The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That’s Euclid. Basic geometry.
Only you’re smarter. It’s easy. After all, you know how the investigators work. You’re a student of cop-think.
So you stay one step ahead of them. No straight lines. You program a route into your phone they wouldn’t expect. It’ll take a bit longer, but it’ll still get you where you want to go.
Sure, it shook you up a week ago when the authorities announced they were looking for a white Hyundai Elantra. You’d been sloppy; who’d have thought you’d get caught on a surveillance camera in a one-horse town like Moscow, Idaho? But you were already one step ahead of them. So what if they had a photo of a Hyundai with a single Pennsylvania plate? That’s not you anymore. You’d quickly registered the car in Washington, and attached a new set of plates. Presto!
That’s why you’ve gotten away with it for six weeks. And you’ll keep on getting away with it. Because you’re smarter than they are.
Even better, you’re lucky. You have the perfect cover: your father along for the trip, riding shotgun. What could be more innocent?
All you need to do is keep driving. You’ll be home for the holidays. Twenty-five hundred miles, nearly the width of the entire country, between you and those Keystone Cops. Sell the car back East, and they’ll never know. You’ll have the last laugh. Again.
Killing is easy. And so is getting away with it.
Doubtless, these are only speculations. The hard facts, especially for a case that has held the nation’s attention for the past three months like a magnet, are frustratingly narrow: Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old doctoral candidate in the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department at Washington State University, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of felony burglary as the lone assailant in the November 13 stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students: Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle, and Ethan Chapin. And since Kohberger last week purposively waived his right to a speedy preliminary hearing (preparation trumped “timeliness,” his attorney explained), it will not be until late in June—another five long and vexing months!—before the Idaho prosecutors at last divulge all the incriminating cards they have tucked up their sleeves.
Over the course of what is expected to be at least four hard-charging and affecting days, prosecutors will strive to convince a judge that they have accumulated sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. And the defense—acting on their client’s wishes—will reveal whether it intends to fight the allegations with all its legal might, or if it will surrender Kohberger to the presumed mercy of the court and have him plead guilty. The outcome of this decision is likely a matter, literally, of life or death; Idaho has established an “execution chamber” where the lives of the judicially condemned are ended with a catheterized drip of a four-solution lethal cocktail.
Yet regardless of what is determined at that still-distant preliminary hearing, it seems self-evident that the next stage of Bryan Kohberger’s complicated life—a pained existence lived by his own admission under a treacherous star—was set in motion by the road trip that took him across America and home to the Pocono Mountains for the Christmas holidays. A journey that ultimately brought him to his present forlorn destination: a cell in the Latah County, Idaho, jail where he is being held without bail.
And with equal certainly it can be said that as Kohberger made his way back home and then celebrated the Christmas season in the bosom of his family, it was also a time when the small army of law-enforcement officers who had been chasing this perplexing case since its unnerving start began to grow convinced that, at least in operational terms, things had clarified. They knew, as any pack of bloodhounds would know, that they had the scent. And—although they dared not breathe a word to the media or, for that matter, even to their weary loved ones—they were closing in.
Michael Kohberger was worried about the snow. Only days earlier he had flown from Philadelphia to Seattle, then caught a twin-engine Embraer 170 jet for the one hour or so shuttle flight into the frigid Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport, and now, December 13, he was already heading back home. Only this time it’d be a road trip. It was a fatiguing back-and-forth cross-country jaunt, especially for a 67-year-old, but Kohberger had promised his son, Bryan, who had nearly a month off before classes resumed at Washington State University, that he’d accompany him on the drive back home for the Christmas break. And he was determined to make good on his pledge.
Over the years, there had been some rough, combative times between the two of them; he’d even had to get Bryan into rehab to kick his teenage heroin habit. But now the young man seemed on a good path; studying for a Ph.D. in criminal justice offered a promising career trajectory for Bryan. And, it can be imagined, it must’ve puffed up a father with a prideful sense of parental accomplishment; after all, Michael’s own life had been tarnished by not one, but two embarrassing bankruptcies, and his workdays were a drudgery, spent as a maintenance man at the dreary high school his three children had attended. Perhaps he was even looking forward to this road trip as a way to revitalize his relationship with his son, a way to bury once and for all any lingering remnants of their old antagonisms. But now Michael, as he’d later recount to an associate, was largely focused only on the forecast.
When it snowed in the northwest the accumulations were routinely measured in feet, not inches, Michael knew, and so he wanted to get going. When the weather came in, it’d be rough traveling in a seven-year-old Hyundai Elantra; without four-wheel drive, you’d be slipping and sliding all over the road. So he urged Bryan that they should pack up and get going. Now.
His son agreed. Only once they were on the road, Bryan did something, his father would later casually share with one of the mechanics at the garage near their home in Albrightsville, Pennsylvania, who’d serviced the car after the trip, that had caught him by surprise.
