Like most, I have been following the news reports of the arrest of Bryan Kohberger for the murder of Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle, and Ethan Chapin– four students from the University of Idaho. I prefer to use their names because the phrase “four murdered college students” minimizes whom they were: living, breathing human beings, all with families that loved them. In addition, it seems many people are shocked that Kohberger was a graduate student in criminology. Well, I am not that shocked, and if you polled New York City cops, I’m sure many of them would not be either.
Back in the 90s, when I was a detective in Manhattan North (all of Manhattan north of 59th street), I decided to go back to school and study forensic psychology. After making hundreds of arrests and spending hours with criminal defendants “in the system,” you get an opportunity to see beyond the act they committed. You find out things about them, and it always makes me curious. Saying a person is an animal or a mutt isn’t satisfactory. Human beings are very complex, and I wanted to do a deep dive. I also felt it would be beneficial to me professionally. So I soon enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It was a great school, and I learned a lot. I attended class between arrests, court appearances, executing search warrants, etc. It was challenging but worthwhile. The main thing my bachelor’s degree in forensic psychology taught me was that I knew next to nothing about psychology and needed to go to graduate school if I really wanted to learn.
The one thing that bothered me about John Jay was that some students were there to aid whatever criminal gang or organization they were affiliated with. (Most students were, however decent, hardworking, and law-abiding, so I apologize to any of them I offend) Many times a student would ask professors questions regarding the arrest of their brother or boyfriend, usually for drug charges. They had no qualms in letting everyone know what side of the criminal justice fence they belonged on. I had even run into a guy I had arrested for carjacking when I was assigned to the Robbery Squad in Spanish Harlem. He was hanging out with a group of his buddies in the hallway (about four or five), and not a single one appeared to be a student (no books, nothing to indicate they took classes). To my disgust, shortly thereafter, I found out he was wanted in connection with a double homicide on the Lower East Side. He belonged to a drug gang at war over turf.
Many times when making arrests, I’ve been challenged by street “lawyers,” John Jay students that were associated with the person being arrested. They would interfere with the arrest and sometimes end up being arrested themselves. These were not the best students in the world, and their knowledge of constitutional law was next to non-existent. They didn’t seem to understand that if they really thought an arrest was unconstitutional, it wouldn’t be adjudicated on the street with their say. I would not just remove the cuffs and say, “Oh yeah, you’re correct…” and let the suspect go. The defendant would still go through the system, face a hearing (Wade, Huntley, etc.), and be held before trial; then a judge would listen to the facts surrounding the arrest to determine if the arrest was constitutional or not. But you couldn’t get through to people like that. Many cops refused to attend classes there because they felt too many “perps” were in the school. They weren’t wrong.
So this leads me to Bryan Kohberger’s interest in criminology. His curiosity, unfortunately, is not unusual at all. If he did commit this heinous crime, I’m sure he went for one reason only: To gain access from the inside, learn about his prey, and what he could do to mitigate the chances of being apprehended. My interest in criminology was to learn about people so that I could better hunt violent criminals, while Kohberger perhaps went so he could better victimize unknowing, innocent people– much like a thief that gets a job in a store or warehouse to rob it; Get in, look at the alarm system and video cameras, see how many guards are there and on what days, etc. I would bet money that Kohberger made numerous trips to the crime scene –not as a voyeur or peeping tom– but to get a lay of the land. How many people live there? Do they have surveillance cameras or alarms? Are there big dogs next door or nosy neighbors? Is the point of entry obscured from the view outside of the house? What’s the best route in making his escape?
Voyeurism is sexual in nature. Sexual predators almost always start as “Peeping Toms.” If the reports of his encounter with one of the roommates are true, it tells me he had more than enough time to engage in sexual violence. He was calm enough to reassure the surviving roommate and one of the victims he was killing. This is a case where sexual violence is strangely absent.
At first, my thought was that the absence of any significant romantic female relationships in his life meant that he was part of a violent group of misogynistic misfits that call themselves “incels.” If you haven’t heard of incels, they are described by the United States depart of Justice as “a group of individuals, typically heterosexual, white males, who adhere to a violent and misogynist ideology of male supremacy.” Incels tend to believe that they are entitled to sex with women yet will place blame on women for refusing sex with them. Incels have been an active community online over the last seven years, and some have committed acts of violence against women. (United States Department of Justice, Southern District of New York Press release#21-359, December 15, 2021).” But in the time since the murders and the release of the detailed arrest affidavit, there is no mention of Kohberger’s involvement in this community. As a retired detective, I have to follow where the evidence (the known evidence in this case), and nothing suggests this is an incel-related matter.
