Stepping into the courtroom, you know the score. Only one thing matters: getting your client off the hook.
So if the facts are on your side, you pound ’em. If not, pound the table.
Only the more you keep pounding, something unexpected happens. It all comes into focus. Everything starts to make sense.
Because you know: it didn’t go down the way the prosecution’s claiming. There are too many gaps. Too many things that don’t add up.
And now the facts are on your side, and you’re ready to pound the table into smithereens.
And you’re staring, eyes as big as saucers, at a premise that’d once seemed impossible: he didn’t do it!
Fear commands Bryan Kohberger’s defense team—a relentless fear. The three lawyers, all paid by the state of Idaho to ensure that the indigent suspect will be well represented, labor with the knowledge that their client’s life is on the line.
Kohberger, a 28-year-old graduate student in criminology, is scheduled to stand trial beginning on October 2 for the vicious murder of four University of Idaho college students: Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle, and Ethan Chapin. Last month, the prosecution announced with sober resolve that “considering all evidence currently known,” the state felt “compelled” to seek the death penalty. And weeks later the state legislature passed a law ensuring that in the aftermath of the seemingly inevitable guilty verdict, justice would not be deprived of its pound of flesh. If the requisite cocktail of chemicals for a lethal intravenous drip proved unavailable, the law decreed that a firing squad would be rounded up to get the deed done.
With this specter haunting Bryan Kohberger’s world, his lawyers have been diligent. They have pounded the courthouse table with motions—a rat-a-tat of demands for discovery, objections to protective orders, even a curious request for the personnel files of three of the cops who played a role in helping to clamp the cuffs on Kohberger.
It’s a seemingly desperate strategy that has left the Moscow, Idaho, authorities bemused. At least that is what I’m hearing, albeit in whispered confidences quickly muttered in dark corners, the judge in the case having issued a Draconian gag order. In the second-floor detectives’ shack of the Moscow police department building, the mood is, I’m told, haughty and confident.
“S.O.D.D.I.,” the cops taunt derisively: Some other dude did it. How many times have they heard that, and how did those cases work out? We got our man, they insist, and there’s no way he’s going to wiggle out of this.
And the facts, as they’re enumerated by law enforcement with glee, sure seem to bolster this argument. For starters—and maybe for finishers too—there’s the 51 terabytes of ostensibly confirming data the prosecution has handed over with sly relish to the defense. It includes, according to the court filings, “thousands of pages of discovery, thousands of photographs, hundreds of hours of recordings, many gigabytes of electronic phone records and social media data.” And how big is 51 terabytes? Well, you might as well be counting the grains of sand on a beach. The mischievous bottom line is that it’ll keep the already inundated defense busy for a while, and then some.
But if that’s not sufficient to convince the Idaho prison warden to hurry up and get his order in for the chemicals that give the execution hemlock its lethal bite, the local authorities insist they have more aces up their sleeve. For one persuasive item, there’s the DNA on the button of the knife sheath found partially lying under Maddie Mogen, which matches Kohberger’s, according to the prosecution. For another, there’s video of a white Hyundai Elantra similar to the suspect’s tearing away from the King Road murder scene in the gray pre-dawn November morning at approximately the time the murders occurred. And for still another, there’s the cell-phone-tower tracking data. Just before 3 a.m., as Kohberger leaves his apartment on the night of the murders, he apparently powers down. Then at nearly 5 a.m., about an hour after the murders, his phone springs back to life just south of Moscow. In a cop’s distrustful world, where there are no accidents, this timeline is damned incriminating.
And then there’s the clincher. In fact, cop after cop promises me that it’ll be the single unshakable reason Kohberger will be sent by the state to his richly deserved death: Bill Thompson, the county prosecutor. Thompson, his long white biblical beard flailing about as the wind roars over the Pelouse, Thompson in his down-home uniform of jeans and fleece vests, Thompson the wry musician who plays rock, folk, country and even klezmer (his band was the Gefilte Trout), Thompson who had been in office for over 30 years, Thompson who had famously done the impossible in the closely followed Rachel Anderson murder case and won a conviction without the body ever being found—an improbable victory that sent no less a culprit than a blood relative of Al Capone to jail for life.
Rumor has it that this will be Thompson’s last hurrah. There’s no way, the cops believe, that he’d retire to idle away his days strumming his guitar and casting his fishing rod without having secured his already impressive reputation with a final victory in a big trial. And trials just don’t come any bigger than this in Latah County.