Over the years, there had been some rough, combative times between the two of them; he’d even had to get Bryan into rehab to kick his teenage heroin habit. But now the young man seemed on a good path.
Before Michael had headed out to Washington, he’d googled the route back home. The quickest, most logical drive was pretty much a straight line, plowing across the country along I-90. Bryan, however, buttonhooked south, toward Colorado, where he’d pick up I-70. It seemed to make little sense. Colorado in mid-December was snow country; there was no telling what might suddenly come blowing down from the Rockies.
But Bryan, according to what his father told people, insisted the northern route across I-90 promised wintry conditions. Better to head away from the weather even if it added hours, or even a day, to the trip.
It was a strategy that, when explained that reasonable way, was practical, even prudent.
But it seemed like something more devious to the F.B.I. Unknown to either the father or the son, the bureau had been determined to keep a watchful eye on the white Hyundai’s trek across America. Only, sources in law enforcement would confide with a bristle of embarrassment, not long after the car had pulled out of its space in the graduate housing parking lot fronting 1630 NE Valley Road in Pullman, Washington, they lost it. For several alarming hours—or more? the authorities are keeping the precise details of this screwup close to the vest—the chief suspect in a quadruple homicide that had shocked the nation had seemingly vanished.
An Explosive Secret
The bureau’s watchers called it a “hatbox operation,” and the jargon was a bit of an anachronism. It was a throwback to an era when G-men sporting fedoras over their Brylcreemed hair would be out in force on the street to monitor a target’s every move. A sea of hats would box the suspect in. These days, the watchers have a few more tricks at their disposal—undercover vehicles, surveillance vans, low-flying fixed-wing planes, and that’s just for starters—but the name has stuck. And the surveillance on Bryan Kohberger, according to published reports and interviews with officials, was hatbox all the way.
With good reason, too. To the investigators’ rising sense of excitement, the circumstantial theory they’d been secretly incubating for weeks was growing stronger and stronger. Back on November 25, Moscow P.D. had whispered to local lawmen to keep their eyes peeled for a white 2011–2016 Hyundai Elantra; one had been caught on surveillance video dashing about the neighborhood not far from the King Road crime scene in the early-morning hours immediately following the murders.
Four days later, Daniel Tiengo, a Washington State University police officer, was diligently spending the midnight hours on his quiet graveyard shift going through the inventory of white Elantras registered at the university, and up popped one belonging to a Bryan Kohberger. A half-hour later, another W.S.U. officer drove over to the graduate student parking lot and eyeballed the vehicle—only to discover the car now had Washington State plates.
Later in the still-new morning, this morsel of intelligence—interesting, but certainly nothing provocative—was passed on to Corporal Brett Payne, the gung-ho former army M.P. who was the Moscow police’s lead investigator. Payne dutifully typed the car’s registration details into the Motor Vehicles Record system and the screen quickly displayed a photograph of Bryan Kohberger as well as his state driver’s license information. The license revealed that Kohberger is a white male, and a sturdy six feet and 185 pounds. But it was the photograph that held Payne’s studious gaze. He swiftly zeroed in on the eyebrows: they were bushy.
And that, Payne realized with a mounting sense of triumph, was precisely the sort of telltale clue he’d been praying for over the past two weeks. For all along, since the very first days of this grim case, he and the small inner circle of investigators had been guarding an explosive secret: they had an eyewitness.
Dylan Mortensen, one of the two 19-year-old surviving roommates, had seen the killer. At a little past four a.m., just about when the detectives theorized the four students had been hacked to death, she’d heard a plaintive cry. Anxious, she opened the door to her second-floor room—and saw someone. A man dressed ominously in black was walking toward her. He was, she’d vividly recall, the details forever etched deep in her memory, at least five feet 10, not bulked up, but still trim like an athlete. And he wore a mask that covered his mouth and nose. But not his eyes. Or his eyebrows.
A profound and vehement fear seized hold of her—a “frozen shock phase” was how she would try to describe her galloping emotions. But the black-clad intruder continued past her as if she were invisible and headed toward a sliding glass door that led out of the house. For reasons that continue to be bound tight with the bands of mystery, Dylan returned to her room, locked the door, and didn’t emerge until after 11 a.m. Only then did she summon friends who, in a state of full-blown panic, at last called 911.
But as she later related her unnerving experience to police interrogators, she shared one detail that at the time seemed small, if not irrelevant: the man in black had bushy eyebrows.
And now, 16 long days after the murders, Brett Payne found himself staring at a photograph of a man who might—just might—be the intruder Dylan had seen walking purposefully through her home.
The chief suspect in a quadruple homicide that had shocked the nation had seemingly vanished.
