When police on Friday arrested quadruple murder suspect Bryan Christopher Kohberger, his post-graduate-level studies in criminology quickly became a subject of intense focus.
But while one ex-cop and criminology professor who writes textbooks on how to conduct criminal investigations says it’s not inconceivable a student could use that knowledge for the wrong reasons, it’s also exceedingly rare.
“Someone asked, ‘Are you worried about making better criminals?’” Prof. Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant who now teaches at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told The Daily Beast. “It’s always a concern, you always have that in the back of your mind. But [Kohberger] is behind bars right now. So, maybe he wasn’t as good a student as everybody thought.”
Investigators believe Kohberger, 28, was responsible for the grisly slayings of University of Idaho undergrads Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, both 21, and Xana Kernodle and her boyfriend Ethan Chapin, who were both 20. The four were stabbed to death in the early morning hours of Nov. 13, as they slept in their off-campus rental home in the small farming community of Moscow, according to authorities. It remains unclear how, or if, Kohberger knew any of the victims.
Steve Goncalves, Goncalves’ father, told ABC News after Kohberger’s arrest that neither he, nor anyone else in the family knew Kohberger. But he noted that after learning the suspect’s identity, they have started to see connections between Kohberger and Goncalves, though they couldn’t discuss them yet.
A lawyer for Kohberger on Saturday said he “is eager to be exonerated” and “looks forward to resolving these matters as soon as possible.”
A first-year Ph.D. student and teaching assistant at Washington State University in Pullman, about 10 miles from the crime scene, Kohberger completed a graduate program in criminal justice earlier this year at DeSales University, a Catholic institution in Center Valley, Pennsylvania. There, he took classes with noted forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland, who has authored nearly 70 books including such titles as How to Catch a Killer, The Psychology of Death Investigations, and The Mind of a Murderer. (Reached on Friday by The Daily Beast, Ramsland declined to comment on Kohberger’s arrest.)
Giacalone said he could personally recall only one other murder investigation in recent years in which a criminology student turned out to be the prime suspect.
In 2010, John Jay College criminology student Gary McGurk pleaded guilty to manslaughter for tying his girlfriend to a bed and slashing her throat, then bashing her head in with a hammer—but not before wrapping her skull in Saran Wrap “so there would be no blood,” the 24-year-old said in court. The 24-year-old victim Michelle Lee, who had also gone to John Jay, was working as a criminologist for the NYPD at the time of her death.
In May, while still at DeSales, Kohberger put out a call online for ex-offenders to take part in a research project, according to the now-deleted post. He said he wanted to know about people’s “most recent criminal offense,” and, among other things, their “thoughts and feelings throughout [the] experience.” Kohberger also told potential participants he was interested in “how emotions and psychological traits influence decision-making when committing a crime,” how they prepared for their crimes, and how a person approached their target before “making your move.”
DNA evidence found at the murder scene was a crucial factor in tracking down Kohberger, who was found holed up at his parents’ home in Albrightsville, Pennsylvania, a law enforcement source told the Associated Press. Detectives fed the genetic material found at the home into a public database, which turned up potential family matches, helping police to zero in on Kohberger, according to a source cited by CNN.
Investigators also mounted a nationwide search for a white Hyundai Elantra spotted near the victims’ house around the time of the murders, and compiled a list of 22,000 possible matches—finally narrowing it down to Kohberger’s vehicle. He had driven it all the way back from the Pacific Northwest to his parents’ place near the Poconos, where cops got a bead on him “[s]ometime right before Christmas,” a separate source told CNN.
“If somebody like this was really a student of criminal justice and criminology, then he would understand certain things like Locard’s Exchange Principle,” Giacalone told The Daily Beast, referring to the time-tested forensic theory that “every contact leaves a trace.”
“It shows you the arrogance of people like him, where he thinks he’s smarter than the cops because he read something in a book,” Giacalone continued. “At the end of the day, experience trumps academics every day of the week and twice on Sunday.”
Numerous questions still hang over the case, which authorities say will begin to be answered once Kohberger is extradited back to Idaho and arraigned in court.
“It will be really interesting to find out, as we go, if he came prepared,” said Giacalone. “Did he wear gloves, a Tyvek suit, what was he doing to not get caught? Was he covering his hair? Did he wear booties over his shoes, knowing that he’s going to be stepping in a lot of blood? Those are behavioral aspects, where [prosecutors] can say, ‘This was well thought-out and planned.”
Police have not yet recovered the murder weapon, which they described as a “fixed-blade knife.” Cops also continue to ask the public for any information they might have about Kohberger, whose former classmates described him to The Daily Beast on Friday as a “very intelligent” amateur boxer who could be “detached” but also “aggressive.”
Kohberger had a job as a part-time school security guard for the Pleasant Valley School District until last year, according to reports.
During his junior year in high school, Kohberger got teased for being overweight, one acquaintance said, recalling that Kohberger showed up the following year “thinner than a rail” and looking for a fight. The former friend, 26-year-old Nick Mcloughlin, said he was at a loss to explain why Kohberger had become, in his words, “100 percent a different person.”
These sorts of details are not only of interest to “true crime” buffs but will also be vitally important to investigators and prosecutors, according to Giacalone, who spent more than 20 years in various positions with the NYPD, including a stint as commanding officer of the Bronx Cold Case Squad.
“I’d want to know what he was like during Thanksgiving weekend, was he sketchy, was he withdrawn, did he spend time in his room?” Giacalone said. “Is he normally outgoing, but he didn’t want to be bothered by anybody when he came home? It’s not necessarily evidence of a crime, but it’s information that helps them support their case.”
Although the families of the Idaho victims say they are heartened by Kohberger’s capture, the case against him “doesn’t end with [the] arrest,” Giacalone emphasized.
“You have to follow this thing through to the prosecution,” he said. “Maybe someone saw him with a knife at some point, maybe family and friends saw a change in him, maybe there was an unexplained injury that now makes more sense. All these things need to be looked into, to make the case better.”
Kohberger is under 24-hour suicide watch in a Pennsylvania jail as he awaits extradition to Idaho. Once Kohberger is back in Idaho, the father of one of his alleged victims hopes to see him in court.
“This guy’s gonna have to look me in my eyes multiple times, and I’m going to be looking for the truth,” Steve Goncalves told ABC News on Friday night. “That’s really what I’m going to be looking for.”