Hours after police learned a masked man dressed in black had been seen making a getaway after the fatal stabbings of four University of Idaho students, authorities told the public there was no danger to the community.
Local police would later even go so far as to say the killings were an “isolated targeted attack” with “no imminent threat” – without explicitly saying why they’d reached that conclusion.
But new documents released this week revealed bombshell information about the mysterious small-town murder that has gripped the nation. The emerging details suggest that, from day one of the investigation, the Moscow Police Department had reason to believe a killer was on the loose.
So why didn’t the police continuously warn the frightened community?
It was “irresponsible” for Moscow police to tell the public there wasn’t a safety concern, said Michael Alcazar, a retired detective with the New York Police Department and adjunct lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
“One hundred percent there was a threat to the community,” Alcazar said.
But that sentiment isn’t fully shared by other crime experts. While seemingly incomplete and inconsistent information from police left many furious – including public outcry from one victim’s father – it’s part of the rigors that come with a high-profile case, one expert said.
“They’re not going to show their best cards,” Alison Sullivan, a retired police detective in suburban Hartford, Conn., said about the Moscow police’s oft-criticized strategy. “If you show your hands and let the public know you may have a suspect you’re monitoring, then you risk modifying (the suspect’s) behavior and losing them.”
Bryan Kohberger, 28, faces four counts of first-degree murder and one count of burglary in the early morning killings on Nov. 13. Kohberger, a doctoral student in criminology at nearby Washington State University in Pullman, was arrested at his parents’ home in Pennsylvania last week.
As the investigation continues to evolve and a motive remains unknown, here’s a recap of what authorities told the public before Kohberger’s arrest – and what they left out.
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‘No imminent threat to the community’
Police statements on the public’s safety have wavered over the course of the investigation.
The day after the fatal stabbings, Moscow police said there was no “ongoing community risk based on information gathered during the preliminary investigation.” The next day, the department called the incident an “isolated, targeted attack” with “no imminent threat to the community at large.”
“We determined early in the investigation that we do not believe there is an ongoing threat for community members,” the department said in a Nov. 15 press release. “At this time, we have shared every piece of information that we can without compromising the ongoing investigation.”
Yet it’s clear that, soon after the crime, one of the roommates in the rental home told Moscow police she had seen a tall, masked man with “bushy eyebrows” dressed in black flee the house that morning, according to the affidavit of officer Brett Payne, made public on Thursday.
Alcazar said he was shocked to learn police had been made aware of the sighting but declined to alert the public.
“Any time you have a person who killed four people and you haven’t made an identification and an arrest, that’s a threat,” Alcazar said. “I would want to know. Wouldn’t you?”
Even if police had evidence suggesting Kohberger deliberately targeted the victims or their residence, they still should have made the community aware, he said.
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A ‘targeted’ killing
Three days after the attack, Moscow Police Chief James Fry again said investigators believed the incident was targeted. He cautioned, however: “We cannot say there’s no threat to the community.”
“As we have stated, please stay vigilant, report any suspicious activity and be aware of your surroundings at all times,” Fry said.
Asked at the press conference why he believed the attack was targeted, Fry said investigators were using the “totality” of evidence, including what officers were unable to share with the public.
Police use of the word “targeted,” without any additional information about who may have been targeted or why, made many angry, said John Delatorre, a forensic and disaster psychologist and the chair of the Arizona Psychological Association’s Disaster Resource Network.
He noted police in Moscow – a college town of about 26,000 residents near the Idaho-Washington State border – have little experience investigating homicides. The town hasn’t had a reported homicide in at least 5 years.
“I think they held a lot back, and that frustrated the community as their messaging wasn’t clear, and it led to some beliefs, whether fair or unfair, about what they were doing,” Delatorre said.
Deception or good police work?
While Moscow police withheld information, they were not “deceitful,” said Sullivan, who spent 20 years handling cases ranging from sex crimes to homicides for the Wethersfield Police in Connecticut.
“I think that’s good police work, even though it might be unpleasant for the general public and even for the victim’s families because we want as much information as quickly as possible,” Sullivan said.
