Four slain students, a weeks-long manhunt but no motive - Everything we know about the Idaho murders

As Bryan Kohberger prepares to face trial, Andrea Blanco, Rachel Sharp and Sheila Flynn report on the case in small town Idaho that shocked America

Wednesday 28 February 2024 18:44 GMT
(AP/Monroe County Correctional Facility/Handout)

The murder of four college students rocked the quiet town of Moscow, Idaho, and led to the arrest of prime suspect Bryan Kohberger.

Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin – all students at the University of Idaho – were ambushed in their rooms and stabbed to death with a military-style knife that has yet to be found. Police were called to the gruesome scene at the off-campus residence almost eight hours after the vicious attack.

For weeks, only scant details about the carnage were revealed as the community reeled from the tragedy and grappled with fears of a murderer on the loose. That changed with the December 2022 arrest of Washington State University student Mr Kohberger, whose apartment, office and family home were raided and searched for evidence.

While more information has become public through the release of search warrants and arrest records in recent months, a gag order in the case remains in place and most aspects of the probe and its findings are still a mystery.

A grand jury indicted Mr Kohberger on four counts of first-degree murder and one burglary charge, effectively rerouting the case directly to the state’s felony court level and allowing prosecutors to skip the preliminary hearing process.

A trial was initially set for October 2023 but was postponed indefinitely when Mr Kohberger waived his right to a speedy trial. Then in late December 2023, prosecutors submitted a request for the high-profile murder trial to begin in the summer of 2024.

On 28 February 2024, a hearing is set to take place where a trial date could finally be set.

Here, The Independent takes a deep dive into the developments in the complex case:

How did the stabbings unfold?

Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin were stabbed to death in the young women’s rental home on King Road in Moscow on 13 November 2022. Chapin, Kernodle’s boyfriend, was staying at the residence, which is just a few minutes walk from campus, on the night of the murders.

According to an affidavit for Mr Kohberger’s arrest, the killings are believed to have taken place around 4am.

Among the revelations in the 18-page document is that Mr Kohberger’s DNA was found on a knife sheath that the killer left behind at the crime scene. The tan leather Kabar sheath, which featured the United States Marine Corps symbol, was discovered on Mogen’s bed next to her butchered body.

At the time of the quadruple homicide, the two other roommates, Bethany Funke and Dylan Mortenson, were inside the home, but were left unharmed by the killer. The police report reveals that Ms Mortenson came face to face with the masked killer.

Ethan Chapin, 20, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Kaylee Goncalves, 21 (Instagram)

According to Ms Mortenson’s terrifying account, she had gone to sleep in her bedroom on the second floor of the three-floor home and was woken by what sounded like Goncalves playing with her dog in one of the third-floor bedrooms.

She told investigators she was in her bedroom on the second floor of the home – the same floor where Kernodle and Chapin were killed – and was standing in the doorway as the killer walked right past her. A short time later, Ms Mortenson said that she heard someone believed to be either Goncalves or Kernodle saying, “There’s someone here”.

Minutes later, Ms Morterson. said that she looked out of her bedroom for the first time but did not see anything. She then opened her door for a second time when she heard what she thought was crying coming from Kernodle’s room, the documents state.

At that point, she said she heard a man’s voice saying, “It’s ok, I’m going to help you.”

When she opened her door for a third time minutes later, she said she saw “a figure clad in black clothing and a mask that covered the person’s mouth and nose walking towards her”. As she stood in a “frozen shock phase,” she said the man – who she did not recognise – walked past her and headed toward the back sliding glass door of the home. She then locked herself in her room.

A private security officer sits in a vehicle on Jan. 3, 2023, in front of the house in Moscow, Idaho where four University of Idaho were murdered (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Despite the close encounter, a 911 call wasn’t made until 11.58am – eight hours later. The call, made from one of the surviving roommates’ cellphones – reported an “unconscious individual”. It is unclear if the killer saw her or whether she simply had a lucky escape because he didn’t notice her inside the dark home.

This raises the question around whether or not he planned to kill all four victims or whether some of the victims were treated as collateral damage in the horrific attack. Goncalves and Mogen’s bodies were found in a bedroom on the third floor, while Kernodle and Chapin were found on the second floor of the home.

The affidavit reveals no details about what connection – if any – Mr Kohberger had to his alleged victims.

Mr Kohberger, a criminal justice PhD student at Washington State University, lived just 15 minutes from the victims over the Idaho-Washington border in Pullman, having moved there to begin the academic programme in August 2022.

Who are the victims?

