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True-crime fans seized on the Idaho killings. Their accusations derailed lives.

Police found the bodies of four University of Idaho students at an off-campus rental home Nov. 13 in Moscow.  (Angela Palermo)
By Marisa Iata Washington Post

Brent Kopacka’s death was hard enough on his loved ones before strangers on the internet started branding him a murderer.

The 36-year-old Purple Heart recipient was shot dead by a SWAT officer in December after an overnight standoff at his Washington state apartment. His longtime best friend, Darin Dunkin, was haunted by the belief that things might have gone differently if Kopacka had gotten the care he needed after suffering a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan.

Then, online sleuths spread baseless claims that Kopacka was somehow involved in the November stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students. Scores of posts on TikTok, Facebook and YouTube tied his name to the crime. The accusations were as improbable as they were devastating: By the time they gained traction online, police had already arrested a suspect who they said acted alone and whose DNA was allegedly on a knife sheath found at the crime scene.

“Now, not only is he dead and I’m never going to see him again, but it’s like all these other people are ruining his legacy,” said Dunkin, 36, of Illinois. “Not only do I have to mourn my friend, but I got to defend him, too.”

Across the internet, true-crime aficionados have become obsessed with all sorts of unsolved mysteries and crimes, poring over victims’ social media pages and analyzing news reports to try to crack cases. The amateur sleuths post their theories in YouTube videos, podcasts and online chats, where some gain large followings who then share the material even more widely.

Sometimes their snooping generates viable tips. In Stockton, California, police credited community members who shared tips on a Facebook group with helping identify a suspected serial killer last year. Online sleuths also provided valuable leads in the case of missing traveler Gabby Petito in 2021 and Jacob Wetterling’s 1989 kidnapping, which was solved decades later.

But in many other cases, reckless theories emerge – shoving unsuspecting people into the national spotlight, tarnishing reputations, and inviting an onslaught of harassment and threats. The accused have few means of fighting back. Suing podcasters and content creators can be costly and typically results in little monetary relief. And social media platforms are widely protected by federal law.

In the Idaho case, the online speculation web included people from neighbors of the victims to someone seen at a food truck the victims visited. Some became so fearful they installed security systems in their homes or carried alarms on their key rings.

Their stories illustrate the unseen toll of the true-crime industry, which is rapidly growing at a time when misinformation remains rampant on social media.

“We’ve reached this critical juncture now where we have to decide, what is the role of these armchair investigators?” said Adam Golub, a professor of American studies at California State University at Fullerton. “Are they entitled to certain information and facts? What are we going to do about this kind of Wild West of speculation?

Collateral damage

On Nov. 13, the University of Idaho community was hit with terrifying news: Four young students had been stabbed to death overnight in the picturesque college city of Moscow.

The killings followed what seemed like an ordinary night out: Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves, both 21, had been at a downtown bar, while Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin, a couple, both 20, had gone to his fraternity house. All four returned to the women’s home near campus in the early morning and were found dead hours later.

The case immediately drew international headlines. Internet sleuths across the country and beyond began devoting hours to trying to determine who killed the students.

About seven weeks after the stabbings, police arrested Bryan Kohberger, 28, a criminology Ph.D. student at Washington State University, located a short drive across the Idaho border. Court filings indicate police obtained DNA evidence, cellphone data, surveillance video and an eyewitness account to build their case.

Many in the true-crime world were unsatisfied. People with day jobs as Realtors, stay-at-home parents and engineers continued prodding. A number became convinced Kohberger had help in the killings or that police had arrested the wrong person, without offering any solid evidence. Some began focusing on Kopacka, who had been shot to death about 9 miles from the crime scene over a month after the homicides.

According to investigators, officers responded to Kopacka’s apartment in Pullman, after getting a report that he had threatened his roommates. He barricaded himself in his room and stayed inside for hours, firing a gun after crisis negotiators arrived. Police said they fired back.

In his obituary, Kopacka’s family attributed his death to the mental toll of his Army service, writing: “Over the course of the past 16 years, Brent fought a courageous battle against PTSD, but in the end he couldn’t break free.” His family did not respond to requests for comment.

Dunkin described Kopacka as funny, generous and caring. They had become fast friends as “metalheads” in middle school. Kopacka enlisted in the military after high school and was proud of his time in the 82nd Airborne Division, Dunkin said. But he had also spoken of being scarred by some of his experiences.

