In the weeks after four University of Idaho students were found slaughtered in a house near campus last November, a growing roster of investigators desperately searching for answers had yet to identify a suspect or even find the murder weapon. After spending weeks sifting through an array of evidence that seemed to lead nowhere, investigators announced an arrest in late December in Pennsylvania: Bryan Kohberger, a Ph.D. student from a nearby university. He was identified only after investigators turned to an advanced method of DNA analysis that had rarely been used in active murder investigations, the New York Times reports. The case has shown the degree to which law enforcement investigators have come to rely on the digital footprints that ordinary people leave in nearly every facet of their lives. Online shopping, car sales, carrying a cellphone, drives along city streets and amateur genealogy all played roles in an investigation that was solved, in the end, as much through technology as traditional sleuthing.
Now indicted on four counts of murder, Kohberger has declined to enter a plea but contended that he would be exonerated. Investigators have yet to detail a possible motive: family members of the victims remain unaware of any prior connections that the accused killer had with the four young people who were killed. The process of identifying and arresting a suspect took over six weeks — weeks of increasing frustration and painstaking examination of evidence as the community pushed for answers. The first 911 call came in around noon, seven hours after the murders. Madison Mogen, 21; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; Xana Kernodle, 20; and Ethan Chapin, 20, had been stabbed to death overnight in their bedrooms. Initially, the Moscow Police Department described the attack as “targeted” and assured residents that there was no risk to the public. With no indication of who had committed the attack or why, the authorities eventually backtracked. Investigators eventually used genealogical analysis, contracting with a private company, Othram, in Texas, which had a lab able to produce a more extensive DNA profile from a knife sheath found at the crime scene than the Idaho state lab was set up to examine. Barbara Rae-Venter, a genealogy consultant who worked on the Golden State Killer case, said there is growing interest in using genealogical DNA not just in cold cases but also in active crime investigations. “That is why the Idaho case is so interesting,” she said.