Goncalves and Mogen, both 21, were seniors at the University of Idaho and were expected to graduate this year.

At a vigil weeks after the murders, Goncalves’ father Mr Goncalves told how the two “absolutely beautiful” young women first met in sixth grade and became inseparable.

“They just found each other and every day they did homework together, they came to our house together, they shared everything,” he said at the time. “Then they started looking at colleges, they came here together. They eventually get into the same apartment together.

“And in the end, they died together, in the same room, in the same bed.”

Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves pictured together before their murders (Instagram)

Kernodle and Chapin were juniors at the college and had begun dating months before their deaths. The couple of 20-year-olds is believed to have been awake at the time the stabbings were carried out.

Six months after the stabbings, the families of the slain students accepted posthumous awards for their achievements.

Mogen and Goncalves’ relatives walked across the stage for their degrees in an emotional ceremony on 13 May. Kernodle’s family also accepted her certificate in marketing at a separate ceremony while Chapin’s award in sports, recreation and management was mailed to his parents.

Kernodle’s family accepted her certificate in marketing at a private ceremony last week while Chapin’s award in sports, recreation and management will be mailed to his parents this week.

Ethan Chapin and Xana Kernodle (Jazzmin Kernodle)

Who is Bryan Kohberger?

At the time of the murders, Mr Kohberger was studying for his PhD and working as a teaching assistant in criminal justice at WSU.

Prior to this, Mr Kohberger studied criminology at DeSales University first as an undergraduate and then finishing his graduate studies in June 2022.

According to online school records, Mr Kohberger received an associate arts degree in 2018 from Northampton Community College in Albrightsville and received a masters degree in criminal justice this year from DeSales University.

Bryan Kohberger is seen in court

While studying at DeSales, he studied under renowned forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland who interviewed the BTK serial killer and co-wrote the book Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer with him.

He was working part-time as a security guard until August 2021 at Pleasant Valley School District, where his mother was listed as a paraprofessional.

The alleged murderer carried out a research project “to understand how emotions and psychological traits influence decision-making when committing a crime”.

Mr Kohberger reached out to potential participants on Reddit, with the chilling survey resurfacing after his arrest.

“In particular, this study seeks to understand the story behind your most recent criminal offense, with an emphasis on your thoughts and feelings throughout your experience,” the post said.

His fascination appears to have continued around the time of the murders when he applied for an internship with the local police department.

The affidavit revealed that he applied for an internship in the fall of 2022 with the Pullman Police Department and wrote in an essay how he had an interest “in assisting rural law enforcement agencies with how to better collect and analyze technological data in public safety operations”.

What the unsealed records reveal

After weeks of no updates on the investigation, law enforcement in Idaho and Pennsylvania announced Mr Kohberger’s arrest on 30 December 2022. A search warrant was executed at Mr Kohberger’s apartment in Pullman, Washington, the same day he was arrested at his parents’ home in Pennsylvania.

A record of evidence recovered during the apartment search revealed the seizure of 15 items including hairs, receipts, a computer tower, a disposable glove and items with peculiar stains.

In the search warrant record, investigators list several items with stains, including cuttings of a mattress cover, a “reddish/brown” stain on an uncovered pillow and a “collection of dark red spot”. Dr Monte Miller, a former crime scene investigator and forensic expert, and former FBI agent Jennifer Coffindaffer told The Independent back in January that investigators most likely believed those items had blood stains.

List of items seized adt authorities served a search warrat at Bryan Kohberger’s home (Pennsylvania Courts )

“A reddish or brown stain is a euphemism for, ‘We found something that looks like blood,’” Dr Miller said at the time. “It might be blood from the victims, might be his blood. They don’t know until they test it, but they’ll be able to get DNA if it is blood. We don’t know what the stains in the cover sheets look like, but again they’re looking for any kind of DNA, evidence that might have come from the crime scene.”

Ms Coffindaffer added: “They don’t call it blood, but it’s definitely inferred that it was blood.”

Court documents, released by Washington authorities on 4 May showed that multiple items taken from Mr Kohberger’s apartment in Pullman had been tested for the presence of blood. While most items came back negative, two unspecified items were positive.

Bryan Kohberger is seen in his mugshot (Monroe County Correctional Facility)

Another item included on the list of seizures was a “possible animal hair strand”. While Mr Kohberger is not believed to have a pet, one of the victims he is accused of killing, Goncalves, had a dog that was at home at the time of the murders and was later found by police responding to the scene.

