Riverside catfish murders: Family of 3 killed by ex-Virginia cop warns parents of online dangers

Loved ones of a slain Riverside family spoke out for the first time since the horrific tragedy and issued a dire warning to parents of children on social media as the investigation continues into the events that led up to an ex-Virginia law enforcement officer driving across the country to meet a teen girl police say he catfished online before killing her mother and grandparents. 

The bodies of Mark Winek, 69, his wife, Sharie Winek, 65, and their daughter Brooke Winek, 38, were found Friday inside a burning Riverside home. The causes of their deaths continue to be investigated, but police said they were not killed in the fire. 

Authorities believe the suspect, Austin Lee Edwards, 28, parked his vehicle in a neighbor's driveway, walked to the home and killed the family members before setting the fire. He then left with the girl. Police said they are not investigating this as a kidnapping.


The two were later confronted by authorities in Needles - located about 30 miles northwest of Riverside - where a shootout occurred between Edwards and sheriff's deputies. Edwards was shot and killed, and the teen girl was not harmed. She remains in protective custody. According to the coroner's report, Edwards died by suicide after a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

"This is another horrific example of predators existing online and preying on our children," said Riverside police chief Larry Gonzalez. The girl was a victim of extortion, he confirmed. 

Authorities do not believe the teen girl was involved in the murders or fire, or that she knew prior to the crimes, police said. 

Riverside police said Edwards, an ex-Virginia State Police trooper who was most recently hired as a sheriff's deputy in the state, met the girl online and catfished her, obtaining her personal information by deceiving her with a false identity. Police said it appears Edwards was posing as a teen when he talked to the girl online. It's unknown at this time what app or social media platform was used.

"Catfishing led to the deaths of the three most important people in my life.. my dad, my mom, and my sister," said Mychelle Blandin, daughter of Mark and Sharie and sister to Brooke.

"This started as an inappropriate online romance between a predator and a child," she said. "This was an adult that traveled across the country to kidnap a 15-year-old girl, my niece, our family member, with the idea to kidnap her and kill and devastate our family. He took an oath to protect and he failed to do so..."

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Mark Winek / Family-provided photo

Blandin went on to issue a dire warning to parents whose children are active on social media. 

"Parents, please know your children's online activity. Ask questions about what they are doing and who they are talking to," she said. "Use us an example.. not out of fear, but tell our story to help your parenting."

"My family and I truly appreciate the love and compassion… nobody could imagine this crime happening to our family especially just one day after Thanksgiving," she said. 

During the press conference, Gonzalez said Edwards, who is 28-years-old, had portrayed himself as a 17-year-old. They are still investigating his motives. He did not have any knowledge on the suspect's criminal record, if any. 

Edwards joined the Washington County, Virginia, Sheriff's Office just one week before he's accused of killing the Winek family. According to the department, none of Edwards' former employers disclosed anything to cause them any concern. According to the Virginia State Police, Edwards entered the academy in July 2021, and graduated in January 2022, assigned to Henrico County, which surrounds Richmond. He was with the department until last month. 

The department said he passed his pre-employment background check, polygraph test, and psychological evaluations.

"It is shocking and sad to the entire law enforcement community that such an evil and wicked person could infiltrate law enforcement while concealing his true identity as a computer predator and murderer," said Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said in a press release. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officers, and all of those affected by this heinous crime."

The three Wineks were described by neighbors as "loving" people. Mark Winek was a sports coach at Arlington High School, and Brooke Winek had two teen daughters.

"My two young nieces are now left motherless," Blandin said. "We hope and we ask the community continue to protect them and lift them up."

Neighbors held a vigil for the victims Saturday. A growing memorial filled with flowers, candles, and other mementos was erected outside the family's home.

Bonnie Davis has lived next door to the family for more than 20 years.

"I honestly couldn't ask for better neighbors," said Davis. "They were just the most loving family. It just didn't need to happen. It should not have happened and especially to them. They loved their kids. They loved their grandbabies. They're just a wholesome family. I can't say that enough. They're someone you want next to you, someone you want as a neighbor. Everybody needed a Sharie and Mark as a neighbor."

A GoFundMe campaign has been established to help the family with funeral expenses. Blandin said the funds will also go toward a college fund for Brooke Winek's daughters.