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Catfishing Virginia cop accused of killing California family was detained in 2016 after violent threats

The Virginia police officer who “catfished” a 15-year-old California girl online and killed three of her family members was detained for psychiatric evaluation in 2016 after threatening to kill himself and his father and experiencing relationship troubles with his then-girlfriend, according to a police report obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

The 2016 incident, which has not been previously reported, raises new questions about how Austin Lee Edwards became a law enforcement officer and offers new details about his life. Authorities in Virginia have said that they were shocked by the California rampage and that they knew of no red flags in Edwards’ background.

The 28-year-old Edwards, a former Virginia state cop who joined the sheriff’s office in Washington County, Va., as a deputy in mid-November, portrayed himself as a 17-year-old while communicating with the girl online, according to Riverside police. Last month, he drove across the country to her home in Riverside, where he killed her mother and grandparents on the day after Thanksgiving before setting fire to the house and driving away with the girl.

Police later stopped Edwards’ car in San Bernardino County, where authorities initially said he was killed in a shootout with police. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department announced last week that Edwards actually died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The girl was found alive and uninjured.

The former law enforcement officer had troubles years before the November incident.

Austin Lee Edwards.

(Riverside Police Dept.)

The 2016 police report, which The Times obtained through a public records request, details a harrowing night in the Edwards household.

On the evening of Feb. 7, 2016, Austin Lee Edwards watched the Super Bowl with his father, Christopher Roy Edwards. They each drank two beers, the elder Edwards later told police.

Later that night, Christopher Edwards awoke to the sound of his 21-year-old son making noise in the bathroom. Christopher Edwards called out to his son, who had locked the door. Christopher Edwards then used a screwdriver to get the bathroom door open and saw Edwards with a cut on his hand. Christopher Edwards later told police he didn’t know what his son had used to harm himself but that knives and a small hatchet had been nearby.

Christopher Edwards called for an ambulance while his son went to his bedroom and sat on the bed, holding a pocket or folding knife in his hands and repeatedly opening and closing it, according to the report. Once Christopher Edwards told his son that an ambulance was on the way, Edwards tried to leave the apartment, but his father subdued him in the kitchen, the elder Edwards told police later.

Christopher Edwards could not be reached for comment.

Emergency medical technicians were first to respond to the scene, where they discovered Edwards was being held down by his father, they told police later. The EMTs, disturbed by Edwards’ “resistance to medical aid and attempts to escape his father’s control,” requested police assistance, according to the report.

When police arrived on the scene around 3:30 a.m. Feb. 8, 2016, they found that the home had a “large presence of blood inside.” Edwards continued to resist authorities, refusing to let EMTs treat his injury and continuing to try to escape his father, according to the report.

After arriving at the scene, one of the officers commanded Edwards to show his hands, after which Edwards “began screaming and threatening everyone,” according to the officer’s account in the report. The officer then took out his Taser, and Edwards began yelling at him to Tase him. Christopher Edwards pleaded for the officer not to Tase his son and said that he could subdue him. After getting Edwards to the ground, the officer and a member of the EMT crew were able to handcuff Edwards and strap him to a stretcher.

Edwards was then transported to Johnston Memorial Hospital. Edwards had an “apparent serious cut to his left hand” and said in front of police officers that he was going to try to kill himself the moment he was free from handcuffs and that he would also kill his father.

Police said that Christopher Edwards had bite marks on both his arms from his son but declined medical treatment. He told authorities that he didn’t know why his son harmed himself but said it could have to do with problems in his relationship with his girlfriend.

Because of the suicidal and homicidal statements that Edwards had expressed to police, an emergency custody order was issued, under which Edwards was taken into custody and transported to a local hospital, where medical professionals assessed whether he met the requirements for a temporary detention order, according to the report. A TDO, which allows law enforcement to take a person into custody and transport them for mental health evaluation or care if the person is unwilling to do so, was then issued.

A Washington County judge released Edward’s TDO on Tuesday in response to a motion filed by The Times.

The record indicates that the order was issued around 10 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 8, 2016, because there was a “substantial likelihood that, as a result of mental illness, [Edwards] will, in the near future” seriously harm himself or suffer harm because of his “lack of capacity to protect himself from harm” or provide himself with basic needs. The order said Edwards was then in need of hospitalization or treatment and was either unwilling or unable to seek it.

Edwards was that day transported to Ridgeview Pavilion, a psychiatric facility in Bristol, Va., according to the order.

Emergency custody orders are issued for a variety of reasons, including when a person may harm themselves or someone else. The order can be issued voluntarily or involuntarily and can remain in effect until a temporary detention order is issued.

Edwards never disclosed the 2016 incident to the Virginia State Police, Corinne Geller, a spokesperson for the agency, said in a statement. Geller declined to comment on the emergency custody order and the temporary detention order, saying the department was barred by law from discussing confidential records. Geller said the agency is conducting a review of Edwards’ hiring process.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Officials from the two agencies said none of Edwards’ prior employers had disclosed issues about him. Geller, the state police spokesperson, said the agency conducted a “thorough background check” as part of its hiring process, which would have included a fingerprint-based criminal history examination as well as psychological testing, though it’s not immediately clear that effort would have turned up the emergency custody order or the temporary detention order. Geller also said the agency conducted a preemployment polygraph, though it’s unclear what that test might have found.

Geller said there weren’t “any indicators of concern” during Edward’s tenure and no internal or criminal investigations were opened against him.

Edwards’ law enforcement career was brief. He entered the Virginia State Police Academy on July 6, 2021. After he graduated on Jan. 21 of this year, he was assigned to Henrico County, which is within the Richmond Division. Edwards resigned from the Virginia State Police on Oct. 28 and started as a patrol deputy with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office on Nov. 16. He began orientation and was assigned to the patrol division.

Less than two weeks later, he and three other people were dead.

Times staff writers Erin B. Logan reported from Abingdon, Va., Summer Lin and Grace Toohey from Los Angeles.

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