Family of catfishing victims begs parents to educate kids

Crime

(NewsNation) — Law enforcement and the family of three people killed in the wake of an online catfishing scheme are pleading with parents to talk to their children about online safety.

The Riverside, California, Police Department held a press conference regarding the killing of three members of the Winek family, imploring families to make sure their children know how to stay safe online.

Catfishing is a method of creating a false identity online to fool another person. Often associated with online relationships, law enforcement officials say it is also a way predators groom underage victims.

Police believe Austin Lee Edwards, 28, lied about his identity online to form a relationship with the teenage female member of the family, whose name has been withheld by authorities because of her age. He then traveled from Virginia to California, where police believe he murdered three of the teen’s family members, then set fire to their home.

The victims were discovered when the Riverside Fire Department responded to a call for a home on fire.

The bodies found in the home were identified as the girl’s grandparents and mother: Mark Winek, 69; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65; and their 38-year-old daughter, Brooke Winek. Police said the exact causes of their deaths remain under investigation.

Edwards then took the teenage girl and traveled with her to San Bernardino County, where he was killed during a shootout with police.

Michelle Blandin, Brooke Winek’s sister and Sharie and Mark Winek’s daughter, expressed gratitude for the love and support the family has received from the community.

She also credited her parents’ neighbors for alerting police about the strange car and helping save her niece’s life.

Blandin was critical of TV shows and documentaries for “glamorizing” catfishing when it is a serious problem that led to the deaths of her family.

“Use us as a reference,” she said, urging parents to speak with their children about the possible dangers of online relationships.

Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzales said the investigation is ongoing and will take time with the digital crime scene being processed. That’s made more complicated by the distance between Virginia and California as well as the need to get warrants for websites and social media platforms where the pair interacted.

Police believe Edwards posed as a teenager when developing a relationship with the girl, grooming her for sexual exploitation.

Police warned parents that predators can groom children online in many ways, including liking social media posts, and it can escalate into sexual conversation, sharing of sexual images and meeting in person.

Law enforcement officials have not released details about the family’s cause of death, pending an investigation by the coroner’s office. Public Information Officer Ryan Railsback said they also want to be sensitive toward the family, noting it was clear that the way the bodies were found was disturbing.

Police don’t believe the teen in question was involved in the killings or the fire, though they are not characterizing it as a kidnapping because they don’t yet know if she willingly went with Edwards or was coerced.

At some point, the 15-year-old stopped speaking to Edwards, but police said it’s not clear if the killings were an act of retaliation.

The girl is in the custody of child protective services and receiving treatment for the trauma she experienced. Railsback said the department will be working with her family to determine the girl’s future and that of her sister, who was not home at the time of the crime.

Railsback said law enforcement officials are also being careful not to overwhelm the witness with questioning, another reason many questions remain, including whether this was the first meeting between Edwards and the girl or how long the online relationship lasted.

Police said so far they have not discovered any red flags in Edwards’ background, but they are looking into the hiring process he underwent to become a state trooper.

Police said they don’t yet know if Edwards had other victims.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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