Idaho students’ unsolved deaths prompt rumors, harassment
BOISE, Idaho – Investigators have yet to name a suspect in the stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students who were found dead in a home near campus last month. But would-be armchair detectives and internet sleuths have come up with several of their own, the conclusions often based on conjecture and hearsay.
Online forums with thousands of members are full of people speculating about possible motives, doxxing the victims’ friends and acquaintances and even labeling some people as murderers.
“People go down these rabbit holes, and they hyperfocus on one individual and attack that individual,” said Tauna Davis, an Idaho State Police trooper who helps the Moscow Police Department handle the influx of media interview requests. “You are most likely attacking an innocent person.”
Relatively few details have been released about the murders, which have left the small college town shaken and saddened by Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin. The four were friends and all members of the university’s Greek system.
The murders attracted worldwide attention, especially among true crime buffs. That’s probably because so few facts are known about the case, said Julie Wiest, a sociology professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and an expert on extreme violence in the media.
“Usually by this time, there are more facts that have been released by law enforcement, so I could see the kind of digging and almost grasping at straws by people increasing,” Wiest said. “It’s not that typical, except in high-profile cold cases, where you might see people digging that way.”
Many of the online detectives are probably well-intentioned, she said—perhaps driven by a desire to avoid similar crimes, hoping to bring justice or just seeking a little fame in the true-crime fandom.
But they may not realize the damage that wild speculation can cause, and today’s theories will likely still exist online years from now, forever linking innocent people to a brutal crime.
“Maybe people should think about knowing forever what they put in writing, and maybe also remember that there are real people here. The families of the victims also need to be taken into account,” Wiest said. “You can speculate while talking to your friends in your living room, but once you put it on the Internet – even if it’s just a one-time thought that occurred to you. head — it’s there now and it’s not going away.”
The victims and their friends are young enough that much of their lives have been documented online, providing a wealth of material for web sleuths to mine. Photos and rumors once shared with a small circle are now widely circulated, exposing the subjects to harassment.
Some detectives suggested that one person’s photo of a successful hunt was evidence of sinister tendencies. They may have been unaware that hunting is a common pastime for many Idaho families and that fixed-blade knives are a basic tool for anyone hunting wild game.
Others pursued rumors posted on a completely anonymous online message forum, best known as a source of hoaxes, scandals and misinformation. Those rumors criticized and published personal information about several people in the Moscow area, suggesting that they must be suspects.
Some have even examined obituaries of other University of Idaho students who have died in recent years in an attempt to tie them to the murder victims, although none of the other deaths were the result of foul play. At least one grieving family member went online to ask people to stop trying to connect his child’s death to the case and to respect the family’s privacy.
Aside from all the rumors and wild conjectures, there may be some benefit to crowdsourcing.
“More heads are better than one, and it’s possible that people on the Internet know something that the police don’t,” said Christopher Slobogin, a law professor at Vanderbilt University.
Police welcome tips, but encourage people to stay focused on the information released by the police department, not guesses and rumors. Last week, they asked the public for help in locating a white sedan that was seen in the area around the time of the murders.
The Internet forums and community members got to work, and Moscow police announced Thursday that investigators are now sorting through 22,000 registered 2011-2013 Hyundai Elantras that match their search criteria. The department thanked tipsters for their help in providing additional information about the vehicle.
It’s law enforcement’s job to follow up on those leads, Slobogin noted.
“We don’t want vigilantes out there trying to take the law into their own hands,” he said.
Robbie Johnson, a spokesman for the Moscow Police Department, said the attention and speculation was “terrible” for the people at the center of it.
“None of these people did anything wrong. Nothing,” she said. “We all have our LinkedIns, or Facebook pages, and it can really happen to anyone associated with some crime. I have a lot of sympathy for them.”
Johnson declined to talk about the nature of the harassment for fear of fanning the flames.
“The speculation, the rumors, the accusations — anything you put on that fire will only make it burn hotter, so I don’t want to add to it,” she said.
The police department announced earlier this month that it would press charges against harassers if necessary.
In a video statement, Capt. Roger Lanier said some people in the community have received death threats and the effect is a re-victimization of people who have suffered “terrible trauma”.
He added that the rumors and harassment can be discouraging, but investigators are motivated to solve the case.
“We’re making progress every day, every hour,” Johnson said, “and that’s what gives you confidence and keeps you going — knowing that the investigation is going somewhere.”
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