School

I’m a Criminology Professor. I’ve Seen Students Like the Idaho Suspect Before.

Bryan Kohberger was studying crime. Does that tell us anything?

A grainy black-and-white image of the back of a student, who wears a cap and gown, with a fingerprint in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ljupco/iStock/Getty Images Plus and ABBPhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

In June of 1993 I walked into a crowded classroom at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Did you hear?” a student blurted. “They caught a serial killer in Long Island! He was driving around with a dead woman in the bed of his pickup. Joel Rifkin. They weren’t even looking for a serial killer.”

Students in the summer session of my criminology course fidgeted in their seats as I set down my textbook and chalk next to the podium. The class was full of criminology majors, enthusiastic junior profilers who embraced any excuse to avoid learning crime theory and research methodology and instead engage in a discussion on the motive and murder methodology of killers like Rifkin.

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Before there was CSI and Criminal Minds, there was Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. It seemed, in those days, that every student wanted to be an FBI profiler like Thomas Harris’ Will Graham and Clarice Starling, facing down the notorious psychiatrist and murderer Hannibal Lecter—who was, himself, something of a profiler. One dark-humored student even presented me with a movie-promo photo of Hannibal, an image of the killer behind bars but with a Sharpie tagline: “JJC ALUMNUS.”

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Fast-forward 30 years, and I’m still teaching criminology but also conducting research interviews with incarcerated offenders and serving as the in-house criminologist and legal analyst for television networks CNN and HLN. Sitting in front of my computer camera on Dec. 30, covering the Nov. 13 University of Idaho student slayings on live news for the sixth week in a row, I was thrilled to learn that an arrest had finally been made.

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I was consternated in equal measure to discover that the accused killer, Bryan Christopher Kohberger, was a doctoral student in the department of criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University. Hearing that Kohberger had graduate-level experience in my academic discipline, I was disheartened but not at all surprised.

During my 35 years as a criminology professor, I’ve sometimes encountered the odd student who is overly preoccupied with studying homicide. Not just any murder, but premeditated violence of the chilling variety. Uninterested in the real causal variables behind most homicides—domestic violence, gang wars, anomic societies, drugs, and the proliferation of guns—these students want to focus solely on the psychology of those rare mass, spree, and serial killers who are the stuff of James Patterson novels.

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These profiler wannabes want to get inside the mind of a killer the same way that a squirrel is determined to crack a nut. There is an ominous shadow to these groupies’ fascination with these aberrant criminals, an unfettered enthusiasm and malignant narcissism that contributes to their seeing themselves as experts on everything. At some level, one must wonder if they possess a deeply suppressed kinship with, and even empathy for, the perpetrators they analyze.

These students can be confrontational or subtle, but they’re always preoccupied with the minutiae of the violent details and the staunch belief that they understand the killer in question better than anyone else does. They’re eager to show off. The extreme profiler wannabes want to school me and their other professors with their encyclopedic knowledge of homicidal maniacs, offering long-winded commentary without asking a question, caustically dismissing everyone else’s analysis of the criminal if they disagree. Their attitude is often righteous and self-aggrandizing, unmistakably condescending: I know what I’m talking about. You don’t.

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I walk away from these “murder junkies” wondering if their arrogance is housed not in their mastery of criminology but in their capacity for crime.

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(Due to the subject matter, I do want to flag here that the rest of this piece contains descriptions of violent crime that some may find graphic.)

While no definitive survey has been done on the relative type and volume of crimes committed by college students majoring in criminal justice and criminology, there have been many such studies done on college students, with students asked to self-report their crimes. The problem with self-report-based crime surveys of undergrads is that, like the National Youth Survey administered to high school students, these surveys ask mostly about property crime and drug use, with few questions about assault, and none about rape and homicide.

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The one self-report-based survey of criminologists committing crime was conducted by Matthew Robinson of Appalachian State University in 1998. His conclusion was that “we criminologists are to a degree, what we study—i.e., we commit acts of crime and deviance. Many criminologists admit to having committed them … in the past twelve months, including many which are codified as ‘serious’ and ‘harmful’ in the criminal law.”