So, people in Moscow will tell you, let the defense file all the Hail Mary motions they want. They’re clutching at straws, howling against the wind. Case closed.
Or is it?
Because, for a supposedly open-and-shut case, it sure is starting to seem a lot more open than shut. At least that’s what the defense team is excitedly whispering to each other, according to several people privy to their deliberations. Give the State’s much vaunted evidence a couple of good swift kicks, and it’ll break apart. That’s what these defense sources, energized by a triumphant sense of an extraordinary upset in the making, are sharing with me.
The DNA? It’s “touch”—that is, from skin cells, not blood. Grounds for suspicion, not a one-way ticket to the execution chamber.
The car videos? There’s no image of the driver in any of them, and there’s not a single shot that displays the license plate. Nothing that definitively puts Kohberger at the wheel or demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that it was his car. After all, there are a lot of Hyundai Elantras on the road besides Kohberger’s.
The cell-tower triangulation? That’s one part wishful thinking to another of junk science. Peel away the well-documented limitations of the process, and Kohberger’s phone could be placed anywhere within a 13-mile radius of the murder house—and that’s about as definitive as a suspicion, not a certainty.
And as for wily Bill Thompson, well, the wags say, the Biden presidency makes one truth uncomfortably clear: “experienced” is just another word for old.
And there was redder meat for the defense to sink their teeth into. With an attention-grabbing oratorical drum roll, defense sources enumerate the large, lingering mysteries the prosecution has refused to address. And they very pointedly make the case that these inconvenient truths, when lined up end to end, hint at another, still untold story.
Consider: The timeline for the murders, the prosecution asserts, was a brutally effective eight minutes, from 4:02 to 4:10 a.m. Do the grim mathematics and it works out to an efficient two minutes per victim, and each pair was hunkered down for the night on separate floors. Could a single assassin—a graduate student, not a sicario—get the job done with such disciplined professionalism?
And then disappear into the night without leaving a single drop of his blood in the house, in his car, on his clothes, or in his apartment? The stunned cops arriving on the scene had described what they encountered as “a blood bath.” Is this lack of blood evidence testimony to the killer’s fastidiousness, or a prod to go down other ruminative paths?
And remember, too, Kaylee’s father had found a measure of small comfort in the fact that his brave daughter had, the coroner had revealed to him, fought back like a tiger. And yet no traces of cuts, scrapes, or bruises were observed on Kohberger. Four young, fit targets, and he somehow traipsed away with his pasty skin as smooth and unblemished as any sedentary academic’s?
For a supposedly open-and-shut case, it sure is starting to seem a lot more open than shut. At least that’s what the defense team is excitedly whispering to each other.
Then there’s the coroner’s autopsy reports. What was behind the delay in the determination of Ethan’s wounds? The autopsy was performed on November 17, but the report on his death was not issued for nearly a month, on December 15. Had there been a problem in reaching the findings, a final analysis that had been subject to weeks of debate?
The coroner’s descriptions of the wounds (as noted in court documents) seem to differ from floor to floor in the house. Kaylee and Maddie, lying in the same bed on the third floor, suffered through “visible stab wounds.” Yet on the floor above, Xana succumbed to “wounds caused by an edged weapon.” Ethan’s were “caused by ‘sharp-force injuries.’” Was there some doubt in the coroner’s mind that the wounds were all caused by the same weapon? And speaking of the murder weapon, where is it? The knife—or is it knives?—used in the attack has not been found. There’s not an incriminating trace of a weapon that can be tied to Kohberger.
But these suspicions are just preludes to the bigger mysteries that keep the defense up at night. In an “Objection to State’s Motion for Protective Order” they’d filed late in June, the team zeroed in on a few of the lingering questions. It is a revelatory document—and a provocative one.
They point out that back in December the prosecution was made aware of two additional males’ DNA found inside the King Road house, as well as male DNA on a glove found outside the residence just days after the murders. If the DNA had been Kohberger’s, the prosecution would have been screaming this revelation from the Moscow rooftops. The state’s stony silence, the defense believes, can mean only one thing: the DNA comes from three other men. And so the obvious and yet very pertinent questions remain unanswered: Who are they, and how do these three unknown men fit into the horrific events of that night?
And there is still another ticking bomb in the court document. The motion dramatically demolishes the tantalizing press reports that had been buzzing around the case for several months. Forget the stories about online direct messages between Kohberger and one of the victims. Forget the alleged run-in at a Main Street, Moscow, restaurant where two of the girls worked. The defense asserts that “there is no connection between Mr. Kohberger and the victims.”
