The university town of Moscow, Idaho, woke up on Monday with law enforcement everywhere, students scarce and answers still elusive in the frustrating – and terrifying – investigation into the vicious quadruple murder of four college kids more than a week earlier.
The bodies of Ethan Chapin, 20, Xana Kernodle, 20, Kaylee Goncalves, 21, and Madison Mogen, 21, were discovered around noon on Sunday 13 November.
All four had been brutally stabbed and were found on the second and third floors of a house just two blocks from the University of Idaho campus. Chapin, a Sigma Chi fraternity member, was spending the night with his girlfriend, Kernodle; she and the other two victims lived with two more female roommates in the three-storey home on King Road.
Almost everything that happened in that residence after 1.45am last Sunday still remains a mystery – compounded by changing stories from law enforcement and wild social media speculation that has seeped into the local rumour mill.
The investigation has already included 646 tips, 90 interviews and more than 130 members of law enforcement, authorities said Sunday. The FBI alone had 44 people working on the murders, including two members of the Behavioural Analysis Unit – the criminal profiling unit made famous by Criminal Minds.
As the investigation entered its ninth day on Monday, residents remained nervous and had no idea what to think in the 25,000-person town that borders Washington State. The University of Idaho is Moscow’s largest employer. The town is nestled among rolling hills and farms in Latah County, known for its production of wheat and other grains. The Welcome to Moscow sign sits just yards away from the Welcome to Idaho sign.
“We are all bruised,” the priest told congregants on Sunday morning at St Augustine Catholic Church, on the UI campus.
He added that the murders provided “a horrid lesson in how close the community really is – and the impact that a violent crime can have”.
THE VICTIMS’ LAST HOURS
As so many questions continue to swirl, authorities have nailed down the victims’ movements in the hours before their murders. All four, in addition to the other roommates, had been out; the surviving two women arrived home at 1am, police said.
Kaylee and Madison had been partying downtown on Saturday night, spending from 10pm to 1.30am at The Corner Club, a local bar at the edge of Main Street. Then they grabbed pasta at the Grub Truck, a local favourite food truck often parked on Main Street on Saturdays to cater to students leaving bars looking for late-night snacks. Here the two girls were captured on surveillance footage speaking to a hooded young man; he was the focus of much speculation in the immediate aftermath but has been ruled out as a suspect, authorities said.
The girls were then driven home by a “private party” who has also been ruled out, police said. They got home at 1.45am.
Ethan and Xana, meanwhile, had been socialising at the Sigma Chi frat house on Saturday night; it’s located on a hill just across a field and just a few minutes’ walk from the girls’ home on King Road. You can practically see the two houses from each other. A little further up the hill from the frat house on campus is the entrance to UI’s Arboretum & Botanical Garden, a 1.4-mile loop and scenic walking spot.
The young couple also arrived back at King Road at about 1.45am, police said.
Madison and Kaylee made several calls after getting home, police said; according to Kaylee’s sister, the calls were to her ex-boyfriend who shared a dog with the victim. The Goncalves family has repeatedly said they stand by her former boyfriend and do not believe he is in any way involved in the crime.
THE 911 CALL
A 911 call reporting an unconscious person came in at 11.58am on Sunday, and it was only when police responded that the four victims were found stabbed to death. But the cops were evasive for a full week about the call, throwing up red flags; they have not only refused to release the transcript but have also refused to confirm who made it.
Why? The secrecy around the call has been weird from the start.
At a 3pm press conference on Sunday, Moscow Police Chief James Fry said for the first time that people other than the surviving roommates had been at the home when police initially responded. The call was made from one of the survivors’ phones, but Chief Fry refused to say whether it was or was not one of those women. He did, however, confirm that the caller was not the killer. Reporters were still shouting questions at him as authorities ended the conference and quickly left.
A few hours later, Moscow PD released an update on Facebook.
“The surviving roommates summoned friends to the residence because they believed one of the second-floor victims had passed out and was not waking up,” the post read. “At 11.58am a 911 call requested aid for an unconscious person. The call originated from inside the residence on one of the surviving roommates’ cellphones. Multiple people talked with 911 dispatcher before a Moscow Police officer arrived at the location. “Officers entered the residence and found the four victims on the second and third floors,” police said.
Everyone in the house at the time of the call, including the surviving roommates, are not being considered suspects.
Autopsy findings for the four victims were released on Thursday, ruling the deaths homicides by stabbing.
The coroner confirmed that the four victims were all stabbed multiple times with a large knife – sustaining injuries that caused them to bleed out inside their home.
There was no signs of sexual assault on any of the victims but they were each stabbed a different amount of times and in different places on the body.
