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Slain Idaho student's mother says she learned of 'critical' clue in unsolved case when everyone else did

Kristi Goncalves told “TODAY" she learned of the plea for information about the occupants of a Hyundai sedan from her daughter, who had read about it in news articles.

The mother of one of four Idaho college students killed last month said Tuesday that authorities didn’t notify her before they asked the public for information about a white sedan, a car police have described as a potentially critical clue.

In an interview with NBC’s "TODAY" show, Kristi Goncalves, the mother of Kaylee Goncalves, said she learned of the Dec. 7 plea for information about the occupants of a Hyundai sedan from her daughter, who had read about it in news articles.

“My first thought just started being like, how long have they had this information? Where do they get this information? Was it on a camera?” she recalled, adding that an initial burst of happiness gave way to confusion when she realized that she’d learned of the clue along with everyone else.

“The United States just found out the same time I did,” she said.

The request — which a lawyer for Goncalves described as the Moscow Police Department's first plea to the community for help tracking down a specific piece of evidence — also made the family hopeful that the quadruple homicide might finally be solved.

Kaylee Goncalves.
Kaylee Goncalves, one of four University of Idaho students found stabbed to death on Nov. 13.@kayleegoncalves via Instagram

"We thought it was a wrap," Goncalves said. "We really, as a family, we really felt like this is it."

In a news release, Moscow police said the car, believed to be a 2011-2013 Elantra, was seen in the area of the three-story, six-bedroom home where the students were found dead on Nov. 13. 

"Investigators believe the occupant(s) of this vehicle may have critical information to share regarding this case," the release said. "Your information, whether you believe it is significant or not, might be the piece of the puzzle that helps investigators solve these murders."

More in-depth coverage of the Idaho student slayings

Kaylee Goncalves, 21, lived at the home with two other victims, Madison Mogen, 21, and Xana Kernodle, 20. The fourth victim, Ethan Chapin, 20, Kernodle’s boyfriend, had been staying at the home for the night. Authorities believe they were killed in their sleep and have said some had defensive wounds.

Authorities haven’t identified a suspect or found a murder weapon, thought to be a fixed-blade knife. 

A lawyer for Goncalves, Shanon Gray, faulted Moscow police for not having informed the family before they released the information. 

The families "should be prepared to be able to answer any questions about those things,” Gray said. “It allows the victims’ families to sleep at night when they know and they trust that the police” view them as a priority.

A police spokesperson forwarded an email including the release that was sent to Gray at 2:24 p.m. Dec. 7. The spokesperson, Robbie Johnson, said the email was an example of a message aimed at keeping the Goncalves family informed.

Johnson didn’t respond to a request for more details about when the message was sent to the public.

Goncalves also criticized Latah County Coroner Cathy Mabbutt, saying TV interviews she had given about the killings were like "salt in the wound."

"Every time we turn around, there’s another, there’s a new — I don’t know if they’re new or they’re old — I’m just coming across them, and I’m just like, oh, my gosh, how many of these did she do?" Goncalves said. Recalling some of Mabbutt's comments, Goncalves said: "I'm sorry, that paints a picture."

Goncalves said Mabbutt described Kaylee's injuries in a phone call to the family, answered by her 17-year-old daughter. She said Mabbutt asked her daughter: "Are you sure you want to know this? And my daughter, thinking that she did for whatever reason, said yes."

Mabbutt's description, Gray added, was "memorable, and not in a good way."

"I think that the coroner thought she was helping out in some way — I'm not sure — but [she] gave details to the families about the investigation and about the crime scene and things like that " he said.

Such details shouldn't have been given to the teenager, he said, adding that they probably shouldn't have been given to her parents, either.

Mabbutt didn’t respond to a request for comment.