And if there is no connection—then there is no motive. And without a motive, the random, brutal killing of four college students by a grad student from a nearby university sure is an enigma. Why? It just doesn’t make sense.
But there’s still another puzzler at the beating heart of this case. Namely, the eight-hour gap between when one of the surviving roommates, Dylan Mortensen, first heard disquieting noises in the house and spotted a masked, black-dressed intruder and when the police were finally summoned. Eight hours! There have been a lot of agile, emphatic explanations offered to explain away this remarkable delay, and none so far, the defense believes, have been satisfactory. Or have the ring of truth.
Meanwhile, these simmering doubts have only intensified now that the defense has been able to read the roommates’ grand-jury testimony. A person familiar with the grand-jury findings that led to Kohberger’s indictment told me with undisguised bafflement and frustration that Mortensen’s testimony “raised more questions than it answered.”
Then the defense—along with everyone else with access to the Internet—watched a newly released video that showed a pickup truck leaving the neighborhood of the murder scene just minutes after the white Hyundai Elantra. Was this some neighbor heading off at a pre-dawn hour to his early-morning job? A Romeo who didn’t want to stay for breakfast? Or was it something else a whole lot more significant? Perhaps it was another piece in a complex puzzle that, despite the state’s confident assurances, has not yet been satisfactorily pieced together.
So the defense has gone on the offensive. The accumulated doubts have worked to liberate them from poking holes in the prosecution’s case, and with this freedom they’ve begun to explore new narratives, alternative versions of what might have happened on that fateful night in November on King Road. And if Kohberger wasn’t the killer, or if he was an accomplice rather than the sole perp, then they realized they had to go back to what had been previously brushed over. They had to work their way to an explanation that made sense.
And the farther they traveled, according to people familiar with what the defense team is exploring, the more the trail led inexorably to drugs.
The Tentacles of the Octopus
It was the heart-wrenching case of the young man who had died twice that drove the hunt. But, in truth, the defense’s interest had been piqued long before by a jarring anomaly in the squeaky-clean biographies of the four victims that were being churned out by the press. It had spilled onto the Internet that three of the victims’ parents—Kernodle’s mom, Mogen’s stepmom, and Mogen’s dad—had been arrested on felony drug-possession charges. And while to the uninitiated this might have been startling, this was old news to Anne Taylor, Kohberger’s lead legal-aid attorney. She had been representing Kara Kernodle before she promptly jettisoned her case (to Kara Kernodle’s very public ire) when offered the bigger challenge of representing the man accused of murdering their children. (Taylor shot back that she never met Kara Kernodle.)
Still, four victims and three parents with a history of drug arrests? What were the odds? Was it a strange coincidence? A sad commentary on contemporary American life? Or something more? In the end, it was another of the many stray tidbits that the defense filed away and then promptly forgot. But then last March a former University of Idaho frat president, a 22-year-old journalism major in his junior year, died not once but twice in a single night. And in the aftermath of his sad and needless demise, new avenues of speculation multiplied, spreading out in previously unexplored—and surprising—directions.
It was spring break, and Caden Young was looking to score. And he succeeded, only to pay with his life. That is a thumbnail history of the events as detailed in the initial news stories. However, the voluminous police reports, as well as a conversation with one of the detectives who had led the investigation and with a legal-aid lawyer who subsequently got involved, offer a more detailed account, one that introduces two new actors to the drama. They’re a couple who quickly caught the defense team’s rapt attention—and continue to hold it like a magnet.
The penultimate day of Young’s brief life began with a decision to leave the apartment in Centralia, Washington, where he was visiting a one-time Alpha Kappa Lambda fraternity brother, Christopher O’Flaherty. After O’Flaherty had to go off to work, Young decided he’d take an Uber to Tacoma, where he would meet up with some friends who would drive him to Seattle. The next morning, at nearly one a.m., O’Flaherty told me he got a call from Young saying he was in the Harborview Hospital, in Seattle, and needed a lift home.
“Bro, what happened?” O’Flaherty asked.
Young, with a matter-of-factness that surprised his friend, recounted that he’d been partying that afternoon with friends in a room at a Seattle Holiday Inn and snorted some cocaine apparently laced with fentanyl. The next thing he knew his face went white, then blue, and suddenly everything turned completely black. “I was dead, bro,” was how Young, apparently still dazed and bewildered by it all, summed things up to O’Flaherty.
