A woman whose parents and sister were killed last week in the alleged “malle” triple homicide in Riverside, Calif., is urging families to talk to their children about online safety.
Michelle Blandin, whose father, Mark Winek, 69, mother, Sharie Winek, 65, and sister, Brooke Winek, 39, were killed Nov. 25, warned parents to monitor their children’s online behavior.
“Parents, please know your child’s online activity, ask questions about what they are doing and who they are talking to. Anyone can say they’re someone else and you can be in this situation,” Blandin said at a news conference.
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Austin Lee Edwards, a former Virginia police officer believed to have killed the three family members, was himself killed in a shootout while trying to flee from authorities, according to a news release from the Riverside Police Department.
Detectives said they believe Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield, Virginia, had met a teenage relative of the victims through “catfishing,” a form of online deception in which someone pretends to be another person.
Edwards had an “inappropriate online romance” with his 15-year-old niece, Blandin said.
“He took an oath to protect and yet he failed to do so,” she continued. “Instead, he remained the most vulnerable.”
Blandin thanked her community for their vigilance, noting that a longtime neighbor called police about a suspicious vehicle on the street near her parents’ house and asked for continued support.
That call “saved my niece’s life,” she said. “And that neighbor is a hero in our eyes.”
She broke down in tears as she said it was “too late” to save her father, mother and sister. She described her sister Brooke as a “loving single mother who did her best to raise her two teenage daughters in a loving way.”
“For my two young nieces who are now motherless, we hope this community can put their arms around them and lift them up,” she said. “They have the hardest journey ahead of them as they are minors and they don’t understand everything that has happened.”
Friends of the family have launched a verified GoFundMe to raise money for the teenage girl and her sister, who were not present at the time of the crimes.
Edwards met the 15-year-old online, pretending he was also a teenager, Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said at the news conference. Officials do not yet know how long their relationship lasted and what platforms the suspect used to communicate with the girl.
The former policeman traveled from Virginia to California, where the teenager lived with his family. He then parked his car in a neighbor’s driveway and went to her home, police said. At some point Friday morning, police believe he murdered the girl’s mother, grandfather and grandmother.
Edwards then returned to his car with the teenager. Police began looking for him after receiving a call to a welfare check Friday morning about a young distressed woman who got into a red car with a man, as well as a call about a house fire a few houses down from the welfare check. When the firefighters arrived at the burning house, they found the three murder victims lying in front of the entrance.
The exact cause and manner of their deaths is still pending.
A few hours after the bodies were found and the welfare check was received, the former police officer was seen driving with the teenager through San Bernadino County, according to the release. He exchanged gunfire with sheriff’s deputies who tried to stop him, and was shot and killed by deputies.
The teenager was unharmed and placed in protective custody with the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, according to police. She is currently undergoing extensive medical treatment, Alison Saros, a longtime family friend and attorney, said at the news conference.
“This is going to be the most traumatizing event of her life, I’m sure,” Riverside Police Public Information Officer Ryan Railsback said at the conference.
“We don’t yet know if she was threatened, forced. We are not describing it as a kidnapping at this time,” he said, noting that they have no reason to believe she was complicit in the fire and murders. It is unclear whether the two had met in person previously.
Officers are conducting a digital investigation to better understand the relationship between the suspect and the victim, but this will “take quite some time,” he added. Interviews with the teenager are also underway, but “we can’t overwhelm her with everything,” he said.
Police are not aware of any additional victims at this time, Railsback said.
Robert Olsen, a Riverside police detective assigned to the Riverside County Child Exploitation Team, which is consulting on the investigation, told CNN the crime was more serious than just catfishing.
“This is an online sexual solicitation of a minor. This is a federal crime, it’s a state crime, it resulted in a murder,” he said.
He echoed Blandin, urging parents to “be aware” of their children’s online activity.
“I think you’d be surprised to know how many parents aren’t aware of their child’s online activity,” Olsen said. “I think it has to start young – as soon as you put a smart device in your child’s hand, whether it’s four or five years old, you have to start monitoring that device.
“That way, when they become teenagers and they find themselves involved in something that might be similar to this, they’ll be comfortable telling you about it,” he said.
Edwards had retired from the Virginia State Police in October, according to the agency. He entered the police academy in July 2021 and most recently worked at the Washington County Sheriff’s office in Virginia, California detectives said.
“It is shocking and saddening to the entire law enforcement community that such a vicious and evil individual could infiltrate law enforcement while hiding his true identity as a computer predator and murderer,” Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said in a news release. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Winek family, their friends, officers and all those affected by this heinous crime.”