Austin Lee Edwards, the cop who “catfished” a 15-year-old Riverside girl and killed her grandparents and mother before taking his own life, used his own father as one of three character references on his application for a job as a sheriff’s deputy.
Edwards signed on with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in rural Virginia weeks after resigning from a nine-month stint with the Virginia State Police. He killed the family in Riverside, Calif., nine days after beginning work in Washington County.
Edwards used his father, a close friend and his Virginia State Police field training officer as references when applying to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, according to his employment application, which The Times obtained through a public records request.
Edwards’ field training supervisor, whose name does not appear on the reference, wrote that Edwards had been “very happy” in his job with the Virginia State Police.
“[Edwards] talks to me constantly about the people he has helped throughout his day, and he generally loves what he does,” the training supervisor wrote. Edwards’ one complaint was being too far from his family, the supervisor added.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office said that it had checked with Virginia State Police before hiring Edwards and that “no employers disclosed any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards.”
In an interview, Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis declined to specify how his department vetted Edwards. Andis said his office ran Edwards’ name through law enforcement databases, but declined to specify which ones.
The Times previously reported that Edwards had a documented history of mental health struggles and was detained for a psychiatric evaluation in 2016 after threatening to kill himself and his father and experiencing relationship troubles with his girlfriend.
Andis told The Times that Edwards did not disclose his 2016 mental health incident to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. The 2016 incident and Edwards’ subsequent detention are referenced in an Abingdon, Va., police report that experts say should have turned up in many standard background checks.
Records reviewed by The Times showed that Edwards told Virginia State Police he had voluntarily checked in to a mental health facility. The agency hired him anyway.
Corinne Geller, a Virginia State Police spokeswoman, previously said that “human error” resulted in an incomplete database query during Edwards’ hiring process” and that the agency found no “indicators of concern” during his background check.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has asked the state’s inspector general to investigate the Virginia State Police’s hiring of Edwards.
Edwards’ short tenure with the Virginia State Police and his mental health history should have raised red flags for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, according to criminal justice and law enforcement experts.
Art Acevedo, the interim police chief for the Aurora, Colo., Police Department and a nationally recognized policing expert, said Edwards’ nine-month tenure with the state police should have prompted further questioning before he was hired in Washington County.
“I’d have to ask a lot of questions about why he’s moving so quickly,” he said. “That’s pretty unusual for somebody to go through an academy, and all of a sudden, turn around and leave.”
Acevedo said that although law enforcement agencies set their own standards and protocols, most departments would be unlikely to hire Edwards after such a brief work history unless he enrolled in their own police academy.
“It’s next-to-nothing in experience and not enough of a significant work history in terms of a police officer to assess whether they’d be hired by another agency,” he added. “You have to be in the field two to five years without going through the academy again.”
Edwards said on his application to Washington County Sheriff’s Office that he had also applied to the Police Department in Richlands, Va.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office might have assumed the Virginia State Police had adequately probed Edwards’ background, said William Pelfrey, a professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Wilder School of Government.
“[But] Washington County didn’t do their due diligence in their background check; it looks like they assumed Virginia State Police did everything correctly,” Pelfrey said. “It’s rare that someone spends less than a year in a law enforcement agency. Leaving VSP after nine months, that’s a red flag, and hiring someone who spent such a short time with one agency suggests there needs to be some kind of background investigation.”
One day after starting work as a deputy, Edwards served as a bailiff for a murder trial at the Washington County Courthouse in Abingdon, according to court records and photographs obtained by The Times. Less than a week later, he was on the road to California, where he killed the girl’s grandparents and mother and set fire to her home, according to Riverside police.
Edwards died of a self-inflicted gunshot from his service weapon after deputies tried to intercept him in San Bernardino County, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. The girl was physically uninjured.