As authorities scrambled to learn more about how a Virginia cop allegedly “catfished” a California teenager before driving across the country and killing three of her family members and burning down their house, a surviving relative spoke out about the shocking crimes.
“Catfishing led to the deaths of the three most important people in my life. My dad, my mom, and my sister,” Michelle Blandin said during a Wednesday press conference in Riverside. “He took an oath to protect and yet he failed to do so. Instead, he preyed on the most vulnerable.”
The Riverside Police Department say that Austin Lee Edwards, 28, met Blaidin’s 15-year-old niece online while posing as a teenager himself, a practice often referred to as catfishing. While police do not know how long the two had been communicating, nor even on what platform, Edwards is accused of driving across the country to California in an attempt to kidnap the teenager.
In the process, police say, Edwards killed the teenager’s grandparents—69-year-old Mark Winek and 65-year-old Sharie Winek—and her mother, 38-year-old Brooke Winek. After the grisly murders, Edwards “intentionally” set their Riverside house on fire before forcing the teen into his Red Kia Soul, cops say.
A neighbor saw the teenager appear “distressed” while getting into the car and alerted police. Edwards, a former Virginia State Police trooper who was working for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in that state, was ultimately killed in a police shootout.
“Making that call from that neighbor saved my niece’s life. That neighbor is a hero in our eyes,” Blandin said.
Blandin revealed that she was buying Christmas lights with her family when she got a call about her parents’ house being on fire. She said she dropped everything to rush over to her childhood home—but when she arrived, it was too late.
“Nobody could imagine this crime happening to our family, especially just one day after Thanksgiving,” she said.
Police have yet to reveal the means by which the three Wineks—who were found in the entryway of their burning home—were murdered. Riverside Police spokesman Ryan Railsback said Wednesday that the teenager is currently in protective custody with the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services and is communicating with investigators.
“This will be a lon-llasting tragedy in her life,” he said. “How long did this relationship last? When did it start? Their intentions. What she knew, what she didn’t know. We’re still trying to figure out [whether she was] coerced or forced to leave with him. She’s a victim because as any teenager or child, you’re vulnerable. This grown man who’s in law enforcement took advantage of that.
Police said Wednesday that they have no reason to believe the teen was complicit in the murders nor the “intentional” fire at the home. The Virginia State Police previously told The Daily Beast that Edwards had joined in July 2021 and resigned in October before his new gig in a sheriff’s department.
The Virginia State Police also noted that during his hiring process, Edwards received a “thorough background check” and “written, psychological, and physical testing, as well as a pre-employment polygraph. At no time during that extensive process were there any indicators of concern.”
How he slipped through the cracks remained a glaring question. But for the aunt of the teen, the loss itself was still almost unimaginable.
“This horrific event started with an inappropriate online romance between a predator and a child,” Blandin said. “This was an adult that traveled across the country to kidnap a 15-year-old girl, my niece, our niece, our family member with the idea of kidnap her and devastate our family.”