Search for answers in triple killing of California family to focus on murky world of online predators | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

Mark Winek, left, his daughter Brooke, center, and his wife Sharie are seen in a photo provided by the Winek family. All three were slain in their Riverside home on Nov. 25, 2022, police say, by a Virginia sheriff’s deputy who developed an online relationship with Brooke Winek’s 15-year-old daughter. (Courtesy of Riverside Police Department)

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 neighborhood 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 victimization 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 specializes 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 U.S., 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.

Mychelle Blandin, who lost three family members in Riverside last week, speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022 at the Riverside Police Department Magnolia station in Riverside. Mark Winek, Sharie Winek and daughter Brooke Winek were slain, police say, by Austin Lee Edwards in their home on Nov. 25 after he drove out from Virginia to meet Brooke’s 13-year-old daughter, who he had met online. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG) 

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.”

Facebook and Instagram, both Meta companies, also require their users to be 13 or older. Instagram does not grant parents access or allow parents to take action on accounts they do not own, according to its website. All users above 13 on Instagram are considered “authorized account holders” and protected by the company’s privacy policy, the site said.

“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.

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