Mixed messages and unclear responses from police have given the man who fatally stabbed four college students in Moscow’s Idaho college town more time to flee, law enforcement experts say.
As the investigation entered its second week without a suspect and police spread a net around the students’ off-campus home, Moscow Police Chief James Fry told reporters on Sunday: “I can’t say if the person is there; I can’t say what the community the person is in.”
This uncertainty — with the killer(s) still at large — has fueled growing frustration among University of Idaho students, victims’ families, and the wider community, and underscored the management by local police investigating the murders in the early morning hours of November 13.
“There’s definitely a lot of confusion about the mixed messages,” said Emma Jackson, 18, a freshman who left campus early before the Thanksgiving break. “I’m frustrated with the lack of information and the shift from no threat to a possible threat, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants more clarity or is uncomfortable going back to the school if no suspect is found before the end of the break.”
Within hours of discovering the bodies of the victims in their private residence about half a block from the university, Moscow police told the public that “although there is no one in custody on sight,” the department “does not believe there is an ongoing community risk.”
Two days later, police described the killings as an “isolated and targeted attack” in which a “bladed weapon” such as a knife was used. No weapons were located and officials continued to say there was “no imminent threat”.
But that changed the next day: “We can’t say there’s no threat to the community,” Fry said at a Nov. 16 news conference.
John DeCarlo, a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and a former police chief in Branford, Connecticut, said there was particular urgency in the first hours of a homicide investigation. He said informing the public to be vigilant about suspicious activity is a key part of potentially apprehending the killer(s), who would otherwise have the opportunity to evade law enforcement.
“The big question remains why, in a multiple homicide, did the police department say there was no clear threat to the community?” he said. It’s “something you have to explain. Otherwise, you leave people with a false sense of security.”
It is also unclear when Moscow police sought help from more robust law enforcement agencies.
It was two days after the killings when the department said in a news release that it was “working closely” with the Idaho State Police and other state and federal agencies. Neither Moscow Police nor the State Police returned requests for comment on when additional law enforcement resources were requested. Up to 20 state police investigators and 15 patrol officers are currently assisting, while the FBI said it has dispatched 22 investigators to Moscow, with additional agents on the case.
“We brought the resources that we brought to keep our community as safe as possible,” Fry said Sunday.
His insistence followed days of rumors about the victims, including unfounded speculation that their deaths were linked to a “crime of passion”. This initial assurance of no danger to the community led one victim’s father to call the police.
“The silence further compounds the agony of our family following the murder of our son,” Ethan Chapin’s father, Jim, said in a statement, adding, “I urge those responsible to speak the truth, to share this they know, find the abuser and protect the community as a whole.”
Moscow Police, made up of 36 officers and staff, covers a largely rural city of nearly 26,000 people, with the population increasing by the thousands when the university is in session. Officers typically handle noise complaints, domestic disputes, and disorderly conduct calls.
Homicides are rare: the last notables occurred in 2007 and 2015, in each of these incidents a gunman killed three people.
The last homicide involving the University of Idaho was in 2011, when a professor fatally shot a graduate student he was dating before killing himself.
Small departments facing the challenges of a complex crime scene typically draw on the experience of larger agencies, said William King, a professor in the Boise State University Department of Criminal Justice.
“They have access to the Idaho State Police, which operates a branch of the crime lab in Coeur d’Alene, not far from Moscow,” he said. “It’s a very good crime lab.”
Small departments also usually do not have a dedicated spokesperson who would be adept at messaging. Quickly disseminating information — without jeopardizing an investigation or notifying the perpetrator — is especially crucial in a case where no one has been arrested, law enforcement experts have said.
“Time is of the essence in a homicide investigation,” King said.
The crime scene involving the four victims – friends Madison Mogen, 21; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; and Xana Kernodle, 20; and Chapin, 20, Kernodle’s boyfriend – has been described by a local coroner as one of the most “awful” she has ever seen.
What we know from the investigation
At the latest press conference on Sunday, police confirmed that all four were sleeping when they were attacked and that each had been stabbed multiple times, with defensive wounds on some of the victims. Police also denied allegations that any of the victims had been bound, gagged or sexually assaulted, and confirmed that although a 911 call was made from the cell phone of one of the other two housemates who were at home, they don’t believe those roommates were involved.
Police also believe the killings were targeted due to the totality of the circumstances, but did not say what led them to that conclusion, or which victim might have been specifically targeted, or why they decided to return on their initial comments that there is no threat. to the community.
“If you don’t answer some questions that should be answered, you’re just giving rise to speculation,” said Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York City Police Department sergeant and assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Police departments need to be upfront with the community about what they know and explain why they can’t release all of their information, he added.
“You’re dealing with small departments that don’t deal with these kinds of things on a day-to-day basis,” Giacalone said, “and I’m starting to see a pattern of bosses getting in trouble for that.”
The families of the victims also notice it. The Goncalves family members received their own information and said they were going to the police.
“Right now I’m angry,” Goncalves’ sister Aliea Stevenson wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “And I know you do too, but I swear I’ll find them. So don’t worry, I got it. Send a little sign if you can, I take ANY advice lol.”
The national attention on the case has also led to internet sleuths attempting to piece together the victims’ final hours and even highlighting potential suspects, including people who have already been ruled out by investigators.
Police asked the public not to encourage rumors and instead to trust their work.
“We know you want answers,” Idaho State Police Superintendent Kedrick Wills said at Sunday’s press conference. “We also want answers.”