You know how cops work. You know what they look for. You know the questions they’ll ask. You know all their tricks.
You’re prepared. Well trained. After all, you’ve taken the classes. Earned the degrees. You’ve gotten into the heads of bad guys; written “crime scripts,” as your profs call them. You learned from their mistakes.
But it’s one thing to ace “Advanced Crime Scene Investigations.” And it’s another to commit a crime. Especially when the crime is murder.
What did that boxer say? All plans go out the window once you get punched in the mouth. Seems that holds true for killing too. Once the knife’s plunged deep into flesh. Once the blood starts gushing.
So you screwed up. You left the knife sheath behind. On the bed. Next to one of the blonde girls. Sloppy.
But it’s not a catastrophe. You know what the science can prove. And what it can’t.
That’s why you were vigilant. Meticulous. Took precautions. And that’s how you’re going to keep on acting. That’s how you get away with it. Nothing’s changed—except they’re all dead.
The first time Bryan Kohberger walked through a murder scene was in the old stone house on the leafy corner of Taylor Drive, in Center Valley, Pennsylvania. There were blood-stained bodies sprawled about the musty, low-ceilinged living room. Only the corpses were mannequins, the blood was red paint, the living room was in the DeSales University “crime scene house,” and he was an undergraduate taking 365 Psychological Sleuthing.
Two years later on the other side of the country, the Latah County, Idaho, authorities have charged that Kohberger, now a doctoral candidate in criminal justice, was once again in a crime-scene house filled with blood-stained bodies. Only now the four corpses in the three-story clapboard house on King Road in Moscow, Idaho, were young college students, the flowing blood was real, and Kohberger, they alleged, had been the knife-wielding killer.
The more than six-week investigative process that transformed Kohberger from a student of the criminal mind into an accused murderer is, in its full scope, a sputtering tale. Days of fallow frustration were followed by hard-charging breakthroughs only to once again come to an uneasy, anxious halt, until at last, the conclusive incriminating piece would be felicitously fitted into the puzzle. In the end, the headlines exulted, it was a victory of scientific technique. Pure forensic detective work.
Yet while there is a measure of truth to that reductive take, the true genesis lies in the activities of an unsung group of heroes scattered across the breadth and width of the entire country. If any of their actions, if any of these seemingly unrelated catalysts had not been set in motion, then, it can be argued, things might have played out differently.
The secret warriors include a pair of bleary-eyed night-shift Washington State University campus cops; a resolute Pennsylvania state trooper whose aching memories of a dismembered body stuffed into three battered suitcases decades earlier spurred him into action on a fateful night in the Poconos; and the observant Snake River kayaker who, in 2014, spotted the bloated, decaying body of a woman floating in the fast-moving water beneath the arcing steel spans of the Perrine Bridge near Twin Falls, Idaho—a chance discovery that seven years later would serve in its heuristic way to sharpen the tip of the spear in the case aimed against Kohberger.
And, not least, in the final moments of investigative triumph the load was carried by a group of dedicated and inventive scientists working in a four-story, sun-filled, modernistic lab in The Woodlands, Texas. Yet here, too, there were supporting players, passive yet certainly no less essential in the broad scheme of things, including a self-made billionaire venture capitalist and the complicated man who had first introduced this deep-pocketed investor to the circle of public-spirited scientists—a former Holocaust denier and occasional Internet race-baiter who now claims to do hush-hush spook work as he huddles with Julian Assange in London, slinks around the Middle East, and helps supply invaluable radar equipment to the Ukrainian forces.
And then, too, looking at the case in purely operational terms, the final outcome, it must be conceded, had a great deal to do with Bryan Kohberger. He thought he was very smart. And he was. But just not smart enough.
