The slaying of three family members in a Riverside home stemmed from an “inappropriate romance between a predator and child” that spun out of control without any warning signs of an imminent threat, the older sister of one of the victims said Wednesday.
“Nobody could imagine this crime happening to our family, especially one day after Thanksgiving,” Michelle Blandin told reporters while reading a statement at the Riverside Police Department’s Magnolia Station. “We had all just celebrated the Thanksgiving blessing. We recounted many blessings. Little did I know it would be the last time my husband and I would see my sister and parents alive.”
Blandin’s parents, Mark Winek, 69, Sharie Winek, 65, and her sister, 38-year-old Brooke Winek, were slain Friday morning in their residence at 11261 Price Court.
The man believed to be responsible, 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards of North Chesterfield, Virginia, a sheriff’s deputy and former Virginia State Police trooper, was killed in a gunfight that afternoon with San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies as he made a run for the California state line, near Needles.
According to Riverside police Chief Larry Gonzalez, Edwards had engaged in an online relationship with Brooke Winek’s 15-year-old daughter, posing as a teenage boy with an assumed identity as part of an “online enticement” known as “catfishing” with the probable intent of sexually exploiting her.
“This horrific event started with an inappropriate romance between a predator and child,” Blandin said. “… This was an adult who traveled across the country to kidnap a 15-year-old girl, my niece, … with the idea to kidnap her and kill and devastate our family. He took an oath to protect, yet he failed to do so. Instead he preyed on the most vulnerable.”
“We hear the term `catfishing,’ you think of a long-running dating show or series … sensationalizing online relationships,” she said. “However, in this instance, catfishing led to the deaths of the three most important people in my life. … Please, parents and guardians, when you’re talking to your children about the dangers of their online actions, please use us as a reference. Tell our story to help your parenting. Not out of fear, but as an example of something that did happen.”
The 15-year-old girl, whose name was not disclosed, is under the care of Riverside County Child Protective Services, and she is not currently believed to be a suspect in what transpired at the home, according to police.
Gonzalez said an extensive digital and physical investigation into the homicides is ongoing. The victims’ manner of death has yet to be confirmed.
Authorities in Virginia verified that Edwards served as a state trooper for about a year in the Richmond metropolitan area but resigned in October. He was then hired as a deputy in Washington County, Virginia.
“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.”
Riverside police spokesman Officer Ryan Railsback said a neighbor of the victims spotted Edwards and the teen getting into his Kia Soul shortly after 11 a.m. Friday and immediately became suspicious because the youth “appeared distressed.”
The alert resident called police, and officers were heading to the location when dispatchers began receiving additional 911 calls regarding a fire inside the Wineks’ house.
“The Riverside Fire Department arrived first and reported a working fire on the first floor of the residence,” Railsback said. “They initiated a fire attack, made entry, then discovered the three adult victims laying on the ground in the front entry way. Their bodies were pulled outside, where it was determined they were victims … of homicide.”
Firefighters quickly knocked down the blaze inside the residence, which was determined to be an act of arson. Railsback said detectives then set about unraveling what transpired and soon identified Edwards as the man leaving the property with the girl.
Sheriff’s deputies spotted his Kia on Highway 247, leading to a chase during which Edwards fired shots at his pursuers, according to officials. Edwards eventually lost control of the car and drove off the road. The girl escaped and was rescued by deputies, but Edwards got out of the car and allegedly pointed a gun at a sheriff’s helicopter, prompting deputies to open fire, killing him.
A GoFundMe account established to assist the Winek family had raised nearly $60,000 as of Wednesday. The link is rb.gy/yo8ecr.