Relatives of the family in California who was killed by a law enforcement officer after he catfished their teenage daughter spoke at an emotional news conference and pleaded with parents to be aware of their child's online activity.
"Nobody could imagine this crime happening to my family, to our family," Mychelle Blandin said. "Especially with it just being one day after Thanksgiving."
The Wineks were an ordinary family who had just celebrated Thanksgiving together, where they had a heated debate about whether the homemade brownies would be better frosted or plain, Blandin said. The next day, while Blandin was out shopping for Christmas lights, she got a call from a neighbor saying her parents' house was on fire.
"Sadly, we were too late to save my dad Mark, my mom Sharie, and my younger sister Brooke from that vicious crime. They are forever in my heart and I miss them deeply," she said through tears.
Austin Edwards, a 28-year-old law enforcement officer, catfished Blandin's niece by pretending to be a teen boy and traveled from Virginia to her home in Riverside, California, police said. He then set her home on fire and killed the girl's grandparents and mom before fleeing with the girl. He was fatally shot by police after a pursuit.
The girl was taken into protective custody, and police said she is receiving "extensive medical treatment."
"This horrific event started with an inappropriate online romance between a predator and a child," Blandin said.
Blandin credited her neighbors with watching out for their family. Riverside police officers were dispatched on a welfare check on Friday after a girl was reported looking distressed while getting into a car with a man, according to authorities.
That call saved her niece's life, Blandin said.
Edwards had been a Virginia state trooper and was recently employed at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia.
The Virginia State Police has said no concern about Edwards was raised in a thorough background check as part of its hiring process. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office also said that it did not note any past issues during a background check.
Blandin urged parents to talk to their children about the dangers of interacting with strangers online.
"Parents, please, please know your child's online activity. Ask questions about what they are doing and whom they are talking to," she said. "Please, parents, guardians, when you are talking to our 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 are investigating the Wineks' deaths as a homicide.
"It was obvious that they were murdered," Officer Ryan J. Railsback told reporters Wednesday, adding that authorities are waiting for the autopsy results to determine the cause of death.
Railsback said they don't know if the girl was threatened or coerced into getting into the car with Edwards. Police are not describing it as a kidnapping at this stage of the investigation, he said, and they have "no reason to believe she was complicit" in the fire or the killings — or even knew that they were going to happen.
Blandin said her 38-year-old sister, Brooke, was a single mom who "did her best to raise her two teenager daughters in a loving way." She was supportive of their school activities and she loved collecting Starbucks tumblers.
Her dad, Mark, was soft-spoken and humble, and known on their street as "the one to depend on if anyone needed anything," she said. He coached student-athletes for years, including Blandin on her high school soccer team, and "unselfishly gave to his student-athletes."
Sharie, her mom, had the "biggest giving heart imaginable," Blandin said. "She loved my sister and I, along with her four granddaughters, with every ounce of her being." Blandin said she would carry on her mom's tradition of baking and decorating Christmas cookies with the family.
She thanked her community for the love they have shown her family so far. A GoFundMe was set up to help with the care for her sister's two teenage daughters.
Blandin also asked that they continue to support her nieces, who she said had the toughest road ahead.
"To my two young nieces who are now left motherless, we hope that this community can wrap their arms around them and lift them up," Blandin said.