RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A Virginia sheriff’s deputy who killed the family members of a 15-year-old California girl he tried to sexually extort online was arrested in 2016 for a psychiatric evaluation following to death threats for him and his father, years before joining law enforcement, according to a police report.
This raises new questions about how the man was hired by the Virginia State Police and later by a Virginia sheriff’s office without any red flags. The mental health episode, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, is described in a police report released by the Abingdon Police Department in response to a public records request.
Both law enforcement agencies said they found no warning signs of 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards before he was hired. But Virginia State Police said Thursday a recently completed review shows “human error” resulted in an incomplete database query during the hiring process.
California authorities said Edwards posed as a 17-year-old boy online while communicating with the girl, a form of deception known as “catfishing”. He asked her to send nude pictures of herself and she stopped communicating with him.
He drove across the country and on November 25 killed the girl’s mother and grandparents, then burned down their home in Riverside, a town about 80 kilometers southeast of the city center from Los Angeles.
Edwards committed suicide in a shootout with San Bernardino sheriff’s deputies the same day. The girl was saved. Her family members and police said last week that she was following trauma counseling.
A report by police in Abingdon, Virginia, near the Tennessee border, describes a mental health episode in February 2016, when Edwards was 21.
Edwards watched the Super Bowl with his father on Feb. 7, according to the report. Later that night, his father woke up to the sound of his son making noise in the bathroom. The father used a screwdriver to open the door and saw his son hurt his hand.
When emergency medical technicians arrived, they found Edwards being restrained by his father. When the police arrived, they found a “large presence of blood” inside the house.
“Austin made several statements in the presence of officers that he wanted to die, that he would attempt suicide as soon as he was free of restraints, and that he would kill his father,” police wrote in the report.
Edwards was taken to a local hospital. His father told authorities he did not know why his son had harmed himself, but said he may be troubled by a relationship with his girlfriend. Knives and a small hatchet were present in the house.
Due to Edwards’ suicidal and homicidal statements, an emergency custody order was issued, allowing medical professionals to assess whether he met the requirements for a temporary detention order. This order allows law enforcement to take a person into custody and transport them for an assessment or mental health treatment.
In response to a motion filed by the Los Angeles Times, a Washington County judge issued Edwards’ remand order, which stated that there was a “substantial likelihood that, due to mental illness “, Edwards would be seriously injured or harmed in the near future.
He was taken that day to Ridgeview Pavilion, a mental institution in Bristol, Virginia, as ordered.
Edwards was the sheriff’s deputy in Washington County, Virginia at the time of the murders and a former state trooper. Both agencies say he has shown no behavior of concern and that no previous employers have disclosed any issues during background checks.
After details of Abingdon’s police report were made public, Virginia State Police released a statement Thursday saying Edwards never disclosed any incidents during the hiring process or during his 15 months in office which would have disqualified him from the job.
However, the statement says an administrative review by state police found that “human error resulted in an incomplete database query” during Edwards’ hiring process. Spokeswoman Corinne Geller did not respond to questions about whether a full database search would have revealed Edwards’ mental health episode in 2016.
“The database is part of the background investigation process. Beyond that, we no longer comment on this former employee,” Geller wrote in an email.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office did not return two calls seeking comment on the 2016 episode.
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