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Riverside murders: Tearful family member pays tribute to victims amid probe in 'catfishing' case

ABC 7 Los Angeles 12/1/2022 KABC

Days after a family was found murdered after a house fire in Riverside, the deceased victims' daughter and sister spoke out Wednesday at an emotional press conference that included 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," said Mychelle Blandin, who wiped away tears as she spoke. She thanked the public for the outpouring of support that has come in the wake of the horrific crime.

Blandin paid tribute to her parents Mark and Sharie Winek, and her sister Brooke Winek, who investigators say were the victims of a triple homicide.

"They lived and loved selflessly," Blandin said. She quoted her favorite member of the boy band New Kids on the Block, Donnie Wahlberg: "Spread love and love will spread."

The official causes of death have not been released by coroner's officials.

Blandin also issued a heartfelt plea for support for the young daughters of Brooke Winek, 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 friend of the family and former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, told reporters that the surviving teenage girl remains in placement with 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 thanked the multiple law enforcement agencies and fire departments involved in the emergency response and subsequent investigation, as well as the Riverside County district attorney's office, who she said reached out to the victims' family to offer services and support. That support included trauma counseling and help with funeral expenses, Saros said.

On Tuesday, detectives converged on the scene yet again to gather more evidence.

"The family is going to have this house boarded up, just for safety reasons," said Ofc. Ryan Railsback with the Riverside Police Department 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."

Accompanied by family members of the victims, detectives removed multiple bags of evidence Tuesday afternoon. Police did not give specifics on what was found.

The suspect in the triple-murder case, 28-year-old Austin Edwards, is accused of enticing a 15-year-old girl who lives at the home into having an online relationship, a scheme known as catfishing.

Edwards, a recently-hired sheriff's deputy in Virginia, is believed to have driven all the way across the country to Riverside to try 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."

READ MORE | Riverside murders: VA man accused of catfishing teen daughter of 1 of victims before killing family

Detectives are still trying to figure out the events leading up to the horrific display of violence at the home, but Edwards is accused of murdering the 15-year-old's mother and two grandparents and then leaving the scene with her.

A 911 call placed by a neighbor alerted police to a possible sighting of the suspect leaving the scene with the girl; the home erupted in flames moments later.

Blandin said they were out buying Christmas lights Friday morning when the neighbor called to them to say their house was on fire.

"I couldn't get there fast enough. We left everything in the shopping cart at the store and took off. When I arrived at my house, we had learned that something more tragic had happened," she said during Wednesday's press conference.

Because authorities had the suspect's license plate number from that phone call, authorities were quickly able to use technology to track him down.

Authorities initially said that Edwards was confronted by San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies about three hours later and killed in a shootout. On Wednesday, that narrative changed.

According to a new statement from authorities, Edward died of suicide in a remote area of San Bernardino County's Mojave National Preserve.

The county coroner conducted an autopsy on Austin Edwards on Tuesday, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

"The manner of death was determined to be suicide caused by a self-inflicted gunshot wound," the Sheriff's Department said in a news release, adding that the incident occurred in Kelso, not in nearby Needles as authorities had previously stated.

READ MORE | Neighbor saw teen being taken by suspect moments before house erupted in flames

Detectives have interviewed the teen girl, but say they still know very little about how it all started, and what Edwards' intentions were when driving to California.

"We're still looking into when he arrived... in Riverside here, but that's going to take a while," said Railsback. "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."

But as horrific as this crime was, Riverside police say the practice of catfishing happens all the time.

"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," said Riverside Det. Robert Olsen.

"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 said his team has made approximately 40 arrests since June 2020 for the online enticement of a minor.

"We have arrested women, government officials, celebrities, there are no specific profiles, that's what makes this crime so difficult (to investigate)," he said.

"When you hear the term catfishing, you think of a long-running dating show or series about a national sports figure, both glamorizing and sensationalizing online relationships," Blandin said. "However, in this instance, catfishing led to the deaths of the three most important people in my life."

She also urged parents to be aware of their children's online activity.

"Ask questions about what they are doing and whom they are talking to. Anybody can say they're someone else and you can be in this situation, which I do not want for the world."

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