A Brilliant Student
Still, before getting his comeuppance, Bryan Kohberger apparently knew a good deal about what makes criminal minds tick. And at least one of his professors enthusiastically agreed. Dr. Michelle Bolger, who advised Kohberger on his master’s thesis in the criminal-justice department at DeSales University, told a reporter he was “a brilliant student.” “In my ten years of teaching,” she raved, “I’ve only recommended two students to a PhD program and he was one of them. He was one of my best students, ever.”
Kohberger, too, thought he’d learned a lot, and was ready to put his effortful book learning to practical use. In the fall of 2022, during his first semester in the criminology doctorate program at Washington State University, he applied for an internship at the nearby Pullman Police Department. In the application essay, which the Idaho cops later shared, Kohberger, with apparent self-affirming pride, wrote that “he had an interest in assisting rural law enforcement agencies with how to better collect and analyze technological data in public safety operations.”
Collect and analyze technological data? Public-safety operations? That’s a bit of grad-school jargon that boils down to the sort of commonsense stuff that is the constant fodder of the myriad TV dramas that begin with the good guys decked out in white jumpsuits peering down with inquisitive concern at an inert corpse.
Inevitably they move on with methodical earnestness to gather evidence by pulling surveillance-camera videos, checking out the cell phones that had pinged off nearby towers as the crime had gone down, and running revelatory license-plate numbers through the all-knowing law-enforcement computer systems. And Kohberger was immodestly asserting that he was a whiz at putting all the “disparate data streams” to effective use. He could tutor the local yokels (“rural law enforcement agencies,” was how he put it with a supplicant’s careful tact) in forensic sleuthing.
Only here’s the irony: these were precisely the sort of cold, hard technological capabilities that helped to build the case against him. Each nudged Bryan Kohberger closer into the crosshairs of the Idaho police. Each reinforced the mounting suspicion that they had identified their knife-wielding killer. The cumulative evidence was damned incriminating.
But it wasn’t proof. Circumstantial evidence, however agilely the various threads can be woven together to form a plausible narrative, cannot on their own bind together an open-and-shut case. Especially if a canny defense attorney is determined to pull them apart. In fact, they’re not even enough to get an arrest warrant.
Take, for instructive example, the now infamous sightings of the white Hyundai Elantra on surveillance-camera footage in the vicinity of the King Road house in the pre-dawn minutes subsequent to the savage killings of the four college students—Kaylee Goncalves, 21; Madison Mogen, 21; Xana Kernodle, 20; and Ethan Chapin, 20. Within days of the murders, the Moscow police had gathered a stream of video featuring what they quickly dubbed “Suspect Vehicle 1.” (There never was a Suspect Vehicle 2, or, for that matter, 3.) Only they had a problem with the quality of the images. They were flickering, recorded in varying light. The pixels had captured a fast-moving white car—but that was about all the local cops could say for sure.
The cumulative evidence was damned incriminating. But it wasn’t proof.
So the promising but far from conclusive videos were swiftly dispatched to Building 27958 A, Pod E, Quantico, Virginia. That was where the forensic examiners of the Image Analysis unit of the F.B.I. Operational Technology Division worked their magic using a bit of software that had been originally developed (at the cost of about one million taxpayer dollars) for a secretive Defense Department outfit nestled deep in the clandestine heart of the Deep State—the Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate. With the click of a few computer keys, the program searches through a staggering inventory of cars until it ultimately, according to the confident government description, “identifies the make and model of the vehicle in a still image.”
And it worked like a charm on the handful of videos the Moscow cops had gathered. Or more precisely, three charms. The F.B.I. forensic examiner first deduced that Suspect Vehicle 1 was a 2011–13 Hyundai Elantra. Then, “upon further review,” to use the chagrined phrase of the candid Idaho authorities, he decided the mysterious Hyundai might very well be a 2011–16 vehicle. And when he pored over the image of a car “consistent with” the Hyundai near the murder scene that was caught on camera, not long after the killings, racing toward Pullman, Washington, he deduced that it was a 2014–16 Hyundai. That is, he cast a pretty broad net. And he cast it three times to boot.
