CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — A retired Virginia State Police (VSP) captain is speaking out, sending his concerns about the agency’s hiring practices to the office of Governor Glenn Youngkin after the fallout from former trooper Austin Edwards, the lone suspect in a cross-country triple murder investigation.
In a letter dated Jan. 11, 2023, former VSP captain Dr. Frank Whitehurst cited “a culture of silence and barriers such as a groupthink environment,” as well as “a closed system, authoritative control, and internal pressure.” Although Whitehurst said he has not received a response from the governor’s office, he did receive a postal receipt, showing that the letter had been delivered.
A spokesperson for Gov. Youngkin declined to comment when contacted by 8News.
“The hiring of Austin Edwards is extremely distressful,” Whitehurst wrote in the letter. “When I was a trooper, a background investigator sent out a notice asking if troopers knew an applicant. I did. I had responded to a call where the applicant threatened suicide. That stopped the investigation and the applicant was subsequently rejected.”
As 8News previously reported, in 2016, authorities were called to Edwards’ father’s residence in southwest Virginia after the then-21-year-old harmed himself, leaving first responders to find a “large presence of blood inside.” The incident report from 2016 noted that Edwards resisted authorities, refusing to let EMTs treat his injury and attempting to escape from his father.
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 showed 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.
Previous 8News investigations revealed that Edwards made some mention of admittance to a mental health facility in 2016 during his application process with VSP.
Whitehurst has now claimed that Edwards failed his psychological evaluation.
However, VSP has maintained that an extensive review of Edwards’ hiring process, academy performance and monthly job performance evaluations conducted in the wake of the tragic events at the end of November 2022 revealed no red flags.
“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,” a spokesperson said in a statement sent to 8News in December. “The department’s administrative review is now complete and has revealed that human error resulted in an incomplete database query during Edwards’ hiring process.”
The day after Thanksgiving, police in Riverside, Calif. named Edwards as the sole suspect in the murders of three members of the Winek family. Authorities alleged that the 28-year-old had traveled across the country after engaging in a deceptive online relationship with a 15-year-old member of the family, known as catfishing. Riverside Police, leading the investigation, said that Edwards set fire to the Wineks’ residence in an attempt to cover up the homicides, before driving off with the teen girl. A coroner’s report noted that Edwards killed himself using his service-issued firearm during a shootout with San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputies. The teen was physically unharmed.
‘We need to do this’
Whitehurst told 8News that Edwards’ hiring by VSP stemmed from an administrative problem, not just a computer error from a background investigator. He also noted that the fallout from Edwards’ hiring has tarnished the reputation of an otherwise venerable agency.
“They’ve thrown the whole process down the dollar because they’re not doing anything but running a few computer checks and making a few phone calls to do interviews,” Whitehurst said. “When I was there, we sent people to Missouri, New York, wherever they were from.”
Whitehurst further claimed that an investigator never went to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in conducting research during Edwards’ hiring process. The aforementioned violent 2016 incident involving Edwards happened in the Town of Abingdon, which is within Washington County, which is the jurisdiction where Edwards would be hired after leaving his post with VSP.
“They unlocked and opened the door for applicants to get through,” he wrote to the governor. “A check would help restore public trust.”
In December, the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) released a statement that it was investigating a VSP incident at the request of the governor. It was later revealed that the investigation pertained to the agency’s hiring of Edwards.
“I’d like him to see him be able to put it in his hands, read it, and say, ‘Okay, we need to do this,'” Whitehurst said, referencing Gov. Youngkin. “That’s what I asked in the letter, was for him to take appropriate action. Something needs to happen because it’s going to happen again. The systems, what I’m looking at, being told — it’s going to happen again, just a matter of time.”
8News reached out to VSP for comment on Whitehurst’s letter and the specific concerns outlined, but has not received a response.