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Idaho Student Killings: Separating Facts From Theories

In the early hours of Nov. 13, four University of Idaho students were brutally stabbed to death in their off-campus home. Nine days later, no arrests have been made, no suspect has been identified, and any motive remains unknown. Police have released few details about the investigation — frustrating the families of the victims, as well as leaving students at the university and residents of the small town of Moscow unsure if they’re safe.

That lack of information has fueled speculation by online sleuths and headline-hungry tabloids, resulting in widespread disinformation and some doxxing. Lessons from past harassment and cruel online attacks on innocent people with vague connections to crimes have tempered this activity somewhat, and many content moderators have been quick to shut it down. But police have still been forced to make several announcements to dispel a number of rumors.

I’ve spent the last few days separating fact from fiction and clarifying ambiguity. Here’s everything we actually know so far about the killings of Kaylee Goncalves, Madison (“Maddie”) Mogen, Xana Kernodle, and Ethan Chapin.

The Victims

Twenty-one-year-olds Kaylee Goncalves and Madison “Maddie” Mogen were best friends from childhood. (Goncalves documented their long friendship in an Instagram slideshow this May.) A general studies major and a member of the Alpha Phi sorority, Goncalves was set to graduate early, next month. She already had a job lined up and had just bought her first car, a 2016 Range Rover. In fact, although she’d been staying with her family the week before, she was at the Moscow house specifically to show her new ride to Mogen and hang out for the weekend. She had recently broken up with her boyfriend of six years, with whom she shared a dog, but her mother indicated that the two were reconciling.

Mogen was a senior studying marketing and, like Goncalves, was in a sorority — but a different one than her best friend: Pi Beta Phi. An only child, she was considered a sixth sibling by the Goncalves family and joined them for family vacations. She had been dating her boyfriend, who graduated last spring from the University of Idaho with a marketing degree, for a year and a half. His mother said they had expected Mogen to join them for Thanksgiving.

Xana Kernodle, 20, was a junior studying marketing at UI. She was in the same sorority as Mogen, and they also worked together as servers at the Mad Greek restaurant. She had an older sister and had been dating Ethan Chapin for about a year.

Ethan Chapin, who turned 20 last month, was a triplet, with a brother and sister, both of whom also attended UI. He and his brother were in the Sigma Chi fraternity, and he was a student at the university for a year. His funeral was held Monday in Mount Vernon in northwest Washington, close to his family’s home and where he went to high school.

The Crime

The cause and manner of death for each victim was homicide by stabbing, according to an initial autopsy report. All four victims were stabbed while sleeping in their beds, police said. Police believe the killer used a fixed-blade knife; one shopkeeper who was questioned by police referred to it as a “Rambo”-style military-grade knife. Police have not found the weapon.

Each person was stabbed multiple times, police said, and the fatal wounds were in “the chest area or the upper body area,” the coroner said. They likely died between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., according to Moscow’s mayor, Art Bettge. From the outset, police have called it a “targeted attack”; however, they dialed back initial comments that there was “no imminent threat to the community at large.” In a news conference Nov. 16, Police Chief James Fry acknowledged that “there’s still a person out there who committed four horrible, horrible crimes” and that “there is a threat out there still, possibly.” He encouraged residents to be vigilant and to “watch out for each other.” Uniformed troopers from the Idaho State Police have been brought in to assist local police in patrolling the city and university campus.

Police said the victims showed no signs of sexual assault and some had defensive wounds, indicating they were conscious while they were attacked.

The four victims were on the second and third floors of their three-level rental house when they were killed. Two other roommates, who lived on the first level, were unharmed. They returned home separately around 1 a.m. and did not witness the crimes. They did not wake up until later on Nov. 13.

Evidence and Speculation

The 911 call: Police have been cagey about who called 911 and have been forced to issue a few clarifications about their statements. On Sunday, they confirmed only that the call was made at 11:58 a.m. from inside the residence, on one of the surviving roommates’ cellphones. “We’re not going to divulge who made [the 911] call,” Fry said at a news conference Sunday afternoon. “It’s part of our investigation still and when we get ready to release that we will.” He also confirmed that the surviving roommates were not the only people at the house when the 911 call was made. “There were other friends who had arrived at the location,” Fry said, but he was unsure about how many people were there.

On Monday, police sent a press release with further information: “The surviving roommates summoned friends to the residence because they believed one of the second-floor victims had passed out and was not waking up. … Multiple people talked with the 911 dispatcher before a Moscow Police officer arrived at the location.”

There were several unusual aspects here that caused rampant speculation and fueled suspicions among people following the case. Police said the caller “requested aid for an unconscious person” — peculiar phrasing given that all accounts suggest the scene was a bloodbath. The revelation that the two other roommates were home during the killings also raised questions about 1) how they could’ve been oblivious to the violence taking place above them, 2) why it took so long — presumably eight or nine hours — for authorities to be contacted after the killings, and 3) why the killer spared the other roommates.