Still, when it turned out that Bryan Kohberger owned a 2015 white Hyundai Elantra, it was right in the ballpark of the F.B.I.’s analysis of the make and model of Suspect Vehicle 1. But it was a Superdome-sized ballpark; it had been stretched to cover five full years of cars. A smart defense attorney could drive a fleet of Hyundais through a speculative gap that wide.
And that wasn’t all. There was further cause for handwringing in the aftermath of the F.B.I.’s vaunted forensic image analysis. Despite all the inventive manipulation of the pixels in the video footage of Suspect Vehicle 1, the analysts still couldn’t come up with a legible shot of the license plate. They couldn’t even offer a guess. They simply had no idea.
Even more vexing, there wasn’t a single legible image of the driver. The bureau wizards tried all sorts of photographic tricks to pull a face from the blur. In the end, however, the best they could decipher was a dark, murky shadow hovering over the steering wheel. And you can’t slap handcuffs on a shadow.
To their credit, however, the tenacious Idaho police went (albeit a bit tentatively) ahead with what little they had. On November 25—12 days after the murders—the Moscow authorities, in a judiciously worded appeal, asked local authorities “to be on the lookout” for white Hyundai Elantras in the area.
Four long days passed indolently before the campus cops at Washington State University (W.S.U.), the school just a 10-minute or so drive across the state line from the Idaho murder house, got around to hunting for the car. How can one explain such a lackadaisical, if not incompetent, response? Perhaps the laid-back language of the advisory failed to communicate the urgency.
Still, you didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that a very significant game was finally afoot; however veiled the language, the car very possibly figured in the still unsolved murder of four students—and Washington State was home to nearly 30,000 other potential targets. Maybe this was just one more unprofessional example of the deplorable sort of misconduct that in the recent past had shamed the department: in 2018, a Pullman Police sergeant had his certification revoked following accusations that he had coerced a W.S.U. coed into performing a sex act in exchange for his not arresting her for public intoxication.
Yet despite the snail’s pace, at last a W.S.U. cop did get around to checking out whether any white Hyundai Elantras were registered at the university. It was on November 29, a particularly tranquil Tuesday night on campus since the university was in the midst of its Thanksgiving break. And at 12:28 a.m., not even a half-hour into the start of his midnight-to-eight-a.m. graveyard shift, Officer Daniel Tiengo took advantage of this lull to catch up on a stack of paperwork. Near the top was the bulletin the Moscow P.D. had circulated. It might as well have been a ticking bomb.
Tiengo, people will tell you, was one of the good guys on the force—hardworking, affable, a nighttime supervisor with a straggly, professorial goatee. He pulled in more than $70,000 a year—considerably more than many people on the school payroll who had doctorates. Yet that night he earned his pay. For only moments after he read the notice, he started tapping away at his computer, and—presto!—a name appeared on his screen. Bryan Kohberger, a grad student living in a university apartment compound on Northeast Valley Road, owned a 2015 white Hyundai Elantra.
Dutifully, Tiengo passed the baton to his late-night patrol sergeant, Curtis Whitman. Whitman was an old-guard campus cop who, according to many accounts, had been deeply shaken by the decertification of a fellow officer for allegedly extorting sex from a student. In the volatile aftermath, battle lines had been drawn between the cops and the students, and he was determined to do what he could to forge a reconciliation.
Too much bad blood, he’d say, had been spilled by the force’s all-too-common practice of issuing summonses for “chug jugs”; it was prohibited to carry open containers of alcohol in Pullman. Rather than hassling kids, he’d reveal with a measure of paternal affection at a conciliatory forum with angry undergraduates, “My favorite thing is to say ‘Hi’ to students. We want students to feel comfortable with our officers.”