In the hectic days that followed, the investigators quietly went to work on Kohberger. Using cell phone data, the techies on the F.B.I.’s Cellular Analysis Survey Team mapped his movements. Kohberger, they methodically counted, had been in the King Road neighborhood near the murder site at least a dozen times over the past few months. Had he been stalking one of the victims? The residence? they wondered. And like Sherlock Holmes, whose canny deductions in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze” were prompted by the “curious incident” of the dog that didn’t bark, they too found reassurance in a “negative fact.” The discovery that Kohberger had apparently turned off his phone during the time when the murders occurred was further tantalizing knowledge.
But it was not enough, they also sourly realized, to persuade a judge to issue an arrest warrant. All they could do for now was store this intelligence away until another vital part of the puzzle could be unearthed: the crucial eureka moment that would allow them to tie all the disparate pieces into a firm knot. A knot that not even the most industrious defense attorney could ever hope to unravel.
In the meantime, though, they would need to keep a watch on Kohberger. The entire country, or so it often seemed, was complaining that the case was dragging on and on without resolution. It would be a disaster—not just professionally, but also for their own peace of mind, because Moscow was for many of them a hometown, too—if Kohberger slipped out of their grasp before handcuffs could be firmly locked around his wrists.
Only now, as the suspect headed across the country in the very car they believed had been captured in the blurry surveillance footage, his father mystifyingly at his side, they had lost him even before the hatbox op could get underway.
A mood of panic rapidly escalated into one of despair. Frantically, they began to search the records of automated license-plate readers (A.L.P.R.’s) in nearby states. It was an exercise in futility: Nothing. Not a single hit.
Then they got lucky.
A Combat Zone
There’s not much to Loma, Colorado. There are just about 1,300 people scattered about on a few big farmsteads. But U.S. Route 6 passes straight through the center of the town, and eight years ago the Colorado Department of Transportation thought it was high time to install Loma’s first traffic light. It went up in 2015 at the bustling (things being relative, of course) intersection of Route 6 and Highway 139. It wasn’t long after that when the engineers decided they might as well affix an A.L.P.R. to the light pole.
And on December 13 it caught Washington State plate CFB-8708. The white 2015 Elantra registered to Bryan Kohberger.
With this sighting, the hatbox op was once again underway. The watchers would keep their eyes covertly on the car all the way to Pennsylvania. Fate had mercifully bestowed on them a second chance, and they were determined not to stumble.
Still, they were not prepared for what happened next.
The interstate was as flat and empty as the landscape. Any threat of snow had vanished; the dome of sky above I-70 was reassuringly blue. In Michael Kohberger’s calm and steady universe, there was no reason to suspect that the F.B.I. was lurking in the shadows. Even the suggestion of such clandestine goings-on would likely have struck him as preposterous. Nevertheless, as two days passed uneventfully and the pair now drove through Indiana early on the morning of December 15, Michael suddenly found his world starting to tilt off its axis. He abruptly had a new worry. It seemed, incredibly, that his son’s stolid university neighborhood—the precise location just a stone’s throw, in fact, from Bryan’s apartment—had turned into a combat zone.
The details were this: Bryan had received—and then apparently shared with his dad—a pinging alert on his phone. At around 3:20 a.m., W.S.U. had issued an emergency advisory: the community was advised to “shelter in place.” As the Kohbergers would learn by listening to news reports, earlier that evening a man menacingly waving a rifle had threatened to kill his roommates. When the police arrived, the frightened roommates were released. But the rifle-toting individual, Brent Kopacka, a 36-year-old army veteran reportedly suffering from P.T.S.D., barricaded himself in the apartment. And made it clear he wasn’t going to leave.
With that defiant declaration, events escalated with a dangerous momentum. When the Whitman County Regional S.W.A.T. team approached the apartment, the gunman opened fire. The police shot back. The tree-lined streets were suddenly crackling with gunfire. Crisis negotiators’ pleas were answered with bullets. And with the first light of the new day looming, the seven-hour standoff surged to its harsh conclusion: a steely S.W.A.T. team sergeant shot Kopacka dead.
The incident seemed, if his subsequent nonplussed conversations were any indication, to unnerve Michael. He had sent his son off to study for his Ph.D., not to get entrapped in “horrifying” events.
Yet did the lethal shooting, the spectacle of bullets careening through his son’s neighborhood, prompt the concerned father to discuss with his son the brutal murders of the four students just weeks earlier in a house a mere 15-minute drive from Bryan’s apartment? It is difficult to imagine that it did not.
Raking over the gruesome Idaho case had in many quarters become a macabre pastime; would not an anxious father make the leap from one calamity to another nearby? One also tied to a university? After all, they were seated nearly shoulder to shoulder in the narrow confines of the Hyundai for three monotonous days. They had to have found something to talk about on the long drive. Tedium is an effective catalyst, and the touchstones were limited. Is it a reckless supposition to suggest the Idaho student murders were the stuff of a substantive father-and-son chat?