An ambulance, however, had been summoned. Naloxone was administered. And the next thing Young remembered was waking up in a bed in the hospital. Alive. He now was being released, and he was hoping his old Alpha Kapp brother would come and get him.
So at two a.m., O’Flaherty made his way to the hospital and retrieved his buddy. On the ride back to Centralia, he grew concerned because his passenger seemed “out of it,” nodding off frequently. But they nevertheless stopped at a Jack in the Box to grab burgers; Young had roused from his fog long enough to announce in an emphatic voice that he was hungry.
Four victims and two parents with a history of drug arrests? What were the odds? Was it a strange coincidence? A sad commentary on contemporary American life? Or something more?
Once back at O’Flaherty’s apartment, though, Young immediately crashed on the futon in his friend’s bedroom. And he was snoring something awful. Flaherty playfully recorded the racket on his phone; he thought they’d have a good laugh over it in the morning. But when Flaherty checked on his friend a bit later, there was a swirl of whitish vomit circling Caden’s mouth, and a frantic search for a pulse revealed nothing. When the medics arrived, it became official: Caden had suffered his second and final death.
It was all too common—another young life ravaged by fentanyl—and within days it might very well have become simply another tragic statistic in a national body count that is climbing toward pandemic proportions. But then the police made two arrests in connection with Young’s death.
Hurrying to Room 214 of the Holiday Inn where Young had first overdosed, the police arrested Emma Bailey, 22, of Moscow, and Demetrius Robinson, 36, of Tacoma, just as they were apparently preparing to leave. They were each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit a violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act—that is, they had allegedly supplied the student with the lethal fentanyl-laced cocaine—and held on $100,000 bail. Pleading not guilty, but unable to post bail, they were shuffled off to the Lewis County Jail, where they were to await their May 30 trial date.
The pair spent two months and five days behind bars, and during that time law-enforcement investigators and the press kept digging. And what they unearthed grabbed the attention of the preternaturally curious Kohberger defense team.
Robinson—or D, as he was widely known in the college towns of both Moscow, Idaho, and Pullman, Washington—had quite a rap sheet. “Extensive” was the adjective the local paper used to describe it. “Violent” was the modifier, though, that leaped up in many people’s minds.
Among the eyebrow-raising highlights: a 15-month prison sentence for a second-degree assault in Pullman back in 2018; a second-degree rape investigation two years later; and then, in 2021, an arrest in Pullman for suspicion of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, and for allegedly assaulting a companion when their alleged partnership went south. While the drug case had fallen apart because of legal concerns over an overly gung-ho search of a hotel room, the fourth-degree-assault and harassment charges stuck, and he served 151 days in jail. Also scattered about Robinson’s sheet were five charges for driving with a suspended license, one of which landed him in jail for five days; there was an outstanding arrest warrant for another.
As for Bailey, her record was more banal: a D.U.I. arrest this past February after she breezed through a red light in Pullman around two a.m. (There’s an amusing visual record of the aftermath: police body-cam video of an obviously inebriated, yet indignant, Emma trying with impressive sincerity to convince the bemused cop that she hasn’t been out seriously drinking.)
Bailey’s mother, Kimberley, though, told a more plaintive and complicated story about her daughter in two lengthy telephone conversations that were recorded by the Centralia detectives investigating the sale of the lethal fentanyl-laced cocaine. As the mother told it, her daughter was an innocent Moscow High graduate who put in a disjointed year at the University of Idaho before hooking up with Robinson, 14 years her senior, a charmer with his cornrows and tough-guy menace. And what a tumultuous five-year love story their romance has been!
Bailey, her mother said, has allegedly been living in fear of Robinson’s violent mood swings and hair-raising threats of what will happen to her family if she ever leaves him. There have been times, in fact, when Kimberley and her ex-husband have rushed to their daughter’s rescue after getting a teary distress call. They’d drive for hours and then covertly ferry her off while Robinson was sleeping the afternoon away. But each time, Bailey would run back to Robinson. Was it love? Was it fear? Bailey’s mom worried to the police, as did Emma’s friends who followed her Instagram account showing her living a high-flying life in hotel suites in Las Vegas and Cancún, that Robinson was prostituting her.