However, in an article from “The Independent,” it was reported that Kohberger made online comments as a teenager about how he felt “blank,” had “no emotion,” and felt “little remorse” in the years before the Idaho murders. The article goes on to say that in an online forum, he described seeing “nothing” when he looked at his own family. “As I hug my family, I look into their faces, I see nothing; it is like I am looking at a video game, but less,” he wrote (The Independent, Rachel Sharp, and Andrea Blanco, January 14, 2023) If true Kohberger is self-reporting possible disturbing signs of psychopathy. Again I cannot offer any mental evaluation, but you don’t need to be an automobile mechanic to know when there’s something seriously wrong with your car. When Gary Ridgway “The Green River Killer” described the killings of more than forty women, he spoke of them as mere objects devoid of humanity. The same feelings Kohberger professed to feel about his own family.
In an FBI Training Bulletin, they advise law enforcement that “If psychopaths commit a homicide, their killing likely will be planned and purposeful, not the result of a loss of emotional control; their motive more commonly will involve sadistic gratification. When faced with overwhelming evidence of their guilt, they frequently will claim they lost control or were in a rage when committing the act of violence. In fact, their violence often is emotionless, calculated, and completely controlled.” (Psychopathy; An Important Forensic Concept for the 21st Century, Babiak, Folino, et al., Federal Bureau of Investigation Bulletin January 29, 2016)
It is known that Kohberger’s cellphone pinged on twelve occasions on the cell tower covering the crime scene area. That clearly shows the planning and premeditation of an “organized offender.” The FBI defines an Organized Offender as “socially adept and usually living with a partner. He may report an angry state of mind prior to the murder and admit to being calm and relaxed after the crime. The crime scene of the organized murderer shows a semblance of order before, during, and after the offense. The victim frequently is a stranger and may be targeted because they are in a particular location or has certain characteristics. Obsessive, compulsive traits surface in the organized murderer’s behavior and crime scene patterns.” (FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Volume: 54 Issue: 8, Ressler, Burgess August 1985).
This alone will negate any insanity defense. To be declared innocent by reason of insanity, a defendant must clearly and convincingly show that he did not understand, due to a mental defect, that the act he committed was against the law. Stalking his victims, meticulously cleaning his getaway vehicle, wearing rubber gloves, and tossing the trash from his car into a neighbor’s garbage is all conclusively proving that he knew what he did was wrong as he was destroying any evidence that would tie him to the crime.
But there is one thing I’m pretty sure of; his survey of incarcerated individuals was his final preparation to commit the quadruple homicide. Now the big questions are, are there any other victims out there? Are there any living victims? Has he attacked someone that got away but is too frightened to go to the police because of the media circus that will ensue? I’m sure there are dozens of detectives in various jurisdictions looking into homicides that have occurred between Idaho and Pennsylvania for the last couple of years. I don’t believe this is Kohberger’s first alleged killing because murder is not easy to get away with.
Using a gun, you can put distance between you and your victim, allowing it to feel less personal. You can stand across the street or the room, close your eyes, and pull the trigger. Impersonal but effective. A person that kills another human being with a knife is an entirely different animal. Stabbing requires you to be right on top of your victim, often pressed right up against them. You must look your victims in the eye as they plead for their lives. Any pleas from a young girl obviously didn’t affect Kohberger’s alleged decision to kill her. And we know that at least one of these victims was pleading, and the killer very calmly reassured her it was okay while sticking a knife into her body. According to the FBI, “Psychopathic offenders are not sensitive to altruistic interview themes, such as empathy for their victims or remorse over their crimes. Their concern is for themselves and the impact the meeting will have on them. Psychopaths blame their victims for what happened and consider the victims’ fate irrelevant.”
“Gary Leon Ridgway, the infamous Green River Killer, sat calmly as he casually described how he murdered, sexually violated, and disposed of the bodies of at least 48 women in King County, Washington. He talked about his victims as mere objects, not human beings. (FBI Bulletin, “Looking Behind The Mask: Implications for Interviewing Psychopaths” O’Toole, Logan Smith July 1, 2012)
Murderers don’t just start their career of violence and insanity by calmly, methodically murdering multiple people on their first try. It’s possible this is Kohberger’s first alleged homicide, but not probable, in my professional opinion. And while this may not be the first, I’m confident it will be his last. My guess is that with all the evidence against him, his attorneys will do the smart thing and have him plead guilty to spare him the death penalty. The only way there will be a trial is if Kohberger himself insists on a trial to have a stage to show off his arrogance and superior intellect. Only time will tell.
Eric Reynolds is a retired NYPD detective. He started his career as a rookie patrolman in the Bronx. After stints in the Vice Squad and Anti-Crime, he was assigned as a detective in the Central Robbery Squad. After 11 years in “The Bureau,” he retired from solving homicides in Harlem and Washington Heights. He spent a total of 20 years with the NYPD, from 1981 until 2001.