One of the surviving roommates who lived in the house where four University of Idaho students were killed told investigators she nearly came face-to-face with a masked man that night and went into a “frozen shock phase,” a response medical experts said is not uncommon in potentially threatening situations.
Police initially said the surviving roommates, Dylan Mortensen and Bethany Funke, were believed to be sleeping during the stabbings, but court records unsealed Thursday revealed that Mortensen, identified as D.M. in an affidavit, encountered the suspect as he fled the house in Moscow, Idaho.
Brian Kohberger, a doctoral student in criminology at nearby Washington State University at the time, has been charged with four counts of murder in the November deaths of Madison Mogen, 21; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; Xana Kernodle, 20; and Ethan Chapin, 20.
According to the affidavit, Mortensen “described the figure as 5’10” or taller, male, not very muscular, but athletically built with bushy eyebrows. The male walked past D.M. as she stood in a ‘frozen shock phase.’ The male walked towards the back sliding glass door. D.M. locked herself in her room after seeing the male.”
Almost eight hours later, around noon, authorities were called from a cellphone belonging to one of the roommates, according to court documents. It was unclear who had made the call.
What was described as “frozen shock phase” could fall under a number of acute trauma responses, such as dissociation and tonic immobility, which are commonly elicited in stressful scenarios, experts said Friday.
It comes down to the basic human response of fight, flight or freeze when people believe they could be under threat, said Dr. Judith F. Joseph, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University Grossman School of Medicine at NYU Langone Health.
“When your body is in shock and you think you’re going to die or you think you’re in a threatening situation, adrenaline surges your sympathetic nervous system and takes off, and you may experience a frozen state where consciously you know what’s happening, but then a coping mechanism is for you to dissociate,” Joseph said.
People who have experienced it said they felt as if they were not part of their bodies, a state brought on by traumatic shock, she said. “People may disassociate in and out for hours, especially if they’ve been through severe trauma,” Joseph said, adding that their minds wander to another place to get away from the trauma or fear.
Mortensen and Funke described in statements the pain they felt after the loss of their friends and housemates.
“My life was greatly impacted to have known these four beautiful people,” Mortensen wrote, “my people who changed my life in so many ways and made me so happy.”
Mortensen said she heard Goncalves playing with her dog at about 4 a.m., and then a short time later, heard her housemate saying, “There’s someone here,” according to the court documents.
Then, she said, she heard crying from Kernodle’s room and a male voice saying “something to the effect of ‘it’s ok, I’m going to help you,’” according to the affidavit.
Based on forensic evidence and interviews, investigators believe the four victims were killed sometime between 4 a.m. and 4:25 a.m.
At 11:58 a.m., a 911 call was placed from the cellphone of one of the surviving housemates requesting assistance for an “unconscious person,” according to court documents.
“It’s possible what happened with her was that she sort of went into a dissociation state and was just kind of confused and shocked and not really understanding what’s going on,” said Dr. Akeem Marsh, a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University Grossman School of Medicine at NYU Langone Health, referring to Mortensen.
“In those states, the mind is really shutting down to protect itself.”
Marsh said a person could have “no concept of time, so many hours could have gone by, and you really don’t even know what happened until you finally snap back to reality and realize something happened.”
These are all responses to traumatic shock, he said, which could impair cognitive ability, including decision-making. He said the survivors may continue to experience symptoms of shock, which could persist for weeks after the trauma, especially as their realization of what happened increases.
Emily Dworkin, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said another common response triggered by Mortensen’s “frozen shock phase” could be tonic immobility, a paralysis-like state.
“You sort of shut down entirely while still being able to encode what’s happening, so you’re still actively processing what’s happening in the environment, but your ability to respond to it is shut down,” she said.
Tonic immobility can last for hours in some people, she said.
“While you can still remember what happened, you can’t act in response to that environment so you can’t fight, you can’t flee, you might be able to do some small things, but a lot of those more major responses to a threat get kind of shut down,” she said.
Dworkin stressed that any speculation on state of mind is “interpreting it through the lens of what we know now” versus what Mortensen knew in the moment.
“There are many possible interpretations from her perspective of what was happening at that time,” she said.
“Being a person living in a house with college-age roommates with guests coming in and out, it’s probably not uncommon to hear noises and see people you don’t recognize early in the morning,” she said.
“Hearing a strange noise or seeing a man you don’t recognize might be startling but not necessarily out of the realm of the normal, and a lot of people would kind of tell themselves they’re overreacting and talk themselves out of it if they were feeling afraid. There’s different things that could be operating with her frozen state, and I think all of them would be reasonable.”