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

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Thursday, December 1, 2022
Family of Riverside murder victims in 'catfishing' case speaks out
Days after a family was found murdered after a house fire in Riverside, the deceased victims' daughter and sister spoke out at an emotional press conference.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (KABC) -- Mychelle "Shelli" Blandin says they had all just celebrated Thanksgiving the day before their lives would tragically be changed forever.

During an emotional press conference, Shelli Blandin spoke publicly for the first time about the tragedy that took her 38-year-old sister Brooke Winek, and her parents, Mark and Sharie Winek.

"Nobody could have imagined this happening to our family, to my family, especially it just being one day after Thanksgiving," she said, wiping 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."

"Catfishing led to the deaths of the three most important people in my life," she said.

Blandin said they were out buying Christmas lights when a neighbor called to say her parents' 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 had arrived at my house, we had learned that something more tragic had happened," Blandin said.

The suspect in the triple-murder case, 28-year-old Austin Edwards, is accused of developing the 15-year-old daughter of Brooke Winek under false pretenses. The practice known as catfishing involves a person posing as someone else online - likely as someone closer in age and with similar interests as the victim. 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."

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. On Wednesday, Blandin said that neighbor was a hero in her eyes.

A neighbor who called 911 to try to help a 15-year-old girl in Riverside describes witnessing the suspect with the young girl before her family's home erupted in flames.

"Ultimately, this is our community, and we need to look out and care for one another. Making that call from that neighbor saved my niece's life," Blandin said.

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.

To contribute to the GoFundMe set up for the victims' family, click here.