Latah County Coroner Cathy Mabbutt told NewsNation that the four victims were all found in their beds, leading officials to believe they were sleeping when the killer struck.
Some of the victims had defensive wounds, she added – without revealing which victims.
Based on his daughter’s injuries, Kernodle’s grieving father told CBS5 he believes the “tough” 20-year-old fought her killer to the very end.
Ms Mabbutt said that it was not possible to determine which victim was attacked first but she estimated that they were all killed “early in the morning, sometime after 2am, but still during the night”.
No murder weapon has been found but police confirmed over the weekend that they have been contacting local businesses to determine if a fixed-blade knife had been recently purchased. A local store owner previously said that officials had been especially interested in sales of a military-style Ka-Bar or “rambo” knife they believe could have been the murder weapon.
Police said they seized the contents of three dumpsters on King Road for evidence, but on Sunday, investigators were seem still searching around the residence. Authorities were zeroing in on two areas of interest and asking homes and businesses nearby to share all outside surveillance video taken between 3am and 6am on 13 November – whether there appears to be motion and content or not.
“Investigators have determined the two areas of interests within the city and have provided maps which are on our Facebook page and on our website,” Roger Lanier, operations captain of Moscow Police Department, said in a press conference on Sunday. “And these are areas that they have canvassed for additional surveillance video and tips and have contacted several residents in the areas.”
The areas include: West Taylor Ave (north boundary), West Palouse River Dr (south boundary), Highway 95 south to the 2700 block of Highway 95 S (east boundary) and Arboretum & Botanical Garden (west boundary).
Relatives, friends and local volunteers on Sunday were combing the grounds of the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens on the University of Idaho campus in a search for “anything that looks like a clue,” one searcher told The Independent.
The grassroots efforts were organized by Sheldon Kernodle, a cousin of victim Xana Kernodle. At least a dozen people on Sunday morning, wearing name tags, were conducting something akin to a grid search near the campus entrance to the gardens, on a hill just a stone’s throw from the scene of the crime.
Stepping carefully, shaking trees and brush and even crawling on their bellies, the volunteers were looking for “just whatever we can find,” said another man who declined to speak on record. Others joining in were passing out flyers and taping them to lamposts, businesses and anything they could find in Moscow but refused to speak to The Independent.
Mr Kernodle did not return messages left by The Independent. Volunteers who gathered in a campus parking lot, wrapped up in coats and blankets in the Idaho cold, were guarding a stock of provisions such as bottled water for searchers but bristled when approached by The Independent and said they had no interest in speaking to the media.
When Mr Kernodle announced the search on social media before Sunday, he said the family “will continue to have trust in the Moscow Police Department and by no means want to impede or interfere with the investigation”.
WHAT FAMILIES HAVE SAID
Grieving family members of the victims have also grown frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation – with their loved ones’ killer or killers still at large more than one week on.
Last week, Goncalves’s sister Aubrie Goncalves issued an impassioned plea on her Instagram page, warning students in the small town of Moscow, Idaho, that they are not safe while her sibling’s “sicko” killer remains at large.
“To the students of the University of Idaho that are still staying around campus, leave,” she wrote.
“Your grades are severely less important than your lives. I wish all the students of U of I safety and peace. You guys are not safe until this sicko is found.
“If the person who did this is capable of killing four innocent people, they are capable of killing more. The last thing I want is to have another family experience what I, and my family, is experiencing now.”
Goncalves’s parents Steve and Kristi Goncalves told Fox News at the weekend that the killer had left the crime scene a “mess” which had led to delays in the investigation.
“They’re telling us that there’s so much evidence that it’s going to take a lot of time to process it all,” Mr Goncalves told the network. “This wasn’t like a pinpoint crime. This person was sloppy.”
The families have also condemned the online speculation swirling around the case, as gaps in official information has helped give power to conspiracies.
THE (LACK OF) SUSPECTS
Authorities on Monday still had no announced suspects and no one in custody; on Sunday, they said they couldn’t say if the killer might still be in town. They’ve been vague and contradictory from the start about whether or not locals should be scared.
Initially, the Moscow mayor said the murders had been a “crime of passion:” Where did that come from? Both he and police also told the public there was no threat – then backtracked days later.
As of Sunday, people were still nervous. Throughout the weekend, The Independent saw only a handful of people walking alone either in town or on campus.
Police and the university said they’d increased security, but there wasn’t a very visible presence around, aside from within the immediate vicinity of the crime scene and the announced search areas. While many students had already cleared out of town, many who remained were scared.
One student, working at a chain restaurant just down the road from campus, told The Independent that, before the murders, she’d think nothing of walking miles through the area, even at night. Now, she said, she was afraid to walk alone to her car.
Most of her out-of-town classmates had already left – and many, she said, were not coming back.