“The possible animal hair they’ll try to connect that to the dog left at the scene,” according to Dr Miller. “If there’s a root on that, if there is any skin on that hair, they could do a DNA test with that dog. If it’s just a hair that’s been shed and there is no skin, they would still be able to do a microscopical comparison and exclude most dogs but they wouldn’t be able to connect it necessarily to that dog.”

Mr Kohberger was also linked to the crime through cellphone records and his white Hyundai Elantra, a similar model of the car seen near the murder home around the time of the murders. Mr Kohberger changed the license plates on his Hyundai Elantra just days after the murders.

The suspect’s car had Pennsylvania plates when it was pulled over by police in Moscow, in August 2022, according to a citation from the Latah County Sheriff’s Office. A review of documents on CarFax by Newsweek showed that Mr Kohberger changed the registration from Pennsylvania to Washington on 18 November, five days after four students were found stabbed to death in a Moscow home.

What we don’t know

No murder weapon has been found, police said before the gag order was issued following Mr Kohberger’s arrest.

It is not known if the killer personally knew one or more of the victims and whether the attack was carried out in a fit of jealousy or rage. No motive is known.

Authorities have refused to reveal who made the 911 call and will not release the audio. It is unclear what the roommates and “other friends” discussed in the call and what led them to describe a victim as merely “unconscious”.

Investigators have not revealed whether they believed the killer entered the house before the victims arrived home and hid before striking in their sleep or whether he entered the house after the students returned.

Idaho murder victim’s family slams move to demolish student home

Kohberger indicted by grand jury

A preliminary hearing, where prosecutors had to show a judge that there is enough evidence to justify moving forward with charges of burglary and four counts of murder, was previously scheduled for 26 June.

However, on 16 May, a grand jury indicted Mr Kohberger on the same charges, effectively rerouting the case directly to the state’s felony court level and allowing prosecutors to skip the preliminary hearing process, the Associated Press reported.

According to the indictment, Mr Kohberger is charged with four counts of murder in the first degree and one count of burglary.

Each murder count states that he “did wilfully, unlawfully, deliberately, with premeditation and with malice aforethought, kill and murder” each of the victims by stabbing.

On 22 May, Mr Kohberger refused to enter a plea in Latah County District Court, with his attorney saying that he was “standing silent” on the charges.

The response prompted the judge to enter a “not guilty” plea on Mr Kohberger’s behalf, setting the stage for a trial in which he could potentially face the death penalty.

Kohberger’s parents asked to testify in Pennsylvania death case

It has also emerged that Mr Kohberger’s parents have been ordered to testify before a grand jury in the family’s home state of Pennsylvania in the case of a woman found dead almost a year after her sudden disappearance.

CNN first reported the news on Wednesday (24 May), citing a source who said that the accused killer’s mother has already given evidence to the grand jury while his father will appear to testify on Thursday (25 May). The information can then be shared with Idaho prosecutors.

The investigation is said to be about the disappearance and death of a 45-year-old woman Dana Smithers, reported Eyewitness News.

Smithers vanished without a trace in May 2022 from Monroe County, Pennsylvania – where Mr Kohberger was living at the time. Her remains were found last month in a wooded area.

What comes next?

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the case, citing five “aggravating circumstances” that could warrant the maximum sentence of capital punishment.

The judge had set Mr Kohberger’s trial date for 2 October 2023 following requests by Kohberger’s attorney and the state. But, in a shock move, Mr Kohberger waived his right to a speedy trial, causing the trial to be delayed.

Mr Kohberger then attempted to have cameras banned in court – but Judge John C Judge indicated that would not happen.

In late December 2023, prosecutors then filed a motion requesting that the trial take place in the summer of 2024, arguing that the defence has had enough time to review the evidence in the case.

The state noted that the procedures should preferably unfold while high schools and universities in the area are not in the midst of the academic calendar, given the large media presence expected. In the filing, the state is also asking the judge to set deadlines for the prosecution and the defence to turn over all discovery in the case, to disclose any expert witnesses who will be called to testify at trial, and to file any pretrial motions including motions about the death penalty.

Deadlines for jury questionnaire proposals, jury instructions, proposed witnesses and any other matters are also being sought.

“The State proposes that the Court schedule trial for the summer of 2024, and that the trial dates avoid times when Moscow High School and our area universities are in session,” the filing states.

“As the Court is aware, Moscow High School is directly adjacent to the courthouse premises and already the significantly increased amount of media and other vehicles related to this case has strained available parking as well as safety and convenience for pedestrians, including students.”

No specific date was recommended in the court filing. However, the University of Idaho’s spring commencement – which closes out the semester – is scheduled for 11 May 2024 and Moscow High School’s classes end in the first week of June.

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