BRISTOL, Va. (WRIC) — Newly obtained documents on former Virginia State Police (VSP) trooper and recent Washington County Sheriff’s Office hire Austin Edwards revealed that the would-be killer at the center of a cross-country triple homicide investigation had his firearm rights revoked in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2016.
Following a violent incident in February of that year, in which Edwards was restrained by authorities and threatened to kill himself and his father once freed from handcuffs in the presence of Abingdon Police, the then-21-year-old appeared in Bristol General District Court. During a hearing there, documents showed that Edwards “was given the written explanation of the involuntary admission process.”
What happened in 2016?
As 8News previously reported, police records showed that an emergency custody order was issued in response to suicidal and homicidal statements made by Edwards. Later, a judge also issued a temporary detention order because of “substantial likelihood that, as a result of mental illness, [Edwards] will, in the near future” seriously harm himself or suffer harm because of his “lack of capacity to protect himself from harm” or provide himself with basic needs.
The Feb. 10, 2016 order for treatment confirmed that Edwards was being admitted to Ridgeview Pavilion Hospital in Bristol, Va., approximately 16 miles southeast of Abington, where authorities reported the initial incident happened at Edwards’ father’s residence.
“Because of whatever reason, the facilities and the City of Bristol has its own court system, handled the paperwork,” private investigator and former law enforcement officer Jeff Pike told 8News. “That’s where it was at. I had to petition the judge, and I cited for the greater good of the public that this should be known to prevent this from happening in the future.”
8News previously reported on the 2016 incident that sparked Edwards’ admission to a mental health clinic, as well as his admission during the application process to become a VSP trooper that he had “voluntarily checked into a mental health facility in 2016.” But the aforementioned newly obtained documents confirmed that Edwards was prohibited “from purchasing, possessing or transporting a firearm” anywhere in Virginia.
Years later, Edwards would go on to serve briefly with VSP and later be hired by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in the same jurisdiction where the violent 2016 incident occurred.
Nine days after beginning his new job with the sheriff’s office in southwest Virginia, authorities said he murdered three members of the Winek family out in Riverside, Calif., and ultimately used his department-issued weapon to kill himself in a shootout with San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputies the day after Thanksgiving.
The background check process
“There’s just numerous failures here to determine that, you know, not only does he have a mental problem, but his gun rights are revoked as part of that process,” Pike said. “But it appears to be his field training officer, that he’s encouraging him to apply to other agencies.”
Last week, 8News uncovered documents that showed Edwards listed his father, a close friend and a VSP field training officer on his application for employments with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
“Washington County should have done a lot of different things,” Pike said. “The police department is literally three blocks away from the sheriff’s office or the courthouse. The sheriff’s office is a little bit outside, but about a mile away. I mean, you’re not talking about great distances.”
But this newly obtained order for treatment also should have been in the hands of the Central Criminal Records Exchange (CCRE), a bureau of VSP.
“The Clerk of the Court where this is issued, by law, has to notify the CCRE, which is the Central Criminal Records Exchange, which is controlled by the state police, within one business day,” Pike said. “Any gun shop out there, if he went to purchase the gun, would have run him through the CCRE and he would have been flagged.”
Changing the system
On Dec. 16, the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) released a statement that it had received a request to review a recent VSP matter. That request came from Governor Glenn Youngkin in reference to VSP’s hiring of Edwards.
“I hope the Inspector General’s Office will look at the broader picture and not just pick out one mistake,” Pike said. “This is a catastrophic series of mistakes that, at the end of the day, led to a triple homicide, arson, kidnaping, shootout with police, and a 15-year-old girl that’s traumatized for the rest of her life.”
On Thursday, Gov. Youngkin delivered remarks highlighting his proposed tax relief packaged for Virginians and businesses at Carter Machinery in Salem, Va. 8News’ sister station in Roanoke, WFXR, asked the governor about the latest developments in this case, and whether changes are needed in screening processes.
“I’ve asked the Inspector General to do a full review, and I know that the State Police are fully cooperating. This happened in 2016, and so we’ve got to go back and make sure we understand all the facts,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that processes that need to be changed, should they need [to be], are changed. But I want to let the investigation be completed. I’ve got a highly capable, outside entity doing it. That’s important, and we’re going to make sure that, the changes [that] are needed, we’re going to make them.”
Triple homicide investigation in California
At the end of November, the San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office released a statement that included the result of the autopsy on Edwards, citing the manner of death as suicide, caused by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It was later reported that Edwards used his service weapon from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office to kill himself, though police in Riverside have stated that a firearm was not used in the murders of three members of the Winek family.
Pike, who worked in law enforcement for 16 years, said that it would also be common for Edwards to have had his sheriff’s office badge and credentials with him.
“When you carry off-duty as a police officer, you always carry your badge and credentials close to you,” Pike said. “Where are the badge and credentials? Were they utilized to access this family, or make the access easier, and/or was he even in uniform?”
8News posed those questions to Riverside Police Department Public Information Officer Ryan Railsback.
“We have heard of that being spread around, but our detectives have not been able to confirm how he identified himself when he arrived at the house,” he said.
The investigation remains ongoing.