The 28-year-old Virginia cop who killed three members of the family of a Riverside teenager had posed on-line as a teen to “groom” the 15-year-old woman, the Riverside Police Division mentioned Wednesday.
Austin Lee Edwards portrayed himself as a 17-year-old whereas speaking on-line with the woman, utilizing “grooming” strategies, which might embrace techniques reminiscent of asking for or providing sexually specific photos, offering presents and providing compliments, Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez mentioned at a information convention.
Gonzalez mentioned it’s nonetheless underneath investigation how lengthy the digital relationship between Edwards and the teenager woman transpired and what platform they used to satisfy or talk, however investigators imagine a lot of these typical exploitative methods for “sextortion” had been used on this case.
“This type of victimization takes place across every platform, social media, messaging apps, gaming platforms, etc.,” Gonzalez mentioned.
“This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children,” he mentioned. “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 imagine Edwards, who was a newly sworn-in regulation enforcement officer in rural southwest Virginia, related with the teenager woman on-line by “catfishing” — pretending to be somebody he’s not. Then he drove throughout the nation to her house in Riverside, the place he killed her mom and grandparents and set hearth to the house, earlier than driving off with the woman.
His automobile was later stopped in San Bernardino County, the place authorities initially mentioned he was killed in a shootout with police, however the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Division introduced Wednesday that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The woman was not harmed and is now within the care of Youngster Protecting Companies, officers mentioned.
The three members of the family killed had been recognized as Mark Winek, 69, a longtime baseball and softball coach at Arlington Excessive Faculty; his spouse, Sharie Winek, 65, a faithful mom and grandmother; and their daughter, Brooke Winek, 38, a single mom of two teenage women — together with the woman manipulated by Edwards. All of them lived collectively within the Riverside home.
The second daughter was not house on the time of the killings, police mentioned.
“This horrific event started with an inappropriate online romance between a predator and a child,” Michelle Blandin mentioned by means of tears Wednesday, the one 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 confirmed up on the Wineks’ house Friday had accomplished the police academy earlier this yr, in response to Virginia regulation enforcement officers, and had been newly employed as a patrol deputy with a county Sheriff’s Workplace simply 10 days earlier than his rampage in Riverside.
Whereas Blandin mentioned that Edwards tried to kidnap her niece, Riverside police officers mentioned they don’t seem to be but describing the interplay as an abduction, as they’re nonetheless combing by means of bodily and digital proof, making an attempt to grasp whether or not she was coerced or threatened to get into Edwards’ automobile.
Nonetheless, Riverside police spokesperson Ryan Railsback mentioned there isn’t a indication the teenager woman was concerned within the killings or hearth. He mentioned the teenager walked to the automobile with Edwards as the home was already on hearth.
“In this tragic moment of our family, our grief, we hope some goodwill come from this,” Blandin mentioned. “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 had been first notified of a state of affairs afoul on the Winek household’s cul-de-sac Friday morning, when neighbors referred to as in a couple of feminine who seemed to be distressed whereas getting right into a pink Kia Soul with a male driver. Quickly after, calls got here in a couple of hearth on the Wineks’ house.
Whereas firefighters responded, they discovered three our bodies within the entryway of the house, and upon pulling them outdoors, officers shortly dominated their deaths a murder.
Riverside police spokesperson Ryan Railsback didn’t expound on the reason for demise or accidents however referred to as it a “very disturbing crime scene.” He additionally mentioned it appeared the hearth was “intentionally ignited.”
A number of hours later and nearly 200 miles from the house, authorities noticed Edwards’ automobile in Kelso, a part of unincorporated San Bernardino County, in response to a press release from the sheriff-coroner.
When a SWAT workforce tried to intercept Edwards’ automobile, he led native deputies on a chase, throughout which he shot on the SWAT automobile a number of occasions, officers mentioned. Ultimately, Edwards drove off the highway, and San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies rescued the teenager, who had been contained in the automobile in the course of the chase, the assertion mentioned.
Deputies fired at Edwards after he pointed a gun at a Sheriff’s Division helicopter, officers mentioned, although authorities later decided the deadly wound was self-inflicted.
Blandin mentioned she is grateful her niece is alive and referred to as on neighbors to look out for each other — as she mentioned her dad and mom’ group did.
“The loving neighbors on my parents’ street saw an unfamiliar car and they immediately reported it to authorities,” Blandin mentioned. “Making that call from that neighbor saved my niece’s life; and that neighbor is a hero in our eyes.”
Days earlier than the tragedy, she mentioned, her household celebrated an early Thanksgiving collectively.
“Nobody could imagine this crime happening to my family, to our family, especially it being just one day after Thanksgiving,” Blandin mentioned.
Blandin referred to as her sister “a loving single mom who did her best to raise her two teenage daughters in a loving way.”
She mentioned her sister discovered pleasure supporting her youngsters at college, watching them in coloration guard and choir.
Blandin referred to as her dad a foolish man who was soft-spoken and humble and would “go out of his way to help a friend or stranger in need.”
She mentioned his love for teaching started in 1993 at La Sierra Excessive Faculty, the place he coached her women’ soccer workforce for 4 years. He went on to teach at many alternative Riverside excessive faculties, discovering his house at Arlington Excessive, the place 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 mentioned.
She mentioned her mother, Sharie, had the “biggest giving heart imaginable.”
“She loved my sister and I, along with her four granddaughters, with every ounce of her being,” mentioned Blandin, as she gripped her members of the family’ arms. “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 folks for his or her generosity to the household’s GoFundMe, which she mentioned will likely be used to help her nieces, together with for a university financial savings fund.