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University of Idaho student killings one year later: Motive keeps mystery alive


University of Idaho student killings one year later: Motive keeps mystery alive

The slaying of four University of Idaho students one year ago stunned the bucolic college town of Moscow, bedeviled its small police force and — because of the nature of the crime and weeks without a named suspect — spawned countless conspiracies from social media sleuths fixated with finding the killer.

The mystery of who fatally stabbed housemates Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen and Xana Kernodle and Kernodle’s boyfriend, Ethan Chapin, was apparently solved nearly seven weeks later with the arrest of a suspect.

But for some sleuthers, even as suspect Bryan Kohberger awaits trial on four counts of first-degree murder, the conversation hasn’t stopped.

“There is still so much we don’t know,” said Deb Aldrich-Bailey, who lives in Ohio and was drawn to the case because she has children in college. “Four innocent college kids just living their best lives were murdered, and for what? It’s the brutality and the shock of it that makes you want to figure out why.”

And so, Aldrich-Bailey logs on daily to the largest Facebook group devoted to the case, with more than 227,700 members. Theories over a motive are also dissected on popular Reddit pages and TikTok accounts where the hashtag #IdahoMurderMystery has more than 207.2 million views.

The “University of Idaho murders” Facebook group is one of nearly a dozen “true crime pages” run by administrators Alina Smith and Kristine Cameron — the others include the disappearance and death of travel vlogger Gabby Petito in 2021 and British girl Madeleine McCann, who went missing in 2007 — but it is by far their most popular. At its height, the group saw 32,000 posts in January, after police arrested Kohberger.

Bryan Kohberger at a hearing in Latah County District Court, in Moscow, Idaho, on Sept. 13. Ted S. Warren / AP file

Even now, Smith said, there are about 2,000 people waiting to be accepted into the private group.

“Kristine didn’t want to do a page at first. She thought, this is a college party gone wrong. Maybe somebody got pissed,” Smith, of Dallas, said. “But I said, ‘No way. There’s going to be so much more to this.'”

Her instincts were right. And in those initial weeks before a suspect was apprehended, the group’s members dug into the details from police statements, news reports and the social media pages of the victims.

Given how large the group had grown, Smith said, people within the Moscow community began sharing insights with her as well, prompting her to forward information to the FBI’s tip line.

“Do we want to solve the case? That’s everybody’s dream,” Smith said. “But our intention was to open up a platform for people to discuss.”

And the questions, she added, have only grown.

A ‘very complex’ case

In the early morning of Nov. 13, 2022, from 4 a.m. to 4:25 a.m., investigators say the four victims — Goncalves and Mogen, both 21, and Kernodle and Chapin, both 20 — were killed.

The three female students lived in a three-story apartment house off campus with two other female roommates, one of whose cellphones was used to call 911 just before noon on Nov. 13 requesting assistance for an “unconscious person.” Authorities at the scene said they discovered the four victims stabbed multiple times with an “edged weapon,” believed to be a large knife. No weapon was immediately found, and the other two roommates were unharmed.

Initially, Moscow police said they did not believe there was an imminent danger to the community, although those at the University of Idaho, where about 11,500 students are enrolled, expressed fear and frustration in a town that hadn’t seen a homicide — much less four — in several years.

Moscow police then had to walk back comments that there was no threat to the largely rural city of almost 26,000 residents.

“We do not have a suspect at this time, and that individual is still out there,” Moscow Police Chief James Fry said at a news conference.

Information from police came in spurts, including that the victims were most likely asleep when they were slain, and some of them had defensive wounds. There was also no sign of sexual assault.

Fry described the investigation as a “very complex and extensive case,” made more complicated because the crime scene was a house where friends would throw parties and people would routinely come and go, theoretically leaving DNA everywhere. Police conducted more than 300 interviews and received 19,000 tips.

The announcement in early December that a car, a white Hyundai Elantra with unknown license plates, may be linked to the scene only ramped up the online conversations among amateur detectives determined to piece together the puzzle.

