The folly of the criminal mind

by Gene Lyons

People who focus upon the motives of alleged killers like Bryan Kohberger, the Ph.D. candidate arrested for slaughtering four college students in Moscow, Idaho, are missing the point. Defective specimens like him don’t have motives that any sane person would recognize. What they do have is a grotesquely deformed ego that tempts them to play God, and to think police are too dumb to catch them.

What comprehensible purpose could one have for murdering four blameless strangers? Kohberger wanted to stage a grisly spectacle — evidence shows he revisited the crime scene in his car even before police arrived — and to walk undetected among us drones with his terrible secrets. This appears to have thrilled him almost as much as the murders themselves.

Kohberger had even applied to the police department in Pullman, Wash., where he lived as a graduate student, to instruct the hayseeds in the proper uses of forensic evidence. Big of him, no?

Instead, as the meticulously detailed affidavit written by Idaho authorities to support Kohberger’s arrest in Pennsylvania showed, the cops turned out to be much smarter and more determined than the would-be professor and apprentice serial killer. Forensics are apt to doom him.

In my experience, this is almost always how it goes. Working under enormous pressure from a terrified community, Idaho (and Washington) cops, with the help of the FBI, conducted a textbook investigation. Keeping the details to themselves so as not to spook a suspect they had in their sights from early on, they threw a net around Kohberger that he was unaware of until a Pennsylvania State Police SWAT team broke in the doors of his family home on Dec. 30, seven weeks after the murders.

Kohberger told a Pennsylvania public defender that he expects to be “exonerated” by Idaho courts.

Fat chance.

This is the thing about the best kinds of homicide detectives: They’re determined, they’re angry and obsessive and they have the enormous power of their radical skepticism. They believe nothing you say until they’ve proven or disproven it. They may grind slow sometimes, but they grind fine.

I once interviewed a Little Rock homicide detective while researching my book “Widow’s Web,” about two related Arkansas murders that stood the entire state on its collective ear for a couple of years. As the meeting ran long, I needed to cancel a tennis match from his office phone.

Sgt. Al Dawson was the kind of Arkansas country boy seemingly reluctant to speak consecutive grammatical sentences. But he’d come up through the ranks due to his keen intelligence, dogged nature and curiosity.

“Tennis, huh?” he said after I hung up. “I wondered.”

“Wondered what?”

“Well, you’ve got an indoor, sit-down job, but you’re always tan and your hands are callused.”

Only my right hand, actually. But I wouldn’t have wanted to try fooling Dawson about anything he wanted to know. He helped put away one of the more cunning psychopaths in recent Arkansas history, who’d previously outplayed one police department and had a politically ambitious county sheriff and much of the state’s news media dancing on a string like marionettes.

Dawson wouldn’t want me to imply that he’d done it alone, like the hero of a detective novel. It was a complex investigation, with a lot of moving parts.

Coming back to Kohberger, as the arrest affidavit showed, the self-styled brilliant killer made a lot of stupid mistakes. And the more evasive moves he tried to throw investigators off his trail, the more deeply he entangled himself. Changing his license plates five days after the crime only drew attention to the particular 2015 Hyundai police told the news media they were looking for.

With his identity came his cellphone records, which in turn documented his many post-midnight visits to the apartment shared by the four victims — Ethan Chapin, 20; Madison Mogen, 21; Xana Kernodle, 20; and Kaylee Goncalves, 21.

On the night of the murders themselves, the forensic expert, seemingly aware that his phone could document his whereabouts, shut it off as he approached the victims’ home, but turned it back on after leaving the scene of the crime, showing evidence of premeditation necessary for a death penalty conviction.

Investigators also kept to themselves that they had an eyewitness whose description matched him and that the killer had left a knife sheath with his DNA on its snap lying in plain sight on one victim’s bed — all but putting the murder weapon in his hand. FBI agents keeping him under surveillance watched him spend hours cleaning out his car wearing surgical gloves and then depositing the trash in a neighbor’s bin at 4 a.m.

From the trash at his Pennsylvania home came his father’s DNA: a 99.9998% match.

So, no, he’s not going to be exonerated. He’d be well-advised to exchange a guilty plea for a life sentence. But then Kohberger probably thinks he’s smarter than prosecutors and jurors, too.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”  You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.