Police never searched 'catfish' cop Austin Lee Edwards' second home

Police never searched a Richmond-area apartment belonging to Austin Lee Edwards, the Virginia cop who killed three relatives of a 15-year-old Riverside girl whom police say he "catfished" online.

A judge approved Edwards' eviction from that apartment Wednesday. Now that the eviction is official, any evidence that might exist within could be removed or destroyed, if it has not been already.

In addition to the Riverside 15-year-old he kidnapped, Edwards pursued at least one other child, a 13-year-old girl whom he solicited nude photos from even after she disclosed her age. Experts say that many predators have multiple victims and that any evidence, especially technology or paper files, could aid police in learning about other children or abusers.

But the Riverside Police Department, which is leading the investigation into the murders, did not see a need to search the apartment.

"We did not need to in relation to our investigation," Ryan Railsback, a spokesman for the department, said in a statement. Officials had "already had items seized from his [Saltville] house that are relevant to our murder investigation," Railsback added.

Riverside police only searched Edwards' newly purchased white Cape Cod-style home in Saltville, Va., which he bought shortly before the slayings. The Smyth County Sheriff’s Department helped execute that search on Nov. 26, the day after the killings.

The Chesterfield County police department and sheriff's office did not search Edwards' Richmond-area apartment either, officials there said.

At some point, police will want to secure a warrant and conduct a search to determine if there is any evidence to suggest if Edwards abused other victims, said William Pelfrey, a professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Wilder School of Government. "He is dead. So there is no case to be made against him. But if there were other victims or firearms, that seems like something police would want to know," he said.

Police may be reluctant to search Edwards' apartment because having an officer commit murder and pursue children sexually is "not a good look" for law enforcement, Pelfrey said.

"There may be little interest among police to pursue information about other victims," he added. He noted that if Edwards' landlord told authorities that the apartment was vacant, then the police would not need to search the residence.

A visit to Edwards' apartment Wednesday indicated that at least some items belonging to him may still be inside. The blinds to the two-story apartment were mostly closed, and a reporter could only see part of the kitchen, which appeared to be empty. What appeared to be a shirt tag dated February 2022 from Flying Cross, a company that sells law enforcement uniforms, was visible through the sliding glass door in the back.

A blue and green ball, which appeared to be a cat toy, was also visible through the glass door. Edwards owned a female cat for years.

The blinds on Edwards' second-floor window were broken and two pieces of mail were attached to the front door knob with rubber bands. One was an envelope that appeared to be an eviction notice. The second was a notice asking tenants to keep their porches clean. A worn pair of black Air Jordans could be seen on the ground outside the front door. The back patio was empty.

Asked in an email whether Edwards' landlord told Riverside police if his apartment was vacant, Railsback replied: "If there is any relevance to our investigation, the local authorities will contact our detectives."

The local authorities — the Chesterfield County Police — are not involved in the Edwards investigation, Elizabeth Caroon, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email.

Samantha Pallett, chief operating officer for Levco Management, declined to comment when a Times reporter asked by phone if the company had been inside Edwards' apartment or if it had spoken with police in Riverside. "Per our company policy, I am not able to comment on the matter," said Pallett, who hung up when the reporter asked her to detail the policy.

Police should search Edwards' apartment for evidence that could shed light on the killings or identify other victims who may need services, Jane Manning, a former New York City sex crimes prosecutor and current director of the Women’s Equal Justice Project, told The Times. Any electronic devices he used to communicate with other predators could be especially useful, she added.

The possession and use of child pornography and the abuse of real children can overlap, Manning said, adding that it's common for predators to share child pornography. “Some predators use pornography to groom children,” she said. “Some predators use pornography to facilitate their own planning of the crimes they want to commit.”

“Edwards is not someone who acted on a sudden impulse that he quickly regretted," she added. "This is someone who sought out and groomed an underaged kid. He engaged in this conduct on multiple occasions. This suggests that he was deeply committed to abusing kids. It is virtually certain there are more victims.”

Police may have already missed their window to search the residence, however. Before the slayings, Edwards fell behind on rent and his landlord moved to evict him.

Court records indicate that Edwards owed $804 for November rent, $80.40 in late fees, $61 for court costs, a $150 attorney fee and $90 in damages for utilities and trash, according to Chesterfield General District Court Civil Supervisor Lynn Cosner.

At the Wednesday hearing, Judge Keith Hurley dismissed the case, citing Edwards' death.

Speaking to an attorney representing the property management company, Hurley said, “You know who that is, right?” The attorney said she did and both noted the presence of a reporter in the courtroom.

Both law enforcement agencies that employed Edwards have faced intense scrutiny for hiring him. Edwards worked for the Virginia State Police for nine months last year. He joined the Washington County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy nine days before the Riverside killings.

Last month, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin asked the state's inspector general to probe the state police's hiring of Edwards. Edwards told the state police when he applied that he had voluntarily checked himself into a mental health facility in 2016. That disclosure should have prompted further investigation, but didn’t, Gary Settle, the state police superintendent, wrote in a Dec. 30 letter. The state police did not search databases for Edwards' mental health history before hiring him as an officer, Settle wrote.

Two deputies from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, the law enforcement agency that employed Edwards immediately before his death, removed items from his home in a neighboring county the day before the official search. Authorities there have defended the search, saying they acted to protect the public.

There is no indication that the Washington County Sheriff’s Office is under investigation.

Logan reported from Brooklyn, New York, Lin from Los Angeles and Griset and Nocera from Chesterfield, Va.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.