And so when Whitman got the word that there might be a killer on campus, he didn’t waste any time tracking the vehicle down. At 12:58 a.m.—precisely a half-hour after Tiengo had initially identified a possible owner of the Suspect 1 car—Whitman was staring through the nighttime darkness at a white Hyundai sitting in a graduate apartment-complex parking lot. And the letters and numbers on the license plate were as distinct as those at the top of an eye-examination chart.
The car very possibly figured in the still unsolved murder of four students—and Washington State was home to nearly 30,000 other potential targets.
Now they had a plate number to go with the car owner’s name. And later that same morning they had a face too. Corporal Brett Payne, the 32-year-old former military policeman who, despite his relative youth and short time on the force, had been handpicked by Moscow police chief James Fry to lead the quadruple-murder investigation, stared at a screenshot of Kohberger’s driver’s-license photograph. With mounting excitement, Payne ticked off all the similarities between Kohberger and the intruder whom a surviving roommate had briefly seen in the King Road house on the night of the murders. White male, check. Six feet, check. 185 pounds, check. And the clincher: Kohberger, he decided, possessed “bushy eyebrows”—just as the eyewitness had described.
Yet for all their progress, there was no getting around the dismal reality that the cops were still clutching at straws. Having a likely suspect was not the same as having someone dead to rights. Go into court with this sort of inconclusive supporting evidence and they’d never get an arrest warrant. Especially in a high-profile murder case with the unnerving possibility of a death sentence hanging in the balance. Especially if the judge drove a Hyundai Elantra. Or, for that matter, had bushy eyebrows.
A Wide Net
But they did have enough to take the next incrementally small step. And now at least they knew where they wanted to go. Payne, therefore, conscientiously soldiered on. He had a name, which led him to a cell-phone number for Kohberger.
On December 23, armed with a search warrant, he obtained the phone’s call records for the days surrounding the murder. But the real treasure, the cops wanted to believe, were the locations of the relevant cell-phone towers. Every step you take, every move you make, they’re watching you. And filing it all away.
Enter (although his name has not been officially disclosed) Benjamin Dean, an F.B.I. special agent on the Salt Lake City field office’s Cellular Analysis Survey Team. He took the cell-phone-tower records that had stored the pings from Kohberger’s phone and came up with an itinerary of the suspect’s travels before and after the murder night. Next, the Moscow cops meticulously plotted all the comings and goings on a series of maps.
At a glance, the new evidence seemed deeply incriminating. Kohberger was placed near the King Road house immediately before the murder and later, hightailing it away from the scene of the crime in the pre-dawn aftermath. However, when examined closely, it turned out that the maps had been sketched with a swirling, impressionistic Cy Twombly–ish hand rather than with a cartographer’s rigor.
What went (deliberately?) unmentioned when the police shared their handiwork with the public was that cell-phone towers cast a wide net. Their range can be as broad as 14 miles—and in a cozy town like Moscow, that takes in a lot of territory. It’s more wishful thinking than solid detective work to put Kohberger’s phone at a precise spot at a certain time. Being in the vicinity is not the same as being at an exact address. Just ask anyone whose Amazon delivery wound up at a neighbor’s. Or any of the combative defense attorneys who’ve succeeded in convincing courts to question the reliability and accuracy of the F.B.I.’s attempts to map the “signal footprints” cast by cell towers.
And so as last Christmas loomed, the hunters’ mood was anything but merry. They felt they had their man, but at the same galling time he was beyond their reach—literally. Kohberger had gotten behind the wheel of his white Hyundai and driven across the country to Albrightsville, Pennsylvania. And all they could do was watch him peel off into the distance (albeit with an F.B.I. surveillance task force following covertly behind). Kohberger had headed home for the holidays, while the authorities’ own Christmases would be spent ruminating about the suspect who had slipped through their grasp. It was as if, a few of the Moscow cops would moan to their buddies, Kohberger was laughing at them, taunting their ineptitude. Was the criminal-justice student in fact smarter than they were? a few dared to wonder.