The answers to these questions, however, are known only to two people, to be revealed, if ever, on their own volition. Nevertheless, it does not take elaborate flights of the imagination to envision a trenchant if guarded conversation centered on the infamous local tragedy. Or, for that matter, to wonder about the demons that, if the authorities’ allegations have merit, might have come perilously close to bursting forth.
The entire country, or so it often seemed, was complaining that the case was dragging on and on without resolution.
Yet while there are no recordings of their road-trip chats, what happened as the Hyundai crept through Hancock County, Indiana, has been carefully preserved. At 10:41 on the morning of December 15, as the car approached the 107-mile marker on the interstate, Bryan Kohberger saw red and blue lights flashing in his rearview mirror. A sheriff’s car was demanding that the vehicle pull over.
Bryan obeyed. He waited behind the wheel as the officer approached.
What would happen next seemed destined to play out as high drama. At the very least, the car approximately fit the description of a vehicle observed in the aftermath of a quadruple murder. The driver, the Moscow Police Department had alerted the nation, was to be considered “a person of interest” in their investigation. As Deputy Nick Ernstes walked with slow, measured steps toward the passenger side of the Hyundai where Michael sat, there seemed to be no escape. There would be no springing free. The time of reckoning had arrived.
Only, as the tape from Ernstes’s body cam revealed, the ensuing confrontation was all dénouement, more farce than tragedy. The conversation between the Kohbergers and the deputy moved forward with its own abstruse logic, a litany of non sequiturs that seemed as if it’d been inspired by a madcap Abbott and Costello routine.
When the deputy officiously demands where they are heading, Bryan’s response suggests nothing more than a casual drive: “We’re going to get some Thai food right now.”
That’s when the father decides it’s his turn to play the straight man. “Well, we’re coming from W.S.U.”
To the Indiana deputy, the initials have no meaning. It’s all beyond him. So both the father and son, eager to please, attempt to remedy the confusion and in the process only add to the officer’s puzzlement. He can’t decide whether both of them work at the university, or who, in fact, is the student. Or if they’ve headed out from Washington State on a cross-country road trip to get Thai food in Pennsylvania.
Then, even as the deputy is laboriously trying to sort through this befuddling torrent of information, Michael, who seems as if he could talk the ears off a brass monkey, starts rambling on about the shooting earlier that day at W.S.U.
This grabs the officer’s attention: “So what do you say about some S.W.A.T. teams?”
Michael now has his lead. He begins a long-winded explanation, only to be cut off. “Interesting,” the deputy remarks without apparent interest.
But Michael is determined to have the last word. “Well, it’s horrifying,” he reprimands.
Yet the son must have his say, too. With a graduate student’s well-ingrained reverence for the facts, he corrects, “We don’t know about that actually. We weren’t there for the shooting.”
“We’re slightly punchy because we’ve been driving for hours,” the father finally confesses.
By now the poor deputy is no doubt punchy, too. And in the end, perhaps eager to escape from this madness, he warns them not to tailgate and lets them go without a ticket. As the body-cam footage ends, it is difficult to discern who is happier to be driving off—the Kohbergers or the deputy.
Yet a quick nine minutes after they’re back on the interstate, Bryan once again sees flashing lights in his rearview mirror. The Kohbergers are stopped again.
This time it is a state trooper who pulls them over. Once more, at the very least, their car should create a shock of recognition; after the nationwide Moscow P.D. vehicle alert, it’s a ticking bomb. Only, against all odds, they’re again simply reprimanded for tailgating, and then sent on their way without a ticket.
Yet unbeknownst to either the father or the son, it will be only a matter of time before their luck runs out. And while Michael’s previous worries didn’t come to fruition, this one will.
And what were the F.B.I. thinking as they, from a discreet distance, observed their target’s being pulled over not once but, mind-bogglingly, twice by the authorities?
There is an iron rule, law-enforcement veterans will tell you, that in any long-running op, the unexpected is to be expected at any time. The outrageous, in fact, must be regarded as inevitable. Yet, according to sources familiar with the bureau’s skittish temperament as these two unanticipated traffic stops played out, a knowing patience was not the guiding standard that December day. The agents were frustrated, and they were angry. The possibilities were too dangerous.
The main problem, shared law-enforcement officials with an arm’s-length familiarity with the F.B.I.’s surveillance operation, was the watchers’ helpless passivity. All they could do was observe from a distance—and wonder. Had diligent Indiana lawmen spotted the car traveling down the interstate and immediately connected it to the white Hyundai that was wanted by the Moscow P.D.? Were the locals about to make an arrest—before the final incriminating piece had been fitted into the puzzle? If that happened, it had the potential to be a catastrophe. The suspect would be alerted, and perhaps then, if he was advised by a canny lawyer, the army of investigators would never have the opportunity to make their airtight case.
