Heightened Interest in Idaho Killings by 'True Crime' Consumers Could Be Harmful


From the moment rumors surfaced that investigators had a suspect in the November stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students, dozens of public forums and Facebook groups about the killings lit up.

It was just the latest phase of online speculation and armchair sleuthing that has plagued the investigation in the Moscow homicides, said Danielle Slakoff, a criminologist who studies true crime media.

Since the monthslong Gabby Petito case consumed the Internet in 2021, Slakoff said no case "galvanized the country" like the stabbing deaths of Madison Mogen, 21, Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Ethan Chapin, 20.

Slakoff, an assistant professor at Sacramento State University, studies media portrayal of crime.

In the days and weeks following the homicides, hundreds of thousands of people joined Reddit forums and Facebook groups to discuss the investigation, often naming young college students they thought could be suspects with no real evidence.

Post-pandemic, people are looking for ways to connect, Slakoff said.

"And people are gravitating toward true crime as a place to connect," she said. "True crime has been around for 400 years, but it's definitely having an explosion right now."

A lot of the interest in true crime is from women, who see learning about violent criminals and their motivations as a way to avoid becoming victimized themselves, Slakoff said.

While it's too early to tell whether all that online sleuthing was a help to the investigation or a hindrance, Moscow Police have already indicated a larger problem is the fact that people view the case as entertainment, not reality.

Slackoff agreed.

"I do think sometimes the victims got lost in that," Slakoff said of the online discussion. "People were treating it like a game, and it's not."

Now that 28-year-old Bryan Kohberger has been arrested on charges of first-degree murder and felony burglary, true crime consumers have even less of an interest in the victims, she said.

"The next several weeks are going to be just about him, and we really need to be giving a lot of support to the families," Slakoff said.

While it's natural for the focus to shift to the suspect as court proceedings commence, it can be difficult for victims' loved ones.

"It can be really painful for the victims' families and loved ones to actually see that suspect over and over again, you know, the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week coverage that might come from this case and in some ways is already happening," Slakoff said. "It really opens up the door for the victims to be kind of lost in their own story."

In recent years, depictions of serial killers and other high -profile murderers have become popular on television and streaming services.

"We're in a really weird time where people like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer are not only being played on mainstream networks and (streaming) services, but being played by people that are conventionally attractive men," Slakoff said.

Zac Efron, known for his roles in the "High School Musical" franchise and more recently "Baywatch," played Bundy in 2019 and Evan Peters played Dahmer in a Netflix series released in 2022.

"One of the challenges with a case like this is that often the perpetrator does become the main focus and almost become a pseudo-celebrity," Slakoff said.

As a criminology student, Kohberger likely knew he would gain significant notoriety because of the case, Slakoff said.

With the probable cause affidavit detailing some of the evidence investigators have complied against Kohberger expected to be unsealed soon, Slakoff said it's important for people to remember he's innocent until proven guilty and that the victims should come first.

"I don't know what's going to be in the PC affidavit; generally it's not all of the evidence, but it is some strong evidence. It's possible that very grisly details are going to be released this week," Slakoff said. "And I just hope for the victims' and loved ones' sake that people engage with empathy."