“It sucked because there was nothing I could do to help him,” Dunkin said.

For any number of novice snoops, Kopacka’s death was suspicious. Accusers claimed that because he had allegedly threatened to kill his roommates, the veteran was capable of violence. They obsessed over Kopacka’s Facebook posts before his death – GPS coordinates, a quote about truth – until his alarmed family took down his profile. One online conspiracy theorist went as far as claiming to have found the weapon: a photo of a machete that Dunkin had posted.

Throughout the police investigation, sleuths had homed in on other people, too. One was Rebecca Scofield, a University of Idaho professor accused by an online tarot card reader who claimed to have divined the teacher’s guilt. Scofield filed a defamation lawsuit in response, alleging that her life had been upended by the “false TikToks and false statements.”

Police said Scofield is not a suspect. She did not respond to a request for comment from the Washington Post.

Other people pointed to Annika Klein, a software company employee whose longtime friend was captured in a surveillance video standing near two of the victims at a food truck the night of the killings. Sleuths nicknamed her friend “hoodie guy” and accused him of being the killer – a claim police denied.

Some TikTok users also accused Klein of protecting her friend. Occasionally, Klein posted in true-crime Facebook groups to defend him. A stranger sent a threat in response: “Karma is going to put a noose around your neck.” On another occasion, Klein said, a TikTok user made a video showing photos of the 25-year-old and her family’s home.

For weeks, Klein had trouble sleeping. She closed the curtains at home and posted “no trespassing” signs outside. Her family gave her a surveillance camera system. Police told Klein and her family to lay low.

“I think a big factor of it is people don’t realize that these are real lives,” she said. “It’s a video that they’re sharing, or it’s a comment that they’re writing. But it’s not their lives, and so it’s hard for them to understand that these are real people and that what they say has real consequences.”

Content creators

The Idaho killings were the main topic on the “Drunk Turkey Show” podcast, where three friends in their 30s analyze information, take calls from their listeners, which include 35,000 YouTube subscribers, and theorize about what happened the night of the crime.

In one January video, a listener called in to claim a knife used in the stabbings belonged to Kopacka. In a rambling, confusing list of accusations, she alleged – without evidence – that the veteran had been in the victims’ house before.

After several minutes of wide-ranging speculation, host Daniel Jay remarked: “Everything that you’re saying makes a lot of sense.”

In a separate video, Jay acknowledged some of the listener’s claim might be false, but added, “that doesn’t mean that there’s not truth to what she’s saying.” He later told the Post that he and his co-hosts had used social media and photos to verify some of what she said, including that she was the parent of two Washington State University students. Jay added she believed she had important information and has a right to share her opinion.

As they probed the deaths, Moscow police repeatedly pushed back on the rampant speculation – publicly clearing the wrongly accused, adding a “rumor control” section to their website and urging citizens to stop contacting them about unvetted information.

“We find ourselves not only tracking those rumors down and trying to quell them, but also we see our tips that come in are geared more toward the rumor and not the facts that have been put out,” Capt. Roger Lanier said in December.

The online Idaho true-crime groups only grew: A Facebook group to discuss the killings has attracted roughly 225,000 members, while the r/MoscowMurders subreddit has 130,000. On TikTok, videos with hashtags including #idahofour routinely garner hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of views.

Some of those videos and podcasts can be monetized. Content creators can earn money through sponsors, advertisements, memberships and affiliate links.

The “Drunk Turkey Show” was originally dedicated to theories on UFOs, Bigfoot and aliens. But then Jay and his co-hosts, Daniel Rocha and Jaime Garza, made their way to true crime. Episodes about the Idaho killings boosted the show’s popularity.

“What we wanted to do was put out a piece of content that was more evidentiary-based and source-based,” Jay said.

But the content frequently veers into the purely speculative. One video title provocatively declares, “BREAKING: POSSIBLE NEW SUSPECT EMERGES.” The hosts raised suspicions about Inan Harsh, a neighbor.

Harsh, 31, told the Idaho Statesman that the neighborhood was unusually quiet the evening of the killings but that he thought he heard a scream around 4 a.m. He later wrote on Reddit that the scream was “faint and party like” – nothing out of the ordinary for a weekend night.

“I just feel like there’s a little bit of red flags when it comes to this man, Mr. Harsh,” Jay said in the video. “I would question Harsh a little bit more.”

