How police found a suspect in the Idaho murders

The white sedan drove past the gray, three-story apartment building on a cul-de-sac in Moscow, Idaho. Then again. And again.

It was unusual behavior in the hillside residential area in the quiet hours before dawn. And according to a police affidavit released Thursday, surveillance footage showing the vehicle that November night held the key to solving the gruesome mystery of who killed four University of Idaho students at the home.

With little else to do when a panicked community demanded answers, investigators viewed security footage from the neighborhood — including a shot of the car speeding away after the killings — to get a sense of the possible Getting moves of the killer, the affidavit said.

Eventually, the document said, police were able to narrow what was initially only vaguely known to be a white sedan to a 2015 Hyundai Elantra that directly linked to Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old graduate student in criminology at Washington State University opposite, the permitted border was in Pullman, Washington. Further investigations would have matched Kohberger with DNA at the crime scene, it said.

Kohberger first appeared in an Idaho courtroom on Thursday following his extradition from Pennsylvania, where he was arrested last week. His attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment, although Jason LaBar, a public defender who represented him in Pennsylvania, said he was anxious to be exonerated and should not be tried “in the court of public opinion.”

“Tracking movements in public is an important technique when you haven’t identified suspects,” said Mary D. Fan, a professor of criminal law at the University of Washington. “You can see movement in public even if you have no probable cause to get a warrant. We live in a time of ubiquitous cameras. This is a remarkable display of what audiovisual data piecing together can do.”

The car’s first pass by the house was recorded at 3:29 a.m. on Nov. 13 — less than an hour before Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin were stabbed to death in their rooms, Moscow Police Cpl. Brett Payne wrote in the affidavit.

The vehicle passed two more times and was recorded a fourth time at 4:04 a.m., Payne wrote. It was no longer visible on the footage until it sped away 16 minutes later.

“This is a residential neighborhood with a very limited number of vehicles circulating in the area in the early hours,” Payne wrote. “After reviewing the video, there are few cars entering and exiting this area during this period.”

An FBI forensic investigator determined the car was likely a 2011-13 Hyundai Elantra, but later said the affidavit said it could be as late as a 2016 model.

Surveillance footage from the Washington State University campus offered other tantalizing information: A similar vehicle drove out of town just before 3 a.m. on the day of the killings and reappeared before cameras in Pullman just before 5:30 a.m., the affidavit said .

On November 25, the Moscow Police Department asked regional law enforcement agencies to search for a white Elantra. Three nights later, a WSU police officer conducted a search for white Elantras on campus.

One came back with a Pennsylvania license plate and registered to Kohberger. Within half an hour, another campus officer located the vehicle parked at Kohberger’s condominium. It came back with Washington State tags. Five days after the murders, Kohberger moved the registry from Pennsylvania, his home state, to Washington, the affidavit said.

Investigators now had a name, and further investigation turned up more leads. Kohberger’s driver’s license described him as 6ft tall and 185 pounds, and his driver’s license photo showed he had bushy eyebrows – all the details matched a description of the attacker given by a surviving housemate, the affidavit said.

Further investigation revealed that in August Kohberger was pulled over while driving the Elantra by a Latah County, Idaho, sheriff’s deputy. He gave the deputy a cell phone number.

Armed with this number, Payne obtained search warrants on the phone’s historical data. Location data showed the phone was near his home in Pullman until about 2:42 a.m. on the morning of the murders. Five minutes later, the phone began using cellular resources southeast of the home — consistent with Kohberger’s trip south, the affidavit said.

As of 4:48 a.m., no further location data was available from the phone, suggesting that Kohberger may have turned it off during the attack to avoid detection, the affidavit said. At this point, the phone took a detour back to Pullman, traveling south to Genesee, Idaho, then west to Uniontown, Washington and north to Pullman just before 5:30 a.m. — around the same time the white sedan reappeared on surveillance cameras around the city.

It remains unclear why the victims were targeted.

Kohberger opened the account for the phone on June 23, the affidavit said, and location data showed he had traveled to the neighborhood where the victims were killed at least a dozen times before the attacks. Those visits all came late at night or early in the morning, the affidavit said, and on one of those trips he was pulled over by the sheriff’s deputy on Aug. 21.

The cellphone data also included another chilling detail, the affidavit said: The phone was returned to the victims’ neighborhoods around 9am hours after the attack. The murders were not reported to police until later that day, and as of 9 a.m. there was no police response at the scene.

Despite recognizing on November 29 that Kohberger was a person of interest with his 2015 Elantra, police issued a press release on December 7 asking for the public’s help in locating a white 2011-13 Elantra . They suggested that one such vehicle had been near the home early on November 13 and that all of the occupants “have potentially important information about this case to share.”

It was not clear why the police made this request, but law enforcement sometimes uses such public statements to deter suspects and deter them from learning that they are under suspicion. Leads poured in, and investigators soon announced they were screening a pool of around 20,000 potential vehicles.

Kohberger apparently stayed at WSU until mid-December, then he drove to his parents’ house in Pennsylvania in the Elantra, accompanied by his father. While driving through Indiana, Kohberger was pulled over twice that same day for rear-end collisions.

On Dec. 27, Pennsylvania police recovered trash from the Kohberger family home and shipped DNA evidence to Idaho, the affidavit said. The evidence matched DNA found on the button clasp of a knife sheath found at the scene, it said.

Kohberger is charged with four counts of murder and burglary. A status hearing in the case is scheduled for January 12.

___

AP correspondent Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho, contributed.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/nation-world/2023/01/06/white-sedan-how-police-found/ How police found a suspect in the Idaho murders

Justin Scacco

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