It’s been three weeks since four students at the University of Idaho were fatally stabbed in their sleep but in the time since the brutal slayings, it seems more questions have risen than answers.
The tragic case in Moscow, Idaho has cast a spotlight on the small college town of about 26,000 people. The town has been swarmed by local, state and federal officers as well as the national media as questions swirl about who could be responsible for the Nov. 13 slayings, the location of the murder weapon and why the investigation appears at a standstill. Crime experts think those questions have been compounded by contradictory information released by authorities.
“This is a very real, unusual crime and an investigation like this takes time,” said John Delatorre, a forensic and disaster psychologist. “This could go on for weeks, months, maybe even longer.”
Add in that local police, up until the stabbings, hasn’t had a reported homicide in about five years, and may not have been prepared for such a mass tragedy, Delatorre said.
However, fear and uncertainty continue to surround the deaths of Ethan Chapin, 20, Madison Mogen, 21, Kaylee Goncalves, 21, and Xana Kernodle, 20, especially after authorities released conflicting information on whether the attack was isolated and if there was any ongoing threat to the community.
Confusing, conflicting comments by Idaho authorities in student deaths
Authorities initially said the stabbings were an “isolated targeted attack,” without offering specifics why and that there was “no imminent threat” to the public.
Moscow Police Chief James Fry backtracked that declaration on Nov. 16. “We cannot say there’s no threat to the community and as we have stated, please stay vigilant, report any suspicious activity and be aware of your surroundings at all times,” Fry said.
More questions mounted last week after Latah County prosecutor Bill Thompson said during an interview with NewsNation on Tuesday that “investigators believe that whoever is responsible was specifically looking at this particular residence.”
The following day, Moscow police walked back Thompson’s comments slightly, saying there had been a “miscommunication,” with the lead prosecutor and that investigators were still seeking a motive.
“We have spoken with the Latah County Prosecutor’s Office and identified this was a miscommunication,” Moscow police said in a press release.
“Detectives do not currently know if the residence or any occupants were specifically targeted but continue to investigate,” police said. “At this time, there is no change or new information in this case, and references otherwise would be inaccurate.”
The back-and-forth came before hundreds of students and residents attended an emotional vigil Wednesday. Many held electric candles and lights from their mobile phones in remembrance of the slain students.
“We are not accustomed to this kind of violence in our town or at our university,” said Scott Green, University of Idaho president, at the vigil, adding that he also “recognizes the enormity of the task ahead for dozens of law enforcement experts.”
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Public perception, lack of information in Idaho stabbings
The public’s perception over the lack of meaningful information released by law enforcement has seemingly only intensified questions, including from loved ones of the victims.
There have been questions about how many people were exactly in the house at the time of the stabbings: Six supposedly, the three female roommates and a boyfriend who were killed, and two roommates who survived; Now police said there may be another female roommate who wasn’t at home at the time of the fatal stabbings.
“Detectives are aware of a sixth person listed on the lease at the residence. They have spoken to this individual and confirmed they moved out prior to the start of the school year and was not present at the time of the incident. Detectives do not believe this person has any involvement in the murders.” Moscow police said in a press release Friday.
Police have had to also repeatedly fielded questions over where the victims were when they were killed; Goncalves and Mogen were in one room. “In the end, they died together, in the same room, in the same bed.” according to Steve Goncalves, Kaylee’s father, and Chapin was with his girlfriend, Kernodle. Authorities also dealt with questions over reporting that one of the victims made a number of phone calls shortly before the attack.
“There is speculation, without factual backing, stoking community fears and spreading false facts,” Moscow police have said.
In an interview with Fox News, Goncalves said Thursday his family remains frustrated by the authorities’ lack of transparency, their mixed messages and continuous confusion that has them pleading to the public for answers.
“I don’t like it one bit,” Goncalves said. “I know these statements take hours and multiple individuals to review. It’s not like this was something said on the side of the street within the first five hours of the case.
“These guys are professionals. They sat in a room and this is what they came out with?” Goncalves continued. “They keep coming out with statements that create more questions than they answer. And then that creates a pressure. “
Delatorre thinks that the authorities haven’t gotten the victims’ families or the public to a place where they can practice patience.
“I don’t think they are doing that great of a job managing their dissemination of information,” Delatorre said.
‘I think they are creating panic’
That enormity could be a lot for authorities, especially when the public’s questions aren’t being answered, said Carole Lieberman, a forensic psychiatrist.
“I think a lot of people are feeling frustrated with how they are handling this,” said Lieberman about law enforcement’s perceived lack of information. “From the very beginning, they have been giving different stories. They say something and then walk it back. That’s not acceptable.”
Lieberman said while it’s “not unreasonable” authorities don’t have a suspect yet, their actions can make it seem they are either covering something up or don’t have anything at all.
“They have said they don’t want to ‘create panic.’ Well, by giving contradictory bits of information, I think they are creating panic and exhibiting that they don’t have a handle on it,” Lieberman said.
That’s not necessarily true, said Alison Sullivan, a retired police detective in suburban Hartford, Conn. Sullivan said law enforcement has to do their best to protect any information and evidence that could be key to their investigation.
“They understand the need to balance the public’s interest, especially as terrifying as four people murdered in their home, but they desperately need to protect the integrity and effectiveness of their investigation,” said Sullivan, who spent 20 years handling cases ranging from sex crimes to homicides for the Wethersfield (Conn.) Police.
Sullivan said she understands the public’s frustration as local, state and federal authorities in Idaho have said they have gathered more than 100 pieces of evidence, 4,000 photos, 1,000 tips and talked to 150 people and counting.
There could be an expectation that authorities would tell the public something more substantive, Sullivan said. But if authorities say one thing that could possibly throw their case off, it could be “counterproductive” to the investigation, Sullivan continued.
“Sometimes you have to keep a tight lip about what you know,” Sullivan said. “And as an investigator, you definitely don’t want to show your cards.”
Now, authorities are contending with a killer who seemingly had one thing on their mind, Delatorre said.
“They went in there specifically to stab people and then leave,” Delatorre said. “That kind of individual is well thought out, well organized, and tried not to make a mistake. An organized kind of killer who was well-rehearsed mentally and physically and thought about it for a very long time before engaging in it.”
“My wife’s biggest fear, part of the reason we didn’t have a funeral, is because she couldn’t be guaranteed that that monster was going to not be there,” Goncalves said.
“I haven’t earned the ability to grieve the way that I want,” Goncalves added. “I want to be able to have justice first.”
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DNA, evidence at crime scene will be key
The gruesome scene and any possible DNA captured from the killer could be key evidence, experts say — especially since there were multiple victims.
“From my investigative experience, the ability for a suspect to enter a dwelling and leave without leaving substantial trace evidence is very unlikely,” Sullivan said. “In this case, you’re literally quadrupling the chances that the suspect left some type of trace evidence.”
Lieberman said based on her previous experience, it’s likely the suspect is a man.
“For a person to make that many stab wounds to four people in a relatively short amount of time, they have to be physically strong,” Lieberman said.
Jeffrey Kernodle, the father of Xana Kernodle, told a Phoenix TV station that his daughter likely fought with her killer, sharing a similar description made by the coroner.
Contributing, Kayla Jimenez and Josie Goodrich USA TODAY