Others disagreed. Moscow police officers did not outright lie, but they did deceive, Delatorre said.
“While ‘deceitful’ usually has a negative connotation, after reading the affidavit, the reality is there was too much sensitive information that, had it been released earlier, it might have led the suspect to go underground,” Delatorre said.
Police, along with federal and state authorities involved in the probe, became “tight-lipped,” Sullivan said, perhaps in an effort to lull the suspect into thinking he had not been discovered.
Authorities withholding information, while unpopular, is necessary to protect the integrity of a case and maintain “good investigative and standard operating procedure,” Delatorre said.
However, Alcazar questioned whether this strategy was necessary. He wonders: Didn’t the suspect know he’d already been seen by the roommate?
According to the affidavit, the roommate saw a man “walking towards her.” He then “walked past” her as she stood in a “frozen shock.”
Steve Goncalves, the father of stabbing victim Kaylee Goncalves, told CNN on Friday he believes his daughter and the others killed were victims of “stalking” and that the surviving roommate was “petrified.”
“I think she was just scared, very scared,” Steve Goncalves said about the roommate. “It’s not like Hollywood where everyone behaves like people think they would.”
Steve Goncalves, who had been outwardly critical about the lack of public information, told CNN now that while the authorities have not shared anything with him about a possible motive, he’s more confident about their case.
“They’re very careful,” Steve Goncalves said. “I’ve told them, ‘Don’t tell me something that puts me in the situation where I may disclose something that could hurt the case.’”
Police find Kohberger’s car
As days passed and fears in the community peaked, the University of Idaho enhanced security measures.
“Police continue to inform us that they believe this was a targeted attack,” University of Idaho President C. Scott Green said in a Nov. 20 press conference.
Rumors spread, too, and resident calls to police for unusual circumstances and welfare checks surged, the department said.
“We don’t want to put our investigation in jeopardy by releasing what we have,” Moscow Police Captain Roger Lanier said in a Nov. 23 press conference.
At that time, Delatorre and Sullivan both agree that authorities were getting confident and closing in on Kohberger as a prime suspect.
“There’s no way you committed a crime scene of that level and didn’t leave your DNA behind,” Sullivan said. “They were doing surveillance on him and he likely didn’t know it.”
Two days later, Moscow police officers asked law enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for a white Hyundai Elantra in the area, which had been caught on neighborhood surveillance video near the rental home, the affidavit said.
On Nov. 29, a Washington State University officer discovered that such a car was registered to a student at the university: Kohberger.
Another university officer located the vehicle in Pullman that same day.
Police remained mum on the topic, only soliciting the public’s help in identifying the white car more than a week later, on Dec. 7.
‘Miscommunication’ with the county prosecutor raises questions
In late November, Latah County prosecutor Bill Thompson suggested during an interview that investigators believed the person responsible for the crime was “specifically looking at this particular residence.”
However, police promptly walked back Thompson’s statement, saying there had been a “miscommunication.”
“Detectives do not currently know if the residence or any occupants were specifically targeted but continue to investigate,” the department said in a press release.
On Dec. 1, the department clarified it continued to believe the attack was targeted, but that investigators “have not concluded if the target was the residence or if it was the occupants.”
Police surveil, arrest Kohberger
By mid-December, Kohberger had driven the car to Colorado, then to Pennsylvania. the affidavit said.
Investigators gained crucial information after police obtained a search warrant for Kohberger’s phone records on Dec. 23. They discovered the phone had been tracked near the students’ house at least 12 times in the six months before the attack, the affidavit said.
On Dec. 27, Pennsylvania police recovered trash from Kohberger’s family’s residence, and an Idaho state lab linked the DNA from the trash sample to the knife sheath found at the murder scene.
Kohberger was arrested on the evening of Dec. 29, and officials announced there was a suspect in custody the following day.
Alcazar, the John Jay College lecturer, still maintains his stance with the police.
“For the most part they did a good job and kept their cards close to their chest to protect the integrity of the investigation,” Alcazar said. “But they jumped the gun in saying there was no threat to the community.”
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