Police clueless as murders of four students shock America

Hundreds of law-enforcement and investigative personnel have descended on the town still terrified that a killer is on the loose

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Wed 7 Dec 2022, 6:09 PM

Americans are starting to tire of the Ukraine war and the endless checks Washington is having to write to keep Russia at bay. The phrase "Ukraine fatigue" is starting to pop up in public discourse. Sensing the mood, US interlocutors, particularly those on the conservative side of the debate, are pressing Kyiv to sue for peace with Moscow, even at the cost of losing territory that Russia has grabbed. A winter of discontent is looming everywhere.

Quite ironically and dramatically, it is not Moscow, Russia, that is on the mind of many Americans but a small town called Moscow in Idaho. A college enclave of around 25,000 people that is home to the University of Idaho, Moscow, USA, was rocked by a quadruple murder of four students on November 13 – a grisly episode the likes of which America, home to all manner of homicides, has seldom seen. Three weeks after the killings, authorities don't have a suspect or suspects and don't have a murder weapon (ostensibly a large knife or knives).

Hundreds of state and federal law-enforcement and investigative personnel, including the FBI, not to speak journalists, private sleuths, and script-writers, have descended on the town still terrified that a killer is on the loose. Not since the OJ Simpson episode has America been so transfixed by such a bloody crime mystery. It is not just boots on the ground that the murder mystery has attracted, but also fingertips on the keyboard as thousands of online "sleuths" have zoomed in to unpack the crime.

The United States has a homicide problem unlike any other developed nation, with murder rates (6.3 per 100,000) comparable to Haiti (6.7), Afghanistan (6.7) and Yemen (6.8). More than 20,000 people were murdered in 2020, some 80 percent of them with guns. Only about half the murders meet the FBI's "clearance rate" i.e they were solved or resolved. That clearance rate is down from 90 per cent in the 1960s, a drop that is broadly attributed to an era with fewer civil rights when police threw innocent people in jail and fabricated statistics. So long as victims are poor, black, minorities, it does not particularly shake the conscience of mainstream America, which lives quite comfortably with the "50 percent murders unsolved" albatross.

But the victims in Moscow, Idaho, were in a different league. They were young, white, all-American college students barely into their 20s. Five of them, all women, shared a three-story apartment in a quiet cul-de-sac in a town few had heard of before this crime. The three female victims – Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, and Xana Kernodle – lived at the house, while the fourth victim, Ethan Chapin, was sleeping over with his girlfriend, Xana Kernodle, on the night of the attacks, which authorities say took place between 3 am and 4 am. Two other female roommates also lived at the house on the ground floor; they slept through the attacks, and were not injured.

What has stunned the community is the assailant (or assailants) killed the four with a knife -- and not a gun -- which investigators say suggests a visceral, personal, and possibly a targeted intent, not just random murders. Of the four, Madison and Kaylee, who were best friends, were sleeping together in the same bed on the second floor. Xana and Ethan were together on the first floor, which has a sliding glass door that is level with the backyard through which the killer/killers are thought to have entered.

The fact that the killer/s did not stop at murdering Xana and Ethan and went up a floor to kill the other two girls suggests one or both of the latter were the intended targets. One had more grievous injury than the other; was she the target or was she defending her friend? How did the two other girls on the ground floor, not to speak of an in-house dog, sleep through the bloody mayhem? And amid such violence, surely the killer/s left behind clues, fingerprints, and DNA, even if there was no sexual assault?

But three weeks into the horrific murders, authorities have made no visible breakthrough, leading to growing disquiet among the victims’ parents and the community terrified that a killer is on the lose. What is now known is all the kids had a typically collegiate weekend late night out going to different parties in twos. They returned home past midnight. Police are checking if they had any argument or row at the parties or on their way home. CCTV footage shows a testy exchange between Madison and a man in a hoodie at a food truck where they stopped to pick up dinner before uber-ing home. But the cops say the alibis of all potential suspects check out; they have cleared the man in the hoodie, the uber driver, the two surviving roommates who slept through the murders, and Kaylee’s former boyfriend whom they called a total of ten times before they went to bed at 3am.

American cops have a long tradition of solving cold cases, sometimes decades after a crime, an ethic celebrated in many tv series. Their recent record though does not inspire confidence. Even the parents of the victims in the Idaho murders say police handling of the investigation has been inept and one family has hired their own sleuths. This is one crime that will not fade from the headlines anytime soon.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

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