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The woman was mindlessly scrolling through Instagram when she saw a face that made her freeze.
Staring up from her phone screen was Austin Lee Edwards, the now-deceased Virginia cop who drove across the country to Riverside and killed three relatives of a 15-year-old girl he "catfished" online. The news of the slayings was horrific enough to rattle anyone. But it was not just the crime that made the woman stop scrolling — it was the memory of Edwards' face.
His was a face she could never forget. She saw it dozens of times on video chats nearly a decade ago, when Edwards was 20 and she was 13. She began to cry and almost threw up.
“I felt so sick seeing his face because I hadn’t seen it in years,” the woman, now 21, told The Times. “I read the whole story and it made me feel disgusting.”
“This guy stalked me and groomed me when I was a child,” she said.
The Times reviewed nearly 4,000 messages provided by the woman that offer deeper insight into Edwards’ psyche. The messages show that Edwards repeatedly pressured her to share nude photos of herself — even after she disclosed that she was barely a teenager.
The woman told The Times that she shared with Edwards nude photos of herself while she was a child.
The Times does not generally identify victims of child sexual abuse.
The messages, portions of which were initially shared with The Times by Justin Smith, co-host of "It's Cryptic Out There," a crime and paranormal podcast, provide greater detail of a 2016 incident in which Edwards was detained for psychiatric evaluation after cutting his hand and threatening to kill himself and his father.
They show that the woman, then 14, had tried to cut off contact with Edwards less than two weeks before he harmed himself.
The woman told The Times that she wanted to share her story to let the public know that Edwards had a history of grooming and soliciting sexual images from minors, even before he was hired as a law enforcement officer. She spoke with Edwards on and off for about two years, she said, but when they first connected, they talked multiple times a week.
The 13-year-old and the 20-year-old first met in October 2014 on Omegle, an online platform that randomly pairs users to communicate. One day later, on Oct. 25, 2014, they began talking on Skype. The pair initially bonded over memes, the woman said. But the conversations very quickly turned sexual.
“YO WHAT THE F— I SAID I WANTED TITS WAITING ON ME WHEN I GOT BACK,” Edwards wrote on Oct. 26, 2014.
“iM SORRY,” she replied.
In messages, Edwards would also repeatedly drop homophobic and racist slurs, including the N-word. But he also seemed to be under the false impression that the girl he was chatting with was Black. “ur black rite,” he wrote on Oct. 29, 2014. “i have jungle fever. lets do this.”
Edwards was aware that the woman, who is white, was a minor when they first began chatting. He would often wait for her to finish school in order to video chat or to respond, messages show.
“did i tell you i went trick or treating? :^ )” Edwards wrote on Nov. 6, 2014. After she responded, "nupe," Edwards wrote: “i totally did. am 20.”
“Me too," she wrote back. "Am 13.”
The messages indicate that she and Edwards spoke for at least two years, and that his behavior changed dramatically from day to day and moment to moment. Edwards would often make jokes and use humor but later would express sadness and despair.
Edwards would occasionally speak about disliking his father and wanting to eat, the woman said. She said he would complain of his hunger because of a lack of money and that he would intentionally starve himself when he was depressed.
Their conversations often delved into suicide and self-harm. Edwards would say she was the only person he had and would threaten to kill himself if she ever stopped talking to him, the woman recalled. He would often show off his handgun and knife collection over video, she said.
Edwards would also convey his violent thoughts. On April 10, 2015, he asked her to Skype.
"i cant yet," she told him.
"why's that," he replied.
"bc my mom," she said.
"kill her," he wrote. He added: "imma give myself a black eye okay."
Messages show that Edwards would often refer to her as his "girlfriend" and told her how important she was to him. He would also masturbate on camera and pressure her to undress on camera, which she never did, she said.
“My first thought in the morning is you and I go to sleep at night thinking about you,” he wrote on Jan. 13, 2016. "It's so nice havng someone that I can love knowing you love me back. You're the best thing in my life and I wouldn't trade you for anyone.”
The next day, Edwards expressed a desire to see her in person, saying he found an affordable round-trip ticket for $263 to her state.
“Thats cheap af i might try to come there sooner idk,” he wrote. “you can leave house whenever you want right. cus if I came there it'd be dumb if we couldnt hang out.”
On Jan. 27, 2016, the 14-year-old told Edwards that she wanted to “break up” with him.
“What the f—,” he replied. “I thought you loved me?!” Messages show that Edwards pressured her to stay with him.
"Don't do that again please," he said. "like ever again. that really hurt."
Four days later, Edwards mentioned visiting again.
"Listen there’s not obstacle that’s gonna stop us from being together if that’s what we both want," he wrote. "It doesn’t even matter if you’re 14 and not technically allowed to do sh— yet."
On Feb. 7, 2016, Edwards told the girl over chat that he wanted to kill himself, but wouldn't because he "loved" her. He asked to video chat over Skype. On video chat, he was crying and had been drinking alcohol, she said. He told her about how awful his life was and expressed concern that she would leave him.
