Catfishing a girl, killing her family: Inside Virginia cop's alleged California rampage

Riverside, CA - November 28: A memorial is seen outside a home where the deaths of three people were found Friday in a burning home at a residence on Monday, Nov. 28, 2022 in Riverside, CA. They are thought to be connected to the attempted abduction of a teenage girl. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
The burned Riverside home where the bodies of three people were found Friday. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

A newly minted law enforcement officer from Virginia drove to a Riverside cul-de-sac, where he parked a few houses down from the home of a teenage girl he met online by pretending to be someone else, police say.

Neighbors say the man waited for the 15-year-old's family to get home Friday morning, going back and forth between his car and the house.

Police got a call about a young woman who appeared to be distressed while getting into a red Kia Soul with a male driver. Neighbors reported hearing arguing, then a fire erupted at the home.

Riverside firefighters found three adults dead in the home's entry, according to Riverside police spokesperson Ryan Railsback. The deaths were soon ruled a homicide. By then, the suspect and the girl were gone.

The victims were identified as Mark Winek, 69; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65; and their daughter Brooke Winek, 38, who lived in the house with Brooke's two teenage daughters.

Police say Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield, Va., killed the three before leaving with the teen in his vehicle. Railsback called it a "very disturbing crime scene" and said the cause and manner of the deaths are under investigation. The cause of the fire has not been confirmed, but he said it appears it was "intentionally ignited."

A memorial is seen outside a home where the deaths of three people were found Friday in a burning home at a residence
A makeshift memorial outside the home Friday. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Several hours later, 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 didn't surrender, instead leading local deputies on a chase, during which he shot at the SWAT vehicle multiple times, according to officials.

Eventually, Edwards drove off the road, and San Bernardino deputies were able to rescue the teen, who was inside the car during the chase, the statement said. San Bernardino deputies said that when Edwards exited his vehicle, he pointed a gun at a Sheriff's Department helicopter, prompting deputies to fire at Edwards, killing him.

Railsback said the teen was unharmed in the encounter. He said it wasn't immediately clear whether she was threatened or coerced by Edwards, but investigators are reviewing the "digital crime scene" and conducting interviews.

Detectives determined that Edwards had met the teen through a method of online deception known as “catfishing,” in which a fake persona is established to lure someone.

"It is believed Edwards had developed an online relationship with the teen and obtained her personal information," Railsback said. He said investigators have not determined what platform the teen and Edwards used to communicate and said it was not clear exactly when he left Virginia.

About 10 days before he arrived in Riverside, Edwards was hired as a deputy for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia, officials said. Before that, he was an officer with the Virginia State Police.

“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,” Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officers and all of those affected by this heinous crime.”

A memorial is seen outside a home where the deaths of three people were found Friday
The victims were identified as Mark Winek, 69; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65; and their daughter Brooke Winek, 38. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Andis and a spokesperson for the Virginia State Police said none of Edwards’ prior employers had disclosed issues with him. Corinne Geller, the state police spokesperson, said that during Edwards’ 15-month tenure at the agency, he “never exhibited any behaviors to trigger any internal administrative or criminal investigations.” During his background and psychological tests, there weren’t “any indicators of concern,” she said.

Edwards resigned from the Virginia State Police on Oct. 28, according to Geller, and started with the Sheriff’s Office about three weeks later.

Edwards was hired as a patrol deputy with the Sheriff’s Office in rural, southwest Virginia on Nov. 16. Andis said Edwards had started orientation at his agency and had been assigned to the patrol division.

A woman who declined to give her name said her daughter lives down the street from the Riverside home and said it did not appear that the teen was willing or prepared to leave with the man. Her daughter gave surveillance video footage of the suspect to the police, she said.

“We saw him all morning, because he parked here and would always pass the house,” she said. “We saw him taking the girl to the car, but we did not see whatever was going on. She struggled to get in the car.”

The woman said the suspect and the teen had a “discussion” near the car before they sped away. She said he was wearing a medical face mask and trench coat.

“She was in shock,” the woman said. “Obviously she didn’t want to go. She wasn’t dressed. She didn’t wear any shoes. She had a jacket thrown on.”

The smell of ash lingered Monday afternoon in the quiet Riverside cul-de-sac. A wooden cross was nailed to a broken window that was boarded up after the fire.

Outside the blackened walls of the Wineks' home, with windows broken on all sides and part of the roof open, were candles, flowers and photographs.

Antonio Castro was not home when the attack took place but said he rushed back when his security camera alerted him to smoke in the neighborhood. He arrived to find smoke rising from his neighbor’s home and three bodies in the front yard.

“He was such a good person,” Castro said of Mark Winek.

Mark and Sharie's lives seemed to revolve around the teens, he said.

“They were grandparents, so everything they did, they did for the two girls."

On Friday, Castro said, security footage from his home caught the suspect arguing with someone in front of the home, then going inside minutes before the fire broke out. Another neighbor, who asked not to be named, said he also heard arguing on the street that morning. Minutes later, his wife told him their neighbor’s home was in flames.

He walked out to see windows breaking and emergency personnel dragging three people out of the burning home.

“It’s sad. It’s so sad,” he said.

Sergio Gutierrez, 58, said his son told him to hurry and come home when the Wineks' home began to burn, worried that flames would move to other houses. Gutierrez, who lives three houses down, said he came home to find that police had cordoned off the area. From a second-story window, he saw emergency personnel bring into the yard three bodies that had their hands tied behind their backs with what appeared to be duct tape.

“It felt horrible seeing it,” Gutierrez said.

Mark Winek was a baseball and softball coach at local high schools. One morning, Castro said, Mark had dyed his hair and beard pink. A team he coached had lost, he explained, and the hair color was the cost of a friendly wager.

Brittney Gossett, 35, said she had known Mark since she was 13, when she played softball at Corona High School.

“He was constantly around Corona whenever we had practice or games, so all of us got to know him really well,” she said. “And he was always offering coaching.”

Gossett said they stayed in touch, with Mark visiting her this year at California Baptist University, where she coaches softball.

Railsback said Mark had been a volunteer coach for more than 15 years at Arlington High School and was a beloved member of the community.

“Mark, Sharie and Brooke were loving people who didn’t deserve this tragedy,” the Winek family wrote Monday in a public statement. The family thanked people for “love, support, prayers and patience during this horrific time in our lives” and said donations could be made to support the survivors through a GoFundMe campaign.

“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,” Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said in a statement. “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.”

Times staff writer Laura Newberry contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.