Agreement with watchdog agency allows Virginia State Police to investigate itself

May 18, 2023, 4:19 PM

FILE - Alison Saros, a friend of the Winek family, speaks about victims, Mark and Sharie Winek, and...

FILE - Alison Saros, a friend of the Winek family, speaks about victims, Mark and Sharie Winek, and their daughter, Brooke, during a news conference in Riverside, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. A Virginia sheriff's deputy posed as a 17-year-old boy online and asked a teenage California girl for nude photos before he drove across the country and killed her mother and grandparents and set fire to their home, authorities said Wednesday Nov. 30. Austin Lee Edwards was killed Friday in a shootout with San Bernardino sheriff's deputies. The teenager from Riverside, Calif., was rescued and is in counseling for trauma. (AP Photo/Amy Taxin, File)

(AP Photo/Amy Taxin, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Late last year, with the Virginia State Police under scrutiny after authorities said a former trooper a full investigation by the state’s watchdog agency.

But due at least in part to a previously existing mutual agreement between state police and the watchdog, state police appear to have simply investigated the matter themselves, according to a policy document obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request.

A memorandum of understanding between state police and the Office of the State Inspector General, the watchdog agency tasked with investigating waste and rooting out inefficiencies in state government, says that in nearly all cases, VSP retains responsibility for “the oversight and conduct of internal investigations of its personnel.”

The memorandum makes an exception for allegations against the superintendent or deputy superintendent of the state police, which would be handled by OSIG.

Questions about the investigation into the Austin Lee Edwards matter have swirled after reporting from the Virginia Mercury and Richmond TV station WRIC noted that OSIG never produced an official report. Instead, when media outlets sought the findings, the watchdog agency produced only a letter written by State Police Superintendent Gary Settle to the inspector general, leading to questions about what seemed to be an inconsistency in what Youngkin asked for and what was produced.

That Settle letter, which news outlets covered in early January, said a background investigator failed to check Edwards’ mental health history and missed a judge’s order that would have disqualified Edwards from state police employment. The letter characterized the “human error” in the case as an “isolated incident.”

Authorities have said Edwards — who had moved on to a job with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in southwest Virginia — posed online as a 17-year-old boy while communicating with the 15-year-old girl in California, a form of deception known as “catfishing.”

On Nov. 25, Edwards, 28, killed the girl’s mother and grandparents, then set fire to their home in Riverside, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of downtown Los Angeles, according to police. Edwards died by suicide during a shootout with San Bernardino sheriff’s deputies the same day. The girl was rescued.

On Wednesday, surviving relatives of the family filed a notice of intent to sue with Washington County and the Commonwealth of Virginia, documents that raised additional questions about the hiring process.

In the notice filed with the state, lawyers for an aunt and sibling of the teen allege Virginia State Police were “grossly negligent” in hiring Edwards as a state trooper in January 2022.

On his application to become a state trooper, Edwards disclosed that he had voluntarily checked himself into a mental health facility in 2016. In response to that disclosure, state police ordered Edwards to undergo a mental health evaluation, “which he failed,” the attorneys allege in the notice.

“The Virginia State Police deliberately buried the results of this mental health examination, did no further examination into this aspect of Edwards’ application, and hired him,” the notice states.

The attorneys also allege that at the time he was hired by state police, Edwards did not have the legal right to own or possess a gun because under Virginia law, anyone who is held on a temporary detention order and later admitted to a treatment facility is prohibited from buying or possessing a firearm until that right is restored by a court.

The attorneys say Edwards displayed his law enforcement badge and service weapon in order to get into the Riverside home by falsely claiming he was conducting a law enforcement investigation.

They also describe in graphic detail how the girl’s mother and grandparents were killed, saying Edwards slit her mother’s throat and asphyxiated the girl’s grandparents, who both were found hogtied and with bags over their heads.

A separate notice of intent to sue was filed with Washington County in late March by a Virginia firm representing the estates of the victims. The existence of the notices was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

With regard to the Virginia investigation, state officials in recent weeks have repeatedly declined opportunities to clarify the questions that arose about the probe or the final work product.

Youngkin’s office, which pledged transparency when the governor first said publicly that he’d asked for the probe, declined to answer questions from the Mercury, including about whether the governor did or did not formally ask for an investigation, the online outlet reported.

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter later told AP that the governor “requested OSIG to look into the matter and under their purview they deemed the proper investigatory measures.”

State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller likewise did not respond to questions from AP, and OSIG officials refused to comment beyond the agency’s response to AP’s public records requests.

In an email earlier this year when AP first sought the Settle letter, the agency told AP that it had “coordinated the investigation with Virginia State Police” in accordance with the memorandum of understanding, which is mandated by state law.

“The investigation was independently and appropriately conducted in accordance with OSIG’s long-established procedures,” Michael Westfall, the state inspector general, wrote in that email.

Settle’s December letter did not address the issue of Edwards’ gun rights or any kind of failed mental health evaluation. Nor did a March 2 letter by Settle to OSIG, which reiterated changes VSP says it has taken to address the problems its own review raised, including updating its policy manuals and developing written training for background investigators pertaining to mental health histories.

Geller said she could not comment on pending litigation and did not respond to questions about what was known about the status of Edwards’ gun rights when he was hired or whether he failed a mental health evaluation ordered by state police.

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Agreement with watchdog agency allows Virginia State Police to investigate itself