But all was not lost. The cops did have one ace hidden up their sleeves: the killer had made an amateur’s mistake. A tan leather knife sheath had been left at the scene of the crime. It had been found in the third-floor room on the bed where the blood-spattered bodies of Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves lay.
At first the authorities had exulted. This was the break they’d been hoping for. The Idaho State Police Forensic Services in Meridian had quickly gone to work, and they hit the jackpot: male DNA had been left on the button snap of the knife sheath. Now we got him! the cops and the scientists rejoiced.
Only once again they were wrong. Once again, they were too quick off the mark.
The consumer DNA kits that are sold in your local CVS need about 750 to 1,000 nanograms to find out all they need to know about you. And that’s not much. It’s smaller than a speck of floating dust, and a whole lot less substantial. A single nanogram is as heavy as a breeze; it weighs a few trillionths of a pound. There’s nothing to it.
But crime scenes often contain a whole lot less DNA than that. The forensic teams will routinely wind up with only 100 or so nanograms of DNA. Yet scientists can nevertheless work their magic and use even this microscopic amount of genetic evidence to nail the criminal.
The problem, however, was that the DNA on the knife sheath, authorities would concede on background, was less than one hundred nanograms. A whole lot less. A mere fraction, in fact, of a single nanogram. Nothing more than just a handful of microscopic-sized cells. In total, according to knowledgeable sources, about 20 cells. Maybe, they whispered, even fewer. The DNA sample was as small as a fragment of a speck balanced on the head of a tiny pin.
And it had the Iowa crime lab stymied. It was a scientific challenge beyond their capabilities.
But not beyond Othram’s. And its lab, equipped with a costly NovaSeq 6000.
A “Troll” Evolves
Some scientists take pride in their lofty detachment. They prefer to muse on big, eternal mysteries, not muck through sordid, all-too-human events. At Othram, though, a gleaming cutting-edge genetics laboratory in a suburban high-tech corridor just north of Houston, Texas, there’s a shared sense of mission among the two dozen or so assembled lab geeks. They’ve embarked on a do-gooders’ crusade that, they’ll tell you, is tacitly embodied in the company’s esoteric moniker.
Othram was the name of the impenetrable black-rock wall that protected Minas Tirith, a capital city in the imagined universe that comes to life in The Lord of the Rings. And the scientists chose this nerdy Tolkein reference to drive home their commitment to the technological wall they’re building—a barrier that will protect a very real world by helping to identify the violent criminals lurking undetected in its midst. Othram’s scientists are forensic detectives.
Yet it’s a mission that needed capital, and lots of it. Without that seed money the four-story lab, the multi-million-dollar equipment, the team of highly accomplished experts might never have come together. And the secrets hidden in the speck of DNA on the tab of the knife sheath found in the Idaho murder house might forever have remained an unfathomable mystery.
So then, one starting point on the path that ultimately led in its meandering way to the arrest of Bryan Kohberger can be traced to John Burbank, a self-made billionaire venture capitalist, writing a big check about four years ago to the company. Burbank put in $2 million of his own funds and raised another $2 million from “sources,” as he breezily told me, because “I was intrigued by the company’s mission.”
Kohberger had headed home for the holidays, while the authorities’ own Christmases would be spent ruminating about the suspect who had slipped through their grasp.
Yet how Burbank, the founder of Passport Capital, a San Francisco–based hedge fund with $4 billion under management, first heard about Othram is another tale. His source was Charles Johnson, another tech investor. And once the crusading husband-and-wife scientists who were the company’s founders learned of Johnson’s background, it reportedly filled them with pangs of despair.
As Johnson, now 34, told me the story, he was in the midst of a painful divorce and had fled from his marital home in San Francisco to the Woodlands because he’d read it was a great place to live. It was while in this bucolic Houston suburb that he met Othram’s founders, Drs. David and Kristen Mittleman. And over several conversations, Johnson grew intrigued with the unique genetic technology the company was using to help solve cold cases.
