University of Idaho investigation: Police must protect information ‘at all costs,’ experts say


The investigation into the murders of four University of Idaho students is entering its third week in a critical phase, as police begin to obtain forensic test results from the crime scene, law enforcement experts tell CNN.

Dozens of local, state and federal investigators have yet to identify a suspect or locate the murder weapon used in last month’s attack in Moscow.

The public, as well as family members of the victims, have criticized the police for releasing little information, which has often become a confusing story.

But the complex nature of high-profile homicide investigations requires extreme discretion by police, experts say, because any premature indication to the public about a suspect or different leads police are following could diverge.

CNN’s John Miller said, “What the police have been reluctant to do in this case is say they have suspects, even though they have suspects who have risen and fallen in varying degrees of importance, because that’s the nature of the beast. .” Chief Law Enforcement Analyst and former Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism for the New York Police Department.

“The fact that the police have no suspects is factually incorrect,” Miller said. “Police have a number of suspects they have seen, but no doubt they are willing to name. You don’t name them unless you have a purpose for them. It is not unusual.”

Kaylee Goncalves, Ethan Chapin, Xana Kernodle and Madison Mogen were killed off campus at the University of Idaho on Sunday, November 13, 2022.

The victims – Ethan Chapin, 20; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; Zana Karnodal, 20; and Madison Mogen, 21 — were stabbed on the second and third floors of their shared off-campus home on Nov. 13, according to officials.

The quadruple slayings have rattled the town of 26,000 residents, which had not reported a single homicide since 2015, and challenged a police department that has not benefited from experience investigating multiple murders, let alone under pressure from a national audience, Miller says. .

The Moscow Police Department is leading the investigation with assistance from the Idaho State Police, the Latah County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI, which has assigned more than 40 agents to the case across the United States.

“They really coordinated this into over 100 people working as a team,” Miller said of the homicide investigation.

According to Miller, the FBI plays three important roles in the Idaho investigation.

The first includes its behavioral science unit, which is extremely valuable for cases with unknown offenders because it narrows the scope of the offender’s characteristics.

Another is its advanced technology, such as its joint DNA indexing system, which allows law enforcement officials and crime labs to share and search through thousands of DNA profiles.

Finally, the FBI has 56 field offices in major cities across the country, which can expand investigative reach and capacity.

“The FBI brings a lot to this, as well as experience in a range of cases beyond what you normally have in a small town,” Miller said.

Every homicide investigation begins at the crime scene, which gives investigators only one opportunity to record and collect forensic evidence for the process, including toxicology reports on victims, hair, tissues, blood and DNA, law enforcement experts say.

“That’s one opportunity with a crime scene where a lot of opportunities can be made or lost,” Miller said.

Moscow police said Thursday that extensive evidence had been collected during the investigation, including 113 pieces of physical evidence, nearly 4,000 photos of the crime scene and several 3D scans of the house.

“To protect the integrity of the investigation, the exact results will not be released,” police said.

Latah County Coroner Kathy Mabbutt told CNN that when she arrived at the scene, she saw “a lot of blood on the wall” and police said “several” of the victims had defensive wounds.

Joe Giacalone, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired NYPD sergeant who directs the agency’s Homicide School and COLD, says the chances are “very high” that the suspect cut himself during the attack, so police are looking carefully at the blood evidence. Case Squad.

Lab results from the scene can be returned to investigators fairly quickly, but in this case investigators are dealing with a mixture of DNA, which can take longer, he says.

“When you have multiple donors with DNA, it becomes a problem trying to isolate two or three or four. That may be part of the issue… it can sometimes take a few weeks for the toxicology reports to come back,” Giacalone added.

The next phase of a homicide investigation is looking at the behavioral aspects of the crime. Two agents with the FBI’s Behavior Analysis Unit were assigned to the case to evaluate the scene and go over the evidence to learn about the behavior of the suspect or suspects in the way they committed the crime, Miller says.

“Understanding the science behind the mystery can be very important, because it can lead you to inspiration, it can lead you to enemies, and it can lead you to friends,” he said.

Miller says investigators will learn every detail about the four victims, their relationships with each other and the various people in their lives. This includes cell phone records and Internet records, he says, as well as video surveillance from every camera around the crime scene.

“When you’re doing a broad video canvas, you might get a photo of a person, a shadowy figure, and then if you have a sense of direction, you can shoot all the other cameras down in that direction to see if it’s visible again. ,” Miller said.

At this stage, investigators rely on the FBI’s Violent Crime Alert Program, which collects and analyzes information about violent crimes in the United States.

The program can match a suspect’s DNA found at the scene with DNA from someone already in the system. It also scans all crimes across the country to determine if the way an attack was carried out mirrors a previous crime, Miller says.

“You always start with people who are close to the victims, whether it’s love, money or drugs,” Giacalone told CNN. “Usually the first step you take is because most of us are victims of what we know. We have to ask, who would benefit from killing this person, or in this case, a group?

In an attempt to locate the weapon – believed to be a fixed blade knife – detectives contacted local businesses to see if a similar knife had been purchased recently.

“It’s highly unlikely, although not impossible, that a first-time offender comes prepared with a tactical knife and kills multiple people in the face of resistance, and that would be their first encounter with violent crime or the use of a knife,” Miller said.

One aspect of homicide investigations, according to Giacalone, is “keeping the media happy.”

“In these cases in today’s social media, true crime, community-driven world, the demand for information is so great that sometimes police departments fill that void and say something just for the sake of saying something, and then realize. That it is either not 100% true, or it is misleading,” he said.

It is important for the police to protect their information “at all costs” and they always know more than what they reveal to the public. Otherwise, it could cause the suspect to flee, he says.

Media gather as Moscow Police Chief James Fry speaks during a news conference.

Miller said it was “not fair” for investigators or the media to criticize him for not releasing enough information about the case.

But, ultimately, the department has a moral obligation to share some information with families who are in limbo, Miller says, but they must be fair about what they share.

“If you tell them we have a suspect and we’re close to an arrest but it’s not coming together, everyone gets frustrated or thinks you messed up or worse, goes out and finds out who the suspect is. is and tries. Take action on their own,” he said.

Miller says investigators rely on physical and scientific evidence, information from the public and national data on violent crimes to develop potential leads.

Public tips, photos and videos from the night of the students’ deaths, including more than 260 digital media submissions that people submitted through FBI forms, are being analyzed, police said. Authorities have processed more than 1,000 tips and conducted at least 150 interviews to advance the case.

“Any of those tips could be the missing link,” Miller said. “It could either be connective tissue for a lead you already had but missing a piece, or it could be a brand new lead that solves the case.”

Each tip must be recorded in a searchable database so investigators can go back to them as they learn new details during the investigation, Miller says. While 95% to 99% of public tips can provide some value, one or many can break an entire case, he adds.

“The police in this case may not be anywhere tonight, after the other suspects have been washed away, and they may make an arrest tomorrow morning,” Miller said of the Idaho investigation. “Or, for the suspect they’re working with today, it could take them more than a month from now to put together enough evidence to have probable cause. It’s just something they can’t reveal until it happens.


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