The daughter and sister of a family found slain following a house fire in Southern California spoke out Wednesday at an emotional press conference that featured an update on the investigation from police officials.
“Nobody could have imagined this happening to our family, to my family, especially it just being one day after Thanksgiving,” Michelle Blandin said, wiping away tears. She expressed gratitude to the public for the outpouring of solidarity in the aftermath of the heinous incident.
Blandin paid tribute to her parents, Mark and Sharie Winek, and her sister, Brooke Winek, who were the victims of a triple homicide, according to investigators. Coroner’s office have not published the official causes of death.
Blandin also made a poignant request for help for Brooke Winek’s young girls, who was a single mother.
“For my two young nieces who are now left motherless, we hope that this community can wrap your arms around them and lift them up,” she said. “They have the most difficult journey ahead, as they are minors and they don’t understand everything that has happened.”
Alison Saros, a family acquaintance and former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, informed reporters that the surviving teen victim is still in the custody of Child Protective Services.
“I think the question we all need to ask ourselves isn’t ‘What happened that day or the next day, but why? And what can we do as parents, as community members, as law enforcement, in order to make a difference, to raise awareness for what’s going on.”
Saros expressed gratitude to the numerous law enforcement and fire departments involved in the emergency response and following investigation, as well as the Riverside County district attorney’s office, which she said reached out to the victims’ families to give assistance and support. According to Saros, this assistance included trauma counseling and assistance with burial expenses.
On Tuesday, detectives returned to the location to acquire additional evidence.
“The family is going to have this house boarded up, just for safety reasons,” Ofc explained. Riverside Police Officer Ryan Railsback stands outside the home on Price Court. “Our detectives wanted to come out here and just to a secondary walkthrough while it was light and not as smoky.”
Detectives collected many bags of evidence Tuesday afternoon, accompanied by family members of the victims. The police did not specify what was discovered.
Austin Edwards, 28, the suspect in the triple-murder case, is accused of luring a 15-year-old girl who lives at the residence into an online relationship, a practice known as catfishing.
Edwards, a newly hired sheriff’s officer in Virginia, is said to have driven all the way across the nation to meet the teen girl.
“He took an oath to protect, and yet he failed to do so,” Blandin said of Edwards. “Instead, he preyed on the most vulnerable.”
The facts leading up to the awful display of violence at the residence are still being investigated, but Edwards is accused of murdering the 15-year-mother old’s and two grandparents and then fleeing the scene with her.
A 911 call from a neighbor alerted authorities to the possibility of the suspect fleeing the scene with the girl; the house caught fire shortly afterwards. Because investigators obtained the suspect’s license plate information from that phone call, they were able to quickly track him down using technology.
Three hours later, he was met by San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies and murdered in a shootout.
Detectives have interrogated the teen girl, but they claim they still don’t know how it all started or what Edwards’ objectives were when he drove to California.
“We’re still looking into when he arrived… in Riverside here, but that’s going to take a while,” Railsback said. “We have this whole digital crime scene that we’re going to have to locate, with warrants probably, and sort through to see if there’s anything where he relayed his intentions or his plans.”
Despite how heinous this crime was, Riverside police believe catfishing is a common occurrence.
“The art of catfishing is when you lie about your own persona to entice somebody who wouldn’t normally be attracted to who you really are,” Riverside Det. Robert Olsen explained.
“A lot of these cases will start with the perpetrator actually discussing things with our children that our children are interested in, whether it be music or sports, or television, movies,” he said. “In that process, once they gain trust, they move on to what’s known as grooming.”
Olsen stated that his team has made around 40 charges for online enticement of a minor since June 2020.
“We have arrested women, government officials, celebrities, there are no specific profiles, that’s what makes this crime so difficult (to investigate),” he explained.
Olsen believes that parents must take charge of their children’s safety.
“As soon as you place a smart device in your child’s hand, which nowadays is between 4 and 5 years old,” he says, “you need to make it a habit of theirs to allow you to look through that device whenever you want, because you have the passcode, not them.”
“Because when they become teens now, and they start getting into chat rooms where some of this behavior is really occurring, they won’t become rebellious when you walk up and snatch their tablet out of their hand because you want to see what they’re doing.”