Virginia sheriff defends removal of items from deputy's home after California triple homicide

A Virginia sheriff says that he ordered two of his deputies to search the home of a colleague who killed three people in California, and insists they acted to protect the public.

Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis also says he told Riverside police, who are leading the investigation into “catfishing” cop Austin Lee Edwards, about his deputies’ Nov. 25 search of Edwards’ home.

The official search of the home happened on Nov. 26, the morning after the Washington County deputies were videotaped on Edwards’ property.

Ryan Railsback, a spokesman for the Riverside Police Department, had told The Times that he was not aware of any additional searches beyond the one on Nov. 26.

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

On Monday, Railsback stuck to his comments, telling The Times that he first learned of the Washington County search from Times reporters Friday, and that he was “not aware of any specific orders or conversations of us directing anybody” to access Edwards’ property before the official search.

“I don’t know if we were aware that anybody went to the house,” he said. “It’s possible in the commotion of trying to locate him or get any idea of where he might be that there could’ve been communications between our folks.”

Washington County’s warrantless search of Edwards’ property occurred while the deputy was still on the run in California, Andis told The Times.

The update comes days after The Times broke the news that two of Edwards’ co-workers at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office were caught on camera entering Edwards’ home in a neighboring county the day before a search warrant was executed. The Times spoke to a witness and reviewed a brief video of the deputies removing a black trash bag from the property.

Andis said that, after hearing of the killings in California, he told deputies to enter Edwards’ home in Smyth County to see whether there were any victims there. He said that deputies entered the home through an open back door and that the search lasted five to 15 minutes.

Andis acknowledged that the deputies did not obtain a warrant to search the residence and found no victims on the property.

Washington County deputies did not remove anything from Edwards’ house but took department-issued equipment that was sitting on the back porch, Andis said. Andis said no one was in the house at the time.

“We went in under emergency exigent circumstances hopefully to prevent any further acts against law enforcement and let them know what was going on and what we found here,” he said, adding that he could not say exactly what time deputies searched the home.

Railsback, the Riverside spokesperson, has “no reason to believe” that Washington County’s actions were detrimental to Riverside’s investigation, he said Monday. Removing departmental equipment from the home would be “very reasonable and appropriate for them to do,” he said.

Andis confirmed that his deputies did not rope off the home after searching it on the evening of Nov. 25. He could not say why deputies did not secure the home once they knew that its resident had allegedly killed three people and was being pursued by authorities in California.

Andis repeatedly declined to say whether he informed authorities in Smyth County before the search. Smyth County deputies, acting on behalf of Riverside County, executed the Nov. 26 search warrant. The Smyth County commonwealth’s attorney’s office declined to comment.

Edwards portrayed himself as a 17-year-old while communicating with a 15-year-old girl online, according to Riverside police. Last month, he drove across the country to her home in Riverside and killed her mother and grandparents before setting fire to the home and leaving with the girl.

Deputies attempted to intercept Edwards in San Bernardino County. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot from his service weapon after firing at a law enforcement vehicle, a spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said Friday. The teenage girl was physically unharmed.

A Virginia-based legal expert told The Times that the Washington County Sheriff’s Office cannot claim exigent circumstances because Edwards’ home is not in its jurisdiction.

“It just sounds like it’s the justification they’re giving, but if their law enforcement officer is in Washington County, then that’s the bounds of their authority,” said Yancey Ellis, a partner in Carmichael, Ellis & Brock, a criminal defense firm in Alexandria, Va.

“As far as I understand, the residence was in Smyth County, not Washington County, and so if there was some kind of exigency that required searching Smyth County, it seems like Smyth County law enforcement officials would be the ones doing it,” he said. “It’s their jurisdiction.”

The San Bernardino Police Department did not say what time exactly its pursuit of Edwards ended. Washington County’s search took place after dark, according to the video reviewed by The Times.

The 42-second video shows two Washington County deputies next to Edwards’ home. One held what appeared to be a flashlight in one hand and a trash bag in the other. Both walked away from the home.

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