The two scientists, he learned, had even larger ambitions. They had dreams of putting together a fully staffed lab and buying the sort of gene-sequencing equipment, such as a pricey NovaSeq 6000, that would allow them to unravel the spool of genes that could connect the dots in decades-old, and often abandoned, mysteries. They would free innocents who had been wrongly convicted, and they would help track down the actual criminals. Only they needed money to make their dreams a reality.
Johnson, he said, subsequently met up with the Mittlemans again in San Francisco and, after a long dinner, volunteered to introduce them to his friend John Burbank.
It was a marriage made in start-up heaven—for a while. Burbank provided the checks and offered a veteran businessman’s shrewd advice to the company, and Johnson received a potentially lucrative chunk of stock for playing middleman to the Mittlemans. It was only later that the scientists found out more about the man who had brokered the deal.
The banner headline above a hard-hitting article in The Boston Globe about Johnson was dismaying enough: “A race-baiting troll has found acceptance—in Trump’s D.C.” But the disclosures were more distressing: “He’s argued that black people are ‘dumber’ than white people, questioned whether 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, was banned from Twitter for threatening a Black Lives Matter activist, and posed making a white power sign while standing next to white supremacist leader Richard Spencer.” And now Johnson was a fairly significant stockholder in their idealistic, justice-driven creation, a company where key scientists had relatives who had died in the Holocaust.
When I met with Johnson for lunch, he offered apologies for his past beliefs. “I’ve evolved,” he explained with a terse contrition. But as the long lunch continued, he revealed that many of his prior assertions had actually been role-playing. He’d been acting under orders from “intelligence agencies,” and he was dutifully constructing an incendiary cover identity. And it was with the knowledge and approval of these clandestine organizations, he said, that he’d met with Julian Assange in London and now assisted companies providing military equipment to the Ukrainian forces.
In fact, his varied activities in the shadows while fighting for the national interest had made him, he claimed, a marked man: he was advised to cancel a proposed business trip to London because MI5 couldn’t guarantee his safety. The Russian F.S.B. as well as Israeli Mossad “are out to get me,” he confided with a derring-do fatalism.
And then, with a no-less-impassioned sincerity, he quickly segued: “I also feel very proud that I had helped set in motion the events that led to the arrest of Bryan Kohberger.”
The Snake River
And that is indeed, quite feasibly, one starting point for the path that led to the arrest of the man alleged to have brutally murdered the four students. However, a few law-enforcement figures close to the events believe that the final tightening of the investigative knots around Kohberger had its true beginnings in September 2014. It was on a bright morning back then that a kayaker energetically paddling down the fast-moving waters of the Snake River spotted an object floating limply in the distance beneath the Perrine Bridge in Jerome, Idaho. Curious, he broke course to investigate—and discovered a woman’s body.
Over the next four years, investigators doggedly followed a long and winding trail in an attempt to figure out who the woman had been and what had happened to her. They combed the area, checked local restaurants, motels, bus depots, and taxi services. Photos of what remained of the dead woman’s face, as well as her fingerprints and DNA samples, were run through national databases. Fourteen states reached out to the Idaho state police thinking the “Jane Doe” matched descriptions of missing persons they were pursuing. All the feverish detective work, however, led nowhere. In August 2020, the perplexed investigators finally threw up their hands in despair. The case was officially classified “inactive,” its voluminous evidence folders stuffed into one of the many dusty file drawers that were the burial grounds of the frigidly cold cases.
But then there was, in relatively rapid succession, a flurry of fortuitous, and previously unimaginable, events. For starters, Matthew Gamette, the director of the Idaho State Police Forensics Services Laboratory, a hands-on crime-scene investigator who was also a scientist with a master’s in microbiology as well as someone who had done a fair share of DNA-driven investigations, applied for and won a $3 million grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance to fund genetic genealogy testing to solve unsolved cases. Spurred on by this windfall of government dollars, Idaho officials announced that the state was seeking bids from private companies that had expertise in advanced forensic testing. In July 2021, Othram won the contract. And one of the first seemingly dead-end cases Gamette sent their way was the mystery of the identity of the female corpse—the coroner had ruled suicide as the cause of death—that had been found drifting seven years earlier on the Snake River.