Over chat, he wrote that he had cut himself. When she asked why, he said it was an accident. “Are you sure,” she wrote. “no,” he wrote back. “i might have done it out of sadness." But he said he'd claim it was an accident.
On a second video call the same day, Edwards sat in a bathroom with his back pressed to a closed door and showed her a cut he had made on his hand, she said. He showed her the silver hatchet he used. The call ended when Edwards' father tried to come into the bathroom, she said.
The woman's account aligns with official accounts of the same incident. As The Times previously reported, EMTs were summoned to the home where Edwards lived with his father in the early hours of Feb. 8, 2016, because Edwards had locked himself in a bathroom and cut himself.
Edwards' father held him down as emergency medical technicians tried to administer aid. Edwards resisted, however, and EMTs called for police assistance.
A police officer and a member of the EMT crew were eventually able to handcuff Edwards and strap him to a stretcher after getting him to the ground, according to a police report. The police report from the 2016 incident contains a photo of a hatchet. It appears to be the same hatchet Edwards displayed on Skype, the woman told The Times.
Edwards’ father told authorities on scene that his son had been drinking and had been dealing with "girlfriend" problems. The woman told The Times that she believes she was the "girlfriend" to whom Edwards' father referred.
After being removed from his home, Edwards was evaluated at a psychiatric facility in Bristol, Va., under a temporary detention order.
Three days after the incident, Edwards messaged the girl on Skype and told a different story about how he got his injury.
“I was walking around outside the other night and slipped and cut my hand pretty bad," he wrote. "And they thought it was a suicide attempt but it’s on my hand not my wrist??” Edwards told her that he was in a psychiatric facility and that "the therapists tried to figure me out” but they “didn’t find anything wrong."
“Yeah I actually knew a bit about how those places work so I just told them everything they wanted to hear,” he wrote. “so they threw me out in 2 days.”
During Edwards' time in the psychiatric facility, a local judge barred him from purchasing, possessing or transporting firearms after he voluntarily sought treatment, new records reviewed by The Times show. Officials for courts in the jurisdictions of two known addresses for Edwards told The Times that they do not have records that indicate that he ever petitioned the court for restoration of his gun rights.
After the February incident, the teenager slowed her communication with Edwards. By September, she had blocked him, she said. He told her he had a new girlfriend, she recalled.
After she blocked Edwards on Skype in 2016, the year she turned 15, he continued to send her messages from different Facebook accounts for years.
She felt scared: She had never told him her real name.
In April 2020, after she'd turned 18, Edwards tried to call her on Facebook, according to a screenshot she shared with The Times. She didn't pick up.
Then, in December 2020, he messaged her from a Facebook account. "He wrote, 'Hey,' with a sad face," she said. She messaged back, told him never to contact her again and blocked him.
A few months after that interaction, Edwards applied to join the Virginia State Police. During the hiring process, he disclosed that he had voluntarily checked himself into the mental health facility in 2016. That disclosure should have prompted further investigation, but didn't. "Human error" and an incomplete query of databases led to Edwards' application being approved, a Virginia State Police spokeswoman later acknowledged.
In July 2021, around five years after he was institutionalized and had his gun rights taken from him, Edwards entered the Virginia State Police Academy.
On Jan. 21, 2022, Edwards graduated from the academy. He resigned after less than a year, and applied for a job as a deputy with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, listing his own father as a reference. He started that job on Nov. 16, 2022.
On Nov. 25, Edwards drove to Riverside to meet a 15-year-old girl whom police say he had "catfished" online by telling her he was 17. He entered her home and killed her grandparents and her mother before setting fire to the house. He left with the girl and drove her in his red Kia Soul into the desert, where he engaged in a shootout with San Bernardino County authorities. He used his service weapon to shoot at law enforcement before turning it on himself. The teenage girl was found physically uninjured.
The woman who communicated with Edwards years earlier was baffled that two law enforcement agencies had hired him, she said.
“It’s just crazy that he was able to become a cop with me knowing his mental health issues,” the woman said. “I don’t understand how he got past everything because it was so prominent to me that he had so many issues just from talking to him in that time period."
But she wasn't "surprised at all" that it had been Edwards who killed the Riverside family because she "knew how scary he was," she said. She recalled that he would threaten violence when she did not send nude pictures.
"That's when I realized he was not mentally stable," she said.
The woman said recalling her communication with him made her realize she probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. "It definitely affected me more than I realized," she said. "He did a lot of damage to me."
The woman said she hid her communication with Edwards from her mom and her loved ones and only recently began speaking about it after hearing of the killings.
“Austin was really good at manipulating people," the woman said. "I’m sure that the people who knew him in person had no idea how old [the Riverside teenager] actually was."
She added: "I'm just glad that I don't have to keep it a secret anymore."
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network's sexual assault hotline at (800) 656-4673 or visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Dialing 988 will route callers to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, accessible across the U.S. The Lifeline currently serves TTY users either through their preferred relay service or by dialing 711, then (800) 273-8255.
Logan reported from Washington, D.C., and Lin from Los Angeles.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.