On November 13, 2022, four University of Idaho students—Ethan Chapin, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle, and Madison Mogen—were found dead in the home they the last three rented near campus. Each had been stabbed, apparently in bed. Two other students lived in the house and were apparently in their rooms that night; they were unharmed.
From the public’s point of view, the case had few clues at first: an unknown assailant, an unknown motive. Law enforcement officials in the university town of Moscow, Idaho, initially gave the public little information about the evidence they were gathering in their investigation. Into that vacuum came a frenzy of public speculation and, very soon, public accusation. The family alchemy set in: the true crime, as the weeks passed, became a “true crime”; the murders, as people discussed, analyzed, and competed to solve them, became a grim form of interactive entertainment.
Unsubstantiated rumors spread online, as people with no connection to the murdered students tried to make sense of a senseless crime. They blamed not only an aggressor, or several of them, but also drugs, revenge, bullying, more. They dove deep into the students’ TikToks and Instagram for clues. They wrote the lives of the students and their deaths. As the weeks passed, their number grew. A Facebook group dedicated to discussing and speculating about the murders currently has more than 230,000 members. Subreddits dedicated to the same have more than 100,000 members each. His publications range from the thoroughly forensic (analysis of autopsy reports and the knife allegedly used in the murders) to the broadly theoretical. (One post, speaking of a blind DeuxMoi element, wondered aloud if Kim Kardashian will get involved in the case.)
Many of the members who offered their theories, and continue to offer them, probably mean well. Amateur detectives helped reveal the identities of some of the Golden State serial killer’s victims; The mother of Gabby Petito, who was murdered in 2021, praised the many people who, searching for clues on social media, played a crucial role in solving the murder of her daughter. But the collaborative pursuit of justice, in the Idaho murders, tended to frustrate justice itself. It complicated the investigation on the ground and, as unsubstantiated allegations surfaced, created more victims. With remarkable ease, some people’s pain became other people’s puzzles.
Theories about the murders sometimes read like fan fiction. On TikTok, Facebook and YouTube, people pointed fingers, based on strong hunches and seemingly no evidence, accusations that were later amplified by others. Very soon, fantastic theories crept into the lives of real people. The posters turned towards the two housemates who had been uninjured. (They “must know more than they’re saying,” read one video caption.) They turned their gaze to the owner of a food truck that two of the students had stopped at before going home the night of the murders. (“Possible stalker??” wondered one detective.) Investigating the actual crime as the “real” one unfolding online, law enforcement officers eliminated both the housemates and the truck owner, among others, as suspects. The Moscow Police Department website now has a “Rumour Control” section, a notable modification of its FAQ section that tries to combat some of the misinformation. Among the questions the section answers are “Who do you think is NOT involved?”, “What resources are being used to investigate this murder?” and “Are the reports of skinned dogs related to this murder?” (They are not.)
“Everyone wants something crazier than this. That has to drive you even more crazy”, says one of the bloodhounds who provided information on the case of Gabby Petito in a documentary that was released months after her murder. The keyword in the woman’s comment is not crazier; is wants. The amateur detectives in the Petito case may certainly have been motivated by generosity, outrage, and a drive for justice. But they were also gaining from their participation in it: followers, likes, the fickle currencies of the content economy.
Speculation about the Idaho murders took on a similar frenzy. To read all the theories, or to scroll, or to watch, is to feel the appropriation at play: people were not just trying to solve the case, they were trying to claim the tragedy for themselves. (“Please stop making these poor kids your identity,” pleaded a recent Reddit post. It received more than 2,200 upvotes.) The unsubstantiated, sometimes fanciful speculation continued despite repeated attempts by researchers to quell it. The rumors were adding chaos to their investigation, they said. They were bringing more trauma to grieving people.
In their attempts to verify the insinuations, the official investigators have faced the most powerful of enemies: the trending topic. The murders, with very particular types of victims and especially horrifying circumstances, quickly became matters of national interest. That also made them an incentive for content creators. In Youtube, vanity fairDelia Cai’s Delia Cai noted that the major news clips addressing the murders have more than 1 million views each. On TikTok, videos claiming a connection to the murders (#idahocase, #idahocaseupdate, #idahokiller) now have, in total, more than 400 million views. These true crime shots on true crime carry no obligation of fairness or evidence. Content, in the eyeball economy, is tautological. When attention is its own reward, the tempting shot is more valuable than the real thing. This is the boring tragedy that underlies the sharp: the murders did numbers.
As strangers inscribed themselves into the story, competing, as one expert put it, “to make a connection or uncover a secret, often for likes, shares, clicks and attention,” they created more pain. Some of the victims’ friends and classmates, while crying, began receiving death threats. People published the names and photos of those who knew the victims, accusing them of vague connections to the crime. (The posters were generally kept anonymous.) A YouTuber analyzed the “red flags” allegedly represented by Kaylee Goncalves’ ex-boyfriend, resulting in, her aunt told New York Post, a compounded trauma: grieving the loss of the woman he had dated for five years and considering the fact that “half America” assumed he was a murderer. He has been ruled out as a suspect by law enforcement. But the speculation will remain, spun together by cartels armed with hunches and made permanent in the archives.
And so, in the name of finding justice, many lost their humanity. They treated real people as characters in a proceeding that was broadcast not on their televisions, but on their phones and computers.CSI either Law, playing in real time. And they treated the characters, in turn, as texts to be read, analyzed and vilified. People eager for big finds scoured the obituaries of other University of Idaho students who had died in recent years, trying to connect their deaths to the murders. The father of one of those students asked them to stop trying to link the death of his own son to these other dead children.
But detectives continued, even when, on December 30, police arrested Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old doctoral student in Washington state, just down the street from Moscow. Kohberger had been studying criminology. Charged with four counts of murder and one count of robbery, he is currently being held in Idaho without bail. His lawyer has said that he is “eager to be exonerated.” Investigators cited cell phone data, surveillance images and DNA samples among the evidence they say they will use to connect him to the crime. Earlier this week, authorities prosecuting the case released a 49-page document detailing facts gathered during weeks of investigation. Some of the information resembles Internet theories. Much not.
Procedural crime is a singularly formulaic genre. One of its essential elements is the cathartic conclusion: the big reveal, the shocking twist. It is very likely that this story does not have such a reward for the audience. Kohberger will stand trial and may or may not be found guilty. Prosecutors will rely on boring, detailed evidence to present their case. In the meantime, speculation will continue, despite the arrest and the harm caused to people who authorities have said have no connection to the case. Shortly after the murders, TikToker Ashley Guillard claimed to have solved the case. The murders were ordered, she announced, by a University of Idaho history professor. (In fact, by the chair of her history department.) Guillard shared a photo of the professor in videos that have been viewed more than 2 million times. Guillard says she drew her conclusion from a deck of tarot cards and has stood by her presumption of the professor’s guilt, though the official investigation has ruled her out as a suspect. But Guillard has been defiant of the facts. She’ll move on, she said He Washington Post—even now that the professor has filed a defamation suit against him, citing damage to his reputation and fears for his safety. “I’m going to keep posting,” Guillard said. “I’m not going to disassemble anything.”