Did a criminology student want a perfect murder? TOM LEONARD examines

Did a criminology student want a perfect murder? TOM LEONARD examines

January 9, 2023

Did this obsessive criminology student savagely kill four friends to see if he could pull off the perfect murder? TOM LEONARD examines one of the most perplexing multiple killings in recent US history

  • Four University of Idaho students were killed in their beds on November 13
  • Bryan Kohberger, 28, is the prime suspect but no motive has been established
  • He is said to be fascinated with police forensic science and serial killers 
  • But investigators admit to being ‘puzzled’ as questions remain in the case

 At 4.17am on the morning of Sunday, November 13, university student Dylan Mortensen heard the sound of crying, opened her bedroom door and looked out.

She found herself staring straight into the face of a masked stranger dressed in black — a man who is now alleged to have committed one of the most perplexing multiple murders in recent U.S. history.

Dylan and her flatmates lived in a notorious party house in the college town of Moscow, Idaho. But, even so, it had been a particularly disturbed night since she’d gone to bed at around 1am.

Bryan Kohberger, 28, is the prime suspect to the killing of four University of Idaho students 

The 21-year-old student was woken at around 4am by what she later said sounded like flatmate Kaylee Goncalves playing with her dog in her bedroom on the floor above. A short time later she thought she heard Ms Goncalves say something like: ‘There’s someone here.’ She opened her bedroom door to look for the first time that night but saw nothing.

She opened it again when she thought she heard what sounded like crying coming from the bedroom of another housemate, Xana Kernodle. As she later told police, she then heard a man’s voice saying words to the effect of, ‘It’s OK, I’m going to help you.’

The crying seemed to continue and a neighbouring house’s security camera picked up the sound of a dog barking and what sounded like voices or a whimper followed by a loud thud. Minutes later she opened the door again, and there was the man in black walking towards her.

She says she stood ‘frozen’ in shock, but he walked past her. As he made for a sliding door — apparently to leave the house, she says she went back into her room and locked the door.

The four University of Idaho students who were found dead in off-campus housing were identified on Monday as Madison Mogen, 21, top left, Kaylee Goncalves, 21, bottom left, Ethan Chapin, 20, center, and Xana Kernodle, 20, right 

It remains unclear why Dylan Mortensen didn’t alert the authorities for another eight hours, or indeed why she escaped the gruesome fate of her University of Idaho housemates.

Three of them — Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, both 21, and Xana Kernodle, 20 — along with Xana’s boyfriend Ethan Chapin, 20, were savagely stabbed to death in their beds, almost certainly by the masked man. Bethany Funke, 21, survived.

As for his identity, officials have little doubt that Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old criminologist with an unnerving personality and, it turns out, a strange fascination with police forensic science and serial killers, is the prime suspect.

His arrest on December 30 at his parents’ home, 2,500 miles away in Pennsylvania, brought some relief to a town that had been living on edge for seven weeks as police apparently struggled to find either a suspect or a motive for the horrific quadruple killings.

Kohberger, who was seized after a SWAT team broke through the front door and windows of the family home in a ‘dynamic entry’ reserved for high-risk suspects, faces four counts of first-degree murder and burglary. He has yet to enter a plea, although his lawyer has said he expects to be ‘exonerated’. Police say they were first led to Kohberger, a PhD student living 15 miles from Moscow while attending Washington State University — after identifying his car near the victims’ house on the night of the murder.

His driving licence picture provided strong similarities with Dylan Mortensen’s description of the masked man, and then detectives discovered from his mobile phone records that he had been behaving suspiciously, driving close to the victims’ home on a number of occasions — more of which later. Finally, they were able to match DNA found on the sheath of what appears to have been the still-missing murder weapon, a combat knife, with DNA samples in rubbish left outside the family house in Pennsylvania.

A crucial piece of evidence obtained by investigators was a DNA match. They found it on the sheath of a U.S. Marines KA-BAR ‘fighting knife’ that the murderer — in what appears to have been a major slip-up — left on a bed near the bodies of two of his victims

And yet while they are convinced they have their man, they are still no closer to establishing a motive or even whether he actually knew the students he allegedly killed.

