Virginia police blame ‘human error’ in hiring of cop who later killed 3 in California

A man in dark uniform speaks at a lectern, as two other men stand nearby and a woman, seated, holds a hand to her face
At a news conference on Nov. 30, Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez discusses the horrific killings of three members of a family as a female relative listens.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Virginia State Police now blame “human error” for the agency’s hiring of Austin Lee Edwards, the cop who killed the grandparents and mother of a 15-year-old California girl he “catfished” online.

“Human error resulted in an incomplete database query during Edwards’ hiring process,” Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said in a news release Wednesday.

The statement amounts to an admission that the agency should have known about a 2016 incident, first reported by The Times on Tuesday, in which Edwards was detained for psychiatric evaluation after threatening to kill his father and himself. According to an Abingdon, Va., police report obtained by The Times through a public records request, Edwards was taken into custody after he cut his hand and emergency medical technicians had to call police to help restrain him.


EMTs, accompanied by police, took Edwards to a local hospital, where he was detained under an emergency custody order. Later the same day, a judge approved a temporary detention order and Edwards was transferred to a local psychiatric facility.

Edwards’ father told police he didn’t know why his son harmed himself but said it might have been related to troubles with his then-girlfriend, according to the police report.

In a statement to The Times, Geller said the Virginia State Police would not have hired any officer candidate who it knew had been detained under an emergency custody order and a temporary detention order.

Geller declined to say whether the state’s background check process would have revealed either order.

Prospective troopers are required to disclose interactions with law enforcement even if they were not arrested. But Edwards never disclosed the 2016 incident, Geller said.

The Abingdon police report, which is a public record, detailed the violent 2016 incident and referenced both the emergency custody order and the temporary detention order. Virginia State Police have not said whether the police report should have turned up during their background check of Edwards.

Geller declined to comment on the specific circumstances surrounding Edwards’ custody and detention orders, saying the department was barred by law from discussing confidential records, despite those records being made public on Tuesday by a Washington County judge in response to a motion filed by The Times.


Austin Lee Edwards made violent threats in 2016 after experiencing relationship troubles, according to a police report.

Dec. 6, 2022

Riverside police said that Edwards, 28, portrayed himself as a 17-year-old while communicating with the girl online. In November, he drove across the country to her Riverside home and killed her family before setting fire to the home and leaving with the girl.

San Bernardino County officials initially said Edwards was killed in a shootout with police after officers stopped his car. But the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said last week that Edwards died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The teenage girl was uninjured.

Geller said the department believed the lapse to be isolated and is taking steps to “ensure the error is not repeated going forward.” She also said that Edwards returned all his state-owned equipment, including his service weapons, on his final day of employment.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office, where Edwards worked briefly after leaving the Virginia State Police, declined to comment.