Personally, having passed out after college partying and sleeping well past noon in my dorm room, none of this surprises me. Photos of the house show a very clear division between its front lower level — which had a door with a keypad lock — and the upper back where the others lived (except Chapin, who slept over with his girlfriend). Police believe the killer entered through the second floor’s sliding glass door, and there were no signs of forced entry.

In Monday’s press release, police emphasized: “At this time in the investigation, detectives do not believe any individual at the residence, when 911 was called, is involved in this crime.”

The food truck guy: Goncalves’s sister Alivia was “tipped off” about and shared a Twitch video that shows Mogen and Goncalves outside the Grub Truckers food truck between 1:30 and 1:40 a.m. on Nov. 13. It’s a chilling watch knowing how soon they would be killed afterward, but people grew particularly suspicious of a guy in a white hoodie hovering near the women. His arrival and departure coincided with theirs, but they never acknowledged him, and he never ordered food. Without any additional context to go on, it definitely looks weird — and, to many, menacing. Some believed he resembled Mogen’s boyfriend or Goncalves’s ex; others insisted he was a stranger.

Police have identified and questioned this person and “do not believe [he] is involved in the crime.” He has not been named publicly.

The “Uber” driver: Goncalves’s sister Alivia has done quite a bit of independent sleuthing (see more below) and told Inside Edition that Goncalves and Mogen took an Uber home from the food truck. Alivia said she confirmed their safe arrival based on Ring video she requested from a neighbor. Police later said Goncalves and Mogen were driven home by a “private party” rather than a rideshare company, leading to more questions by the public about the driver’s identity. Police also have said they don’t believe that the driver had anything to do with the killings.

The phone calls: Alivia also told Inside Edition that Goncalves and Mogen made 10 unanswered calls to Goncalves’s ex-boyfriend. Based on Goncalves’s phone records, which Alivia obtained, Goncalves called her ex “six times between 2:26 a.m. to 2:44 a.m.” Then Mogen took over, calling the ex three times between 2:44 a.m. and 2:52 a.m. “Then Kaylee makes a final call to him at 2:52 a.m.” Alivia said, adding ominously, “And they are both never heard from again.”

But in a Nov. 19 interview on Fox News’ Lawrence Jones Cross Country, Goncalves’s parents, Steve and Kristi Goncalves, said anyone who suspected that Goncalves’s ex was involved were “wasting their time,” saying they stand behind him “2,000%.” There was “no animosity at all” in the breakup, Kristi said. “They were on the mend, getting back together.”

When asked in a news conference whether the “male subject” of the calls (police did not identify him by name) was a suspect or person of interest, Moscow police chief Fry said, “Everything that we’ve taken from those calls, we’ve followed up, we’ve cleared, and we believe there’s no connection there.”

Goncalves’s dog: Goncalves had a goldendoodle named Murphy that she shared with her ex, and people were concerned when it was revealed that the dog had been in the house at the time of the killings. Was Murphy OK? Why didn’t the dog bark and alert the victims? A collective sigh of relief was drawn when Idaho State Police spokesperson Aaron Snell told the Idaho Statesman that the dog is “healthy and fine.” Police removed the dog from the crime scene, and he is now being taken care of by family.

Separately, Moscow police have said a disturbing report of a skinned dog north of the city is unrelated.

Goncalves’s “stalker”: After widespread rumors and reports that Goncalves two months ago had complained about a stalker, police said they have “looked extensively” into “hundreds of pieces of information related to this topic.” They have “not been able to verify or identify a stalker,” they said in a press release Tuesday night.

The Timeline

Daytime, Saturday, Nov. 12: Goncalves posts pictures on Instagram that show her and her roommates smiling at home.

Chapin and his siblings go to a dance hosted by his sister Maizie’s sorority, the Associated Press reported. “They all spent their last day together, all dressed up, and had a great time,” Chapin’s parents said. “We’re all thankful that they spent that time together.”

3 p.m.: Goncalves calls her mom, who said her daughter had also sent her some of the pictures she’d posted online.

10–11 p.m.: Chapin and Kernodle go to a frat party at the Sigma Chi house.

10 p.m.–1:30 a.m., Sunday, Nov. 13: Mogen and Goncalves are at a downtown bar named the Corner Club.

1 a.m.: The surviving roommates are home after having been out “in the Moscow community, separately.”

1:30–1:40 a.m.: Mogen and Goncalves are seen on Grub Truckers’ Twitch livestream ordering food and waiting for their order. (Also see the edited video from the Idaho Tribune.)

1:40–1:45: Mogen and Goncalves get a ride home.

1:45 a.m. Chapin and Kernodle return home.

2:26–2:52 a.m.: Goncalves and Mogen place a total of 10 calls to Goncalves’s ex. He said he missed the calls because he was asleep.

11:58 a.m.: The 911 call is made.

12 p.m.: The victims are pronounced dead.

On Sunday, police released a map and asked businesses and residents within its boundaries to provide outdoor surveillance video taken from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. on Nov. 13. Local police are being assisted by more than 100 other investigators from the Idaho State Police and the FBI, including the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.

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