A case that was mystifying in the weeks before his sudden arrest continues to grip the U.S. as it faces up to the possibility that, not for the first time, someone schooled in the workings of the criminal mind and the conduct of criminal investigations has turned to murder himself. If Kohberger is the killer, it seems unlikely that his criminology studies are a mere coincidence given his decision to slaughter four young people he apparently never knew.

He was, by common account, a ‘brilliant’ student who loved to show off to classmates and teachers alike that he knew better than them when it came to crime. Except he was clearly not brilliant enough. Despite allegedly going to great lengths to cover his tracks, he left a trail of clues.

Just as in the pages of whodunnits and Hollywood scripts, the annals of U.S. crime are not short of examples of killers who studied subjects such as criminal behaviour and forensic science. Two of America’s most notorious serial killers, Dennis Rader, the ‘BTK Killer’, and Joseph DeAngelo, the ‘Golden State Killer’, both had criminal justice degrees.

Bryan  Kohberger was arrested on December 30 at his parents’ home, 2,500 miles away in Pennsylvania

Investigators have also reportedly admitted to being ‘puzzled’ with questions still surrounding the case

Between 1974 and 1991, Rader killed ten people in Wichita and Park City, Kansas, and sent taunting letters to police and media outlets describing the details of his crimes. ‘BTK’ was an abbreviation he gave himself — it stood for ‘bind, torture, kill’. DeAngelo’s spree lasted nearly as long, with at least 13 murders, 51 rapes, and 120 burglaries across California between 1974 and 1986.

Perhaps Kohberger thought he could emulate them — or maybe Richard Speck, an American mass murderer who stabbed and strangled eight students in their Chicago dormitory one night in 1966 and whose case is cited by some experts looking for parallels with Kohberger. The latter has a degree in criminology from DeSales University and had moved to Washington State to study for a PhD at the criminal justice and criminology department. Experts told the Mail that Kohberger may have known just enough about forensics to convince himself he could get away with it — but not enough to escape detection.

At high school he was bullied for being overweight, and later struggled with heroin addiction. Intriguingly, while he was there, one of his two older sisters appeared in a low-budget ‘slasher movie’, Two Days Back, about a group of students murdered viciously by a serial killer. But he appeared to have turned around his life at college. He studied at DeSales under Katherine Ramsland, a celebrated forensic psychologist whose books include The Mind Of A Murderer and How To Catch A Killer.

Michelle Bolger, a teacher at DeSales who helped him with his master’s thesis — a study of people’s thoughts and feelings while committing crimes — described him as a ‘one of my best students ever’.

Kohberger lost 100 pounds in high school, and was previously bullied, according to his former friends

His fellow students have been less complimentary, noting that his obvious intelligence came with an intense arrogance and sometimes abrasive personality.

They say he showed a particularly intense interest in crime scenes and serial killers. ‘At the time it seemed as if he was just a curious student, so if his questions felt odd we didn’t think much of it because it fit our curriculum,’ said Brittany Slaven, who took classes with Kohberger at DeSales.

At Washington State University, he’d been studying DNA evidence and forensics only weeks before the killings, and he was described as a contrarian, frequently getting into arguments with other students, particularly women.

Indeed, he appeared to have problems connecting with women in general. The owner of a bar near his parents’ home in Albrightsville, Pennsylvania, said Kohberger had been a regular — until he started harassing the women who worked there. According to bar owner Jordan Serulneck, while Kohberger usually sat alone at the bar ‘observing and watching’, after a few drinks he would start making ‘creepy comments’.

In the months before the Moscow killings, Kohberger had applied for an internship with local police in Pullman, Washington, where he was living, and had written an essay outlining his interest in helping rural police forces collect and analyse evidence.

As for his identity, officials have little doubt that Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old criminologist with an unnerving personality and, it turns out, a strange fascination with police forensic science and serial killers, is the prime suspect

As revealed in a prosecution affidavit released last Thursday, he first appeared on the radar of police and FBI investigators in Moscow as he had a white Hyundai Elantra — the same car that had been caught in surveillance footage passing the victims’ home three times shortly before the killings and finally stopping for around 15 minutes before speeding away at 4.20am.

