Police arrived at the rental house in Moscow, Idaho, where four University of Idaho students had been fatally stabbed hours prior in their bedrooms, to find friends and neighbors gathered outside.
They were crying, and some of the younger officers who had never handled such a violent crime scene faced an emotionally draining task.
“The scene wasn’t chaos,” Moscow police Capt. Roger Lanier recalled in a video posted Tuesday by the department, reflecting on the case a month after the Nov. 13 slayings, which remain unsolved. The neighborhood was “very, very somber.”
The small police force scrambled for an “all hands on deck” response, which Lanier said included calling the Idaho State Police for help to process the scene. But the lack of a suspect and concerns over an ongoing threat to the community only amplified public attention on the case and a growing demand for safety assurances from law enforcement.
Behind the scenes, city officials grappled with how to manage the surge of media coverage in their rural city of about 26,000 residents, where the last homicide had been seven years earlier.
On the morning of Nov. 16, three days after the killings, Moscow Mayor Art Bettge emailed the Police Chief James Fry to ask him to respond to reporters, even if it was with a “no comment at this time.”
“I fear the lack of direct communication is proving to be a problem in reassuring the public and keeping the media from blowing this story up through rumor and supposition,” Bettge wrote, according to copies of emails provided by the city in response to a public records request.
Fry told Bettge he had asked the Idaho State Police for help responding to media inquiries so that “hopefully it goes smoother in the near future.” Moscow police have since set up a “communications team” to handle reporters’ inquiries that includes a state police spokesman.
Bettge’s concern came as the local police faced mounting questions over their messaging.
In the days immediately following the killings, police said the attacks were targeted and that there was no threat to the public despite the assailant still being on the loose.
Then, during a news conference on Nov. 16, which had been planned before Bettge emailed Fry, the police chief said, “We cannot say there is no threat to the community.” Since then, police have said the killer’s target could have been the victims or the house itself.
Haadiya Tariq, a senior at the University of Idaho and editor in chief of the school newspaper, The Argonaut, was critical of authorities’ initial response, telling NBC News last month that she was frustrated by mixed messaging and a lack of information.
In the weeks since then, said Tariq, 21, the department had improved its communication. If she leaves a voicemail seeking comment, she actually gets a call back, she said. And people can now sign up for news alerts and access information through venues beyond what appeared to be the department’s favored platform, Facebook, she said.
But she doesn’t think those improvements will do much to change people’s perceptions.
“They really messed up from the get-go,” Tariq said. “So the rest of the communications or whatever they’re doing with the investigation — it’s been tainted. Even if they’ve improved, people aren’t going to see that.”
A lack of answers as to who would have killed the four victims — friends Madison Mogen, 21; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; and Xana Kernodle, 20; and Ethan Chapin, 20, Kernodle’s boyfriend — has left a community on edge. The weapon used, believed to be a large knife, has not been recovered.
Some University of Idaho students chose to leave campus early before the Thanksgiving break and finish the semester virtually, while family members of some of the victims have criticized police for not releasing more information about what they know.
The police say they are combating an onslaught of rumors on social media and unfounded claims surrounding the case, and that they cannot release specific information in order “to protect the investigation’s integrity.”
Lanier on Tuesday said investigators, including dozens of FBI agents across the country, are continuing to prioritize and sort through tips from the public.
“This investigation is not cold,” he said in the department video. “We get tips every day that are viable.”
While a lack of information about the killer has caused anxiety, public officials are asking for patience. Rep. Brandon Mitchell, a Republican who represents Moscow in the Idaho State Legislature, said he tells constituents to have faith in the police and avoid being speculative.
“It brings a lot of comfort to our area knowing they’re working so hard on it,” Mitchell said of law enforcement. “It’s such a horrific thing that’s happened, but I know we’re a strong community and know we’ll be able to pull through it. Once this is all closed and behind us, I think it will be a quick recovery for us because we are so together.”
The emails obtained by NBC News also show how city officials have tried to support one another and maintain morale as they weather the crisis.
City officials, including members of the Moscow City Council, praised Fry after his Nov. 16 news conference.
“I know there are no clear answers right now, but I do think it helps to communicate as much as we can. I appreciate the work you are doing in these incredibly difficult times,” Council Member Julia Parker wrote the chief.
Weeks later, on Dec. 5, Fry emailed all police department personnel to thank them for their work and cc’d the council.
Council Member Sandra Kelly responded: “Proud of you — all of you.”
A few days later, City Supervisor Bill Belknap sent an email to city staffers praising their work on the annual holiday parade. People were invited to write messages and place yellow roses around a large tree in honor of Mogen, Goncalves, Kernodle and Chapin.
“The community has carried such a heavy burden over the last several weeks and the parade provided the opportunity for the community to come together, recognize the recent tragic events, and celebrate the season together in healing,” Belknap wrote.
Council Member Maureen Laflin responded that the event was “exactly what our town needed.”
“It helped to remind us who we are and what makes Moscow home,” she said.