Harsh, a chef, told The Post he has gotten a slew of messages accusing him in the killings after internet snoops began speculating about him.

His colleagues at a restaurant jokingly nominated him for a “most likely to get blamed for a murder” award. He said the allegations have been more annoying – and occasionally funny – than threatening.

Jay said he and the other hosts “try to tell” listeners that they cannot verify everything they or their callers speculate about. At the start of the video about Harsh, Jay said the content is “theoretical and our opinions only and fictional” before calling the neighbor a “possible suspect” in the killings. Jay told the Post that Harsh put himself in the spotlight by talking with reporters and that the video about him is measured.

But co-host Rocha said on some level, he realizes the podcast could hurt people – particularly victims’ relatives who are watching on the sidelines as the deaths of their loved ones are turned into a source of content on social media.

“I do apologize a lot of times to the families, to say that, you know, they lost somebody in their life,” he said. “I get their part, why they would be upset.”

Debate over free speech

For true-crime content creators, experts say there are few incentives to operate responsibly, and no agreed-upon ethical standards. Creators earn money regardless of whether their content is accurate. Some critics argue podcasters and others on social media are incentivized to speculate because theorizing drives engagement.

“They have motivation to draw people into their content,” said Adam Scott Wandt, vice chair for technology of the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But they very rarely have motivation to get it correct.”

A 1996 federal law generally treats social media websites as platforms, rather than publishers – meaning that, with some exceptions, they cannot be held liable for what their users post, even if defamatory. Because of that, platforms may refuse to remove problematic content unless the person who believes they were defamed sues the individual who made the accusation online.

Suing content creators can be a costly, arduous process – with no guarantee of meaningful relief even if victorious. Additionally, due the sheer volume of content posted online daily, it can be difficult to track down the source of a false claim or narrow a target.

“It’s just this swirling maelstrom of speculation, so it can be very hard for an individual who’s been wrongfully caught up in that to shut that down and recover their reputation,” said Lyrissa Lidsky, a constitutional law professor at the University of Florida.

Content creators also are often young, with few financial resources. Many personal injury cases are taken on contingency, meaning the plaintiff’s attorney gets part of the proceeds if they win and doesn’t charge a fee if they lose. As a result, Wandt said, lawyers are only likely to take cases that they expect to win and where the defendant has some wealth.

YouTube company policy says it generally doesn’t remove videos over allegations of defamation because the company is not able to “adjudicate the truthfulness of postings,” though it leaves open the possibility of removal when a court order has been obtained. A representative for the video giant said that for monetized videos, slander and defamation are not tolerated.

The company applied a “limited ads label” to a Drunk Turkey video containing accusations against Kopacka after The Post sent YouTube an inquiry. The advisory indicates that the video “contains sensitive content that is not suitable for all advertisers,” meaning fewer ads are likely to be included.

The scope of social media platforms’ protection under the 1996 law is being challenged in a Supreme Court case argued in February. A nascent movement is arguing platforms should be held more accountable for the spread of misinformation.

“Free speech doesn’t really mean there’s no accountability for what people say,” said Edward Lyman, a lawyer whose firm represents a plaintiff in an online defamation lawsuit. “Speech that is not true about people – especially that involves allegations that somebody has committed crimes – is defamatory.”

Fighting rumors on their own

For now, those targeted in true-crime podcasts, TikTok videos and other social media posts usually end up fighting a lonely battle to defend themselves.

Dunkin took to Facebook and Reddit to push back on the claims that his friend was a killer.

“You don’t know him,” he wrote to an accuser on Reddit. “Don’t talk about him like you know him. Are you a veteran with PTSD?”

The Redditor responded with a cryptic warning about “what is heading your way.” Eventually, Dunkin turned off all his notifications, set his Facebook to private and stopped engaging. He couldn’t take it anymore.

Klein, for her part, has felt some relief since Kohberger’s arrest. With a suspect in custody, many armchair detectives seem to have let go of the idea that her friend was involved in the killings.

But Klein said the experience has made her horrified by online sleuths’ ability to cause harm – a sentiment that Dunkin echoed.

“Everybody stays behind a computer screen to say whatever they want,” Dunkin said. “They get to go to bed at night thinking that they actually accomplished something, thinking that they’re one step closer to cracking the case.”