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'Time is of the essence': Idaho student slayings dogged by mixed messaging from police

Mixed messaging and unclear answers from police would have given whoever fatally stabbed four students in the Idaho college town of Moscow more time to flee, law enforcement experts say.

As the investigation entered its second week without a suspect and police expanded a dragnet around the students’ off-campus home, Moscow Police Chief James Fry told reporters Sunday that “I can’t say if the person’s here; I can’t say what community the person’s in.”

That uncertainty — with the killer or killers still at large — has fueled a mounting frustration among students at the University of Idaho, the victims’ families and the wider community, and put a focus on the local police’s handling of the investigation into the slayings in the early morning hours of Nov. 13.

“There’s definitely a lot of confusion about the mixed messages,” said Emma Jackson, 18, a freshman who left the campus early ahead of the Thanksgiving break. “I’m frustrated by the lack of information and the change from no threat to a possible threat, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who is wanting more clarity or who is uneasy about returning to school if no suspects are found before the end of the break.”

In the hours after the victims’ bodies were discovered in their private residence about a half-block from the university, Moscow police told the public that while “there is no one in custody,” the department “does not believe there is an ongoing community risk.”

Two days later, police described the slayings as an “isolated, targeted attack” in which an “edged weapon” like a knife was used. No weapon was located, and officials continued to say there was “no imminent threat.”

But that changed the following day: “We cannot say there is no threat to the community,” Fry said at a news conference Nov. 16.

John DeCarlo, a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and a former police chief in Branford, Connecticut, said there is a particular urgency in those initial hours of a homicide investigation. He said informing the public to be vigilant about suspicious activity is key guidance in potentially apprehending the killer or killers, who would otherwise have the opportunity to evade law enforcement.

“The big question remains why, in a multiple homicide, did the police department say that there was no clear threat to the community?” he said. It’s “something that you have to explain. Otherwise, you’re leaving people with a false sense of security.”

Unclear, as well, was when Moscow police asked for assistance from more robust law enforcement agencies.

It was two days after the slayings 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 about when additional law enforcement resources were requested. As many as 20 state police investigators and 15 patrol troopers are now assisting, while the FBI said it dispatched 22 investigators to Moscow, with additional agents on the case.

“We brought in the resources that we brought in to keep our community as safe as we can,” Fry said Sunday.

His insistence followed days of rumors about the victims, including unfounded speculation that their deaths were tied to a “crime of passion.” That initial assurance of no danger to the community led the father of one victim to call out the police.

“The silence further compounds our family’s agony after our son’s murder,” Ethan Chapin’s father, Jim, said in a statement, adding, “I urge officials to speak the truth, share what they know, find the assailant, and protect the greater community.”

Moscow’s police force of 36 officers and personnel covers a largely rural city of almost 26,000 residents, with the population swelling by the thousands when the university is in session. Officers typically deal with noise complaints, domestic disputes and disorderly conduct calls.

Homicides are rare: The last notable ones occurred in 2007 and 2015, in each of those 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 had been dating before taking his own life.

Smaller departments beset by the challenges that a complex crime scene presents typically rely on the experience of larger agencies, said William King, a professor in the criminal justice department at Boise State University.

“They have access to the Idaho State Police, which runs a branch of the crime lab in Coeur d’Alene, not far from Moscow,” he said. “It’s a really good crime lab.”

Smaller departments also don’t generally have a dedicated spokesperson who would be adept at messaging. Getting information out quickly — without jeopardizing an investigation or tipping off the perpetrator — is particularly crucial in a case where no one has been caught, law enforcement experts 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 — was described by a local coroner as one of the most “gruesome” she had ever seen.

What we know about the investigation

At the latest news conference Sunday, police confirmed that all four had been sleeping when they were attacked and that each had been stabbed multiple times, with defensive wounds on some of the victims. Police also denied claims that any of the victims had been tied up or gagged or sexually assaulted, and confirmed that while a 911 call was made from a cellphone of one of two other roommates who were home, they do not believe those roommates were involved.

Police also believe the killings were targeted due to the totality of the circumstances, but have not said what led them to that conclusion, or which victim may have been specifically targeted, or why they decided to walk back their initial comments that there is no threat to the community.

“If you don’t answer certain questions that should be answered, you just give rise to speculation,” said Joseph Giacalone, a retired sergeant with the New York City Police Department and an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Police departments must be upfront with the community about what they know and explain why they can’t divulge all of their information, he added.

“You’re dealing with small departments who aren’t dealing with this stuff on a daily basis,” Giacalone said, “and I’m starting to see a pattern of chiefs getting in trouble for this.”

Families of the victims are taking notice, as well. Members of the Goncalves family have been receiving their own tips and said they are going to police.

“Right now, I’m mad,” Alivea Stevenson, Goncalves’ sister, wrote Sunday on Facebook. “And I know you guys are too but I swear I’ll find them. So rest easy for me, I got this. Send a little sign if you can, I’m taking ALL tips lol.”

The national attention on the case has also led to internet sleuths trying to piece together the victims’ final hours and even highlighting potential suspects, including people who have already been ruled out by investigators.

Police have asked the public not to encourage rumors and, instead, trust in their work.

“We know you want answers,” Idaho State Police Director Kedrick Wills said at Sunday’s news conference. “We want answers, too.”

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