Austin Lee Edwards, the now-deceased cop who “catfished” a 15-year-old Riverside girl and killed her grandparents and mother last month, disclosed during his application to become a Virginia state trooper that he had voluntarily checked himself into a mental health facility several years earlier, according to records reviewed by the Los Angeles Times.
The Virginia State Police hired him anyway.
Corinne Geller, a Virginia State Police spokeswoman, said last month that there weren’t “any indicators of concern” that surfaced during Edwards’ “extensive” hiring process. But the records reviewed by The Times show the agency had at least some indication of Edwards’ mental health struggles.
Edwards’ disclosure should have triggered further investigation before he was hired, said William Pelfrey, a professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Wilder School of Government.
It’s unclear if Virginia State Police asked any follow-up questions once Edwards disclosed his past mental health difficulties. Geller said in a previous statement that “human error resulted in an incomplete database query during Edwards’ hiring process.”
Geller did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The Times reported last week that Edwards was detained for psychiatric evaluation in February 2016 after cutting his hand and threatening to kill his father. According to an Abingdon, Va., police report obtained by The Times through a public records request, Edwards was taken into custody after emergency medical technicians called 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.
The new records show that, while applying to become a state trooper, Edwards told his background investigator in a pre-test interview that “he had voluntarily checked himself into a mental health facility in 2016.”
The Times in a Dec. 6 email asked Geller if Edwards had disclosed the 2016 incident. She said he had not.
Geller said the state agency would not have hired any officer candidate whom it knew had been detained under an emergency custody order or a temporary detention order.
Geller also previously declined a public records request sent by The Times for Edwards’ background check and psychological evaluation, stating that it was exempt from the public records law because they’re part of Edwards’ personnel file, which is exempt from mandatory disclosure, she said.
Pelfrey, the criminal justice expert, said that depending on the nature of the incident, a law enforcement agency should seek additional details when a police officer applicant discloses that they voluntarily sought mental health treatment, particularly if the incident involved violence or suicidal ideation.
“Because law enforcement is empowered to use violence when they deem it necessary, force may be required to take a suspect into custody,” Pelfrey said. “So you want somebody who has really good, objective judgment in when to use a force with a suspect.”
“If someone has a history of violence against themself or others, then their objectivity may be compromised,” Pelfrey added. “It doesn’t disqualify them, but it does warrant further investigation as part of the background process.”
According to the records reviewed by The Times, Edwards told the agency in an interview prior to his polygraph test that he had voluntarily checked into a mental health facility. The polygraph exam was administered Feb. 9, 2021, in Lebanon, Va.
The records showing that Edwards disclosed much of his personal history were shared with The Times by Jeff Pike, chief executive of investigation company Complete Surveillance and Investigative Services. Pike used to work in law enforcement in Virginia for nearly two decades and said he shared the records to shed light on the lower hiring standards for law enforcement in Virginia.
“The official narrative was not consistent with the facts,” Pike said.
Two people with deep knowledge of the Virginia State Police’s internal systems and protocols, who were granted anonymity because they fear retaliation for speaking to the press, verified the records’ authenticity.
Edwards also disclosed prior to the polygraph test that he had previous traffic infractions for following too closely in his vehicle and had previously been in a crash. The Times obtained records of both traffic infractions, which occurred in Virginia’s Washington County. Edwards also told the agency he had “mistakenly” eaten marijuana brownies about two years prior to joining the force. He also said that he “quit” his job at Walmart in July 2020 “without notice,” according to the records.
Edwards admitted that he had three outstanding bills at two local hospitals “from 2016 through 2018,” according to the record.
During the polygraph, Edwards said he hadn’t falsified any information on his application and that he hadn’t committed any serious sex acts that led to an arrest. Edwards also said that he had never committed any serious crime or concealed any illegal drug activity.
Pelfrey, the criminal justice professor, said that Virginia State Police should have uncovered information about Edwards’ detention and custody orders because the information was publicly available.
“A good background investigation should’ve found this,” he said.
Edwards, 28, quit the Virginia State Police in late October and joined the sheriff’s office in Washington County as a deputy in mid-November. Police said he catfished the Riverside girl by portraying himself as a 17-year-old online. Last month, he killed her grandparents and mother at their Riverside home, before setting fire to the residence and driving off with the girl.
Edwards died of a self-inflicted gunshot from his service weapon after deputies attempted to intercept him in San Bernardino County and he shot at a law enforcement vehicle, according to a spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. The teenage girl was found physically uninjured.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office previously said they had contacted Virginia State Police during Edwards’ hiring process and that “no employers disclosed any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards.”
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Times staff writer Grace Toohey contributed to this report.