WASHINGTON COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — A recently released police report on former Virginia State Police (VSP) trooper Austin Lee Edwards — the man accused of murdering a family in California the day after Thanksgiving before turning the gun on himself in a shootout with local authorities — has raised new questions about how the 28-year-old was able to go through the hiring process with not one, but two law enforcement agencies in the Commonwealth.
The police report from Washington County detailed a harrowing 2016 incident. On Feb. 7 of that year, Edwards, then 21 years old, watched the Super Bowl with his father, Christopher Roy Edwards at their apartment in Abingdon, Va. Edwards’ father told police that they each drank two beers.
Later that night, Edwards’ father awoke to the sound of his son making noise in the bathroom, according to the report, and called out to his son, who had locked the door. Authorities noted that Edwards’ father used a screwdriver to get the bathroom door open, and found his son inside with a cut on his hand. Edwards’ father later told police that he did not know what his son used to harm himself, but knives and a small hatchet had been nearby, according to police records.
The police report further noted that Edwards’ father called for an ambulance while his son went to his room and sat on the bed, repeatedly opening and closing a pocket or folding knife. Once alerted that first responders were on their way, Edwards reportedly tried to leave the apartment, but his father subdued him in the kitchen.
According to police documents, EMTs told authorities that they arrived to the apartment and discovered Edwards being held down by his father, at which point they requested police assistance, citing Edwards’ resistance to medical aid and attempts to escape his father’s control. Police arrived to the residence around 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 8, 2016, to find a “large presence of blood inside.” The incident report from authorities noted that Edwards continued to resist authorities, refusing to let EMTs treat his injury and attempting to escape his father.
One officer reportedly ordered Edwards to show his hands, after which the then-21-year-old “began screaming and threatening everyone.” According to one officer’s account in the police report on this 2016 incident, police pulled out a Taser — Edwards yelled at the officer to use it, but Edwards’ father pleaded for the officer not to use the Taser and insisted that he could subdue his son. After getting Edwards to the ground, an Abingdon Police officer and member of the responding EMT crew were able to handcuff him and strap him to a stretcher, according to authorities’ notes on the incident.
Edwards was reportedly taken to Johnston Memorial Hospital, located in Washington County, where he had an “apparent serious cut to his left hand” and, according to the police report, said in front of authorities that he would kill his father and try to kill himself the moment he was free from handcuffs. Police also noted that Edwards’ father had bite marks on both of his arms, but declined medical treatment.
Police records show that an emergency custody order was issued in response to suicidal and homicidal statements made by Edwards. Later, according to the Los Angeles Times, 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.
8News reached out to the courts in Washington County, but was told that the judge’s order from Feb. 8, 2016 could only be released through a specified motion to do so.
8News also requested personnel records and internal, non-personnel-related exchanges regarding Edwards and his employment with both VSP and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, where he was hired just days before police in California said he committed these murders. Both those legal requests for information were denied.
However, Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis included the following statement in response:
When contacting past employers and his current employer at the time (Virginia State Police), no disclosures were made concerning any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Austin Edwards. While with our agency, Edwards had no reprimands, no disciplinary actions, no complaints, no instances of use of force levied, no internal investigations, and no disciplinary investigations.
Andis also added that “no records responsive to non-personnel-related emails regarding Austin Lee Edwards’ employment exist within the Washington County Sheriff’s Office Records Management System files or Edwards’ department email.”
Dana Schrad with the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police said this incident has prompted a closer look at hiring policies for law enforcement in the Commonwealth.
“We do our best in our agencies to try to really, fully vet someone before they’re brought in as an employee, particularly a sworn law enforcement officer. You’re not going to catch everything,” she said. “We’re looking at whether we can query the federal firearms transaction database and whether that’d be helpful when we’re doing our employment backgrounds or whether we need to take another look at the kind of information we can get during the interview process.”
Schrad told 8News that law enforcement agencies are still required to maintain Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance in their hiring process, and therefore certain inquiries into applicants’ health and mental health may not be readily available. She also said that something like the 2016 incident with Edwards in Abingdon would not have necessarily shown up in records checks.
“It’s one of the things that we have to look at to see if there is another way that we can be able to receive that information without being in violation of the ADA or other federal and state laws that protect someone’s privacy and their health records,” Schrad said.
She also noted that law enforcement agencies in the Commonwealth are struggling to hire new personnel, but that that should not disrupt rigorously set hiring policies and procedures.
“We do not have a strong pool of applicants for law enforcement jobs these days,” Schrad said. “They have to turn them away [if there are red flags], and that can be very difficult during times when we’re really struggling to have law enforcement officers on our forces. But it is still the right thing to do.”
At 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 7, VSP released the following statement:
Since Riverside, Calif. Police investigators notified the Virginia State Police (VSP) on Nov. 26, 2022, that a former employee was involved in an ongoing, multi‐jurisdictional criminal investigation, VSP initiated an extensive review of Austin L. Edwards’ hiring process, academy performance and monthly job performance evaluations. At no point during the hiring process or during his 15‐months with the department did Edwards disclose any incidents that would have disqualified him from employment.
The department’s administrative review is now complete and has revealed that human error resulted in an incomplete database query during Edwards’ hiring process. Although we believe this to be an isolated incident, steps are currently underway to ensure the error is not repeated going forward. The department is also proactively auditing existing personnel records and practices.
The forensic review of Edwards’ department‐issued laptop and cell phone remains ongoing by the VSP High Tech Crimes Division. In addition, as required by VSP policy, Edwards turned in all state‐owned, department-issued equipment on his last day of employment, Oct. 28, 2022. Included in the returned equipment inventory are all service weapons, uniforms and badge.
CAUTION: The photos at the end of this report may be disturbing to some people due to their graphic imagery
Authorities in Riverside County, Calif. named the 28-year-old as the sole suspect in a triple murder that happened the day after Thanksgiving. Police said Edwards engaged in a deceptive relationship with a 15-year-old girl, posing as a 17-year-old online, and ultimately going to her home in California, where they said he killed her grandparents and mother, before setting fire to the residence in an attempt to cover up the murders. Edwards allegedly drove off with the teen, and, according to the San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office, killed himself while engaged in a shootout with sheriff’s deputies. The teen was rescued by authorities, and is receiving trauma care in the custody of Child Protective Services.