And there was more. When the cops dug deeper, they grew to suspect that the couple were very possibly dealing drugs they’d scored in Seattle to the local colleges in Pullman and Moscow. In fact, they discovered, and the detective’s incident report flatly stated, “There were investigations in other jurisdictions for Emma and Demetrius for narcotics trafficking.”
O’Flaherty told the cops that he’d first met Bailey when she’d come to the Alpha Lamba Kappa parties to see if the brothers were interested in scoring some coke. But, he also learned firsthand, she was merely the enticing go-between. Robinson was the iron-fisted closer. He’d hand over the product and give you a look that made sure you paid.
When I spoke with O’Flaherty, he gave me a very similar account of the couple’s activities. And when I ran this scenario by a handful of students and ex-students in Moscow and Pullman who’d confided that they knew Bailey and Robinson, time after time I got pretty much a uniform response: the couple did a lively business dealing drugs along Greek Row.
Neither Bailey nor Robinson responded to any of my messages (although at one point Bailey accepted the $5.25 I’d put in her account so she could e-mail me over the carefully managed prison Internet, and she acknowledged my inquiries to her lawyer). A friend, however, acting on their instructions, ultimately sent me a text, and we talked by phone.
Tanner Aspire announced that he was D’s “good buddy” and in fact was planning to go into business with him.
That got my attention. “What business?” I asked guardedly.
“Fish farming,” Tanner explained. They were going to open a business to farm trout in Colorado. “We’ll be able to sell ’em over the entire Midwest.”
“Colorado a good place for a fish farm?,” I asked without any real interest; I just wanted to keep him talking.
Still, my question seemed to throw him. There was a long silence, and at last he suggested thoughtfully, “Maybe Montana does make better sense.”
But all this airy business talk was just a prelude to the message he wanted to deliver.
“Both Emma and D want you to know that they’d never deal drugs. And they never sold any cocaine to Caden,” Aspire said, adding, “The worst you can say is that D has an anger-management problem. But D is getting it under control.”
I dutifully took it all down, but I still had one question: “What’s Emma’s role going to be in the fish farm?”
“It’s a real love story,” Aspire assured me, while at the same time deftly avoiding the question. “Where D goes, Emma goes.”
And the couple did in fact go off together. Just five days before the trial for supplying the lethal cocaine was to begin, a judge dismissed the case. Their legal-aid lawyer had zeroed in on a technicality, but it was clearly a very consequential one: “the question of prosecutorial jurisdiction.” Apparently they’d been scheduled to be tried in the county where the death had occurred, rather than where the cocaine had been originally ingested.
But their good fortune might be short-lived. The judge had dismissed the case “without prejudice.” That means that it can be refiled in the same court of law if the authorities draft a new and more carefully drawn indictment.
Is one in the works? All a fuming Centralia detective who’d been involved in the case from the morning he’d found Young’s inert body would say is “We’re not going to let this case disappear.”
Time after time I got pretty much a uniform response: the couple did a lively business dealing drugs along Greek Row.
And he’s not alone. The case hasn’t disappeared from the thoughts of the Kohberger defense team either. It is a touchstone, according to people familiar with their inquiries, that has the team digging deep into the possibility of narcotics trafficking along Greek Row in Moscow and wondering whether these furtive activities might have played a part in the murders.
What, if anything, they’ve uncovered is wrapped up tight by the iron bands of the gag order, but now, having caught the scent, I head off on my own. I want to know what they want to know.
The overview offered by the Seattle D.E.A. field office is a tale of cutthroat international intrigue, a pipeline that runs from China, where the fentanyl precursor chemicals are produced, to the sinister Sinaloa and Jalisco Cartels in Mexico, which manufacture the drugs and then smuggle the too-often-lethal product to their distribution networks in northwestern urban hubs such as Seattle and Spokane. Then, with the eager help of a freelance army of small-time distributors, the tentacles of the octopus reach into the seemingly wholesome all-American counties and college towns stretching across the Great Outdoors.
That’s the view from a thousand feet. But Sheriff Brett Myers, head of the Quad City Drug Task Force, a multi-jurisdictional team propped up, in part, by federal money, whose territory includes the university towns of Moscow and Pullman (along with the Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho), offers a ground-level account. And it’s enough to give anyone whose kid is heading off to college in the area the willies.
Matter-of-factly, the sheriff shares that his task force is “working with college kids” in the local schools whom they’ve caught dealing MDMA and cocaine, “flipping them,” and then using the students “to go after the big local dealers.” And once the scared-witless college kids have helped his team ID the foot soldiers, “we go up the ladder to get the people tied to the cartels in the cities.”
