Police say the man traveled to Riverside from Virginia and at some point "murdered" the teen's grandparents and mother.
RIVERSIDE, Calif. (KABC) -- The murders of a husband and wife and their daughter in Riverside allegedly stemmed from a catfishing incident involving the teenage daughter of one of the victims, police said.
According to the Riverside Police Department, Mark Winek, his wife Sharie Winek and their 38-year-old daughter Brooke Winek were killed by a man who was reportedly involved in an online relationship with Brooke Winek's teenage daughter.
The grisly crime unfolded the day after Thanksgiving. Officers were sent to conduct a welfare check at 11:08 a.m. after a report of "a young female who appeared distressed" as she was getting into a Red Kia Soul with a man along the 11200 block of Price Court.
While officers were responding, calls began coming in regarding a fire just a few houses down from where the welfare check came from. Firefighters knocked down the blaze and found the bodies of all three Winek family members laying on the ground in the front entry way.
"Their bodies were pulled outside where it was determined they were victims of an apparent homicide," read the statement issued by police.
A preliminary investigation revealed the young female described in the initial welfare check call was a teen who lived at the home where the fire broke out. She was with a man identified as 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards of North Chesterfield, Virginia.
Detectives said Edwards had met the teen girl online "through the common form of online deception known as catfishing."
Edwards traveled to Riverside from Virginia, parked his vehicle in a neighbor's driveway and walked to the teen's home, police said.
"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," said RPD Ofc. Ryan Railsback during an interview with Eyewitness News on Sunday. "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."
Later that day, a sheriff's helicopter spotted the suspect's vehicle on Highway 247 in the unincorporated area of Kelso and followed until a SWAT team responded. Authorities say Edwards, who was driving with the teen, led deputies on a chase and fired shots at deputies. He was shot and killed by deputies shortly after. The teen was not injured and is safe, according to police.
Edwards had worked for the Virginia State Police until he recently began working for the Washington County Sheriff's Office, according to investigators.
"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," stated Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez. "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."
The exact cause of the Winek family's deaths remain unknown.
During a vigil on Saturday, neighbors told Eyewitness News the Winek family was always neighborly and went out of their way to help the community. The victims' family was in attendance but did not wish to speak with the media.
"I just want everyone to know how loving they were. They don't deserve this. I'm not eating. I'm not sleeping. It just hit me very, very hard," said Bonnie Davis, who said she has lived next door to the Wineks for two decades. "They were just that type people that you would just never wake up to think that you would hear this of them."
A woman who wished to be identified only as Joi organized Saturday's vigil and told Eyewitness News she was new to the Riverside neighborhood before hearing the news.
"When I heard that news, I just dropped to my stomach like, 'What do you mean they didn't make it?'" she said.
Joi recalls Mark Winek stepping up to help when he learned she was a single mom. According to a GoFundMe set up for the family, he coached young athletes at Arlington High School.
"He said right away, 'I'm going to mow your lawn, I'm going to help you out when you're not here,'" said Joi.
Though the family of the victims did not speak to Eyewitness News directly, they did issue a public statement to those who attended the vigil, saying "Thank you for being here honoring my family and respecting our privacy at this time."
The family said they may release another statement on Monday.
The investigation remains ongoing. Anyone with 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
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