While Idaho Slept: The Hunt for Answers in the Murders of Four College Students

Image of While Idaho Slept: The Hunt for Answers in the Murders of Four College Students
Release Date: 
October 3, 2023
Harper Paperbacks
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While Idaho Slept is consistently absorbing, if frustrating in its lack of a conclusion.

At around 4:00 a.m. on November 13, 2022, four University of Idaho undergraduates were brutally murdered in their off-campus house. Two other people in the house were allowed to survive even though they saw the masked assailant leave the house. The weapon was a large military knife. The crime attracted not only the usual crowd of journalists, but also many online amateur sleuths and commentators who had even less sensitivity to the feelings of the people close to the case. Nonetheless, the Moscow Police, ably led by veteran police chief James Fry, managed to control information and avoid leaks that might spook the assailant.

J. Reuben Appelman’s While Idaho Slept is a detailed group portrait of the victims, the suspect, and the men and women who solved the case. The early chapters chronicle the activities of the four victims in the hours leading up to the crime. Appleman notes that the attractive foursome “were out of central casting. . . . They all looked good on camera and the mainstream media took notice.”

Kayleigh Goncalves and Madison Mogen, friends since childhood and bright, popular party girls on campus, had been drinking in a bar. On their way home, they stopped at a food truck. Ethan Chapin and his girlfriend Xana Kernodle had been to a fraternity party before they went back to Xana’s apartment. The house they shared had a reputation as a party house. The police had been called there before because of complaints of noise from neighbors. Student revelers went in and out of the house. Some even knew the combination on the front door lock.

The police weren’t called until eight hours after the murder took place. What they found was a particularly gory crime scene. Fry and his colleagues on the Moscow Police, along with officers from the Idaho State Police and the F.B.I., combed the evidence. By design or out of carelessness, the killer had left behind the leather case to the knife he used, giving detectives knowledge of the weapon and a bit of DNA. Surveillance video footage showed a car that had been suspiciously going back and forth in front of the house. While journalists and family members were frustrated at the lack of information and internet sites offered wild speculations, the detectives quietly and efficiently narrowed in on their suspect, Brian Kohlberger, a 28-year-old graduate student in Criminal Justice at nearby Washington State University.

The final third of the book offers a biography of the troubled young alleged murderer, a socially maladjusted former heroin addict, and an account of his capture. What is missing is a conclusion to the story. The trial of Brian Kohlberger, which might be the most interesting chapter in any account of a crime like this, is ongoing. What defense will his lawyers offer? Who will be the witnesses? How will the victim’s families react? What kind of media circus will accompany the trial? In a way, the book ends in the middle of this real-life tragedy.

Appelman writes well. At times, in his desire to flesh out the story, he is repetitive in his descriptions of the victims. Kohlberger is the most enigmatic character as there is no clear motivation for his targeting of these young people. Yet these four students seem to have been chosen.

While Idaho Slept is consistently absorbing, if frustrating in its lack of a conclusion.