Their second concern, however, was an even more dangerous prospect: Was the suspect armed? Would someone who they believed had killed four people hesitate to kill again? Would the highway cops become victims, too? Or would the suspect simply gun the Hyundai and race down the highway? The spectacle of another O.J.-like chase might be imminent.
In the end, none of the apprehensive watchers’ anxieties came to fruition. But a hard lesson, according to what other law-enforcement officials heard, had been learned: This case had to be wrapped up soon. If not, anything could happen. There were too many imponderables. Time was not on their side.
And what about Bryan Kohberger, a man who has resolutely professed his innocence: what emotions rushed through him as he saw the flashing lights in his rearview mirror?
To judge by his demeanor on the two body-cam videos, he displayed a remarkable calm. He seemed unruffled by the sort of highway encounter that would have left many people jumpy—even if they would never subsequently be charged with four counts of homicide. Highway cops routinely wield their authority as a bludgeon; it’s their first line of defense. Kohberger’s emotional temperature, however, didn’t appear to jump a notch.
This is, indeed, one side of Bryan Kohberger. Discipline and control, as his courtroom appearances reveal, can rule.
But there is also, by his own admission and in his own words, another side to him—one that is dark, detached, and steeped deep in misery.
Unhappiness and alienation can often dominate his mood, says Kohberger, writing as a desperate teenager on the Web site Tapatalk. They are the raw, bedeviling forces that drove him, he explains, to contemplate suicide. They are the painful demons, he wails to a friend, that drove him to search for a sort of relief by mainlining heroin. And at the root of all his swirling emotions, he diagnoses in the online postings with an unwavering certainty, is “visual snow.”
Visual snow is a rare but very real and chronic neurological condition. To those who suffer from it, the world is viewed through a glass darkly. It’s like looking at a television screen and the picture’s fluttering, the images obscured by amorphous grayish waves and scattered, flickering dots. But is it a disease? Or is it a psychological condition? Doctors, according to the sparse literature, throw up their hands in frustrated confusion. They just don’t know. And what can’t be diagnosed is even more difficult to treat.
What were the F.B.I. thinking as they, from a discreet distance, observed their target’s being pulled over not once but, mind-bogglingly, twice by the authorities?
But for the teenage Bryan Kohberger, if his online posts are any reliable guide, visual snow had at times buried his existence in an avalanche of despondency and desperation. His posts were calls from the wild. Consider:
“I often think of … myself as an organic sack of meat with no self worth.... I am starting to view everyone as this.”
“I always feel as if I am not there, completely depersonalized.... Constant thought of suicide. Crazy thoughts. Delusions of grandeur … poor self-image.”
“NO EMOTION.... I feel like nothing has a point to it … everyone hates me pretty much I am an asshole.”
“As I hug my family, I see nothing, it is like I am looking at a video game, but less.”
In the posts, he’s a suburban incarnation of Camus’s Meursault. Only Kohberger’s at sea in the Poconos rather than Algeria. Yet it is a mindset that, just as Meursault discovered, is empowering. Kohberger decides he can do “whatever I want with little remorse.”
And, oh, the bristling anger! According to the Internet sleuths who have traced his teenage e-mail to a posting on SoundCloud 11 years ago, Kohberger’s defiant moods took flight in a howling rap song. “You are not my equal / You are evil but I’m devil,” he challenges.
Of course, these posts and lyrics are the work of a teenager. More than a decade has flown by since they were written. It was time enough for Kohberger to find the will to kick heroin, the discipline to graduate from college, and the ambition to enroll in a Ph.D. program. Nevertheless, perhaps the anguished posts and the ferocious song are also a warning. Out of words come events. The future cannot exist without having been envisioned in the past. And one more puzzlement in this case must be confronted: Are these teenage thought dreams the intimations of an adult future?
The Great Trash Robbery
For the hunters, meanwhile, it was a time of preparation. And as a result, in the antsy days following the Kohbergers’ arrival (at last!) in the Poconos on the afternoon of December 16, the Moscow police suffered through variable moods. There were bursts when there was no denying that a great push forward was underway. Corporal Brett Payne, the P.D.’s lead investigator, obtained a search warrant and then a day later, on December 23, he received the records of Kohberger’s cell phone for 24 hours before and after the homicides. With the help of the F.B.I., this information was employed to plot a map that intensified suspicions.
After cell-phone towers near the King Road house lost all track of Kohberger’s phone at about three a.m.—was it shut off? left at another location?—his phone suddenly jumped back to life in the wee hours of the morning not long after the murders, and his car was tracked heading south from Moscow; at just after nine a.m. that same day—nearly two hours before the police were summoned—he was tracked to the neighborhood of the killings. The murderer returning to gaze at the scene of the crime? Payne could only wager a guess, but according to the now confident buzz going through the P.D., this was a bet he’d take.
