Investigators seeking clues in the slayings last week of three members of a Riverside family are now navigating parallel crime scenes: one in a quiet neighbourhood where the horrific killings took place, and the other in the murkier domain of online predators.
On Wednesday morning, the scent of ash still hung in the air around the Winek family’s charred Price Court home where authorities said a 28-year-old ex-Virginia State trooper‘s online predation turned into real-life violence. In tandem, authorities worked to unravel a digital crime scene involving so-called catfishing and sextortion schemes tied to the now-deceased suspect, police said.
At a press conference Wednesday, authorities said Austin Lee Edwards used the Internet to contact the 15-year-old teenager he allegedly kidnapped Friday, Nov 25, after killing Brooke, 39, Mark, 69, and Sharie Winek, 65, — her mother and grandparents, respectively — and setting their home on fire.
It was not immediately clear which social media platforms Edwards used to contact the minor, Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said.
“This type of victimisation takes place across every platform: social media, messaging apps, gaming platforms,” Gonzalez explained. “Some of the most common tactics to entice children include engaging in sexual conversation, developing a rapport through compliments, discussing shared interests, or liking (children’s) online posts.”
Gonzalez also explained that predators attempt to entice would-be victims through gift cards, alcohol, drugs, lodging, and transportation, among other incentives.
While several social media platforms, including Instagram and Snapchat, have geographical tagging features, Gonzalez could not confirm whether Edwards found the Price Court address through online stalking or by soliciting the child.
Mychelle Blandin, who is the sister of Brooke and daughter of Mark and Sharie, identified social media as a precipitating factor in her family’s deaths.
“This horrific event started with an inappropriate online romance between a predator and a child,” Blandin said during the press conference, gripping her husband’s hand. “Anyone could say they are someone else, and you could be in this situation.”
Detective Robert Olsen, who specialises in investigating online child exploitation, said fostering online safety starts from the moment children have Internet access.
“As soon as you put a digital device in a child’s hand, you need to get the child in the habit that device is not theirs, it’s yours,” Olsen said. “You’re entitled to look at it anytime you want, they’re not entitled to put a passcode on it that you don’t know.”
For parents of teenagers, Olsen suggested looking into restriction settings on devices like iPhones, which can allow parents to suspend access to certain websites and other content. He also noted that “kids are not entitled to digital devices,” and that sometimes, removing a device may be the only solution and parents can consider relatively low-tech options, like flip phones without Internet access.
Once authorities uncover which platforms were used for communication between Edwards and the teen, warrants will be issued to specific companies, Olsen explained.
Electronic service providers in the US, including social media platforms, are required by federal law via Title 18 to report suspected child sexual exploitation on their platforms and to comply with law enforcement, according to Olsen.
In an email, Snapchat officials said “there are no browsable public profiles for under 18s; friend lists are not public” and that “by default, teens have to be mutual friends before they can start communicating with each other. Teens are also not able to change their default settings to “everyone” – the only options available to them are “friends” or “friends and contacts.”
“If the teen doesn’t choose ‘private’ when signing up, we send them a notification later on highlighting the benefits of a private account and reminding them to check their settings,” the guide said.
In a Nov 21 update, Meta announced that users under the age of 16 in the U.S. will be “defaulted into more private settings when they join when they join Facebook.” These settings include limiting who can see teen users’ friends lists, tagged posts, and which users can comment on their posts, among other measures.
TikTok has a 12+ age requirement and offers a “family pairing” feature for parents to link their accounts to a child’s, similar to the Snapchat family centre. A “restricted mode” is also available on the app, and parents can choose to limit screen time; TikTok also says restricted mode “removes videos containing violent and sexual content, resulting in a more PG experience.”
Still, parent oversight may not be enough to keep children safe online — and a parent’s closeness to children provides no guarantee of safety, as Errick Winek, Mark and Sharie’s nephew, pointed out.
Errick Winek said his cousin Brooke, a single mother, was an extremely present parent and frequently with her children, watching colour guard practices and choir performances. He added that Mark and Sharie were also heavily involved in the children’s lives. Another cousin, Dean Porter, recalled on his last visit with Mark Winek, he was behind the net “coaching (his granddaughter) up as she was the goalkeeper.”
“This is one of those stories where it sounds like a parent wasn’t involved — the opposite couldn’t be more true,” Errick Winek said. “Brooke was very close with her kids.” – The Orange County Register/Tribune News Service