According to a shocking new report, Riverside County Police Department officers were dispatched on Friday to do a welfare check on a young woman “who appeared distressed while getting into a Red Kia Soul with a man”. What followed turned out to be the most terrifying tale of internet catfishing we’ve ever heard.
Before police arrived on scene, the Riverside Fire Department received calls about a house fire only a few homes away from the original welfare check. When firefighters arrived at the residence, they saw the first floor was engulfed in flames. As they worked on extinguishing and controlling the blaze, what they found was something they never expected — a brutal murder scene. Responding officers discovered three adult bodies lying in the front entryway of the home. They pulled the bodies outside, and the homicide investigation began — beginning with the fire, which was suspected to be intentionally started.
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The victims were identified as 69-year-old Mark Winek, his wife 65-year-old Sheri Winek (pictured with her husband Mark, above, center), and their 38-year-old daughter Brooke Winek (pictured above, left). In a horrifying twist, the distressed young woman from the welfare check call also lived in the home with the victims. This was all one big case.
The unnamed teen had left the home with former Virginia policeman Austin Lee Edwards (pictured above, right) in his car — and so he quickly became a person of interest to investigators, but he was nowhere to be found. RCPD released warrants for his arrest as well as a description of the vehicle. It wasn’t much longer until San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department had eyes on the suspect, but unfortunately the fight was far from over…
When officers approached him in Kelso, the former cop opened fire. In a brief shootout, a deputy took him down. Edwards was pronounced dead at the scene; luckily his teen hostage was unharmed during the altercation.
The young girl, who has now been placed into social services, spoke to investigators about what happened: she had developed a relationship with Edwards online. Apparently he had catfished her, using fake photos and other personal information to gain her trust. When he finally obtained her personal info, he drove all the way from Virginia to California to meet up with her. The 28-year-old parked his car in a neighbor’s driveway before making his way over to the teenager’s home — where he allegedly killed her grandmother, grandfather, and mother before abducting her from the home.
Officer Ryan Railsback told ABC 7 in a heartbreaking statement on Monday:
“We had a grandmother, grandfather and a mother of this teen murdered by this suspect who traveled from across the country for, most likely, the sexual exploitation of this teenager. What happened here in terms of the ‘catfishing’ as they call it … that common practice of, you know, online deception where you’re pretending to be someone else.”
Police chief Larry Gonzales reiterated the importance of social media safety in a public statement on Sunday:
“Our hearts go out to the Winek family and their loved ones during this time of tremendous grief, as this is a tragedy for all Riversiders. This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children. If you’ve already had a conversation with your kids on how to be safe online and on social media, have it again. If not, start it now to better protect them.”
You never really know who you’re talking to behind the screen.
Disturbingly, Edwards was employed in the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in his home state until very recently. The idea of someone this twisted being allowed to be a cop… Chilling…
The investigation is still ongoing and there have been no other details released at the time of writing this. A family member has created a GoFundMe to raise money for the future care of Brooke’s two teenage daughters, if you’d like to donate you can find it HERE.
Our hearts are with the Winek family and their loved ones.