On the other hand, it was also a time of disappointment. Just as the case was nearing the finish line, cops in Moscow moaned, they had no choice but to hand it off to the Pennsylvania State Police. Kohberger was now on the staties’ playing field. They’d be the ones who’d take the ball over the goal line.
Major Chris Paris had been handpicked by the F.B.I. to run the op for the staties, and he was a shrewd choice. He looked like a linebacker, and he did have a gruff, no-nonsense edge. But he was also a thoughtful, scholarly man; he’d graduated magna cum laude from the University of Scranton, and he went on to get a law degree from Temple. And, perhaps most valuable given the circumstances, Paris possessed a lawyerly sense of discretion: he shared the secret that a suspect was in the crosshairs with just an eight-person working group. A leak, a promiscuous whisper—and the whole case might be blown.
For, although Kohberger was apparently unaware of it at the time, the staties and the suspect were playing an intricate game of cat and mouse. There was Kohberger, observed taking his Hyundai in for servicing at a garage in Effort, Pennsylvania, not far from his parents’ home. Next he’s spotted wearing gloves as he gives the vehicle a meticulous cleaning. And, of course, these are actions that can mean nothing or everything; it just depends on the preconceived notions that influence your judgment. A little harder to dismiss, though, is Kohberger’s sneaking over to deposit some trash in a neighbor’s garbage pail at around four a.m. one morning. Getting rid of incriminating evidence? Or just a bit of mischief? Once again, evil is in the eye of the beholder.
But all this was before the Great Trash Robbery. That was what some wags at Troop N, the state-police barracks that was running the surveillance op, later dubbed the pilfering. On December 27, Major Paris received a request from the F.B.I. to plunder the trash bins outside the Kohberger residence. That same day, once the staties were certain no one was looking, two troopers swooped in and made off with a pile of the Kohberger family’s detritus.
The purloined parcel was quickly shipped across the country to Meridian, Idaho. There, at the Idaho State Police crime lab on South Stratford Drive, a forensic team went to work sorting through the trash. It turned out to be a treasure trove.
For all along the Moscow police had been holding on tight to a second secret, one that was no less charged than the statement from the eyewitness. A knife sheath stamped with the U.S. Marine Corps eagle, globe, and anchor insignia had been found lying on the bed next to Madison Mogen’s bloody corpse. And from the sheath’s button snap a speck of male DNA had been recovered.
It was a minuscule sample, but it was all that was needed. When compared to Michael Kohberg’s DNA lifted from the garbage that’d been clandestinely carried off, it proved nearly conclusively, the techies confidently rejoiced, that it was his son’s DNA on the knife sheaf.
The next day, December 29, a triumphant Brett Payne sat down to finalize the arrest warrant for Bryan Kohberger. When he was done, he had no time to enjoy his moment of high achievement. Instead, full of a tense urgency, an animating conviction that every moment counted, he hand-delivered the 18-page document to the courthouse. Moments after Judge Megan Marshall signed off, a call was made to Pennsylvania.
“It’s a go!” Major Paris was told.
Ready for a Fight
“Dynamic Entry” is only used to serve an arrest warrant when the threat matrix is Code Red. You go in with overwhelming force. Pounding down the doors, breaking windows, and setting off explosive devices. The strategy is meant not just to surprise the suspect, but also to scare the living daylights out of him. Because there’s one thing that’s always rising up in the mind of any tactical cop charging through the front door: if the target’s waiting inside to ambush you, it doesn’t matter too much what sort of tactics you use. This is his turf. He has the advantage. And if he’s determined not to give up without a fight, bad things can happen.
At just after midnight on December 30, a Pennsylvania State Police Special Emergency Response Team (S.E.R.T.) assembled at the gray, barn-like Troop N barracks in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. There were about 24 of them, the usual 16 entry team members and maybe eight sharpshooters. And they were packing. Glock .40-caliber pistols were generally the weapon of choice, and the point men as a rule carried two pistols. Those who’d be the first through the door were also armed with stubby black HK MP5 submachine guns; it was a brutal weapon, particularly in an enclosed space. The backups had short-barreled Remington 870 12-gauges; it was a shotgun meant for killing, not wounding. And over military-style camo uniforms, they wore heavy, load-bearing tactical body armor fitted out with Level IV strike plates. The early-morning arrest of Bryan Kohberger would be a Code Red op, dynamic entry all the way.
A forensic team went to work sorting through the trash. It turned out to be a treasure trove.
The S.E.R.T. team piled into a couple of specially outfitted Ford E-350 extended-body vans for the ride to Albrightsville. A contingent of Troop N staties followed as backup. All in all, they were about 40 officers. It might as well have been an invading army. They were ready for a fight.
