Idaho murders: Investigators worked behind scenes to nab suspect as police faced mounting criticism

ByRay Sanchez, CNN, CNNWire
Sunday, January 8, 2023
Idaho College Murders Updates
Idaho College Murders Updates

MOSCOW, Idaho -- In the weeks after four University of Idaho students were found stabbed to death in a home near campus, police faced mounting criticism from the public as the investigation appeared to be at a standstill.

In fact, court documents show, a team of local and state law enforcement officers, along with a slew of FBI agents, were working meticulously through the holiday season to catch the alleged killer, CNN reported.

Weeks before making an arrest on December 30, investigators began setting their sights on Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old PhD student in criminology at a nearby university who has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of burglary.

"I bristled in the days after the arrest when people questioned whether police had the right man because a PhD candidate in criminal justice would be too smart for this crime," said John Miller, a CNN law enforcement analyst and former New York Police Department deputy commissioner. "You can teach a master's class on how to do a complex criminal investigation based on this case."

'We cannot say there is no threat'

The brutal nature of the November 13 killings set off a wave of fear and anxiety in Moscow, a small college town on the Idaho-Washington border that had not reported a murder in seven years.

Police found the door to the off-campus residence open and the bodies of Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and 20-year-old Ethan Chapin in rooms on the second and third floors. Two other young women were in the three-floor, six-bedroom rental at the time but were not injured, according to police.

SEE ALSO | Idaho murders: Arrest brings 'sense of relief' to campus before return to classes, provost says

Latah County Coroner Cathy Mabbutt told CNN she saw "lots of blood on the wall" when she arrived at the scene. She said there were multiple stab wounds on each body, likely from the same weapon. One victim had what appeared to be defensive stab wounds on the hands.

Moscow police initially told the public the attack was targeted and there was no threat to the community. Days later, however, Police Chief Jason Fry backtracked: "We cannot say that there is no threat to the community," he said. Many students began to leave town.

The chorus of criticism grows

Authorities remained tight-lipped, withholding details of the crime and some of the leads they were tracking. For weeks, law enforcement officials said they had not identified a suspect or located the murder weapon.

Jim Chapin, the father of Ethan Chapin, said in a November 16 statement that the lack of information from the university and local police "further compounds our family's agony after our son's murder."

"For Ethan and his three dear friends slain in Moscow, Idaho, and all of our families, I urge officials to speak the truth, share what they know, find the assailant, and protect the greater community," the statement said.

As frustrations continued to mount, pundits and relatives of the victims became even more critical of the apparent lack of progress in the case.

RELATED | Idaho murders: Xana Kernodle likely awake when killed, court records reveal

"It takes a while to put together and piece together that whole timeline of events and the picture of really what occurred," Idaho State Police spokesman Aaron Snell said on November 22, nine days after the killings. "A lot of this the public doesn't get to see because it's a criminal investigation. But I guarantee you behind the scenes, there's so much work going on."

One day later, Steve Goncalves, Kaylee's dad, told CNN he was focused on securing justice for his daughter, despite the dearth of information.

"We all want to play a part in helping, and we can't play a part if we don't have any real substantial information to work from," he said.

Asked what he'd heard from local police, Goncalves said, "They're not sharing much with me." He suggested Moscow police might be limited in what they can share.

Local police willing to 'take it on the chin'

One bit of information initially not shared publicly was that a review of surveillance footage from the area around the home brought to investigators' attention a white sedan, later identified as a Hyundai Elantra, according to a probable cause affidavit released Thursday in the case against Kohberger.

By November 25, law enforcement in the area had been notified to be on the lookout for such a vehicle, the affidavit said.

And several days later, officers at nearby Washington State University, where the suspect was a graduate student in the criminal justice program, identified a white Elantra and subsequently found it was registered to Kohberger.

This was just part of the behind-the-scenes work in a complex quadruple homicide investigation where any hint to the public about a suspect or the various leads police are following can cause it to fall apart, according to experts.

READ MORE | Idaho murders suspect Bryan Kohberger cleaned car, was seen wearing surgical gloves, source says

"We don't want to tip off suspects or spook them so that they end up going on the run. We don't want them trying to get rid of evidence or destroy things," said Joe Giacalone, adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired NYPD sergeant who directed the department's homicide school and the Bronx cold case squad.

