Idaho murder suspect had been a student of the criminal mind
By Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Rachel Sun, Mike Baker and Serge F. Kovaleski
Eleven days before four University of Idaho students were found stabbed to death in a home near campus, Bryan Kohberger was sitting in a criminology class at a college just a short drive away, leaning into a conversation about forensics, DNA and other evidence prosecutors use to win convictions.
The 28-year-old graduate student seemed highly engaged in the discussion, a former classmate recalled. It was a subject that had long captivated Kohberger, who had researched the mindsets of criminals, studied under a professor in Pennsylvania known for her expertise on serial killers and, for the past few months, pursued a doctorate in criminology at Washington State University, about 10 miles from the Idaho crime scene.
Less than two months later, Kohberger would be the subject of a criminal inquiry, arrested Friday and charged with killing the four Idaho students.
Investigators have yet to outline a motive, but the details emerging about Kohberger’s deep interest in the psychology of criminals has opened another layer of mystery in a case that has traumatized the college town of Moscow, Idaho, and spawned countless theories from people nationwide who followed the case in captivated horror.
Kohberger was taken into custody Friday at his parents’ home in Effort, Pennsylvania, and was ordered to appear at an extradition hearing on Tuesday. Jason LaBar, the public defender in Monroe County who is representing him, said Kohberger had been following the case with interest but was “shocked” to be arrested.
“He looks forward to being exonerated, is what he said,” LaBar said. Kohberger, he added, would not oppose the effort to return him to Idaho to face the charges. On Sunday, LaBar issued a statement from Kohberger’s parents and two sisters saying that they “love and support our son and brother” and had cooperated with the police in an effort to “promote his presumption of innocence.” They also offered prayers for the victims.
Kohberger grew up in suburban eastern Pennsylvania, attending Pleasant Valley High School in Brodheadsville, where former classmates and peers recalled that he had an analytical mind but could sometimes be cruel. Thomas Arntz befriended him while riding the school bus around 2009. He said their friendship ended in 2014 after lighthearted “ribbing and jabbing” between friends turned “mean-spirited,” with Kohberger sometimes putting him in a headlock hold.
“Over time it just got so, so bad that I just shut down when I was around him,” said Arntz, now 26. “I eventually just had to cut ties with him.”
Kohberger had struggled with a heroin addiction beginning in high school but had seemed to have moved past it in recent years, friends from Pennsylvania said.
Jack Baylis, who became friends with Kohberger in eighth grade, said Kohberger had long been fascinated with why people acted the way they did and had seemed to enjoy his job as a security guard for the Pleasant Valley School District, where he worked for several years until 2021.
The last time Baylis saw Kohberger was in 2021, when they shot airsoft guns together in the Poconos. At the time, Baylis said, Kohberger drove a white Hyundai Elantra, the same model of car that police in Moscow said had been spotted near the Idaho victims’ home on the night of the attacks.
“I pray he’s innocent,” Baylis said.
After earning a psychology degree at a community college in 2018, Kohberger began studying psychology and later criminal justice at DeSales University, a Catholic institution in Center Valley, Pennsylvania. There, he studied in part under Katherine Ramsland, a well-known forensic psychologist whose books include “The Mind of a Murderer” and “How to Catch a Killer.” She declined to comment.
Kohberger was a quiet person who liked to work alone but came across as smart, said Brittany Slaven, who took several classes with him at DeSales. She recalled an instance in one of Ramsland’s classes when students were asked to look at photos of a crime scene and figure out what happened; she said Kohberger was quick to come up with ideas.
He seemed to show a particular interest in crime scenes and serial killers, Slaven said.
“At the time it seemed as if he was just a curious student, so if his questions felt odd we didn’t think much of it because it fit our curriculum,” she said.
In a post on Reddit from about seven months ago, a user who identified himself as Bryan Kohberger sought people who had spent time in prison to take a survey about crimes they had committed. The survey listed Kohberger as a student investigator working with two professors at DeSales, and it asked respondents to describe their “thoughts, emotions and actions from the beginning to end of the crime commission process.”
DeSales University said Kohberger had received a bachelor’s degree there in 2020 and earned a master’s degree in June 2022. A spokesperson for the university said the principal investigator on the crime survey — Michelle A. Bolger, who is listed on the university website as an associate professor — and her colleagues would not be granting interviews about their experiences working with Kohberger. The assistant professor listed as the co-principal investigator, Jeffrey E. Clutter, did not respond to numerous messages.
Kohberger then moved across the country to Pullman, Washington, where he began the fall semester in August in the graduate criminology program at Washington State University, across the state border from the University of Idaho.
On the morning of Nov. 13, after a Saturday night of college town parties and a University of Idaho football game, four students were found stabbed to death in the rental home in Moscow where three of them lived.
Madison Mogen, 21; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; Xana Kernodle, 20; and Ethan Chapin, 20, were attacked in at least two separate bedrooms, probably as they slept, according to investigators. The three women lived in the home; Chapin was spending the night with his girlfriend, Kernodle.
The brutal nature of the deaths — the coroner said all four were fatally stabbed with a long knife — and the lack of any suspect cast a sense of fear across Moscow, a city that had not recorded a homicide in seven years. Students began walking in groups. Residents checked the locks on their doors and windows. A DoorDash driver said she noticed more people were ordering meals delivered to avoid going out after dark. And police began receiving a wave of calls from nervous residents: a suspicious-looking man, a driver revving an engine, sounds in the night.
Police at both college campuses added security measures, adding patrols and holding self-defense workshops.
At Washington State, Kohberger was continuing with his studies, his classmates said. B.K. Norton, who was in the same graduate program as Kohberger, said his quiet, intense demeanor had made some classmates uncomfortable.
Another student said Kohberger seemed interested in the thought processes of criminals while they committed crimes and less interested in the social factors that might lead people to do them, saying he believed some people were just bound to break the law. The fellow student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared that speaking publicly could jeopardize his safety, described Kohberger as the black sheep of the class, often taking contrarian viewpoints and sometimes getting into arguments with his peers, particularly women.
The classmate recalled one instance in which Kohberger began explaining a somewhat elementary criminology concept to a fellow doctoral student, who then accused him of “mansplaining.” A heated back-and-forth ensued and the doctoral student eventually stormed out of the classroom, leaving behind her laptop and coffee, he said.
At the time, a growing team of investigators from local and state agencies, as well as more than 60 agents from the FBI, had descended on Moscow. Forensics investigators combed the house for physical evidence, including DNA, and searched fruitlessly for a murder weapon.
Officials pleaded for tips and videos, while thousands of internet sleuths around the country suggested an array of people as the likely culprit: a former boyfriend of one of the victims, a man who was with two of the victims when they got a meal from a food truck, two roommates who were in the home when the killings occurred but apparently slept through them.
None of the online discussion groups identified Kohberger. It is not clear how or if he knew the victims.
Police had tried to tamp down rumors by ruling out several people as suspects, although accusations were flying so fast that it at times appeared they could not do so quickly enough. They withheld nearly all details of the investigation, raising frustrations and prompting some people, including relatives of the victims, to wonder publicly whether police were up to the task.
Still, investigators worked through the holidays to process thousands of tips and extensive evidence collected in and around the scene. In announcing Kohberger’s arrest on Friday, Moscow’s police chief, James Fry, said investigators had located a white Hyundai Elantra but had not yet found a murder weapon.
Fry looked exhausted and almost tearful as he announced the arrest at a news conference, making it clear that investigators were still looking for tips to help resolve the questions they could not yet answer: Did the suspect act alone? What was the motive?
“Be assured the work is not done,” Fry said. “This is just getting started.”