But as the force approached the pretty community dotted with playgrounds and volleyball courts where the Kohbergers lived, the lead van came to a sudden halt. The entrance to Indian Mountain Lakes was blocked by a pair of white boom gates; a code had to be entered into a sentry box for the gates to rise. And none of the heavily armed men had the code.
At that frustrating moment, a few of the tough-guy S.E.R.T. team members, according to the amused story that buzzed around Troop N in the aftermath, wanted to just plow on through. Floor the heavy Ford vans and let ’em smash the damn boon gates to smithereens, they insisted. But cooler heads prevailed. As the heavily armed officers waited impatiently in the vans, a state trooper tracked down an acquaintance in Indian Mountain Lakes, and the entry code was obtained. With the gates at last raised high, the force proceeded in the early-morning darkness down a twisting road, passing one neat little house after another, as it made its way to Lamsden Drive.
It was so quiet it seemed as if the cocking of a single rifle would rouse people from their slumber. But then all hell broke loose. A door flew off its hinges. Windows shattered. Explosive charges boomed. The S.E.R.T. team stormed the stunned Kohbergers’ white clapboard home.
In the end, without a single shot being fired, Bryan Kohberger was led off in handcuffs.
Jason LaBar sat in his third-floor office overlooking Main Street in downtown Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, waiting for it to get dark. He figured that’d give him the best shot of making his way to the Monroe County jail without being followed by a pack of nosy reporters. Because since early that morning, December 30, LaBar, the chief public defender in the county, a lawyer whose family’s deep roots in the area reached far back to colonial times, had awakened to the news that he would be the attorney of record for the most infamous prisoner in the nation. He’d be representing Bryan Kohberger in the hearing for his extradition to Idaho.
Yet it had at first seemed to the gleeful Pennsylvania authorities that a lawyer might be unnecessary. In the hours after his arrest, Kohberger had genially agreed to talk to the police. He said that of course he knew about the four murders in Idaho; everyone in the area did. After all, he explained, he lived only about 10 miles from the murder house. And he kept on talking, steadfastly denying any involvement in the events, for about 15 minutes. But as the eager interrogators’ questions grew more pointed, Kohberger said, Enough. He wanted a lawyer. Only he couldn’t afford to pay for one.
That was when the call went out to LaBar. He was the logical choice. Not only was he the chief public defender, but in his decades of practice he had appeared before courts in more than 20 capital cases. He knew the territory. And, not least, he was a local guy, a star three-letter man in his day at Bangor High School, recently elected to the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. He could handle the pressures that’d come with this sort of case.
Still, when LaBar got the call, his first reaction, he’d say, was surprise. Like everyone else he’d been following the events in Idaho, but he never could’ve imagined the trail would lead across the country to his own backyard. But Friday was a half-day at the office, and instead of going home at noon he closed the door and prepared for his first meeting with his new client. He needed to check the Idaho extradition statutes. And he wanted to make sure he went into his conference with a firm agenda. There was a lot that needed to be done, and there was no knowing how much time he’d have before the authorities hauled Kohberger back to his cell. But first LaBar waited for it to get dark.
All hell broke loose. A door flew off its hinges. Windows shattered. Explosive charges boomed.
His strategy worked. On the short drive over, he kept checking his rearview mirror, but there was no one on his tail. And so it was just after five p.m. on an already pitch-dark December evening when LaBar finally sat across from Kohberger.
The conversation went on for about an hour, and afterward LaBar was willing to share a bit of what had been discussed. He started in, the lawyer said, by making it clear to Kohberger that he would be representing him just in the extradition hearing. Therefore, he didn’t want to hear any of the specific details about the case.
He did, however, want to know if his client was willing to release a statement to the press. Kohberger quickly agreed; in fact, he was adamant. He was determined to make sure people knew that he “was eager to be exonerated.” Kohberger also insisted, as LaBar reported, “this is not [me].” He denied being the murderer or having any specific knowledge of the crime.
LaBar also released a statement from Kohberger’s family. “First and foremost we care deeply for the four families who have lost their precious children,” it read. “We have fully cooperated with law enforcement agencies in an attempt to seek the truth and promote his presumption of innocence rather than judge unknown facts and make erroneous assumptions.”
The lawyer was struck by how “calm” and “intelligent” Kohberger appeared. The gruesome crimes he had been charged with, the lawyer remarked with a clear sense of wonder, seemed “a little out of character.”
And so, the next day in his formal statement to the press, LaBar sternly lectured, “Mr. Kohberger has been accused of very serious crimes, but the American justice system cloaks him in a veil of innocence… He should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise—not tried in the court of public opinion.”
Then, within days, LaBar was off the case. On January 4, shackled and in a red jumpsuit, Kohberger was flown in a tiny fixed-wing single-engine Pilatus across the country. The plane landed at Moscow-Pullman Regional Airport, the same airport where only about three weeks earlier Michael Kohberger had arrived in anticipation of a convivial road trip with his son.
