The sedan in white sped past the three-story, gray rental house on a dead-end street of Moscow, Idaho. Then again. And again.
This was an unusual act in a quiet neighborhood on a hillside in the early hours of the morning. According to a police statement, Thursday’s release of surveillance footage of the vehicle on November night was key to solving the mystery of the murder of four University of Idaho students.
The panicked community demanded answers and had little else. Investigators searched the security footage in the area, including one that recorded the car driving away from the scene of the killings, to gain a better understanding of the killer’s movements, according to the affidavit.
The document stated that police eventually were able to narrow the initial vaguely described white sedan down to a 2015 Hyundai Elantra registered by Bryan Kohberger (a 28-year old doctoral student in criminalology at Washington State University just across the border in Pullman. It said that further investigation revealed that Kohberger was DNA match at the crime scene.
After his extradition from Pennsylvania last week, Kohberger appeared in Idaho’s courtroom for the first time. Although his attorney did not immediately respond to a request to comment, Jason LaBar, a public defense lawyer who represented Kohberger in Pennsylvania, said that he was eager to be exonerated, and should not be tried in the “court of public opinion”.
Mary D. Fan, a University of Washington criminal law professor, said that “Tracking movements is an important technique when there aren’t any suspects.” Even if you don’t have probable cause to obtain a warrant, you can still see movements in the public. The age of ubiquitous cameras is here. This is an amazing example of how audiovisual data can be gathered.
The car made its first approach to the house at 3:29 a.m. Nov. 13, less than an hour after Kaylee Goncalves and Madison Mogen, Xana Knodle, and Ethan Chapin were stabbed in their bedrooms, Moscow Police Cpl. In the affidavit, Brett Payne wrote.
Payne wrote that the vehicle passed twice more, and was captured a fourth consecutive time at 4:04 AM. The vehicle was not seen again on the footage until 16 minutes later, when it vanished.
Payne stated that “This is a residential area with a very small number of vehicles that travel within the area in the early morning hours.” “On review of the video, there are very few vehicles that enter or exit this area during this period.”
According to the affidavit, a forensic examiner from the FBI concluded that the vehicle was likely to be a Hyundai Elantra 2011-13. However, it later stated that it could have been a model as late 2016 or 2017.
Additional information was revealed by surveillance footage taken at Washington State University. A similar vehicle left the campus just before 3:00 a.m. the morning of the murders, and returned to Pullman shortly before 5:30 a.m., according to the affidavit.
The Moscow Police Department requested that regional law enforcement look for a white Elantra on Nov. 25. A WSU police officer sought information on any white Elantras located on campus three nights later.
The one that came back was identified as having a Pennsylvania plate number and being registered to Kohberger. A campus officer found the vehicle at Kohberger’s apartment complex within half an hour. The vehicle was returned with Washington state tags. The affidavit stated that Kohberger had changed the registration from Pennsylvania to Washington five days before the murders.
Investigators had now a name to work with, and more investigation revealed even more clues. Kohberger was 6′ tall and 185 lbs according to his driver’s license. His license photo also showed that he had bushy eyebrows. This is consistent with the description of the attacker provided by a surviving roommate.
Further research revealed that Kohberger was pulled over in August by a Latah County sheriff’s deputy while driving the Elantra. The deputy gave him his cellphone number.
Payne was armed with this number and obtained search warrants to access the phone’s historic data. Location data indicated that the phone was located near Payne’s Pullman home until 2:42 AM on the morning of the murders. The affidavit stated that the phone began using cellular resources southeast of his home five minutes later. This was consistent with Kohberger’s southbound travel.
The affidavit stated that there was no location data from the phone before 4:48 AM. This suggests that Kohberger might have switched it off in an attempt to avoid detection. The phone then began to travel a loop back to Pullman. It traveled south to Genesee in Idaho, west to Uniontown, Washington, before heading north to Pullman at just before 5:30 a.m., when the white sedan was seen again on the town’s surveillance cameras.
It is not clear why these victims were chosen.
Kohberger created the account to use the phone’s number on June 23. Location data also showed that Kohberger had been to the area where victims were killed at least 12 times prior. According to the affidavit, these visits were all made late at night or early in morning. It was during one of those trips, that Kohberger was stopped by the deputy sheriff on Aug. 21.
Another chilling detail was also contained in the cellphone data. The affidavit stated that the phone returned to the victims’ area around 9 a.m. hours after the attack. Even though one of the survivors had witnessed a stranger inside and heard him crying at 4 a.m., police did not report the murders until later that day.
Although police knew Kohberger was an individual of interest as a 2015 Elantra driver, they released a press release Dec. 7, asking the public for help in finding a white Elantra from 2011-13. The police suggested that such a vehicle was seen near the house on Nov. 13, and that anyone with information about this case may have it.
Although it wasn’t immediately clear why police requested this, law enforcement agencies often use such public statements to discredit suspects and prevent them from being aware that they are under suspicion. The police received many tips and soon revealed that they were going through around 20,000 vehicles.
Kohberger reportedly stayed at WSU until mid December, when he drove in his Elantra to his Pennsylvania parents’ home. Kohberger was stopped twice for tailgating while driving through Indiana.
According to the affidavit, police in Pennsylvania took trash from the Kohberger home and sent it to Idaho. It stated that the evidence was consistent with the DNA from the button snap of the knife sheath found at the crime scene.
Kohberger faces four counts of first degree murder and felony theft. A status hearing is scheduled for January 12.