“Sounds pretty dangerous for the kids,” I suggest.
“It could be. There are some seriously tough guys running this business.” Full of resolve, though, he adds, “But we’re game to do that every day of the week.”
And with that disconcerting prelude, I steer the conversation to the murders of the four University of Idaho students. The sheriff concedes that “while it’s a small, local law-enforcement community,” he’s not specifically involved in the investigation and therefore not constrained by the gag order. So—
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” he acknowledges. Pressed further, he candidly goes on, “Could it have been a drug-related case? I can’t rule it out. It’s not improbable. From what I know, that’d answer a lot of questions.”
But this is all abstraction, and moving on from the sheriff, my search turns to a concrete inquiry: Did any of the victims know Bailey and Robinson? And my inquiries conclude with an unqualified “maybe.”
Ashlin Couch, then a University of Idaho senior, was an original signer of the lease on the King Road house with the others, but she never moved in. Nevertheless, she remained a friend, as well as a sorority sister, of several of the residents, and, according to some reports, she would visit from time to time.
Couch also follows Bailey on Instagram. Which could mean something. Or nothing.
But it does lead to another question: Did Bailey know Kohberger?
And this query has persuaded investigators associated with the defense to revisit Bryan Kohberger’s first day in Moscow.
Church vs. State
If it hadn’t been for his father, Kohberger might not have been invited to the pool party.
Michael Kohberger had dutifully made the cross-country road trip from the family home in the Poconos with his son last summer to Pullman as Bryan prepared to start graduate school. It was, he might very well have felt, a gesture sparked by parental concern; after all, Michael certainly knew only too well how difficult and mercurial his son’s moods could run, and he wanted to help Bryan settle into his new life as a graduate student at Washington State University, on the other side of the country, the young’s man first extended trip away from home.
He could also have been suffering a father’s guilt over the rough road his son’s life had traveled—heroin addiction, a torrent of psychological problems, as well as the hardscrabble experience of being pulled along through the family’s two bankruptcies. Now that things were seemingly back on track, Michael wanted to do what he could to make amends.
And so when Michael was crossing the parking lot of the apartment complex on North East Valley Road a stone’s throw from the W.S.U. campus and he spotted his son’s new next-door neighbor, Christian Martinez, he hurried over to him. He wanted the burly, married, military veteran’s help. Michael confided that his son had a hard time making friends. He was shy. Could Martinez maybe look out for him?
That chance encounter led Martinez to invite his new neighbor to a pool party on July 9 at the Grove, a clapboard complex of buildings filled with college kids, mostly University of Idaho students, a 15-minute or so drive across the state line, in Moscow.
“Thanks! I have to run and get trunks,” Kohberger texted back.
And so while Zach “D.J. Grape Vinyl” Cartwright, a muscular Ph.D. in food science with the countenance of an Aztec chieftain and a jet-black man bun, manned the turntables, Kohberger, in his new trunks, perched at the shallow end of the large pool. Bad Bunny wailed from the speakers, imploring “Party! Party! Party! Party!” Chicken and steak were being grilled to make tacos. There was beer, wine, and tequila. The sun was blinding. There must have been a hundred or more college kids on the deck surrounding the two large ovals that formed the pristine blue pool. And just down the hill from the housing complex, close enough for Bad Bunny to come rattling through its windows, was the Moscow Police headquarters.
Taking a seat next to Kohberger was Basseth Salamjohn, a laid-back, darkly handsome off-and-on W.S.U. undergraduate who was friends with Martinez and Cartwright. He and Kohberger got to talking, and while the details of the conversation have long been forgotten, Salamjohn vividly remembers how the “dude would talk chin up, straight into my face.” “We were just shooting shit,” he says, “but he was definitely one serious dude. Nice enough, though.” Then Salamjohn stood up and went off to dance.
So Kohberger, perhaps not wanting to be a wallflower as the party was gathering steam, went over to talk to the D.J. “He was asking me about my speakers. All kind of technical stuff,” Cartwright remembers. “But he had this way about him. You know those people who don’t understand personal space? He was one of them. He’d get real close. It was off-putting.” Finally, Cartwright told his new acquaintance, “I’m D.J.-ing, man. I’ll catch you later.”
With that, Kohberger returned to the shallow end of the pool, and before too long Salamjohn returned, too. And he witnessed two events that, in their pregnant way, are provocative footnotes to all that would happen in Moscow just a few months later.
