As the University of Idaho holds a vigil Wednesday night in remembrance of four students who were fatally stabbed in an off-campus home, the lack of a suspect or a clear motive more than two weeks later has fueled frustration with the police and resulted in amateur sleuths determined to solve the case.
The hundreds of tips and calls provided to local, state and federal investigators as a result of cyber sleuths can help — both in identifying plausible leads and in ruling out potential suspects — but former FBI agents and experts in law enforcement officials say they are most often. an obstacle to an investigation, divert resources and attention, and can even be harmful by entrapping innocent people.
“With what the police, with all kinds of training and all the resources to help solve just about any kind of crime, have at their fingertips, it’s pretty hard to believe anyone just banging on the internet is going to be able to solve the crime that we couldn’t,” said Pete Yachmetz, a retired FBI special agent in Florida with three decades at the agency. “I just don’t understand.”
But the case of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old New Yorker who disappeared last year while documenting cross-country travels on social media with her fiancé, has become something of a model for people fascinated by missing and unresolved persons. crimes.
The intrigue surrounding Petito’s disappearance has exploded on social media with a dedicated hashtag racking up more than a billion views on TikTok posts as users theorize what happened to him. Petito’s body was eventually discovered in a forest in Wyoming. A manhunt ensues for her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, whose skeletal remains were found a month later in Florida.
Now the homicide in Moscow, Idaho, of four University of Idaho students – friends Madison Mogen, 21; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; and Xana Kernodle, 20; and Kernodle’s boyfriend Ethan Chapin, 20 – has become a new mystery for internet sleuths to speculate on. The three students lived in the house with two other roommates, one of whose cell phones was used to call 911 just before noon on November 13. Authorities at the scene said they found the four victims stabbed multiple times, apparently with a “stabbing weapon”. “, like a large knife. No weapon was found.
A private homicide Facebook group now has more than 32,700 members in which users dissect past social media posts friends made before their deaths, piece together their interactions with others on their Instagram, Facebook and Venmo accounts, and even named people they think might be suspects or say the police should interview.
A forum on Reddit has more than 27,000 members with users posing theories and analyzing statements posted by law enforcement and family members of victims.
And on TikTok, posts with the hashtag #idahomurders have over 94.2 million views, with users wondering if a serial killer is behind the deaths or if the homicides are linked to other similar cases of unsolved stabbings in the area.
Investigators have so far said the deaths were part of a “targeted attack” and not linked to any other killings.
The guess based on what people found through internet and social media searches apparently offended Moscow police, who said on Sunday they received nearly 500 “digital media” tips on an FBI page devoted to the case.
“There is speculation, without factual backing, stoking community fears and spreading false facts,” the department said in a news release this week. The city’s website on the case also includes a “rumor control” section aimed at stifling unverified information.
The Idaho State Police, which is handling investigations into the case, did not return multiple requests for comment.
Adam Scott Wandt, assistant professor and vice president of technology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it’s no coincidence that the homicide case of four Idaho students is gaining traction on platforms. like YouTube and TikTok, which he attributes to advanced algorithms that feed these types of messages to users.
“Gabby Petito went viral because there was no doubt that TikTok was pushing this hashtag,” he said.
But for every case like Petito’s in which internet research can be beneficial — a YouTube video helped establish a possible crime scene and police focus their search efforts — there are many more in which investigators in wheelchairs only add to the noise, Wandt said.
In addition, crowd-sourced investigations can ruin lives, he added, like what happened when users of Reddit, Twitter and other social media platforms incorrectly identified suspects in the terrorist attack. Boston Marathon in 2013 based on photos and videos.
“It’s extremely dangerous,” Wandt said. “There’s a wild, wild West aspect to it all.”
Jeremy Reagan, a University of Idaho law student who lives near the crime scene in Moscow, is all too used to being misnamed.
An interview he gave to the media in which netizens said he looked suspicious has gone viral and led some to believe he was involved in the students’ deaths.
“The fact that I had a nervous smile on my face, people latched onto it. ‘Oh, he’s smiling, he’s proud of what he’s done,'” Reagan said. “But I wasn’t asking to be interviewed by a reporter. She literally stopped me while I was taking out the trash, and I had nothing to hide, so I spoke with her.”
Police came to question him this week, he said, but he clarified that he was in fact the victim of online harassment and unfounded rumors in which people were browsing his old social media posts to try to prove a connection. He recently started answering questions on Reddit to dispel the accusations.
“After I posted my version of things, a lot of people reached out and said, ‘Hey, I didn’t think that was you’ or, ‘Hey, I originally thought that was you, and after reading your post, I realized that was not the case,” he said.
He added that he understands people’s curiosity and wants to be the one to unravel a mystery, but that should be priceless.
“Sometimes it can help,” Reagan said. “But I think most of the time what people end up finding or reporting to the police just stalls the investigation. It’s a waste of time and resources.”
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