RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The external investigation into Virginia State Police (VSP) is complete after the agency came under fire last year for hiring a man who would later go on to be named as the lone suspect in a cross-country triple murder. However, questions remain about the timeline and results of the investigation.
On Dec. 16, 2022, Virginia’s Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) released a statement that it had “received a request to review a recent Virginia State Police matter.” Although the agency would not comment on the circumstances surrounding that request or investigation, a spokesperson for Governor Glenn Youngkin later confirmed that he called for the review in the context of the hiring of Austin Lee Edwards.
Edwards was named as the sole suspect in the murders of three members of the Winek family out in Riverside, Calif. the day after Thanksgiving last year. Authorities said that he engaged in a deceptive relationship online with a teen girl, before traveling thousands of miles from Virginia and killing her mother and grandparents. Police in Riverside said that the investigation there is ongoing.
Back in Virginia, though, VSP came under fire after documents revealed that Edwards had briefly been employed as a state trooper, after completing academy training, and, before that, undergoing a background check. Additional files revealed that Edwards had disclosed previous admittance to a mental health facility to authorities during his application process to become a trooper. That admittance stemmed from a violent 2016 incident in Abingdon, Va., in which Edwards reportedly threatened to kill himself and his father in the presence of police.
“The complaint alleges that the Department had knowledge that Edwards had been committed to a mental institution, and chose to employ him as a trooper,” VSP Superintendent Colonel Gary T. Settle wrote in a Dec. 30, 2022 letter. “This is false – during the pre-polygraph interview, Edwards told the examiner that he had voluntarily checked into a mental health facility in 2016. A voluntary admission alone would not have been an automatic disqualifier at this stage of the background process. However, this would have been an opportunity for clarification.”
The letter was provided to 8News in April as part of a 23-page report from OSIG regarding the results of its investigation into VSP. A VSP spokesperson had previously said on Dec. 7, 2022, that the agency conducted its own internal administrative review, and found “that human error resulted in an incomplete databased query during Edwards’ hiring process.” But the more recent documents provided by OSIG contained only information from VSP, and no filings about OSIG’s analysis or the result of that agency’s external investigation.
“I do hundreds of background checks in my business, and we preface any straight data background check with the need to be verified to make sure that it’s 100% accurate,” private investigator and former law enforcement officer Jeff Pike told 8News on Friday. “These mistakes cost three people their lives.”
By the time of the triple murders in Riverside, Edwards had left his position with VSP and started working with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. A coroner out in California later determined that Edwards used his service-issued weapon to kill himself during a shootout with authorities after allegedly committing the murders.
Before the end of 2022, Pike obtained documents from Edwards’ entrance into VSP, showing that the agency had at least some knowledge of an incident with Edwards in 2016.
“He admits to drug use, but in the description of the drug use, claims that it was accidental, which you know, seems a little suspicious to me,” Pike told 8News in Dec. 2022. “He says that he had admitted himself to a mental facility voluntarily, which is a lie. That also contradicts the State Police’s statement that they had no clue about this.”
Then, in January, Gov. Youngkin delivered remarks highlighting his proposed tax relief packaged for Virginians and businesses at Carter Machinery in Salem, Va. While there, 8News’ sister station in Roanoke, WFXR, asked the governor about the latest developments in this case, and whether changes are needed in screening processes.
“I’ve asked the Inspector General to do a full review, and I know that the State Police are fully cooperating. This happened in 2016, and so we’ve got to go back and make sure we understand all the facts,” he said at the time. “We’re going to make sure that processes that need to be changed, should they need [to be], are changed. But I want to let the investigation be completed. I’ve got a highly capable, outside entity doing it. That’s important, and we’re going to make sure that, the changes [that] are needed, we’re going to make them.”
However, the only proposed changes listed in the investigation report were listed as those determined internally by VSP:
– Applicant investigators and polygraph examiners are required to discuss any potentially relevant information gleaned from the polygraph or pre/post-test interviews. While this policy has already been conveyed to the respective personnel, it will be further documented in the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Human Resource desk procedures and policy manuals.
– The Department is revising our background investigation policy manual to ensure property queries for FBI files/Virginial Criminal Information Network (VCIN)/Law Enforcement Information Exchange (LINX) and the National Data Exchange (NDEx). This information has already been conveyed to the appropriate personnel, but formal policy revisions are forthcoming.
– The Department is developing written training for background investigators pertaining to mental health histories that follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This will ensure that all applicant investigators thoroughly understand the ADA requirements and when in the employment process inquiries can lawfully be made about an applicant’s mental health.
– Applicant investigators are now required to interview all adults living in the home with the applicant, regardless of whether they were listed as a reference.
Regarding the last point listed, 8News previously obtained documents that showed Edwards listed his father as a reference on his VSP application, and that his father did submit positive information about his son.
When 8News asked an OSIG spokesperson if there was any additional information that should have been included in the report, such as an analysis from OSIG, the response was as follows “There are no additional documents to provide.”