RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Days after a family was found murdered after a house fire in Southern California, the deceased victims' daughter and sister spoke out Wednesday at an emotional press conference that included an update on the investigation from police officials.
"Nobody could have imagined this happening to our family, to my family, especially it just being one day after Thanksgiving," said Michelle Blandin, who wiped 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. The official causes of death have not been released by coroner's officials.
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 surviving teenage victim 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.
WATCH | Family of Riverside triple murder victims in teen 'catfishing' case speaks out
On Tuesday, Detectives converged on the scene yet again to gather more evidence.
"The family is going to have this house boarded up, just for safety reasons," said Ofc. Ryan Railsback with the Riverside Police Department outside the home on Price Court. "Our detectives wanted to come out here and just to a secondary walkthrough while it was light and not as smoky."
Accompanied by family members of the victims, detectives removed multiple bags of evidence Tuesday afternoon. Police did not give specifics on what was found.
The suspect in the triple-murder case, 28-year-old Austin Edwards, is accused of enticing a 15-year-old girl who lives at the home into having an online relationship, a scheme known as catfishing.
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."
Detectives are still trying to figure out the events leading up to the horrific display of violence at the home, but Edwards is accused of murdering the 15-year-old's mother and two grandparents and then leaving the scene with her.
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. Because authorities had the suspect's license plate number from that phone call, authorities were quickly able to use technology to track him down.
He was confronted by San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies about three hours later and killed during a shootout.
Detectives have interviewed the teen girl, but say they still know very little about how it all started, and what Edwards' intentions were when driving to California.
"We're still looking into when he arrived... in Riverside here, but that's going to take a while," said Railsback. "We have this whole digital crime scene that we're going to have to locate, with warrants probably, and sort through to see if there's anything where he relayed his intentions or his plans."
But as horrific as this crime was, Riverside police say the practice of catfishing happens all the time.
"The art of catfishing is when you lie about your own persona to entice somebody who wouldn't normally be attracted to who you really are," said Riverside Det. Robert Olsen.
"A lot of these cases will start with the perpetrator actually discussing things with our children that our children are interested in, whether it be music or sports, or television, movies," he said. "In that process, once they gain trust, they move on to what's known as grooming."
Olsen said his team has made approximately 40 arrests since June 2020 for the online enticement of a minor.
"We have arrested women, government officials, celebrities, there are no specific profiles, that's what makes this crime so difficult (to investigate)," he said.
Olsen said parents need to take the matter of protecting their kids into their own hands.
"As soon as you place a smart device in your child's hand, which nowadays is happening between 4 and 5 years old, you need to make it a habit of theirs to allow you to look through that device whenever you want, you have the passcode not them," he said.
"Because when they become teens now, and they start getting into chat rooms where some of this behavior is really occurring, they won't become rebellious when you walk up and snatch their tablet out of their hand because you want to see what they're doing."