Co-workers of ‘catfishing’ cop took items from his property before official search

Co-workers of Austin Lee Edwards, the Virginia deputy who killed the grandparents and mother of a 15-year-old Riverside girl he “catfished” online, removed a sheriff’s truck and a black trash bag from Edwards’ property the night before it was officially searched, according to an eyewitness and a video reviewed by The Times.

Two deputies from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, the law enforcement agency that employed Edwards immediately before his death, arrived at the white Cape Cod-style home with blacked-out windows late on Nov. 25, the day of the killings.

Riverside police, who are leading the homicide investigation, said they did not know about the Washington County Sheriff’s deputies’ actions.

“We are not aware of any action taken at his house prior to the Nov. 26 search warrant,” spokesperson Ryan Railsback said. “We are not aware of any additional searches.”

The Smyth County (Virginia) Sheriff’s Office executed the official search warrant on the house, according to Railsback.

It was not immediately clear whether the Washington County Sheriff’s Office had a warrant for Edwards’ property, but legal experts say there are few — if any — legitimate reasons for law enforcement officers from a different county to go onto a property before an official search.

“This is strange right off the bat because Washington County doesn’t have jurisdiction to do anything in Smyth County,” said Yancey Ellis, a partner in Carmichael, Ellis & Brock, a criminal defense firm in Alexandria, Va.

“If you want to do something in another county you should go to local law enforcement.”

Both the Washington County Sheriff’s Office — where Edwards, 28, started as a patrol deputy on Nov. 16 — and the Smyth County commonwealth’s attorney declined to comment for this story.

The eyewitness said the deputies arrived at Edwards’ Saltville, Va., home the evening of Nov. 25 — the day of the killings in Riverside — and although they didn’t see them go inside, they witnessed the deputies come from the back of the home with a trash bag before leaving with a vehicle taken from the property.

The 42-second video shows two people next to the house, one holding what appears to be a flashlight in one hand and a black trash bag in another. Both then walk away from the house.

The eyewitness said the two deputies drove off separately, one in a patrol car and the other in a Washington County Sheriff’s Office truck that had been parked in Edwards’ driveway for days.

A white house with dark windows.

The Virginia home of Austin Lee Edwards.

(Erin B. Logan / Los Angeles Times)

Two former law enforcement officers in Virginia, who are familiar with the matter and have reviewed the video, confirmed that they recognized both of the people in the video as deputies with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

The Times has granted the eyewitness and the former officers anonymity because they fear retaliation for speaking to the media.

There are exceptions that allow law enforcement to enter a property without a search warrant, Ellis said, such as exigent circumstances, in which someone inside a home is in danger or could destroy evidence, but none of those would apply because the Saltville property wasn’t in Washington County.

David Benowitz, a Washington, D.C., criminal lawyer, said law enforcement officers in Washington County would not be permitted to take anything from the property without Smyth County’s involvement — even if they didn’t go inside the home.

“There could have been a contractual agreement with the officer where [the Washington County Sheriff’s Office] can say, ‘If we fire you for cause, we can retrieve the car,’ but that would’ve been trumped since it’s a crime scene.”

Benowitz added that because Edwards is dead, there would not be any exigent circumstances for a search in this case.

“This smells pretty bad,” he said. “There are only a few reasons why that may happen, and none of them are good or legal.”

Riverside police have said that Edwards portrayed himself as a 17-year-old while communicating with the 15-year-old girl online. In November, he drove across the country to her Riverside home and killed three of her family members before setting fire to the home and leaving with the girl.

San Bernardino County officials initially said Edwards was killed in a shootout with police after deputies stopped his car. But the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said last week that Edwards died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The teenage girl was physically unharmed.

Edwards’ tenure as a police officer was brief. He entered the Virginia State Police Academy on July 6, 2021, and after he graduated on Jan. 21 of this year, he was assigned to Henrico County, in the Richmond division.

He resigned from the Virginia state police on Oct. 28. A Virginia state police spokesperson told The Times on Wednesday that “human error” in the agency’s background check process led to Edwards’ hiring.

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