Othram solved the mystery. Actually, a large part of the credit belonged to the company’s astonishing NovaSeq 6000 system (developed by Illumina, a pioneering genetics concern), which was able to sequence the scant amount of DNA from the corpse that had been preserved over the years into a picture that told a clear genealogical story. And this story led police investigators to a name: that of a woman who had gone missing nearly a decade ago from her home in San Diego. Case closed.
And four months later, that unlikely success got Gamette thinking: what if Othram could work its magic not just on cold cases but also on a very hot one? A case whose solution might very well be embedded in the microscopic DNA left on the button snap of a knife sheath.
But no sooner had this wishful possibility excitedly begun to take hold than it was dismissed. Kohberger, they had discovered to their consternation, was in none of the readily accessible public DNA databases. Even if Othram could, miracle of miracles, manage to chart a genetic schematic from the scant substance on the button snap, there’d be no way to connect it directly to the suspect.
Then Gamette had a eureka moment. And a new path suddenly became clear.
A Hail Mary Pass
Some cases stay with you, cops will often admit. You can’t let them go. They ride shotgun on your thoughts. For Pennsylvania state trooper Brian Noll, it was the case of “Beth Doe.” That was what Noll and his buddies on the Criminal Investigations Unit called the grisly murder mystery that had frustrated the authorities for over 40 years.
Just days before Christmas, 1976, three suitcases had been tossed off a bridge that spanned the Lehigh River in White Haven, Pennsylvania. They missed the water, however, and landed on the grassy shoulder running along nearby rural interstate 80. And when the cops opened them up, they found pieces of a dismembered female body. The victim, an autopsy showed, had been sexually assaulted, strangled, and then shot in the neck. And she had been carrying a nine-month-old female fetus.
Trooper Noll was determined to discover the victim’s identity. And then he would catch the killer. Justice, he strongly felt, needed to be done. “Someone out there knows who she is,” he told reporters. “And there is always hope that someone will come forward with information.”
What if Othram could work its magic not just on cold cases but also on a very hot one? A case whose solution might very well be embedded in the microscopic DNA left on the button snap of a knife sheath.
Yet for all his years of hoping as well as chasing down leads, Noll got nowhere. Then in November 2020, DNA extracted from Beth Doe’s skeletal remains were sent to the Othram lab in Texas. It was, said one member of the Pennsylvania Criminal Investigation Unit, “a Hail Mary pass. We didn’t have much hope.” But Othram’s scientists once again did the impossible. A DNA match enabled detectives to identify the butchered woman. And then, despite all the decades that had passed, the alleged killer, a man who had been the victim’s live-in boyfriend at the time, was arrested. (He is out on bail as he awaits trial.)
At last, Trooper Noll felt, the murder had been avenged. And it was thanks largely to a bunch of science geeks in the suburbs of Houston.
Two years later, on a cold December night just two days after last Christmas, Noll was once again working hand in hand with the Othram scientists. Only he didn’t know it. He simply focused on his covert mission: stealing garbage.
It became known to the wags in Troop N, the state troopers who were running the surveillance op targeting Bryan Kohberger as he spent Christmas with his parents, as the Great Trash Robbery. And the target was the neatly bagged detritus that had been deposited in the bins outside the squat, white two story home with its faded brown shutters where the Kohberger family lived in Albrightsville, Pennsylvania.
In the dead of night, Noll, as if on cat’s feet, tiptoed in and made off with his treasure trove. Later that same day a special FedEx package deceptively marked “Medical Material” made its way to the Othram lab. The scientists quickly went to work. They extracted promising material from the trash they’d received.
