Christmas looms, but an eerie and decidedly non-festive mood haunts the snowy college town of Moscow, Idaho. Locksmiths’ vans have replaced roving carolers. Some residents request pepper spray or guns as Christmas gifts. Businesses close early. Few people walk alone, especially at night.
More than a month after four local university students were inexplicably stabbed to death in the same home, the case remains unsolved and the killer, or killers, at large. Police have named no suspect, found no murder weapon, and offered no motive.
Moscow’s streets are uncomfortably empty, as are the classrooms of its largest employer, the University of Idaho. Many of the University’s 11,000 students left town immediately after the murders; others who left for Thanksgiving have pointedly declined to return.
Moscow, a town of 25,000 near Idaho’s border with Washington state, isn’t accustomed to crime. Residents tend not to lock their doors. Until November, there hadn’t been a homicide in seven years.
Now, the area feels like a garrison. FBI investigators and state troopers, deployed to augment the 31-officer Moscow police department, are looking for clues. They’ve taken thousands of photographs and done more than 150 interviews, police say, but so far the case has broadened, not narrowed.
Although describing the attack as “targeted”, the Moscow police chief, James Fry, Jr, has been forced to concede the possibility of a larger danger. “We cannot say that there is no threat to the community,” he told reporters.
Residents who normally live alone stay at friends’ houses. They lock bedroom doors as well as exterior ones.
A manager at Tri-State Outfitters, a local store, declined to tell the Guardian if gun sales have increased since the killings. Sporting goods and hardware stores in the area, though, confirm that police detectives have visited to ask if they sold Ka-Bar-style military knives.
Police have been flooded with more than 5,000 tips, many of which have been unfounded. Other tips – including one about a skinned corpse of a pet dog – were true but, police say, unrelated to the killings.
Internet sleuths have exacerbated wild rumors, Moscow police captain Roger Lanier recently said. The victims’ families have since experienced harassment and received death threats. The Reddit forum MoscowMurders already has more than 78,000 members.
“It feels rather strange and kind of sad to be highlighted by this tragedy in our small town,” Bailey Kidd, a 2019 graduate of the University of Idaho, told the Idaho Statesman. “You can tell everyone’s on edge.”
If Moscow feels oddly quiet, no place feels quieter, or sadder, than a pale, vinyl-sided house on King Road, not far from the frat and sorority houses of Greek Row. Until Sunday 13 November the rented house had five occupants and was known for hosting parties.
That Sunday, police, responding to a report that someone was unresponsive, found the dead bodies of Ethan Chapin, 20, Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Madison “Maddie” Mogen, 21.
Goncalves, Kernodle and Mogen lived at the house; Chapin was dating Kernodle. All four attended the University of Idaho.
Sometime in the night, a person or people murdered the four students, probably as they slept, with a large knife or edged instrument. There were no signs of forced entry. Two other housemates, whom the police do not consider suspects, slept through everything.
The county coroner, Cathy Mabbutt, has said there is no evidence of murder-suicide, or of sexual assault. She also said that some of the victims had defensive wounds indicating that they woke and tried to fight back.
Built against a hill, the King Road house had an eccentric three-story design; the two surviving housemates slept on the first story.
“I have no idea who could have done this or why they could have done this to Kaylee,” Kaylee Goncalves’s friend, Jordyn Quesnell, told the New York Times. She and Goncalves were planning to move to Austin, Texas, next year, and were excited to see more of the world beyond their native Idaho.
Goncalves, of Rathdrum, Idaho, was friends with Mogen since the sixth grade. Mogen, a marketing student from Coeur d’Alene, was helping a local restaurant create a social media plan. She and Kernodle waitressed there.
Kernodle, who was born in Idaho but raised in Arizona, was independent-minded, her family has said. She was “positive, funny and was loved by everyone who met her”, her sister, Jazzmin Kernodle, told the New York Times. “She made me such a proud big sister, and I wish I could have had more time with her.”
Chapin was a high school basketball player from Washington state. He was a triplet and had spent part of the Saturday before his death with his siblings, who are also students at the university. “My kids are very thankful that it was time well spent with him,” his mother, Stacy Chapin, told the Times. “He made everybody laugh. He was just the kindest person.”
The victims were close-knit. The day before their deaths, on Instagram, Goncalves posted a picture of all of them together. Their friends and families have no idea why a mundane Saturday night ended in such tragedy.
“I don’t want people to make assumptions about our kids,” Stacy Chapin told the Idaho Statesman. “It wasn’t drugs and it was definitely not some passion thing between these kids. Someone entered the house.”
The Saturday started innocuously with a University of Idaho football game – always a big event in a college town. Chapin and Kernodle later went to a frat party, while Goncalves and Mogen visited a bar. All four returned to the house by 2am.
Once home, Goncalves and Mogen placed multiple phone calls to Goncalves’s ex-boyfriend who lived nearby, Jack DuCoeur, but he did not pick up.
DuCoeur has not been named as a person of interest, and Goncalves’s family has said that she often called friends late at night. Her older sister, Alivea Goncalves, has said that she and her family “stand behind Jack 100% and know he absolutely had nothing to do with this”.
On Sunday 14 November a resident of the house apparently called friends over, concerned that another housemate was unresponsive. Only around noon did they call police.
Police arrived to discover people huddled around the house, crying. Inside there was “a lot of blood”, the coroner has said – so much that a photograph of the house obtained by Fox News reportedly showed a trail of blood leaking from an exterior wall.
News about the drift of the investigation has been sporadic.
Police are looking into the information that some of Goncalves’s friends had heard her speak of a stalker, but so far have not been able to verify it. Police have also examined information that someone with a knife threatened students on campus in September.
Last week, police said that they were looking for information about a white Hyundai Elantra that was near the victims’ house around the time of their deaths. The car’s occupants may have “critical information”, police said. They are also still processing DNA information from the crime scene.
Analyzing it all could take weeks, or even months. “Sent my daughter to college to get an education,” Goncalves’s father, Steve Goncalves, said recently. “She came back in a box.”