The mixed messages and unclear responses from police would have given the man who fatally stabbed four students in the college town of Moscow, Idaho, more time to flee, law enforcement experts say.
As the investigation entered its second week without a suspect and police expanded a raid around the students’ off-campus home, Moscow Police Chief James Fry told reporters on Sunday that «I can’t say if the person is here; I can’t tell what.» community in which the person is located.
That uncertainty, with the killer or killers still at large, has fueled growing frustration among University of Idaho students, the families of the victims and the community at large, and has put a spotlight on the handling of the investigation by report from the local police about 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 dropped out of campus before 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 wanting more clarity or apprehensive about going back to school if there are no suspects.» found before the end of the break».
In the hours after the victims’ bodies were discovered at their private residence half a block from the university, Moscow police told the public that while «no one is in custody,» the department «does not believe there is an ongoing risk to the community.»
Two days later, the police described the murders as an «isolated and targeted attack» using a «sharp weapon» such as a knife. No weapon was located and officials went on to say that there was «no imminent threat.»
But that changed the next day: «We can’t say there isn’t a 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 is a particular urgency in those opening hours of a homicide investigation. He said informing the public to be on the lookout for suspicious activity is a key guide to potentially apprehending the killer or killers who might otherwise have an opportunity to evade police.
«The big question remains why, in a multiple homicide, the police department said there was no clear threat to the community.» he said. It’s «something you have to explain. Otherwise, you’re leaving people with a false sense of security.»
It was also unclear when Moscow police turned to stronger law enforcement agencies for help.
It was two days after the killings that the department said in a news release that it was «working closely» with the Idaho State Police and other state and federal agencies. Neither the Moscow police nor the state police returned requests for comment on when additional police resources were requested. Up to 20 state police investigators and 15 patrol officers are now helping, while the FBI said it has sent 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.» That initial assurance that there was no danger to the community led the father of one of the victims to call the police.
“Silence further compounds the agony of our family after the murder of our son,” Ethan Chapin’s father, Jim, said in a statement, adding: “I urge officials to tell the truth, share what they know, find the offender and protect the community at large. .»
Moscow’s police force of 36 officers and staff covers a largely rural city of nearly 26,000, with a population that grows by the thousands when college is in session. Officers typically handle 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 a complex crime scene presents typically rely on the expertise of larger agencies, said William King, a professor in Boise State University’s department of criminal justice.
«They have access to the Idaho State Police, who run 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 often don’t have a dedicated spokesperson who is a messaging expert. Getting information quickly, without jeopardizing an investigation or alerting 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 «ghastly» she had ever seen.
What we know about 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 claims that any of the victims had been bound, gagged or sexually assaulted, confirming that although a 911 call was made from the cell phone of one of the other two roommates at the home, no They think those roommates were involved.
Police also believe the killings were directed due to the totality of the circumstances, but have not said what led them to that conclusion, or which victim specifically may have been targeted, or why they decided to retract their initial comments that there was no threat. to the community
«If you don’t answer certain questions that should be answered, it just leaves room for speculation,» said Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York City Police Department sergeant and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Police departments need to be honest with the community about what they know and explain why they can’t release all their information, he added.
«You’re dealing with small departments that don’t deal with these things on a daily basis,» Giacalone said, «and I’m starting to see a pattern of bosses getting in trouble for this.»
The families of the victims are also taking note. Members of the Goncalves family have been receiving their own advice and said they will go to the police.
«Right now, I’m angry,» Alivea Stevenson, Goncalves’s sister, wrote on Facebook Sunday. «And I know you do too, but I swear I’ll find you. So rest easy, I’ve got it. Send me a little signal if you can, I’m taking ALL the advice hahaha.»
The national attention on the case has also prompted Internet sleuths to try to piece together the last hours of the victims and even highlight possible suspects, including people who have already been ruled out by investigators.
Police have asked the public not to spread rumors and instead trust their work.
«We know you want answers,» Idaho State Police Director Kedrick Wills said at Sunday’s news conference. «We want answers, too.»