Neighbors described a horrifying scene as a man who police say catfished a teenage girl arrived at her family's home in Riverside on Friday, killing three relatives, and then leaving with her and the home on fire.
Neighbors said Monday that they saw the suspect's vehicle parked a few doors from the house and heard arguing from the home. Then, the man fled with the girl as a fire burned inside the home.
The smell of ash lingered in the quiet cul-de-sac Monday. A wooden cross was nailed to one of the broken windows that was boarded up after the fire.
Antonio Castro was out when the attack took place but said his home camera alerted him of smoke in the neighborhood, and he rushed back. He found smoke rising from his neighbor’s home and saw three bodies in the front yard.
Police arrived at the 11200 block of Price Court to see smoke pouring from the home, said Officer Ryan Railsback, a spokesman for the Riverside Police Department.
Firefighters were extinguishing the blaze when they discovered the bodies of a man and two women inside the house, Railsback said. The victims were identified as Mark Winek, 69; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65; and their daughter Brooke Winek, 38.
Investigators have determined that the outdoor disturbance involved a teenager who lived in the house, Railsback said. The man she was with — Austin Lee Edwards, 28, a law enforcement officer from North Chesterfield, Va. — was identified as the main suspect in the three deaths, he said. Edwards was tracked Friday evening to San Bernardino County, where he was fatally shot by sheriff’s deputies in Kelso after firing a gun at officers, law enforcement officials said. The girl was not harmed.
Earlier, authorities reported that Edwards had been killed in Needles.
Riverside police detectives determined that Edwards had met the teen online and misrepresented who he was, Railsback said.
“Detectives determined Edwards had met the female teenager through the common form of online deception known as ‘catfishing,’ where someone pretends to be a different person than they actually are,” authorities said in the release. “It is believed Edwards had developed an online relationship with the teen and obtained her personal information. He traveled from Virginia to Riverside where he parked his car in a neighbor’s driveway and walked into the teen’s home.”
Mark, Sharie and Brooke Winek lived in the home with Brooke’s two teen daughters. Their lives seemed to revolve around the two young girls, Castro said.
“They were grandparents, so everything they did, they did for the two girls,” he said.
"Mark, Sharie and Brooke were loving people who didn't deserve this tragedy," the Winek family wrote in a public statement Monday. They thanked people for "love, support, prayers and patience during this horrific time in our lives" and said donations could be made to the family's GoFundMe campaign.
The cause and manner of the three deaths are under investigation, but police believe Edwards killed the teen’s grandfather, grandmother and mother before taking her to his vehicle and driving away, according to officials.
Edwards was formerly employed by the Virginia State Police and had recently been hired as a deputy for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia, officials said.
Edwards completed training with the Virginia State Police Academy in January, according to a statement from Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis, and was hired as a patrol deputy with the sheriff's office in rural, southwest Virginia on Nov. 16 — less than 10 days before he arrived in Riverside and killed the Wineks before the shootout with local law enforcement, officials say. Andis said Edwards had started orientation at his agency and had been assigned to the patrol division.
“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," 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."
Andis and a spokesperson for the Virginia State Police said none of Edwards' prior employers had disclosed issues. Corinne Geller, the state police spokesperson, said that during Edwards' 15-month tenure there, 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.
Friends and family of the three who died gathered over the weekend to remember their loved ones, according to the Press-Enterprise.
Ron Smith told the Press-Enterprise that Mark Winek was a close friend, and the deaths came as a shock. Smith said Winek was a beloved figure in Inland Empire sports, having coached baseball for many years at area high schools, including Corona and Arlington.
“Mark was a man who was huge in the softball and baseball coaching ranks,” Smith said. “You can’t ask for a better friend than Mark."
Sheri Lazzarini told the Press-Enterprise that she met Winek in 1994, when he asked to join her softball coaching staff at La Sierra High School in Riverside, while his daughters were attending. She said they had remained close.
“He was a man dedicated to helping student athletes,” Lazzarini said. “I don’t want the legacy to be what’s happened, because he was a really special man.”
The GoFundMe campaign called Mark Winek "a loving father, grandfather, uncle, brother and coach" and Sharie Winek "a sweet and caring mother, grandmother, sister and aunt who cherished spending time with her family." The page said Brooke Winek was "a beloved single mother with the biggest heart."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.