The 28-year-old Virginia cop who killed three family members of a Riverside teenager had posed online as a teen to "groom" the 15-year-old girl, the Riverside Police Department said Wednesday.
Austin Lee Edwards portrayed himself as a 17-year-old while communicating online with the girl, using "grooming" methods, which can include tactics such as asking for or offering sexually explicit images, providing gifts and offering compliments, Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said at a news conference.
Gonzalez said it is still under investigation how long the digital relationship between Edwards and the teen girl transpired and what platform they used to meet or communicate, but investigators believe many of those typical exploitative strategies for "sextortion" were used in this case.
"This type of victimization takes place across every platform, social media, messaging apps, gaming platforms, etc.," Gonzalez said.
"This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children," he said. "If you've already had this conversation with your kids on how to be safe online and on social media, please have it again. If not, start it now to better protect them."
Police believe Edwards, who was a newly sworn-in law enforcement officer in rural southwest Virginia, connected with the teen girl online by "catfishing" — pretending to be someone he's not. Then he drove across the country to her home in Riverside, where he killed her mother and grandparents and set fire to the home, before driving off with the girl.
His vehicle was later stopped in San Bernardino County, where authorities initially said he was killed in a shootout with police, but the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department announced Wednesday that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The girl was not harmed and is now in the care of Child Protective Services, officials said.
The three family members killed were identified as Mark Winek, 69, a longtime baseball and softball coach at Arlington High School; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65, a devoted mother and grandmother; and their daughter, Brooke Winek, 38, a single mother of two teenage girls — including the girl manipulated by Edwards. They all lived together in the Riverside house.
The second daughter was not home at the time of the killings, police said.
"This horrific event started with an inappropriate online romance between a predator and a child," Michelle Blandin said through tears Wednesday, the only surviving daughter of Mark and Sharie Winek. "He took an oath to protect, yet he failed to do so. Instead, he preyed on the most vulnerable."
The Virginia officer who showed up at the Wineks' home Friday had completed the police academy earlier this year, according to Virginia law enforcement officials, and had been newly hired as a patrol deputy with a county Sheriff's Office just 10 days before his rampage in Riverside.
While Blandin said that Edwards tried to kidnap her niece, Riverside police officials said they are not yet describing the interaction as an abduction, as they are still combing through physical and digital evidence, trying to understand whether she was coerced or threatened to get into Edwards' car.
However, Riverside police spokesperson Ryan Railsback said there is no indication the teen girl was involved in the killings or fire. He said the teen walked to the car with Edwards as the house was already on fire.
"In this tragic moment of our family, our grief, we hope some goodwill come from this," Blandin said. "Parents, please, please know your child's online activity. Ask questions about what they're doing and whom they are talking to; anybody can say they're someone else. ... If something like this horrific tragedy can happen here in our neighborhood in our community, it can happen anywhere."
Police were first notified of a situation afoul on the Winek family's cul-de-sac Friday morning, when neighbors called in about a female who appeared to be distressed while getting into a red Kia Soul with a male driver. Soon after, calls came in about a fire at the Wineks' home.
While firefighters responded, they found three bodies in the entryway of the home, and upon pulling them outside, officials quickly ruled their deaths a homicide.
Riverside police spokesperson Ryan Railsback didn't expound on the cause of death or injuries but called it a “very disturbing crime scene.” He also said it appeared the fire was “intentionally ignited.”
Several hours later and almost 200 miles from the home, authorities spotted Edwards’ vehicle in Kelso, part of unincorporated San Bernardino County, according to a statement from the sheriff-coroner.
When a SWAT team attempted to intercept Edwards’ car, he led local deputies on a chase, during which he shot at the SWAT vehicle multiple times, officials said. Eventually, Edwards drove off the road, and San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies rescued the teen, who had been inside the car during the chase, the statement said.
Deputies fired at Edwards after he pointed a gun at a Sheriff’s Department helicopter, officials said, though authorities later determined the fatal wound was self-inflicted.
Blandin said she is grateful her niece is alive and called on neighbors to look out for one another — as she said her parents' community did.
"The loving neighbors on my parents' street saw an unfamiliar car and they immediately reported it to authorities," Blandin said. "Making that call from that neighbor saved my niece's life; and that neighbor is a hero in our eyes."
Days before the tragedy, she said, her family celebrated an early Thanksgiving together.
“Nobody could imagine this crime happening to my family, to our family, especially it being just one day after Thanksgiving," Blandin said.
Blandin called her sister "a loving single mom who did her best to raise her two teenage daughters in a loving way."
She said her sister found joy supporting her children at school, watching them in color guard and choir.
Blandin called her dad a silly man who was soft-spoken and humble and would "go out of his way to help a friend or stranger in need."
She said his love for coaching began in 1993 at La Sierra High School, where he coached her girls' soccer team for four years. He went on to coach at many different Riverside high schools, finding his home at Arlington High, where he was an assistant baseball and softball coach.
"He was a man with a big and caring heart who unselfishly gave to his student athletes," Blandin said.
She said her mom, Sharie, had the "biggest giving heart imaginable."
"She loved my sister and I, along with her four granddaughters, with every ounce of her being," said Blandin, as she gripped her family members' hands. "She enjoyed baking with us, and the highlight of the year was baking and decorating Christmas cookies. That is a tradition that I will carry on."
She thanked people for their generosity to the family's GoFundMe, which she said will be used to support her nieces, including for a college savings fund.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.