By then, most of the occupants had gone to bed, having returned home just before 2am from their usual Saturday night of boozy student socialising.

However, at least one of them, Xana Kernodle, was still up even two hours later, receiving a food delivery at around 4am, according to her phone records, and looking through the social media site TikTok 15 minutes later. Although surveillance cameras hadn’t captured the Elantra’s number plate, just such a vehicle was spotted by college police in a campus car park at Washington State University and found to be registered to Kohberger.

Dylan Mortensen hasn’t been able to say too much about the masked figure she says she saw pass her bedroom door but she had told police he was fairly tall and had ‘bushy eyebrows’ — a detail that investigators noticed tallied with Kohberger’s driving licence photo.

By the last week of December, investigators had obtained Kohberger’s mobile phone records which showed that, since June, he had visited the neighbourhood of the crime scene at least 12 times before the night of the killings. Victim Kaylee Goncalves had complained of a ‘stalker’ shortly before her death. Had she spotted him?

On the night of the killings, Kohberger’s phone was detected in Pullman, where he lived, at around 2.47am but was then switched off for two hours before being reconnected (at 4.48am) to the network some miles south of the University of Idaho and then back in Pullman.

Disconnecting a phone is a common tactic for criminals who know their movements can be tracked via nearby mobile-phone towers. It would certainly be known to a student of police investigations.

At around 9.12am — several hours after the killings — Kohberger’s phone was detected back in Moscow, near the scene of the murders, for nine minutes before returning to Pullman. He would have seen that police had still not been called to the scene.

The final but crucial piece of evidence obtained by investigators was that DNA match. They found it, they say, on the sheath of a U.S. Marines KA-BAR ‘fighting knife’ that the murderer — in what appears to have been a major slip-up — left on a bed near the bodies of two of his victims.

Kohberger would know about the importance of DNA evidence — and indeed Locard’s Exchange Principle, a cherished rule of forensics that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ and that DNA can be obtained from hairs, skin cells and saliva.

While America was in a state of ferment over the killings, a discreet FBI surveillance operation continued as in mid-December Kohberger drove home from college with his father in the Elantra for the holidays.

Back in Pennsylvania, Kohberger was watched by an FBI team which reportedly saw further evidence of his caution when he repeatedly wore surgical gloves outside his home.

He had changed his car number plates within days of the killings but was also observed on several occasions intently scrubbing clean the car interior.

He was also seen putting his family’s rubbish into the dustbins of their neighbours, said sources.

The ruse didn’t succeed, according to investigators, who say they managed to obtain a DNA sample from Kohberger’s father, Michael, a former maintenance worker, from the family rubbish.

A sample which, on analysis, indicated that he was the biological father of whoever left DNA on the knife sheath.

And yet, even while he was allegedly doing his best to elude detection, it is claimed that Kohberger could not resist showing off his criminal intelligence.

According to some of the army of online sleuths, including a former FBI agent, who have been speculating about the case, Kohberger used an alias — Pappa Rodger — to discuss the quadruple murder in social media discussion groups.

Back in November, he tweeted that he believed police had found the murder knife’s sheath and, according to the administrator of a Facebook discussion group on the killings, ‘argued incessantly with people and said some really creepy stuff’.

Based on his resemblance to a man in the crowd in a video clip posted online, some also believe that Kohberger was present at a vigil for the victims at their university.

Investigators admit that questions remain. They are reportedly ‘puzzled’ as to why it took the victims’ surviving flatmates nearly eight hours to alert police — having first summoned friends — after Ms Mortensen ran into the black-clad intruder.

They have said the delay may have been down to intoxication or fear but have apparently ruled out the possibility that Mortensen was connected to the killer.

The more pressing mystery is motive. What prompted Kohberger to kill four people to whom, evidence suggests, he had no connection?

He is some years older than they were, and doesn’t seem the sort of person who would have come to any of their many parties. Their friends had never heard of him.

Prosecutors don’t need to establish a motive to get a conviction but it would certainly throw much-needed light on an impenetrably dark crime that continues to disturb America.

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