- I traveled to Moscow, Idaho, after Bryan Kohberger was charged with killing four students there.
- I knocked on doors across town, meeting locals wary of intense media scrutiny.
- I was called a “creep” by some and greeted warmly by others.
“Tell them it was a Sasquatch.”
That was a silver-haired Moscow man’s advice for what his friend should say to the next out-of-town journalist asking about the quadruple homicide in November.
I traveled to Moscow, Idaho, for the first time after the December 30 arrest of Bryan Kohberger, 28, on charges of first-degree murder. Kohberger studied criminology at Washington State University in neighboring Pullman, Washington. Besides watching him grind his jaw during two brief court appearances, I knocked on doors and visited business all around trying to learn anything I could about him. I met nerve-rattled people weary and wary of the intense media scrutiny.
“It’s crazy watching world news and seeing Moscow mentioned with Moscow,” said grocer John Connelly, 35, a native who alternated his pronunciations between “oh” and “ow.”
Something recurrent struck me. I had read that the last murder in Moscow was in 2015. In conversation, numerous people told me — unprompted — exactly where they were when it happened. Downtown buying a birthday card. In the kitchen fixing lunch. At a playground with friends. I realized how viscerally people would always remember the stabbings of the four shining University of Idaho students.
Missoula, Montana, another Pacific Northwest college town, is where I was born and raised. It made me relate to Moscow, with its walkable downtown of old brick buildings surrounded by some of the West’s great scenery. The Palouse region is a hilly dreamscape, contour-plowed for wheat, vermiculited with snow, and specked with red barns. In the distances rise blue-forested mountains. The sunsets go on forever.
My search for details put me into some uncomfortable situations.
Seeing reports that Kohberger was a vegan who drank craft beer, I asked around at Rants & Raves Brewery in Moscow, which serves a filling vegan burger. By chance, a pair of traveling comics were on, and I craved some levity. The show was disrupted by the misogynistic shoutings of a marijuana farmer who proclaimed himself “a 27-year-old incel” because no woman could meet his standards. When I texted about this event to a dear college friend living in Boise, she replied: “North Idaho is a WEIRD place.”
Orofino native and pawn shop owner Sid Ulery, 69, pulled open his camouflage jacket, Superman-style, to make sure I saw the handgun strapped to his chest. We were talking about how Kohberger was from Pennsylvania.
“That’s the reason we try to keep things as reclusive as we do,” Ulery said, his eyes filling with tears. “We don’t like it tainted. Anything that comes in from the outside is.”
Bad feelings about outside scrutiny were acute in the apartment-packed neighborhood around the victims’ house near campus. Some neighbors described it as a destination for cliquish and prickly fraternity brothers and sorority sisters. I’ve been a professional street reporter for 18 years and have never been called “creep,” “creeper,” and “gross” as much as when I canvassed this area.
But there were funny encounters where I heard a familiar resilience and irreverence.
When I asked Kate Miller, 30, proprietor of a Clarkston, Washington, coffee stand, her reaction to security cameras showing Kohberger close to her on the day of the murders, she was coolly philosophical.
“If you work long enough in customer service,” she said, “statistics show you have a good percent chance of meeting a serial killer.”
In the windowless Corner Club, a Moscow favorite since 1948, where two of the victims socialized, a bartender told me the name of its popular pink cocktail served in a large plastic tumblers was “The Kinda Fruity.” But after 2007 it was renamed for ultraconservative Idaho Senator Larry Craig.
When I asked teenage members of Christ’s Church if they now think Moscow is more dangerous, one young man answered yes.
“We saw a bull moose downtown,” he said.
All of us warmed ourselves around a crackling wood fire that burns on clear nights outside Slice Taphouse just off Main Street.
At closing time, an employee locking up invited me to stay as long as I pleased, throw more wood on the fire, and leave it to burn itself out.
Faith in humanity? It’s still in Moscow. Pronounced with an “oh.”