The Most Perplexing Question
“Bad facts” is a phrase defense lawyers like to bandy about. It’s a term that’s meant to draw an epistemological distinction between what is objectively real and what is subjective opinion. Just because the prosecutor says it’s true, well, that doesn’t make it so. And the “bad facts” riddling the probable-cause affidavit that police used to obtain Kohberger’s arrest—as well as those in the laundry list of seemingly provocative items found in a search of Kohberger’s apartment in Washington—are indeed disturbing.
Item: the affidavit cites a shoe with “a diamond-shaped pattern (similar to the pattern of a Vans type shoe style)” found at the scene of the crime. Well, does Kohberger own a pair of Vans? And even if it’s established that he does, there’s a photo that shows at least one person in the house on King Road wearing Vans prior to the murders.
Item: The cell-phone-tower data that links Kohberger to the scene of the murders is more an approximation of his whereabouts than an exact location. And being in the vicinity is not at all the same as being at the scene of the crime. More damaging, the affidavit, with a remarkable candor, admits to some confusion in this sort of analysis: “Investigators found that the 8545 Phone [Kohberger’s cell] did connect to a cell phone tower that provides service to Moscow on November 14, 2022, but investigators do not believe the 8545 Phone was in Moscow on that date.” Huh? The prosecution is stating that the cell-phone evidence is correct only some of the time. How’s that going to fly with a jury?
Item: The white Hyundai Elantra. While there are photos of the car zooming through the Moscow streets on the night of the murder, there’s no clear photo of Kohberger at the wheel that evening. Not a single one.
Item: The DNA on the knife-sheath snap. It’s apparently “touch” DNA. That is, it’s derived from a fingerprint rather than a drop of blood. And that’s pretty shaky evidence. Often more guesswork than science. The courtroom reality is that in case after case, touch DNA has been tarnished by a motley collection of false-positive results. A smart defense attorney might argue that there’s just as much likelihood of touch DNA’s being accurate as a juror’s winning the lottery. Who’d want to condemn someone to execution based on those odds?
Item: The eyewitness identification. Well, a lot of people have bushy eyebrows. And the testimony from a witness who was in “frozen shock phase,” as she put it, might be problematic. At best. And that’s without even getting into why she waited seven hours or so before making sure the police were notified. The poignant truth might very well be that Dylan Mortensen, although she was not physically attacked, was another victim that night. And that she’s in no shape to take the witness stand to face a rapid-firing, if not mean-spirited, defense counsel.
Item: The murder weapon. Where is it? The police have not found the long-bladed knife used in the killings. And they have so far not been able to establish that Kohberger owned such a weapon. (And I have to wonder how conscientiously they are trying. Just a week ago I walked into Dunkelberger’s on Main Street in Stroudsburg. It’s a sporting-goods store that might as well be an armory. There are walls mounted with racks of rifles and display cases lined with gleaming long-bladed knives. And it’s just about a half-hour drive from the Kohberger family home in Albrightsville. It’s the sort of local shop one might visit if one were looking to buy a knife. So I asked the man who identified himself as the manager if the police ever checked the store records to see if Bryan Kohberger had made a purchase. “Nope,” he answered. “Pretty surprising, too, now that you mention it.”)
But arguably the most perplexing question that the prosecutors will have to wrestle with if they hope to persuade a jury is “Why?” What was the motive for someone to kill four college students in cold blood?
And so far, there isn’t one.
I’m growing increasingly convinced that they will never find one. At least not a motive that’s grounded in commonsense logic. Motive as in a reason, though—that might be another story.
And so I find my thoughts being drawn back to the body-cam footage that the police shot at the King Road house on a Thursday night in late September, less than two months before the murders. Three officers were responding to a noise complaint an annoyed neighbor had made.
The neighbor certainly had good cause. The house was jumping. There was a tumult of blasting music and high-spirited, attractive college kids wandering in and out of the three-story home. Six-packs and empty Truly cans were scattered about.
As I watched that video (replaying it again and again in the perplexing days that followed), I found myself reflecting on one of wise old William Blake’s aphorisms: “Exuberance is beauty.” These giddy goings-on were exuberant, all right. And in their reckless, heedless, incautious, forever-young ebullience, they were beautiful too.
Can you imagine looking at that wild night, all the happy frivolity, from some hideout in the shadows and at the same time knowing deep in your dark heart that you would never be a part of anything that exuberant, that beautiful? It would be hell. A hell of unsatisfied desire that could plunge someone deeper and deeper into a tormenting rage. An envy that would be an all-consuming sickness. And in the end, there would be no way out. Just the deed.
Howard Blum is the author of several books including the Edgar Award–winning American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century. He is currently writing a book about the Idaho student murders for HarperCollins