He watched as Kohberger abruptly jumped up without warning and approached a girl in a black thong bikini with pink hair and a complex tattoo design on her left thigh. Then Kohberger, after only a brief conversation, asked her for her phone number. And he got it.
Next, as if a man on a mission, he turned to the pink-haired woman’s friend, also in a black two-piece, and asked for her number, too. And he succeeded once again.
Only after that, perhaps feeling he’d accomplished all he’d set out to do—more, in fact—Bryan quietly shuffled off while the party was just hitting a groove. He said no good-byes.
Did he ever call the two women? They insist he didn’t—at least not long enough to speak to them. As it happens, both women received several hang-up calls in the aftermath of the party, but neither of them ever had any thoughts about who the culprit might have been—until Kohberger’s arrest.
And by then, the F.B.I. was inquiring into what went on at the pool party. The agents commandeered a room at the red-brick Lightly Student Services building adjacent to the main W.S.U. campus and, with a professional politeness that impressed the students, began interviewing anyone who knew Kohberger. In the process, they inquired if anyone had any photos or even a video from the July 9 pool party.
A few were produced. It was not an extensive record of the festivities—more a haphazard collection of snapshots and at least one brief, somewhat random video. The agents were searching for Goncalves, Mogen, Kernodle, or Chapin.
They could not find them. Which means that they weren’t at the Grove pool party. Or they simply didn’t appear in the photos that were taken that day. Or maybe they just weren’t in the handful that were shared with the bureau.
Both women received several hang-up calls in the aftermath of the party, but neither of them ever had any thoughts about who the culprit might have been—until Kohberger’s arrest.
But what if the F.B.I.’s review, done last November in the early stages of the investigation, was too narrow? What if they’d scrutinized the pictures and the video and had ignored the possible presence of another guest whose appearance could put a new spin on what happened at the house on King Road?
What if Emma Bailey had been at the pool party?
If she had been, then she might very well have also been approached by a Kohberger on the make. And if, as the police allege, she was in the habit of dealing recreational drugs, it might have been a connection a one-time heroin addict like Kohberger would have relished. It might have been a connection that, unlike his approaches to the two other female partygoers, could have had some longevity. In fact, he might have even visited Bailey from time to time at her home in Moscow, which, as it happens, was tucked into the very end of a cul-de-sac a minute or so away from the murder house by car. Which would put it very much within the same incriminating cell-tower radius as the scene of the crime on King Road.
And this becomes an even more tantalizing hypothesis because of an explosive motion the defense submitted earlier this week: Kohberger has an alibi.
“Evidence corroborating Mr. Kohberger being at a location other than the King Road address will be disclosed,” Anne Taylor wrote in the court filing.
Only, with a dramatist’s flair, she coyly did not release any further details. Presumably, all will be disclosed at the trial.
But for now, the defense’s motion makes one provocative question very relevant:
So, was Emma at the party?
I talked to seven people who had been there, and the responses I got—all shared after a good deal of thought—ran the gamut from “I think she was” to “She might have been.”
But no one said she definitely was. And no one definitively said she wasn’t.
In short, there remains enough for the defense to sink its teeth into. And it offers the promise of a narrative that can be presented to a jury as a hypothetical alternative to the version presented by the prosecution.
And in the end, with the dark cloud of the death penalty hovering portentously over the proceedings, that’s what it will come down to—convincing a jury. The jurors will decide whether the state has presented the sort of airtight case that will justify its taking one more life in retribution for the four that were already extinguished.
In a heartland community such as Moscow, I had expected that a predilection for Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye justice would rule. The prosecution, despite the many deficiencies in its storyline, will nevertheless not need to work too hard to spin a narrative that will catapult Kohberger into the execution chamber.
But it takes just a conversation with Pastor Doug Wilson, the head of the town’s ultra-conservative Christ Church, to convince me that I am wrong. The Kirkers, as the parishioners are commonly known, are increasingly a dominating presence in Moscow. Already 2,000 or so strong—perhaps nearly a half of the town’s non-university-affiliated jury pool—they control a bookstore and coffee shop on Main Street, as well as two separate real-estate offices and their own college. Only here’s the thing: the church, as personified by Wilson, is in a state of war with the town authorities—including the police department whose investigation had built the case against Kohberger.