With the NovaSeq 6000 geared up, they hurriedly plotted specific genetic sequences. And when they shared the information with the Idaho crime lab about 1,800 miles up north, alarm bells started ringing.
Just as Matthew Gamette, the director of the lab, had hoped.
It no longer mattered that they had previously drawn a blank trying to make a link between the DNA on the knife-sheath button and Bryan Kohberger. They had succeeded in doing the next best thing—and they were convinced that was good enough.
They had matched the speck of DNA recovered from the murder house to the DNA embedded in the trash of Michael Kohberger, the suspect’s father. And while moralists might find biblical authority for the argument that the father was not responsible for his son’s alleged sins, the more practical geneticists had found an indisputable link: “At least 99.9998% of the male population would be expected to be excluded from the possibility of being the suspect’s biological father.” Q.E.D.: the DNA on the knife-sheath button belonged, the Idaho authorities asserted, to Michael Kohberger’s son, Bryan.
The case now had a seemingly unsplittable atom at its core. It could at last charge forward. On December 29 an Idaho magistrate read a request for an arrest warrant to be issued for Bryan Kohberger. It was signed with alacrity. And the next day, at about 1:30 a.m., Trooper Noll, along with a tough-guy team of state SWAT officers, stormed in to make the arrest.
“Kohberger,” a Monroe County, Pennsylvania, assistant district attorney informed reporters, “was found awake in the kitchen area dressed in shorts and a shirt a [sic] wearing latex medical-type gloves and apparently was taking his personal trash and putting it into separate Ziploc baggies.”
In the days that followed, Kohberger’s legal-aid attorney would vehemently proclaim his client’s innocence. And Kohberger will have a chance to enter his own plea at a hearing that starts on June 26 in Moscow, Idaho. Yet it is no vaulting supposition to speculate that at the unnerving moment when the police charged in as he sorted his trash with cunning care into individual plastic bags, Bryan Kohberger, doctoral candidate in criminology, experienced the profoundly disturbing realization that he was not as gifted a student as he’d believed.
“There’s someone here.”
Three short words. A curt, declarative sentence. Yet filled, it can all too easily be imagined, with an immensity of apprehension. Perhaps even an intimation of the horror that was to come.
They were the last words that, according to the Moscow police, Dylan Mortensen, one of the two surviving roommates, had heard Kaylee Goncalves speak in the helter-skelter moments before her death.
I am replaying this fearful testament in my mind as I stand transfixed outside the King Road house as the night comes falling on a wintry day. I look out into the darkness, and the volumes implicit in those few words reverberate through my imagination. It’s eerie. It’s as if the furies that were set loose in those fateful pre-dawn moments are still swirling about.
Yet once I walk away, heading down the icy street and leaving the house behind, the instant passes. The echoing sentence slides away, slipping off to be stored deep in the recesses of my reporter’s memory.
And it stays there—not forgotten, yet inert. Then without warning, the words return, catching me by surprise.
It is months later, a new, fresh spring, and this time the night has come falling on a verdant corner of the Pennsylvania countryside. I am standing outside the “crime scene house” that’s just a stone’s throw from the campus of DeSales University.
When Bryan Kohberger was a grad student here, one of his professors was Dr. Katherine Ramsland. She’s a celebrated forensic psychologist and a prolific author. One of the required texts in her course was her own book, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers: Why They Kill. It is a grim yet fascinating work, filled with case studies that give support to the professor’s earnest wisdoms.
“Fantasy,” she writes with authority, “also builds an appetite to experience the real thing.”
Standing on a patch of grass staring into the dark stone house, I can picture an impressionable student walking through an interior staged with corpses and blood, and the warning in Ramsland’s cautionary logic is driven home. And I find myself measuring an increasingly rage-filled journey that hardened a spirit until its secret impulses might very well have led him into the deep shadows of a house on the other side of the country. Where a voice blurted out with a sudden awful comprehension:
“There’s someone here.”
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