Richmond, VA – Virginia law enforcement agencies are revamping their background check process after an investigation revealed the trooper-turned-deputy who drove to California to kidnap a teen and murder her family wasn’t legally able to possess firearms due to a prior commitment to a psychiatric facility.
Investigators believe that 28-year-old Washington County (Virginia) Sheriff’s Deputy Austin Lee Edwards developed an online relationship with a teenage girl who lived in Riverside, California, KNBC reported.
Riverside police said Deputy Edwards “catfished” the 15-year-old girl by pretending to be a 17-year-old boy, Southwest Virginia Today reported.
He then drove cross-country to the girl’s home on Nov. 25, murdered her mother and grandparents, and set their home on fire before fleeing the area with the kidnapped teen, according to investigators.
Police tracked Deputy Edwards’s vehicle down in the Kelso area of San Bernardino County several hours after the triple homicide.
San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBSD) deputies said the suspect had the kidnapped teen with him at the time, according to the RPD.
An aircraft tracked the suspect vehicle from above while SWAT units moved in to intercept him, CBS News reported.
Deputy Edwards allegedly opened fire on deputies as he continued to try to flee.
He ultimately lost control of his vehicle and drove off of the road, then jumped out of the vehicle and pointed a gun at a sheriff’s office helicopter, CBS News reported.
That’s when deputies opened fire.
Investigators later determined Deputy Edwards fatally shot himself with his duty pistol during the shootout, according to Southwest Virginia Today.
Police said the teen was not physically injured during the exchange of gunfire, CBS News reported.
She was subsequently placed into protective custody with the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.
Investigators said they do not believe she had any involvement with the murders or the arson, CBS News reported.
Recently-discovered public records revealed that in February of 2016, prior to his law enforcement career, Deputy Edwards was admitted to a psychiatric facility after he cut his hand and threatened to kill his father and himself, the Los Angeles Times reported.
He also bit his father and tried to bite first responders, according to Southwest Virginia Today.
The then-21-year-old was originally held for evaluation under a temporary detention order (TDO) issued by a judge, then later agreed to a voluntary admission to a psychiatric hospital, according to Southwest Virginia Today.
It is unclear how long he was treated at the facility.
He was also advised that he would be prohibited from possessing, purchasing, or transporting a firearm, and a letter was sent to the Virginia State Police (VSP) Central Criminal Records Exchange (CCRE) notifying them of the restriction, according to the news outlet.
Virginia law prohibits anyone who is held on a TDO and then admitted to a psychiatric treatment facility – even if they go voluntarily – from possessing firearms until such time the court specifically restores their firearm rights, Southwest Virginia Today reported.
There is no indication that a hearing to restore Deputy Edwards’ firearms rights ever took place, according to the news outlet.
But the fact he was prohibited from possessing firearms was never discovered during the background checks conducted by the VSP or the Washington County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), Southwest Virginia Today reported.
Records indicate he did disclose to the VSP that he had voluntarily admitted himself to a mental health facility in the past, but it is unknown if he mentioned the court order.
Orders for Treatment and TDOs are considered confidential and are sealed, so they would not have come up during a court records check.
VSP Spokesperson Corinne Geller said Deputy Edwards had not disclosed anything that would have disqualified him from potential employment with the state police, Southwest Virginia Today reported.
Geller said the oversight was the result of “human error” that resulted in an “incomplete database query,” according to the news outlet.
Southwest Virginia Today followed up with Geller to ask if a firearms check was part of the inquiry that was “incomplete,” but she refused to comment any further on the issue.
Deputy Edwards entered the Virginia State Police Academy in 2021 and graduated on Jan. 21, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The WCSO said Deputy Edwards was working for the VSP when he applied at the sheriff’s office, CBS News reported.
His background check came back clear.
“No employers disclosed any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards,” the WCSO told CBS News.
Deputy Edwards was officially hired by the sheriff’s office on Nov. 16 and was in the midst of orientation when he committed the offenses over in California.
The Office of the State Inspector General has opened an investigation into Deputy Edwards’ hiring at the direction of Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, Southwest Virginia Today reported.
According to Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis, the VSP has since instructed him to manually include firearms checks as part of employment background checks, according to the news outlet.
In the past, the WCSO had only used the firearms checks when they were looking into concealed carry permit requests, Sheriff Andis told Southwest Virginia Today.
He said the VSP-maintained database utilized by many law enforcement agencies in the state has a specific criminal justice employment background check feature, but that the check does not include a firearms check, according to the news outlet.
Sheriff Andis said he had no idea that was the case until the situation arose with Deputy Edwards.
“You would think if you do a criminal justice employment background check that would come up, but it doesn’t,” he told Southwest Virginia Today.
Sheriff Andis said he notified the Southwest Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy about the VSP’s directive to manually include firearms checks in their employment background checks, and that the training academy has passed that directive on to other state law enforcement agencies as well.
The WCSO has since completed a second background check – including a firearms check – on all of its employees, Southwest Virginia Today reported.
Sheriff Andis said many other law enforcement agencies have done the same.
Geller said the VSP is also auditing its existing personnel records, Southwest Virginia Today reported.
It is unknown when the state inspector general’s investigation into Deputy Edwards’ hiring will be complete.