a self-inflicted wound.