An emotionally shaken family member of the three people allegedly murderedby a man who abducted a 15-year-old he had met online warned that the tragedy is a cautionary tale for parents.
"Catfishing led to the deaths of the three most important people in my life — my dad, my mom and my sister," Michelle Blandin said in a news conference on Wednesday. "When you are talking to your children about the dangers of their online actions please use us as a reference. Tell our story to help your parenting. Not out of fear, but out of example of something that did happen."
Police say 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards, who became a Virginia law enforcement officer just this year, drove across the country to meet the teen girl in Riverside, California.
"We don't know if this was the first physical encounter they had," said Ryan Railsback, Riverside Police Department's public information officer. "We also don't know yet if she knew that he was coming to California."
Last Friday, a neighbor called police saying the teen looked distressed while getting into a car with Edwards. Soon after, a fire erupted at the family's home. Investigators found the bodies of Mark, Sharie and Brooke Winek inside.
"Everyone who was there and responded, including fire, the officers, the detectives, it was disturbing to look at," Railsback said. "It's gruesome."
Edwards died by suicide, according to the San Bernardino County Coroner, after an exchange of gunfire with police, who say he pretended to be 17 online. Police have launched an extensive digital investigation.
The 15-year-old, who is Blandin's niece, also has a sister who was not home at the time she was taken. The 15-year-old remains in the care of child protective services and is undergoing extensive trauma counseling.
"Nobody could imagine this crime happening to our family, especially one day after Thanksgiving," Blandin said.
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