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Why Virginia police hired ‘catfish’ cop Austin Lee Edwards

Three men in police uniforms stand facing two people on the sides who are applauding
Col. Steven Pike, chief of Capitol Police, from left, Col. Gary Settle, superintendent of Virginia State Police, and Col. William Smith, chief of Richmond City Police, attend an event at the Virginia Capitol in Richmond in February 2020.
(Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch)
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In a previously unreported letter obtained by The Times, the head of the Virginia State Police detailed errors in his agency’s hiring of Austin Lee Edwards, the now-deceased “catfish” cop who killed three people in Riverside in late November.

Although Edwards had told the agency about his 2016 visit to a psychiatric facility, the agency failed to search databases for his mental health history before hiring him as an officer, Col. Gary Settle, the state police superintendent, wrote in the letter, which was addressed to a post office box associated with Virginia’s inspector general.

Edwards left the state police after nine months and joined the Washington County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy. He was employed there in November, when he drove to Riverside and killed the mother and grandparents of a 15-year-old girl whom police say he had “catfished” online.

Both law enforcement agencies have faced scrutiny for hiring Edwards and, at the request of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s inspector general is investigating the state police’s hiring of Edwards.

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Virginia’s inspector general has been asked to investigate the state police’s hiring of a man who ‘catfished’ a Riverside girl and killed three of her relatives.

Dec. 15, 2022

The Virginia State Police have blamed Edwards’ hiring on “human error” and an incomplete query of databases. But Settle’s memo provides many more details about exactly what went wrong.

In the document, dated Dec. 30, 2022, Settle confirmed that Edwards had disclosed his 2016 psychiatric stay, and blamed his hiring on the background investigator who handled his application. Although Edwards’ admission wouldn’t have been an “automatic disqualifier” on its own, he wrote, it was a missed “opportunity for clarification.”

“Unfortunately, the error allowed him to be employed, as there were no other disqualifiers,” Settle wrote.

The mistake was due to an arcane difference in the search codes background investigators are supposed to use while screening aspiring cops, Settle wrote. The investigator who handled Edwards’ background check used a code for “applicants” and failed to include one for “firearms,” which would have brought up all Virginia mental health orders.

The correct query would have unearthed any “Virginia mental health orders if one exists,” Settle wrote. As The Times previously reported, Virginia mental health orders for Edwards existed at the time of his hiring.

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Police records show that on Feb. 8, 2016, authorities handcuffed Edwards, strapped him to a stretcher and delivered him to a local hospital after he threatened to kill himself and his father. Later that day, a judge approved a temporary detention order, and Edwards was transferred to a psychiatric facility. That order would have shown up in a correct database query, law enforcement experts told The Times.

During Edwards’ psychiatric stay, another judge barred him from purchasing, possessing or transporting firearms, according to court records obtained by The Times. According to the treatment order, Edwards agreed to voluntary admission for inpatient treatment for 72 hours, unless released earlier. He also was advised that his gun rights had been revoked unless restored by a court.

Evidence that Edwards’ gun rights had been revoked should also have been accessible by the Virginia State Police during the time the agency was considering his application. The clerk for the Bristol General District Court sent the treatment order detailing the loss of Edwards’ gun rights to the Central Criminal Records Exchange, a division of the state police, said Alisa Padden, director of legislative and public relations for the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, did not immediately respond to an email asking whether the agency still had the records.

Officials in the courts with jurisdiction over three known addresses for Edwards told The Times that they do not have any evidence that he ever petitioned for restoration of his gun rights.

All Virginia background investigators are trained to search for mental health orders but the investigator who handled Edwards’ application was “unaware of this requirement,” Settle wrote. The agency’s internal investigation indicated that Edwards’ investigator was the only one who failed to query properly.

The agency believes the incident was “isolated” and has taken steps to guard against a repeat, Settle added. In the course of the internal investigation last year of Edwards’ hiring, “all past sworn employment records were reevaluated and no mental health orders or other disqualifiers were found,” he wrote.

The Virginia police plan to implement new hiring policies, including requiring background investigators and polygraph examiners to discuss any relevant information from the polygraph or interviews, according to the memo. The department will also revise the background investigation policy manual and develop training for investigators related to mental health histories.

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Investigators will now be required to interview all adults living in the house with the applicant, regardless of whether they were listed as a reference.

Nearly a month after Austin Lee Edwards “catfished” a 15-year-old Riverside girl and killed her grandparents and mother, questions remain regarding how he was able to quickly find a job after a short tenure with Virginia State Police.

Dec. 23, 2022

Settle’s letter shows how much his agency’s story has changed in the months since the Riverside murders. Shortly after the killings, Geller, the state police spokeswoman, said there weren’t “any indicators of concern” that surfaced during Edwards’ “extensive” hiring process.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office said that it had contacted state police during his hiring process and that state police did not disclose “any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards.”

The Times reported Sunday that Edwards had a history of grooming girls online before he was hired as a police officer. Thousands of messages obtained by The Times showed that he solicited nude photos from a girl — even after she told him she was 13.

Years before the Riverside killings, ‘catfish’ cop Austin Lee Edwards groomed, stalked and solicited nude pictures from a teen girl.

Jan. 8, 2023

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