A former Virginia state trooper allegedly kidnapped a California teenage girl he had been catfishing online — after murdering her family, according to police.
Austin Lee Edwards, 28, is said to have driven more than 2,500 miles across the country to meet the teen on Friday.
Edwards is accused of murdering the girl’s grandparents and mother, torching their home, and fleeing with the victim.
According to authorities, deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department tracked down Edwards and fatally shot him later that day during a shootout.
The juvenile victim discovered with Edwards was unharmed and was placed in the care of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.
Edwards, from North Chesterfield, Virginia, met the girl online and obtained her personal information by passing himself off as someone else, in a practice commonly known as “catfishing,” the Riverside Police Department said in a press release.
It is unclear how long the two were communicating.
The shocking incident began shortly after 11 a.m. Friday, when Riverside police received a call for a welfare check on a young woman who “appeared distressed” as she got into a red Kia Soul in the 11200 block of Price Court.
Dispatchers were then alerted to smoke and a possible fire a few houses away from where police were called for a welfare check while officers were responding.
The Riverside Fire Department discovered three adults lying in the front entryway and took them outside, where first responders “determined they were victims of an apparent homicide,” according to police.
According to police, investigators later determined that the young woman described in the initial welfare call had lived at the house where the three people were found dead.
The bodies discovered in the scorched Riverside home were identified as the abducted teen’s grandparents and mother — Mark Winek, 69, his wife, Sharie Winek, 65, and their 38-year-old daughter Brooke Winek.
Police have not revealed their causes of death as of Monday but they believe Edwards traveled across the country, parked his car in a neighbor’s driveway, walked to the teen’s home and killed her family before leaving with the girl.
The cause of the fire was unknown, but it appeared to have been “intentionally ignited,” according to police. It is unclear whether the grandparents and mother were killed before the alleged fire was started.
Riverside authorities distributed a description of Edwards’ car to law enforcement agencies, and police located the car with Edwards and the teenager in Kelso, San Bernardino County, several hours later.
According to police, Edwards opened fire and was killed by deputies who returned fire.
On July 6, 2021, Edwards was hired by the Virginia State Police and entered the police academy. On Jan. 21, 2022, he graduated as a trooper and was assigned to Henrico County within the agency’s Richmond Division until his resignation on Oct. 28.
Edwards also worked for the Washington County Sheriff’s Department in Virginia, authorities in California said.
Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez called the case “yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children.”