• Mon. Feb 6th, 2023

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Ex-Virginia trooper posed as teen for ‘sextortion’ in catfishing of girl whose family he killed, police say   

“Sextortion” drove an ex-Virginia trooper’s catfishing of a teen girl and killing of her mother and grandparents in Southern California last week, police said at a news conference Wednesday.

Police believe Austin Lee Edwards, 28, a former trooper with the Virginia State Police who was working for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, portrayed himself as a 17-year-old online in order to engage the girl, who lived in Riverside, California, Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said.

Edwards had traveled from Virginia to Riverside and was killed in a shootout with police.

“This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children,” Gonzalez said.

A memorial outside a home of three people whose bodies were found inside the burning Riverside home on Nov. 28, 2022 in Riverside, Calif.
A memorial outside a home of three people whose bodies were found inside the burning Riverside home on Nov. 28, 2022 in Riverside, Calif.Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Gonzalez said sextortion includes grooming children with the goal of having sexual conversations online, trading sexually explicit photos to use or possibly sell, or meeting in person.

“This type of victimization takes place across every platform — social media, messaging apps, gaming platforms, et cetera,” he said.

Common methods of facilitating it, Gonzalez told reporters, include grooming tactics such as sexual conversation or role-playing; asking for or sharing sexually explicit images; developing a rapport through compliments, discussing shared interests and ‘liking’ their online posts; pretending to be younger; and offering or providing incentives for a continued relationship such as alcohol, drugs, lodging, transportation or food.

It was not immediately clear where online the catfishing took place or which of the above tactics, if any, Edwards employed beyond pretending to be younger.

A spokesperson for the Riverside Police Department did not immediately respond to follow-up inquiries from NBC News.

Family photographs part of a memorial in the driveway at the home where three family members were murdered, on Nov. 29, 2022 in Riverside, Calif.
Family photographs part of a memorial in the driveway at the home where three family members were murdered, on Nov. 29, 2022 in Riverside, Calif.Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The girl’s aunt, Mychelle Blandin, 43, who is also the sister of the girl’s late mother, 38-year-old Brooke Winek, and the daughter of the girl’s late grandparents, 69-year-old Mark Winek and 65-year-old Sharie Winek, told reporters on Wednesday the girl is 15 years old.

She is currently in the custody of Child Protective Services and receiving trauma counseling, a friend of the family said.

Police said they are “not describing it as a kidnapping at this point.”

“We don’t know yet if she was threatened, coerced,” Riverside Police Department spokesperson Ryan Railsback told reporters, adding that officials “have no reason to believe” that she was involved in planning or carrying out the fire or murders.

Police are also are investigating what Edwards’ intention was with the girl following the fire and murders, officials said.

Officials have not yet released the cause of death and autopsies still need to be conducted, Railsback said.

The spokesperson added police have “no reason to believe he used a firearm to kill the victims.”

“It was very disturbing — we want to be delicate with family members how we describe to them, and how it’s described to the public, how their three loved ones were found,” Railsback added. “It was obvious that they were murdered, we do know that.”

The bodies of the Wineks were discovered after officers were called to Riverside’s La Sierra South neighborhood just after 11 a.m. on Nov. 25. It was a welfare check of a girl who appeared distressed while getting into a red Kia Soul with a man, the city’s police department said in a news release.

While officers were responding, police began to receive calls about a structural fire just a few houses away from where the welfare call was reported.

The Riverside Fire Department arrived at the residence to find a fire on the first floor. When they entered, they discovered three adults lying on the ground, police said.

“Their bodies were pulled outside where it was determined they were victims of an apparent homicide,” the Riverside Police Department said, adding that firefighters were able to put the fire out.

Edwards was accused of driving off with the girl after the killings. Authorities tracked his car down several hours later as he was driving with the teen through San Bernardino County in the unincorporated area of Kelso.

When deputies with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department caught up to Edwards, the suspect fired gunshots at them, before being fatally shot by at least one deputy, police said. Edwards was pronounced dead at the scene.

A spokesperson for the Virginia State Police said Edwards entered its academy on July 6, 2021, and graduated as a trooper on Jan. 21 of this year. He was assigned to Henrico County, which is within the Richmond Division, they said, before his October resignation.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release on Monday that officials hired Edwards on Nov. 16 and that he “had recently began orientation to be assigned to the patrol division.”

A spokesperson for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a question about his title with the office.

Blandin and Gonzalez on Wednesday urged parents to talk to their children about the dangers of talking to strangers online.

“Please, parents, guardians, when you are talking to your children about the dangers of their online actions, please use us as a reference,” Blandin said. “Tell our story to help your parenting — not out of fear, but out of example of something that did happen.”