The eerie online world of the Idaho murders case

Even now Bryan Kohberger is in police custody, the online rumour mill shows no signs of winding down

Rachel Sharp
Sunday 22 January 2023 01:46 GMT
Idaho murders: Key moments from Moscow police press conference

They were killed in a drug deal gone wrong.

It was revenge for bullying another student found dead months earlier.

A disgruntled student blamed them for him being kicked out of a fraternity.

A gang of frat boys decided to carry on a fight that broke out at a party earlier that night.

The list goes on and on. These make up only a handful of the countless rumours and conspiracy theories circulating online in the weeks after four University of Idaho students were found butchered to death in the small college town of Moscow.

But the emerging details appear even worse than the imaginations of online sleuths: a highly intelligent, seemingly high-functioning suspect with an intense interest in the criminal mind allegedly entered the home in the dead of night, dressed all in black and a mask, and stabbed the four victims multiple times each.

The suspect Bryan Kohberger had no known connection to Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin prior to that fateful night and no motive has been revealed. The victims might not have even known he existed.

And yet the affidavit suggests he stalked their home in the lead-up to the attack, after spending years studying criminal justice and how criminals feel while committing their crimes.

Then, that night, he allegedly executed his own crime in a matter of minutes.

Perhaps most chilling, one of two surviving roommates who were unharmed in the attack, came face-to-face with the masked man thought to be the killer as he left the home.

It’s something straight out of a horror movie.

Except this is no movie. It’s real life for the families and friends of the murdered victims, for the two roommates who had a seemingly close call with the violent killer, and for the students and locals of Moscow now left to try to rebuild their lives.

While America has long been fascinated with true crime, the shocking brutality and seeming randomness of the Moscow murders sent the internet sleuth community into overdrive.

Conspiracy theories and rumours have dominated the investigation with thousands of people joining social media groups to discuss their take on what transpired and why.

One particular group on Reddit has now amassed 123,000 members, ranking it in the top 1 percent of all groups on the platform in terms of size. Meanwhile, a Facebook group with users raising their theories about the case has topped 220,000 members.

But are the online sleuths a help or a hindrance?

There’s no doubt that the intentions are well-meaning and that many of the individuals spending countless hours investigating the case from the comfort of their computers had a genuine desire to catch the killer.

Many who took to Reddit or Facebook to share tips about the case told how they had already called in the information to the dedicated police tipline.

But, there’s also no doubt that, throughout the seven-week investigation before Mr Kohberger’s arrest, Moscow Police were forced to spend a considerable amount of time swatting away rumours.

And the rumours weren’t victimless. Several innocent people, many of whom were grieving for their friends, were attacked by baseless accusations that they were responsible for the brutal crime.

“Hoodie guy” who was spotted with Goncalves and Mogen at a food truck hours before their deaths and Goncalves’ former boyfriend both came in the firing line, while some of the victims’ families were targeted with death threats.

The boyfriend of one of the surviving roommates responded to the social media critics head-on, slamming a “sickening” rumour that the couple – and even his own father – were involved in the murders.

Moscow Police ended up compiling a list of individuals who had been shrouded in suspicion and who they had ruled out as potential suspects – a list that the department was forced to keep adding to day by day.

And yet one person who was never on the radar of the army of internet detectives was Bryan Kohberger.

As well as impacting the police investigation, the online sleuths to some extent also impacted the media coverage, which was undeniably shaped by some of the more plausible tips that arose first on the likes of Reddit.

It’s worth noting that there have been cases in the past where internet sleuths did help get answers.

When Gabby Petito’s remains were found after she vanished on a cross-country trip, her mother praised the online community for their involvement. “They are incredible. The sleuths, the internet sleuths, they do a great job. They really do,” she said.

At the very least, there’s no doubt that internet sleuths can amplify a case, reaching someone who may just hold that key piece of information investigators need.

Mr Kohberger is in custody, having denied the allegations against him as he awaits trial. Meanwhile, the online rumour mill around the Idaho murders hasn’t stopped.

Since then, sleuths have honed in on an account that regularly posted in social media group discussions about the case before his arrest – with many believing Mr Kohberger to be the person behind the account.

Others claim to have spotted Mr Kohberger in footage attending the victims’ vigil (the man in the footage has since been revealed to be a different man).

And, despite police saying Mr Kohberger acted alone, the surviving roommate, who states she saw a man believed to be the killer – a 19-year-old who has gone through a traumatic experience – is now facing relentless accusations of being involved.

With interest in the case showing no signs of dying down, it’s clear the online sleuths will continue to build their own investigations - for better or for worse.

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