Then, on Dec. 30, police said they had made an arrest. Kohberger, who turns 29 next week, was a doctoral student at Washington State University at the time of the killings, but was apprehended at his family’s home in northeastern Pennsylvania.

According to an affidavit, Kohberger was linked to the scene through male DNA discovered on a knife sheath left at the apartment house. The sheath was found facedown on a bed next to the bodies of Mogen and Goncalves, and partially under Mogen’s body and a comforter, investigators said.

Genetic genealogy was used to build a profile for a familial source for the DNA, and that eventually led investigators to Kohberger. Police said they also collected garbage from outside the Kohberger family’s home in Pennsylvania and determined that DNA from the trash was a high-probability match for the father of the person whose DNA was found on the knife sheath in Moscow. Then, following Kohberger’s arrest, police said they took a cheek swab from him that confirmed a statistical match.

In addition, investigators said, they tracked Kohberger in the area of the apartment house through his cellphone use and surveillance that picked up a Hyundai Elantra that they believed he was driving.

More coverage of the Idaho slayings

A judge in May entered a not guilty plea on Kohberger’s behalf on the four counts of murder and burglary. His defense attorneys have said they plan to corroborate that he was not at the home where the murders took place through expert witness testimony, but gave a curious response in an alibi-related court filing in August that “he has long had a habit of going for drives alone. Often he would go for drives at night. He did so late on November 12 and into November 13, 2022.”

A trial that was expected to begin in October has been delayed without a new date as the prosecution expects to seek the death penalty, Kohberger’s defense attempts to have the case thrown out and both sides argue over DNA evidence.

Kohberger has not spoken publicly, and a gag order issued in January bars lawyers, police and other officials from making statements in the case. Shortly after his arrest, Kohberger’s family, in a statement, pledged to “let the legal process unfold, and as a family, we will love and support our son and brother.”

Unanswered questions

Once a suspect was identified, internet snoops went to work trying to track down any connection between Kohberger and the victims, as police first said they believed it was a “targeted attack.”

Prosecutors have not said how Kohberger would have known the victims, although he was studying for his Ph.D. and living in Pullman, Washington, about 10 miles west of the Idaho border and Moscow.

Kohberger’s studies in criminology, including an apparent research project on people who commit crimes, drew fascination from online sleuths and even celebrity authors who questioned whether a motive was as simple as attempting to commit the “perfect crime.”

Goncalves’ parents, Steve and Kristi, have said that in the moments after learning of Kohberger’s identity, they found an Instagram account that they believe belonged to him and that had been following their daughter and Mogen. The account has since been removed, and NBC News has not verified such a connection.

The Goncalves’ told NBC News last week that they are supportive of law enforcement shoring up evidence, including the FBI returning to the apartment house to help recreate a model for the trial.

A year after the slayings, “you just miss them, and the longer they’re gone, the more you miss them and the more you realize how badly you really have been robbed,” Kristi Goncalves said.

But those following the case since the beginning say the families deserve more answers, including knowing exactly what occurred and why.

Jennifer Coffindaffer, who worked 25 years as an FBI agent and investigated violent crimes, said questions surround what happened to the large knife used in the attacks and to the clothing the killer wore during such a violent act, presumably leaving other DNA evidence beyond what was retrieved on the knife sheath.

Kristin Noll-Marsh, another member of the “Idaho murders” Facebook group, said there has been much speculation over the actions of one of the surviving roommates who later told investigators that she nearly came face-to-face with a masked man who was leaving the house that night, causing her to go into a “frozen shock phase.”

The court affidavit describing the encounter only tells part of the narrative, Noll-Marsh said, and with people online “throwing around baseless speculation and calling it ‘theory,'” she is among the sleuthers who try to debunk rumors.

On Monday, Smith’s “Idaho murders” Facebook page was filled with tributes to Goncalves, Mogen, Kernodle and Chapin.

A vigil is planned at the University of Idaho in their honor, and the school is encouraging the community to turn on their porch lights in solidarity.

“This is all about the victims,” Smith said. “For some people, they think this is a little mystery. It’s fun to solve. But I think about the families and how they’ll have to sit at the Thanksgiving Day table again without their loved ones.”

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