Last Christmas, just before Kohberger’s arrest, Wilson shared his raw feelings about the town fathers in one of the weekly encyclicals that he sent to his flock. “Our local city government, law enforcement included, is a nest of incompetence and corruption,” he told the church members. And rather than turning the other cheek, he went on with measured force: “If the additional scrutiny over the murder cases is part of what brings about a much needed house cleaning, then we should be grateful for that—but without any unlawful gloating.”
The roots of this church-state animosity stem from several police arrests and subsequent lawsuits local officials filed against Christ Church parishioners (including Wilson’s son and his grandson, the latter now a student at New York’s Columbia University) for a maskless public pray-in during the pandemic and a few stickers protesting coronavirus restrictions affixed to a town lamppost. And when I recently spoke with Wilson in his book-lined, windowless office just off Main Street, he was still unforgiving.
“You’d think we’d be a natural constituency for ‘back the blue,’ but after what we have experienced, I think that if any of my parishioners are on the jury, I’d tell them to go in with an open mind,” he asserted without hesitation.
And, he added pointedly, if a Moscow cop were to testify against Kohberger, his parishioners would have reason to be skeptical. “After all, we know that their officers have lied on the stand before,” referring to the cases involving his son and grandson.
As if all this were not enough to keep the prosecution up at night, Wilson did not flinch from making his way to what is now the bottom legal line of the Moscow murders. “From what I’ve read, there are a lot of problems with the case,” he said. “There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered.” He concluded with a firm and indignant blast: “I think it’s very possible the prosecution has the wrong man.”
“You’d think we’d be a natural constituency for ‘back the blue,’ but after what we have experienced, I think that if any of my parishioners are on the jury, I’d tell them to go in with an open mind.”
Driving down a steep hill in the late afternoon on a blazing summer’s day in Moscow, I pass a sign announcing the university golf course. I stare out the car window toward a perfectly manicured green lawn that appeared to stretch toward the horizon, and my thoughts return to an entry I had read a few days earlier in the police blotter of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. It reported: “7:11 pm. A moose was spotted on the University of Idaho golf course. Police were unable to locate it.” Now that, I thought with an amused (if not superior) smile, was more like the sort of mystery that one would expect to find in this seemingly ordinary Northwestern college town.
But that musing quickly took a back seat to the matter at hand. The road abruptly twisted, and then I followed a precipitous dip into a gully where a half-dozen or so ramshackle trailers were scattered. I drove slowly, scanning each one for the number I was searching for. And then I found it.
The trailer’s windows were dark, and the curtains were closed. The small front porch was littered like a junkyard—a broken reddish table chair, an umbrella opened as if for a sudden downpour, an assortment of what I guessed were once end tables used to flank a sofa, and a small pyramid of empty flowerpots.
When I knocked on the door, there was no response. So I rapped more forcefully, but still the only sound was the echo that traveled through the gully.
I returned to my car to wait for the registered sex offender. He was a relative of someone who had a connection to Emma Bailey, and I wanted to believe he’d provide testimony that could clarify Kohberger’s relationship to all the mysteries that had occurred in Moscow on that night last November. I was hoping he could turn hypotheses into fact.
As time passed, my wait grew increasingly unnerving, even creepy. No one approached my car to ask what I was doing there, or if I were meeting someone. But I could see lights turn on in a few of the trailers, and the flickering of window curtains. I could feel eyes being fixed on me.
I turned my car around so that the hood was pointed toward the top of the gully. That way I would be able to make a quick escape if necessary. Fortified by that small reassurance, I continued to wait.
But the man never showed. And as it grew dark, I lost my nerve. I quickly drove out of the trailer park.
Since there wasn’t sufficient shoulder to execute a U-turn, I followed the unpaved road out of town. I was surrounded by wild land, territory as vacant as when the region’s first homesteaders had arrived. In the gloaming I could make out the low, undulating, dune-like hills of the Palouse. And beyond them stretched uncultivated fields, even in the encroaching darkness still vivid with the strong blues and yellows of blankets of wild camas plants.
That’s when I saw the moose. He was loping over a distant, rolling field.
Or at least I think I saw it. I am certain that I saw something. And to me, a city boy, it sure looked like a moose.
Was this the moose the local cops had been unable to locate? Had I succeeded where they’d failed?
And I found myself wondering, not for the first time: What else had they missed? What else was out there scurrying off into the deep, protective darkness?
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. His book about the Idaho student murders, There’s Someone Here! will be published by HarperCollins