Idaho murders put spotlight on criminology students

Suspect’s academic history raises pressure on universities to consider whether a heavy interest in some types of criminal behaviour warrants added screening

一月 24, 2023
University of Idaho students Madison Mogen (top left), Ethan Chapin (centre), Xana Kernodle (second from right) and Kaylee Goncalves (second from left) were stabbed while sleeping
Source: ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock
Tragedy: Madison Mogen (top left), Ethan Chapin (centre), Xana Kernodle (second from right) and Kaylee Goncalves (second from left) were stabbed while sleeping

The gory University of Idaho murders have left US higher education struggling to explain what, if anything, it should do differently to identify students – especially those studying criminal behaviour – whose psychological challenges may run the risk of turning violent.

The case involves four Idaho students stabbed to death in November inside an off-campus house, allegedly by a doctoral student in criminal justice from nearby Washington State University.

The suspect, Bryan Kohberger, has been described as having a history of difficult social interactions that some outside experts have characterised as fitting a so-called incel complex, meaning men who convert their feelings of long-term sexual frustration into expressions of rage towards women.

Mr Kohberger also asked detailed questions of convicted criminals during his graduate studies that have led at least some experts to suggest that he harboured attitudes and possible intentions that his university supervisors might have worked harder to understand.

“I think alarm bells should have gone off” for Mr Kohberger’s thesis advisers in response to some of the research questions he was pursuing, said private security consultant Pete Yachmetz, a former FBI agent.

The study of criminology “can attract people who are battling these demons”, said another expert, forensic psychiatrist Carole Lieberman. “It probably would be a good idea if graduate schools added some basic psychological testing and an in-depth interview to their admissions process.”

One commonly cited example is Kansas serial killer Dennis Rader, who graduated from Wichita State University in 1979 with a degree in criminal justice.

The questions that Mr Kohberger asked of convicted criminals while pursuing his master’s degree at Pennsylvania’s DeSales University emphasised the perpetrators’ thoughts and feelings towards their victims, Mr Yachmetz said, citing records posted to social media. The questions included: “What was the first move you made to accomplish your goal?”

“The use of the word ‘goal’, to me, kind of jumped out,” Mr Yachmetz said, “and I know it did to a number of people.”

But a university-based expert, Bryanna Fox, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, warned against making such straightforward conclusions.

Dr Fox is also a former FBI agent, co-director of the Centre for Justice Research and Policy at USF and co-editor of the journal Justice Quarterly. She described herself as growing impatient with the suspicions that the Idaho case has brought upon her field, saying that she and many other criminology experts pursued the same kinds of questions that Mr Kohberger – who denies wrongdoing – had asked in his work.

“Because it’s exactly what you need to know if you’re a real criminologist that actually engages in real data and really wants to understand why people offend,” Dr Fox said. “I’m going to give Bryan Kohberger the benefit of the doubt and assume that when he was spending years of his life actually pursuing a PhD, he actually wanted to collect real data.

“To say that that is somehow indicative of intention to kill, you would be indicting hundreds if not thousands of people that ask those exact same questions.”

Yet Dr Fox acknowledged that she knew of few if any studies that clearly investigated that potential link. Instead, there is general data that shows that college students overall are less likely to commit crimes.

Dr Lieberman saw more room for nuance, and believed universities could too. “In my opinion,” she said of Mr Kohberger, “he was trying to understand himself – he was trying to learn how to calm his murderous impulses on one hand, and learning how to commit the perfect crime, on the other.”


The more clear-cut challenge for universities, meanwhile, remains the overall threat of sexual violence by all students, especially as it concerns women. Three of the four people alleged to have been killed by Mr Kohberger were women, including one he reportedly had tried to contact repeatedly through social media.

Nationwide, more than a quarter of all female undergraduate students become victims of rape or sexual assault, along with nearly 7 per cent of males, according to survey data compiled by the Association of American Universities.

The incel phenomenon could be adding to the problem, Dr Lieberman said, in the sense that such men join “online forums where they egg each other on, telling each other how unfair it is that women reject them, and sharing fantasies of rape and murder”.

Universities can do several things to defuse the likelihood of a tragedy such as the Idaho killings, she said, including offering improved campus security, counselling and courses on human socialisation, especially on the topic of helping men to be less awkward around women.

“Universities are not recognising or taking the incel problem seriously,” Dr Lieberman said, “and it is growing.”



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