RIVERSIDE, Calif. (WRIC) — A cross-country investigation is underway after authorities said three Riverside, California, residents were murdered by a former Virginia State Police (VSP) trooper who was ultimately killed in a shootout with sheriff’s deputies.

According to the Riverside Police Department, on Friday at approximately 11:08 a.m., officers were dispatched to check on the welfare of a teenage girl who appeared distressed while getting into a red Kia Soul with a man in the La Sierra South neighborhood of Riverside. While at the scene, authorities said they began receiving additional calls for a structure fire just a few houses away from the initial welfare check.

The Riverside Fire Department responded to the house fire first, according to the release, and found three adult victims lying on the ground in the front entryway. Authorities said that their bodies were pulled outside, where it was determined that they were victims of an apparent homicide.

“We do know that it was a homicide, based on what we found at the scene,” Riverside Police Department Public Information Officers Ryan Railsback said. “We don’t want to go into detail yet. We don’t believe that they were shot. We believe they were killed by some other means.”

Railsback said that it will take time for the coroner to determine the exact cause and manner of death. Authorities said it’s unknown at this time whether the fire contributed to their death.

On Sunday, the victims were identified as Mark Winek, 69; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65; and their daughter, Brooke Winek, 38.

“This was a very complex investigation, and it took our detectives some extra time to unravel all these facts,” Railsback said. “What we’ve determined is this suspect, he contacted a teenage girl who lives here in Riverside. This was her family. He contacted her at some point online through what’s called catfishing. Basically, he was portraying to be someone younger and, probably, someone different and developed an online relationship with her. He ended up obtaining some personal information — her home address — and then, he recently traveled from Virginia.”

According to a release, the suspect, identified as Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield, parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway and walked to the teen’s home. At some point, authorities said that he murdered her grandfather, grandmother and mother, before walking back to his vehicle with the teen and leaving.

Information was relayed to allied law enforcement agencies in California regarding this triple homicide and Edwards’ vehicle description, while detectives sought warrants for his arrest and attempted to locate him. Several hours later, authorities said he was found driving with the teen through San Bernardino County.

“We alerted the sheriff’s department out there, and then, when they encountered him, the suspect shot at them numerous times,” Railsback said. “A deputy-involved shooting occurred, and the suspect was struck and pronounced deceased at the scene.”

Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield, allegedly murdered the teen’s grandfather, grandmother and mother, according to authorities (Courtesy of Virginia State Police)

Railsback said that Edwards and the teen were found in the unincorporated locality of Kelso in California, which he described as a desolate, desert area, with nothing around for miles. He also said that the teen was unharmed and rescued by deputies, and is now in the custody of the Department of Public Social Services in Riverside County.

“We would like anybody to come forward, and this is one of those things that we had someone, this predator from the state of Virginia, coming all the way to California,” Railsback said. “It is possible that there are other victims out there, anywhere in our country.”

According to a VSP spokesperson, Edwards was hired and entered the academy on July 6, 2021. He graduated on Jan. 21, 2022, as a trooper and was assigned to Henrico County, within the Richmond Division. But he reportedly resigned on Oct. 28, 2022.

VSP Public Relations Director Corinne Geller sent the following statement to 8News:

The Virginia State Police utilizes standardized performance evaluations for all sworn employees, which includes a personnel early intervention system. As a probationary employee, [Austin] L. Edwards was also given monthly performance evaluations, in accordance with department policy. During Edwards’ short tenure with the department, he never exhibited any behaviors to trigger any internal administrative or criminal investigations.

The Virginia State Police also conducts a thorough background check as part of its mandatory hiring process for entry into the academy. That background check requires passage of written, psychological, and physical testing, as well as a pre-employment polygraph. At no time during that extensive process were there any indicators of concern.

The Virginia State Police also fully complies with Virginia Code §15.2-1705, which requires disclosure of certain personnel records to law enforcement employers.  In this case, there were no such records to disclose.

State police is assisting California authorities with any needs required of their ongoing investigations.

8News also reached out to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Abingdon, Va., where Edwards was employed more recently.

“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.”

Authorities with that office said Edwards was still employed by VSP when he applied for a job in Washington County. According to a release, past employers and VSP were contacted during the hiring process with the sheriff’s office, but no “troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards” were disclosed. He was hired by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office on Nov. 16 and had recently begun orientation to be assigned to the patrol division, according to authorities.

A release from the sheriff’s office also noted that the agency is assisting the Riverside Police Department with its investigation into this incident.

Flowers left at the scene by nearby residents. (Courtesy of KTLA)

“There are many, still, pieces to this puzzle we’re working to put together,” Railsback said. “Our detectives are working closely with them to see if we can get much more into his background to figure out who exactly this person was and who he came to be. This is just a tragic reminder of the dangers of online activity and social media with our children and that there are predators out there who are preying on our kids, and that’s how this relationship began.”

According to a release, the investigation is ongoing. Anyone with additional and relevant information is urged to contact Detective Josh Ontko at 951-353-7135 or JOntko@RiversideCA.gov, or Detective Bryan Galbreath at 951-353-7105 or BGalbreath@RiversideCA.gov. Those wishing to remain anonymous may email RPDTips@RiversideCA.gov.