It has been more than 50 days since four students at the University of Idaho were found fatally stabbed inside a house. Two of the victims, Ethan Chapin and Xana Kernodle, were 20 years old; the other two, Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves, were 21. For weeks, bits of information surfaced piecemeal; two of the victims had gone to a bar, then to a food truck, prior to their deaths. Investigators said they believed the attack had been targeted, but were unable to say whether “the target was the residence or its occupants.”
For weeks, the public scratched their heads. Reddit threads sprouted. On December 29, police in Moscow, Idaho, said they were still working through “more than 9,025 emailed tips, 4,575 phone tips,” and “6,050 digital media submissions,” and that they had conducted “over 300 interviews.”
The next day, however, saw an explosive update in the case: investigators announced they had arrested a suspect, Bryan Christopher Kohberger, in Pennsylvania, on a warrant for the murders. Kohberger, 28, is a graduate student at Washington State University, close to the state line between Washington and Idaho. The case has been making its way through the legal system in the days since his arrest. As of 31 December, Kohberger was “being held without bond in Pennsylvania” and planning to waive a hearing for his extradition to Idaho, where he will also be held without bond, The Associated Press reported.
Kohberger’s defense attorney, chief public defender Jason LaBar, said in a statement: “Mr Kohberger has been accused of very serious crimes, but the American justice system cloaks him in a veil of innocence. He should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise – not tried in the court of public opinion.”
Police, meanwhile, are trying to gather as much information as they can about the man they have described as their main suspect. Investigators opened a tip line and told The AP they received “400 phone calls within the first hour after the press conference [during which they announced the arrest], which is great.” They want to find out “who he is, his history, how we got to this event, why this event occurred,” Moscow Police Department Captain Anthony Dahlinger told the news agency.
Some reported elements of Kohberger’s life filtered to news coverage. Kohberger was studying for a PhD in criminology. He seemed “super awkward” and like he was “always looking for a way to fit in”, a former classmate told The AP. About seven months ago, he had apparently shared a survey to Reddit, seeking to ask people who have committed crimes about their “thoughts and feelings throughout the experience.”
In the aftermath of a shocking, violent crime, the hunger for answers is inevitable, and understandable. It’s tempting to read into every reported piece of information about Kohberger as if they came from tea leaves. But there is so much we don’t know, much less understand. Authorities have not discussed a possible motive. As I type this, the main suspect has yet to appear in court. This isn’t to say that answers won’t come – they very well might, especially if the case heads to trial. And this isn’t an indictment on the information that has been reported so far. Of course people want to know everything there is about the case. Of course journalists are chasing every lead and speaking to every person who might have insight to share.
But as I read into the case, I have to remind myself to be wary of tunnel vision. I think of all the criminology students who didn’t end up as suspects in a murder investigation. I think of all the people who documented their curiosity about crime, without ever being accused of committing one. I think of the ways hindsight impacts our judgment and can lead us to assign meaning to things that seemed random just moments prior.
And most of all, I think back to the four victims – Ethan Chapin, Xana Kernodle, Madison Mogen, and Kaylee Goncalves. Ethan, a triplet, spent his last day with his siblings, his mother told The Associated Press after his death. During her high school graduation, Xana Kernodle had “decorated her mortarboard with flower and butterfly cut-outs and the words, ‘For The Lives That I Will Change.’” Kaylee Goncalves “was social, quirky, contagious and a little bit of a goofball”, according to her obituary, and “was a hard worker, always having a full time job on top of her studies even in high school.” Madison Mogen “was known for her ability to make others smile and laugh with her offbeat and hilarious sense of humor,” according to her own obituary.
These are the facts I hold on to, and the facts I hope won’t be eclipsed by the latest wave of headlines.