"There's a lot of people in the public that need to apologize to the police department," Giacalone said. "That Moscow, Idaho, police chief took a beating and he kept on moving ahead."

Miller agreed: "They were willing to take it on the chin, from the public, from the press, from local critics, in order to keep the case clean and keep the investigation going."

Witness account was not revealed until arrest

One crucial clue not shared by police was that one of the two roommates who survived told investigators she saw a masked man dressed in black in the house the morning of the attack, according to the probable cause affidavit.

The roommate, identified in the document as D.M., said she "heard crying" in the house that morning and a male voice say, "It's ok, I'm going to help you." D.M. said she then saw a "figure clad in black clothing and a mask that covered the person's mouth and nose walking towards her," the document said.

"D.M. described the figure as 5' 10" or taller, male, not very muscular, but athletically built with bushy eyebrows," according to the affidavit. "The male walked past D.M. as she stood in a 'frozen shock phase.'"

SEE ALSO | Idaho college murders timeline: From off-campus killings to Bryan Kohberger's court appearance

Kohberger's driver's license information, which was reviewed by investigators in late November, turned out to be consistent with the description provided by the surviving roommate, the affidavit said, noting specifically his height and his "bushy eyebrows."

Armed with driver's license and plate information, investigators were able to obtain phone records that indicated Kohberger's phone was near the victims' residence at least 12 times between June 2022 to the present day, the affidavit said.

Those records also showed that Kohberger's phone was near the crime scene again after the killings, between 9:12 a.m. and 9:21 a.m., the document said.

Multiple agencies came together

"For weeks before the arrest, so called experts, pundits and some in the press criticized the Moscow police for not being up to the task and for not having an arrest," Miller said. "It's not like 'Law & Order,' 'Blue Bloods' or 'CSI.'"

From the morning the murders were discovered, Miller said, the Moscow police knew they needed help and brought in the state police homicide squad and the FBI.

"What the Moscow police had, that the FBI and the state police could never have, was they knew the area," Miller said. "They knew the community and they knew the people and they had a very engaged community. But the FBI brought technical prowess and expertise. And what the state police brought was experience in homicide investigations and a state-of-the-art lab."

RELATED | Key takeaways from court documents in case against Bryan Kohberger and some questions that remain

By mid December the public criticism of the police department continued to grow as few details of the investigation were made public.

But the court documents show that investigators worked through the holidays to build their case, which included DNA found at the scene of the killings and at the Pennsylvania home of Kohberger's family.

"The general public tends to think all of this happens overnight," said retired FBI profiler Mary Ellen O'Toole. "You have a group of investigators from different agencies coming together and working together. It's very challenging."

Affidavit reveals key case details

Investigators learned that Kohberger received a new license plate for his Elantra five days after the killings, the affidavit said, citing records from the Washington State Department of Licensing.

At the scene of the killings, investigators found a tan leather knife sheath on the bed next to one of the victims, the affidavit said. On its button snap, the Idaho State Lab would later find a single source of male DNA.

Late last month, Pennsylvania law enforcement recovered trash from Kohberger's family home in Albrightsville, according to the affidavit. That evidence, too, was sent to the Idaho State Lab.

The DNA in the trash is believed to belong to the biological father of the person whose DNA was found on the sheath, the document said.

On December 29, authorities requested an arrest warrant for Kohberger on four counts of first-degree murder and burglary, according to the affidavit.

READ MORE | Idaho college murders: Roommate saw killer in mask leaving the house, newly released documents say

The next day, a Pennsylvania State Police SWAT team moved in on the Kohberger family home. They broke down the door and broke through windows in what is known as a "dynamic entry" -- a rare tactic used to arrest "high risk" suspects, a law enforcement source told CNN.

Kohberger was booked into the Latah County jail last week after being extradited from Pennsylvania. The affidavit, with many previously unknown details of the case, was released Thursday as the suspect made his first court appearance in Idaho.

Kohberger did not enter a plea and he is due back in court on Thursday. A court order prohibits the prosecution and defense from commenting beyond the public records of the case.

Moscow police "took a lot of criticism and a lot of heat in those seven weeks after the incident," University of Idaho Provost and Executive Vice President Torrey Lawrence told CNN. "And I'm just so thankful that they stayed committed to that case and to sharing only what they could share so that they didn't disrupt the investigation... If they had shared more, we could wonder would Mr. Kohberger have been able to elude them."

The video in the player above is from a previous report.

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