A month later, investigators and experts agree UI homicide case is far from cold
Sun., Dec. 11, 2022
A month after four University of Idaho students were slain by an unknown assailant, the community remains terrified and the victims’ families are frustrated.
While police may not have a suspect or the knife used in the killing, they say the case is far from going cold.
“The leads and tips are still very high-quality. They’re helping us,” said Aaron Snell, Idaho State Patrol communications director and public information officer on the homicides. “The community has been exceptionally responsive to our request for information.”
Police continue to fill in what happened in the days prior to and after Nov. 13, when Ethan Chapin, Xana Kernodle, Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves were killed at the girls’ off-campus home.
Investigators have hundreds of pieces of evidence, interviews and thousands of tips.
All that work hasn’t netted a dramatic break in the case, and the Goncalves family, which has been the most vocal on the investigation, has shared doubts about detectives and told news outlets it plans to hire a private investigator. Steve Goncalves, Kaylee’s father, said multiple times he’s worried the case will lose attention and resources if the killer isn’t caught soon.
“I don’t know that having a case that’s four weeks old is a long time. It is obviously for the family and the community, no doubt about that. There’s fear and desire for this case to be solved in the community,” Snell said. “But as far as, like, a homicide, a case of this magnitude, I don’t know that four weeks is a ‘long time’ for a case that’s this complex.”
Experts agree that time isn’t the biggest factor when it comes to solving homicides. Data from the Trace, analyzed by the New York Times, indicates that the more resources and witnesses in a case, the more likely it is to be solved.
Television shows like “The First 48” have long surmised that the chances of a homicide being solved are cut in half if they don’t have a lead within the first 48 hours. But according to John Skaggs, a retired Los Angeles Police Department detective who supervised more than 200 homicide investigations, that’s not true – at least in his experience.
Other factors, such as the number of investigators on the case, the experience of the investigators, the circumstances of the case and the number of witnesses play a far bigger role, Skaggs told The Spokesman-Review.
“Four weeks does not alarm me,” he said.
In the Moscow case, the delay in the killings being reported likely had a “huge” negative impact on the investigation, Skaggs said.
Moscow police Chief James Fry said the attacks occurred in the early morning hours of Nov. 13, but the deaths weren’t reported until about noon.
“The first thing I ask on any murder is, who’s handing it and what’s their experience?” Skaggs said.
Moscow hasn’t had a homicide in seven years. While Snell said the department stays up to date on the latest training and best practices, he declined to say who the lead detective is on the case.
“Every agency does good on the easy murder like domestic violence or the two drunk guys in the backyard who get (mad) at each other,” Skaggs said.
In most rural areas, where the state police are likely to help with homicide investigations, there are “very few cases where they don’t have a suspect right away,” Skaggs said.
That leaves both local and state police likely with little experience in “whodunits” like this, he said. While the FBI is assisting on the case, it also doesn’t specialize in homicides, he added.
A quadruple homicide like this is rare, Skaggs said.
Melanie-Angela Neuilly, chair of the criminal justice and criminology department at Washington State University, agreed.
“When we’re looking at statistics, this type of event is definitely a more rare event,” Neuilly said.
While criminologists aggregate crime and investigative data to draw conclusions, it can be hard to reapply those in an investigative sense.
“The use of sharp objects tends to be correlated with the offenders knowing their victims,” Neuilly said. “And having a closer relationship with their victims than (using) a gun, for instance.”
Like homicides overall, most stabbings are committed by men, Neuilly said.
This case is already rare and an outlier, however, meaning investigators can take these norms into consideration, but they won’t necessarily bear out in this case.
“Ultimately, they’re left to figure it out in the trenches,” Neuilly said of investigators.
Investigators have released little information about the homicides or the investigation since the week of the killings.
“As we have information, we are trying to get it to the public,” Snell said. “I think part of the frustration within the communities and the families … is ‘a lack of information coming from the police department.’ The thing that people have to be cognitive of is that this is a criminal investigation, and so the information that we have, we can’t provide it all to the public.”
Protecting the integrity of the future court case and reducing bias in the jury pool are key to a successful prosecution, Snell said.
The Goncalves family has been the most outspoken of the victims’ families, with Steve Goncalves releasing additional information about his daughter’s death, such as that Kaylee Goncalves and Mogen were killed in the same bed.
Investigators declined to confirm that information and have continued to say they are the only source of official information on the case.
Detectives have not released a specific timeframe for the homicides. They would not answer questions about which victims were found where, specific injuries or whether the bodies were moved after death.
Snell said the killer or killers’ point of entry had not been determined as of Wednesday afternoon.
Speculation online about the case continues to be a problem, Snell said.
When people hear information that sounds plausible but in reality isn’t accurate, it can distort their memories of things they witnessed, Snell said.
“We truly want the accurate version of what they remember and what they saw,” he said.
Investigators continue to say the attack was targeted.
“We remain consistent that we do believe that it was targeted, but we have not determined yet whether it was the location or the individuals inside,” Snell said.
Snell declined to answer questions about the surviving roommates, who were home at the time of the attack.
“They continue to be cooperative with this investigation,” Snell said.
Investigators do not believe the roommates were involved.
There were more than 113 pieces of evidence collected from the house, which neighbors described to the Idaho Statesman as the site of frequent parties and gatherings.
The large amount of evidence “does show that this house wasn’t just a sterile environment, that there are many factors that have to be taken into consideration as we continue to investigate,” Snell said.
Skaggs said the number of people in and out of the house could make the suspect pool larger.
“That could make things tougher,” Skaggs said. “Plus, you have 30 people leaving fingerprints, body fluids and everything else around the house.”
While Skaggs said he understands the lack of information is frustrating to the public, the investigators have to protect their case.
“They definitely have more than what you and I know,” Skaggs said. “They could know who their suspect is and they’re just trying to clean things up. The only thing worse than not catching a bad guy is catching the wrong guy.”
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