Police are investigating the case as a triple homicide. The victims – 65-year-old Sharie Winek; her husband, 69-year-old Mark Winek; and their daughter, 38-year-old Brooke Winek — were the grandparents and mother of the teenager, who also lived in the home. Law enforcement officials identified the suspect as 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards, a former Virginia State Police trooper who lived in North Chesterfield, Va.
Hours after firefighters discovered the bodies, Edwards was killed in a shootout with officers. The teenage girl who had been inside Edwards’ vehicle was not physically injured.
Edwards had “catfished” the teenager, police said, referring to a scheme in which one person pretends to be someone else online. Officials said Edwards formed a relationship with the girl, learned her personal information, and then they drove nearly 2,500 miles from Virginia to California.
When Edwards arrived, police said he parked in a neighbor’s driveway, entered the teenager’s home and killed her mother, grandmother and grandfather before driving off with her.
Hours after the fire was reported, officials said Edwards was still driving with the teenager in San Bernardino County. During a car chase, Edwards fired a gun at deputies before losing control of the Kia and driving off the road, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said in a news release. He then left the car and died in a shootout with deputies.
The teenager has since been placed in protective custody.
“Our hearts go out to the Winek family and their loved ones at this time of tremendous sadness as this is a tragedy for all Riversiders,” Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said in a statement.
A GoFundMe page was set up Sunday to support the family. Brooke Winek was a single mom with “the biggest heart,” the fundraiser description said. Sharie Winek was “sweet and caring.” Mark Winek was a “loving” family member.
In the neighborhood where the Wineks lived, mourners held a candlelight vigil Friday night. Outside their home, a memorial with candles and flowers lined the sidewalk.
Ron Smith, a longtime friend of Mark Winek, told the Press-Enterprise that he had a large presence in the high school sports community.
“Mark was a man who was tremendous in the softball and baseball coaching ranks,” Smith told the newspaper.
Mark Winek coached softball and baseball at Arlington High School in Riverside for nearly a decade, the school said in a statement Monday night. According to the GoFundMe page, Brooke Winek has also “found her greatest joy” in watching her daughter perform in the high school color guard.
Many questions remain unanswered about the killings, including the cause and manner of death, although police have said the fire appeared to “be intentionally set.”
Riverside police continue to investigate, with assistance from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia, where Edwards was most recently employed. He was hired on Nov. 16, the sheriff’s office said in a statement Monday, adding that Edwards’ previous employers — including the Virginia State Police — had not “disclosed any issues, reprimands or internal investigations regarding” him.
“It is shocking and saddening to the entire law enforcement community that such a vicious and evil individual could infiltrate law enforcement while hiding his true identity as a computer predator and murderer,” Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said in a statement.
Edwards, who was hired by the Virginia State Police in July 2021, “never engaged in any conduct to trigger any internal administrative or criminal investigation,” spokeswoman Corinne Geller said in a statement to The Washington Post. He graduated from the State Police Academy in January but resigned on Oct. 28, Geller said.
In a Facebook post Sunday night, Errick Winek, who said he was Brooke Winek’s cousin, shared the fundraising link to support the family in what lies ahead, including funerals.
“My family suffered an unimaginable tragedy this week that senselessly claimed the lives of my Godfather Uncle Mark, my Aunt Sharie and my cousin Brooke,” he wrote. “There are so many questions and so few answers.”