Virginia’s probe into State Police hiring of ‘catfish cop’ ends with no investigative report
After calling for ‘full investigation,’ Youngkin’s office refuses to comment
Virginia State Police filled a Charlottesville parking ahead of the one year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Aug. 8, 2018)
After it was revealed Virginia State Police failed to fully check the mental health background of a former state trooper who killed three people in California last November while attempting to abduct a teenage girl he had chatted with online, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he had requested a “full investigation” into the agency’s vetting process.
“And once the investigation is completed, there will be full transparency,” Youngkin told reporters in mid-December.
However, the watchdog agency believed to be conducting the investigation into the hiring of Austin Lee Edwards now says it has closed its probe into the matter and there is no official report on what it found.
The only document the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) said it could provide was a Dec. 30 letter written by State Police Superintendent Gary Settle. That letter recounts the State Police’s own assessment of what went wrong and ideas for how to prevent similar mistakes going forward.
“The administrative hotline case is complete and has been closed by OSIG in accordance with established policy,” Chief Deputy Inspector General Corrine Louden said when asked about the status of the investigation Youngkin described.
Jeff Pike — a private investigator in Wytheville who formerly worked in law enforcement and has provided media outlets with internal State Police documents that contradicted the agency’s initial public statements about Edwards — said the State Police letter falls far short of the type of investigation he feels was warranted.
“If that is indeed the embodiment of this investigation, then basically the State Police investigated themselves,” Pike said. “And they’re sticking with a narrative that comes nowhere close to addressing the multiple mistakes made with this guy and in their hiring process.”
Edwards, dubbed the “catfish cop” in media reports last year due to the online relationship he cultivated with a 15-year-old California girl by posing as a teenage boy, wasn’t a State Police employee at the time of the murders. He had worked as a state trooper for a little over a year before leaving last October for a job with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Southwest Virginia. Edwards killed three members of the girl’s family the day after Thanksgiving and then reportedly died by suicide as police pursued him.
In their initial response to the killings in California, Virginia State Police said there were no “indicators of concern” during the agency’s background check of Edwards. The agency was forced to backtrack after the Los Angeles Times reported Edwards had a prior mental health episode in 2016 during which he threatened to kill his father and himself. That incident, which State Police later admitted Edwards partially disclosed during the hiring process without going into full detail, led to the issuance of a court order hospitalizing him as a safety precaution and stripping him of his gun rights.
State Police have since acknowledged errors in Edwards’ background check, but the agency’s letter says the failure was an “isolated incident” and not a sign of potentially broader hiring lapses.
It’s unclear why the inspector general’s office is only releasing an assessment written by State Police as opposed to writing an investigative report more in line with Youngkin’s description of what the office would be doing.
The inspector general’s office, which is tasked with investigating fraud, waste, abuse and corruption in state government, refused to make any officials available for an interview. The office, headed up by Inspector General Michael Westfall, didn’t respond to follow-up questions sent via email about why there was no independent report and what steps OSIG had taken to investigate the matter.
Youngkin’s office also refused to comment. The Virginia Mercury asked the governor’s office on April 24 if the administration had received a report from OSIG in response to Youngkin’s request for an investigation. Youngkin staffers said twice that they were working on a response to the Mercury’s inquiry. After being given more than a week, the governor’s office provided no information for this story.
One possible explanation for the discrepancy is confusion on the Youngkin administration’s part about OSIG’s different processes for full-blown investigations versus less in-depth administrative reviews initiated by complaints from state employees or the general public. The State Police letter’s reference to a “complainant” and OSIG’s description of the matter as an “administrative hotline case” suggest the agency was not conducting a full investigation, despite Youngkin’s public comments to the contrary.
In a statement about OSIG’s purported investigation late last year, a Youngkin spokeswoman said the governor “has full confidence that they will follow the evidence, wherever it may lead.”
The inspector general’s office answers to the governor’s chief of staff.
Youngkin’s office did not provide an answer when asked if the governor did or did not formally ask OSIG to conduct an investigation.
In the letter sent to OSIG, State Police officials said one of the agency’s background investigators entered the wrong code when checking Edwards’ criminal history, thereby failing to turn up records of Virginia mental health orders. In response to the Edwards case, all background investigators were given remedial training and written instructions on the proper use of those codes, the agency said. Staffers vetting potential hires have also been told to take extra steps to “discuss any potentially relevant information” revealed in polygraphs or pre-employment interviews, the letter said, and investigators are now required to interview all adults who live with someone applying for a State Police job.
The letter acknowledges Edwards disclosed some details about his 2016 mental health incident during the process, but insists it is “false” to suggest the agency knew he “had been committed to a mental institution.”
“However, this would have been an opportunity for clarification,” Settle said in the letter.
In addition to declining a request for an interview, the inspector general’s office delayed releasing the State Police letter to the Mercury, indicating its official practice is to wait five days before responding to requests for public records. Under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, government agencies are required to respond “promptly” to all requests for public records, but they are allowed to take up to five business days before a response is considered unlawfully late. On its website, the inspector general’s office says part of its mission is “increasing confidence and trust in government.”
Louden, the chief deputy inspector general, acknowledged the letter had already been released to other media outlets and gave little explanation for why it would take nearly a full week to provide a digital copy of a single document.
“It’s our standard FOIA process … five days,” Louden said.
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