Fighting back tears, Michelle Blandin recounted her final Thanksgiving with her parents and sister, the victims of last week’s triple homicide in Riverside that authorities say began with a ‘catfishing’ case involving Blandin’s niece.
“We had a family debate and it got heated – if the brownies my mom made should be frosted with sprinkles or just left plain,” Blandin told reporters during a news conference Wednesday morning. “It seemed silly at the time, but that is a conversation…that will forever resonate in my heart.”
Blandin, the daughter and sister of the victims, spoke Wednesday on behalf of the Winek family, who lost 69-year-old Mark Winek, his 65-year-old wife Sharie Winek and their daughter, 38-year-old Brooke Winek.
She recounted that the day after Thanksgiving, she received an urgent call from her parents’ neighbors, telling her to return to her childhood home as soon as possible because it was on fire.
“When we arrived at my house, we realized something more tragic had happened,” Blandin said.
The Wineks had come into contact with their killer, a 28-year-old law enforcement officer named Austin Lee Edwards, 28, who traveled from Virginia to Riverside to abduct Brooke Winek’s 15-year-old daughter, polie said.
According to police, Edwards met the girl online and “catfished” her using a fake identity, then kidnapped her in the 11200 block of Price Court, killed her family and set fire to the teen’s home.
He later was killed in a gunfight with deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
The girl was unhurt, which Blandin credits to neighbor who called 911 to report a young woman who appeared to be in distress getting into a red Kia with an older man.
“Making that call from that neighbor saved my niece’s life. And that neighbor is a hero in our eyes,” she said.
Before Friday, Edwards had been an officer of the Virginia State Police, then been hired by Washington County Sheriff’s Office. He passed psychological, written and physical tests, as well as a lie detector exam, as part of his employment.
Blandin lambasted Edwards for being a law enforcement officer who “traveled across the country to kidnap a 15-year-old girl.”
“We have some solace that this person will never harm anyone again, especially a minor. … He took an oath to protect, and yet he failed to do so. Instead, he preyed on the most vulnerable,” she said.
In a press release, Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis also criticized Edwards for betraying his oath of office.
“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,” Andis said in the release. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officers, and all of those affected by this heinous crime.”
Blandin offered a warning to those with teenagers so other families might avoid her fate.
“Parents, please, please know your child’s online activity. Ask questions about what they are doing and whom they are talking to,” said Blandin. “Anyone can say they’re someone else … Catfishing led to the deaths of the three most important people in my life, my dad, my mom and my sister.”
A GoFundMe campaign has been started to help with the funeral expenses of the deceased and provide financial support to the family’s two surviving teenage daughters.
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