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 had been detained in 2016 for a psychiatric evaluation over threats to kill himself and his father, years before he joined law enforcement, according to a police report.
That 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 have said they found no warning signs about Austin Lee Edwards, 28, before he was hired. But the Virginia State Police said Thursday that a recently completed review shows “human error” resulted in an incomplete database query during the hiring process.
Authorities in California have said Edwards posed online as a 17-year-old boy while communicating with the girl, a form of deception known as “catfishing.” He asked her to send nude photos of herself, and she stopped communicating with him.
He drove across the country and on Nov. 25 killed the girl's mother and grandparents, then set fire to their home in Riverside, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
Edwards died by suicide during a shootout with San Bernardino sheriff's deputies the same day. The girl was rescued. Family members and police said last week that she is in counseling for trauma.
A report written 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, the report said. Later that night, his father awoke to the sound of his son making noise in the bathroom. The father used a screwdriver to open the door and saw his son with a self-inflicted injury to his hand.
When emergency medical technicians arrived, they discovered Edwards being held down by his dad. When police arrived, they found a “large presence of blood” inside the home.
“Austin made several statements in the presence of Officers that he wanted to die, that he would try to kill himself the instant he was free from 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 didn’t know why his son had harmed himself but said he might be troubled about a relationship with his girlfriend. Knives and a small hatchet were present in the home.
Because of Edwards' suicidal and homicidal statements, an emergency custody order was issued, which allowed medical professionals to assess whether he met the requirements for a temporary detention order. That order allows law enforcement to take someone into custody and transport them for mental health evaluation or care.
In response to a motion filed by the Los Angeles Times, a Washington County judge released Edwards’ temporary detention order, which said there was a “substantial likelihood that, as a result of mental illness,” Edwards would seriously harm himself or suffer harm in the near future.
He was taken that day to Ridgeview Pavilion, a psychiatric facility in Bristol, Virginia, according to the order.
Edwards was a sheriff’s deputy in Washington County, Virginia, at the time of the killings and a former state trooper. Both agencies say he didn't show any concerning behaviors and no previous employers disclosed issues during background checks.
After details from the Abingdon police report became public, Virginia State Police issued a statement Thursday saying Edwards never disclosed any incidents during the hiring process or during his 15-month tenure that would have disqualified him from employment.
However, the statement said that an administrative review by state police has revealed that “human error resulted in an incomplete database query” during Edwards' hiring process. Spokesperson Corinne Geller did not respond to questions about whether a complete database search would have revealed Edwards' 2016 mental health episode.
“The database is part of the background investigation process. Beyond that, we’re not commenting any further on this ex-employee,” Geller wrote in an email.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office did not return two calls seeking comment on the 2016 episode.