Suspect in Idaho homicides returns to court this week

By Crystal Ligori (OPB), Donald Orr (OPB) and Lauren Paterson (Northwest Public Broadcasting)
Jan. 12, 2023 5:14 p.m.

The killings have rocked the small town of Moscow, Idaho and captured national attention.

Just before last year’s Thanksgiving holiday, four students from the University of Idaho were found stabbed to death in their off-campus home. The murders captured national attention and shocked the small town of Moscow, Idaho. Last week, a suspect was extradited from Pennsylvania and he will be back in court this week for what is likely to be the first of many hearings.

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OPB “All Things Considered” host Crystal Ligori spoke with Lauren Paterson, a reporter for Northwest Public Broadcasting who is based in Moscow. Their conversation took place the day before a court hearing scheduled Thursday morning.

Bryan Kohberger, right, who is accused of killing four University of Idaho students in November 2022, is led away following a hearing in Latah County District Court, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Moscow, Idaho.

Bryan Kohberger, right, who is accused of killing four University of Idaho students in November 2022, is led away following a hearing in Latah County District Court, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Moscow, Idaho.

Ted S. Warren / AP

Crystal Ligori: So for folks who may not know about what happened in Moscow, can you briefly just tell us about it?

Lauren Paterson: Moscow is this small college town in north Idaho surrounded by rolling farm hills. It’s where the University of Idaho is located. It’s known as the home of the Vandals — the Vandals being the mascot for the school. In the early morning hours of November 13th, four college students were stabbed to death in an off-campus house near the university. The crime sent shockwaves through the small community, because Moscow hadn’t had a homicide in seven years. So over the past two months, students at U of I, community members in Moscow — they’ve watched their town become the center of all this media attention.

Ligori: About six weeks after the murders, an arrest was made in Pennsylvania. A judge prohibited law enforcement, attorneys and others from communicating with the public or media about the case, but the probable cause affidavit was recently released. What did that document shed light on?

Paterson: So 28-year-old Brian Kohberger was arrested. He’s a Washington State University grad student in nearby Pullman, Washington. And Kohberger had just finished up his first semester at Washington State University in the criminology program. He was already back in Pennsylvania for the holiday break. He’s been charged with four counts of murder and one count of felony burglary for entering the residence with the intention to commit a crime.

The affidavit was unsealed and it contained some harrowing details about this crime. Detectives found a leather knife sheath at the scene; it was laying next to one of the victims on the bed. They were able to pull DNA from the snap of the sheath. Detectives also have surveillance footage of a white car they say is Kohberger’s Hyundai Elantra, which they also took into their possession when he was arrested.

Investigators found a shoe print at the scene, they pulled cell phone data… There seems to be a lot of evidence, so we’ll have to see what ends up getting used if the case goes to trial, because there might also be more. One of the more shocking details in the affidavit is that one of the surviving roommates heard what she thought was crying and a thud. And she saw a figure dressed in black, wearing a mask, walking toward her down the hallway, passed by her room and head back toward the sliding glass door.

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Ligori: Lauren, you’re based in the Moscow area, and actually went to the University of Idaho for undergrad. What has the last month and a half been like for your community, and students of both of these neighboring universities?

Paterson: When this first happened, it actually took days for law enforcement to talk to us. I first learned about it from what we call a ‘Vandal Alert’ — these are text message alerts you can receive when there’s an emergency on campus. We usually get it when there’s a moose! We have a surprising amount of moose on campus, so you know, ‘moose alert: stay away from the moose’.

So my husband works at U of I, and he got the message on his phone. All we knew at that time was that it was a homicide, multiple victims. People in town were talking with each other, everyone was just trying to figure out what was going on. That following Wednesday was the first time we had a press conference. And despite law enforcement saying they believed that the attack was targeted and that there was no threat to the community, police walked back the second part, saying, ‘I guess we have to go back to, there is a threat to the community.’

After that it just felt like this cloud over Moscow. People were locking their doors, carrying guns. I heard from some folks who bought cameras to keep a better eye on their house. And of course many of the students were terrified. The University of Idaho was really great about offering them flexibility. The university said you can just do online classes if you want. They told their instructors they’re allowed to be flexible with students. So a lot of students actually left early for Thanksgiving break, or just didn’t return after Thanksgiving break for the rest of the semester.

Ligori: As you mentioned, Kohberger was extradited to Idaho last week and will be in court again for a hearing on Thursday. What can we expect from that?

Paterson: This is what’s called a status hearing. What happens here is the judge checks in with the criminal defense attorney and the prosecutor to see how the case is going, and if it can be resolved without going to trial. For instance, if the defendant were to plead guilty, we wouldn’t have a trial at all. So we’ll have to see where this goes.

Ligori: This devastating crime has really put a spotlight on what is a very small community in the Mountain West. As a journalist, how do you navigate your reporting with the influx of so much national coverage and attention?

Paterson: As you know, working in public media, we have very high ethical standards. So it takes longer for us to get stories out to our community because we have to be careful, we have to fact check everything. And we’re a small rural newsroom — we don’t have some of the resources the big networks have. So that part’s been a bit of a challenge. Locals too, are really stressed from seeing their small town in the national news headlines day after day. I was just on campus this morning and there are camera crews there, out there flagging down students. But some have said they’re too stressed by it and are trying to tune it out. But it’s hard to escape this point, especially if you live here.

Ligori: Is there anything else that we need to be aware of for this case?

Paterson: I’ve talked to a couple of law professors and one interesting thing is they keep mentioning what’s called a ‘change of venue’. This is when the defense goes to the judge and says, ‘We just don’t feel like we could get a fair trial here because so many people in the community have been watching and know so much about this case.’ People are connected, everybody knows everybody in a small town, right? So they might push to move the trial somewhere else. The case does have to stay in Idaho because the crime was committed in Idaho. But if the defense pushes for that, there could be a chance that it’s moved somewhere to the opposite end of the state -- maybe like Bannock County, right? Somewhere in the southeast corner. So that could be something interesting.

Another thing to watch for is the jury selection. How hard it’s going to be to find people that don’t really know what’s going on, or haven’t formed really strong-held opinions about the case that could judge it fairly on merit, based solely on what they hear in the courtroom. I really don’t know where you’re going to move this case that people haven’t already heard about this.

Also, the defendant has the right to push for what’s called a ‘speedy trial’. So especially with high profile cases like this that are in the public eye, they might try to move this along a little faster.

Lauren Paterson is a reporter for Northwest Public Broadcasting, based in Moscow, Idaho.

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