LOS ANGELES — The 28-year-old Virginia cop who killed three family members of a Riverside teenager had posed online as a teen to “groom” the 15-year-old girl, the Riverside Police Department said Wednesday.
Austin Lee Edwards portrayed himself as a 17-year-old while communicating online with the girl, using “grooming” methods, which can include tactics such as asking for or offering sexually explicit images, providing gifts and offering compliments, Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said at a news conference.
Gonzalez said it is still under investigation how long the digital relationship between Edwards and the teen girl transpired and what platform they used to meet or communicate, but investigators believe many of those typical exploitative strategies for “sextortion” were used in this case.
“This type of victimization takes place across every platform, social media, messaging apps, gaming platforms, etc.,” Gonzalez said.
“This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children,” he said. “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 believe Edwards, who was a newly sworn-in law enforcement officer in rural southwest Virginia, connected with the teen girl online by “catfishing” — pretending to be someone he’s not. Then he drove across the country to her home in Riverside, where he killed her mother and grandparents and set fire to the home, before driving off with the girl.
His vehicle was later stopped in San Bernardino County, where authorities initially said he was killed in a shootout with police, but the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department announced Wednesday that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The girl was not harmed and is now in the care of Child Protective Services, officials said.
The three family members killed were identified as Mark Winek, 69, a longtime baseball and softball coach at Arlington High School; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65, a devoted mother and grandmother; and their daughter, Brooke Winek, 38, a single mother of two teenage girls — including the girl manipulated by Edwards. They all lived together in the Riverside house.
The second daughter was not home at the time of the killings, police said.