‘Inappropriate romance’ between child, predator led to triple slaying
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, killed himself during a gunfight that afternoon with San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies as he made a run for the California state line, west of Needles.
Initial reports indicated that Edwards died when deputies opened fire on him. But according to a sheriff-coroner’s report released Tuesday, a “self-inflicted gunshot wound” was the cause of death.
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 17-year-old 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 … 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,’ and you think of a long-running dating show or series … sensationalizing online relationships,” she said. “However, catfishing led to the deaths of the three most important people in my life. 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.”
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.
Blandin characterized her parents as magnanimous people, her father a “humble man” who coached athletics at multiple Riverside high schools and “unselfishly gave to student athletes,” including her.
“My mom, Sharie, had the biggest, giving heart imaginable and did anything and everything for everyone without wanting anything in return,” Blandin said tearfully.
She credited her parents’ neighbor with enabling law enforcement to act quickly by spotting the unusual activity at their residence and notifying the police immediately.
“That call from the neighbor saved my niece’s life, and that neighbor is a hero in our lives,” Blandin said. “If something like this can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”
Gonzalez said an extensive digital and physical investigation into the homicides is ongoing. The victims’ manner of death has yet to be confirmed.
According to the chief, the events culminating in the murders serve as a kind of template for how online predation of minors occurs.
“A child is groomed to meet someone for sexual purposes, or sell and trade the child’s sexual images,” he said. “It’s about developing a rapport. We’re still trying to determine how long this relationship was going online.”
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 … 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 called 911 because the youth “appeared distressed.”
Officers were heading to the location when dispatchers began receiving additional 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. It was determined they were victims … of homicide.”
Firefighters quickly knocked down the blaze, 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 southbound Highway 247, leading to a chase that transitioned to Highway 62, during which Edwards fired shots at his pursuers, according to officials. He lost control of the car and drove off the road. The girl fled the vehicle, but Edwards got out and allegedly pointed a gun at a sheriff’s helicopter, prompting deputies to open fire.
It was at that point he took his life, according to the coroner’s office.
Railsback said investigators are taking their time eliciting information from the teen, who was not injured.
“This is going to be the most traumatizing event in her life. We don’t want to overwhelm her,” he said. “We don’t know yet whether she was threatened or coerced. We don’t believe she was complicit. We need further investigation … to figure out what (Edwards’) intentions were.”
A GoFundMe account established to assist the Winek family had raised nearly $60,000 as of Wednesday.