Robinson’s study of 522 criminologists did ask about Uniform Crime Reporting Index crimes such as burglary (22 respondents admitted to that crime), battery (25), rape (3), and robbery (2), but the more common crimes among criminologists were theft, DUIs, and adultery. The survey did not include any questions about criminologists committing homicide, which brings us no closer to knowing whether the discipline attracts, renders, or hones the methods of murderers—but his findings do suggest that criminologists are no different from the average Joe when it comes to committing lesser crimes.

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When asked recently if he had ever had a criminology student graduate to murder, Robinson replied: “I have had a few students in my 25-year career who ended up in trouble with the law. And I have had a few students who gave me the creeps, based on things they said to me in and out of class. But to my knowledge, I have never had a former student go on to commit murder.”

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I think deeply about this because the Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, was once a student at my university. That hoodie-wearing image of Lanza that everyone associates with the 2012 massacre of 20 first graders and six school staff is his student ID photo from Western Connecticut State University. Lanza was not studying criminology, and I never had him as my student, but I asked other WCSU professors who had him in their classes what they remembered about him. Their answers were unsettling in an unanticipated way: Lanza was unremarkable, at best, and not on anyone’s radar. There was no creep factor, no red flags, nothing that made him stand out. His grades were average; he never spoke in class, and eventually quit attending. Until Lanza opened fire on an elementary school, no one noticed him at all.

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Kohberger, in contrast, excelled in his college studies and sought recognition. He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in criminal justice from DeSales University, a private Catholic university in Pennsylvania, where he studied under the preeminent criminologist Katherine Ramsland, author of more than 60 books and 1,000 articles on violent criminals.

Ramsland (who is judiciously declining to comment on Kohberger at this time) has written extensively about serial killer Dennis Rader, known as BTK (for bind, torture, kill). One thing we know, therefore, is that Kohberger would have studied the BTK murders during his four years of criminal justice studies at DeSales.

Rader, who also earned a degree in criminal justice (from Wichita State), began his 15-year trajectory of violence with the random mass murder of a family of four in their home. There was a sexual component to the crime in that even though the youngest victim was not raped, her pants were pulled down, and ejaculate was found at the scene. Later, Rader would confirm that this initial mass murder, the advent of his serial killing career, was based in pervasive sexual fantasy.

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Although Moscow, Idaho, police have reported that there was no sexual assault of the four UI students who were savagely stabbed to death with a Rambo-style knife in mid-November, psychologists would likely interpret the stabbing frenzy as picquerism, in which stabbing with a blade is used as a substitute for phallic thrust in a sexually motivated attack. Any correlation between BTK’s initial murders and the Idaho slayings is spurious at best, and yet the possibility provokes an obvious question: Could Kohberger’s study of criminology have contributed to the psychopathology of this alleged killer?

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Perhaps the most interesting report on Kohberger’s time as a criminology student is that in April 2022 he administered a survey to a Reddit forum of convicted criminals. The introduction states: “In particular, this study seeks to understand the story behind your most recent criminal offense, with an emphasis on your thoughts and feelings throughout your experience.” (While the intro also indicates that he’s asking questions under the auspices of DeSales University and that the survey has been approved by its institutional review board, the university has yet to confirm this.)

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One of his survey questions asked, “Why did you choose that victim or target over others?” Another reads, “After committing the crime, what were you thinking and feeling?” To understand that these questions were authored by an accused mass murderer is undeniably creepy, but the most unsettling observation this provokes is that Kohberger may have been assessing criminal minds to fulfill personal predilections that had nothing to do with a research project.

Some other details surrounding Kohberger’s alleged crimes also have me (and others) wondering whether he used his academic knowledge in the planning process. All accused people, including Kohberger, are entitled to the presumption of innocence. This tenet of our justice system is one which I, as a defense attorney, wholly support. The criminologist side of me, however, focuses on a Twitter posting from a witness at Kohberger’s formal booking process, who said that the suspect reportedly asked authorities, “Has anyone else been arrested for this crime?”

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The probable cause affidavit that was the basis for Kohberger’s arrest was released on Jan. 5 and confirmed several anticipated sources of evidence. There was DNA at the scene and security camera footage of Kohberger’s car in the area the night of the murders. But it also revealed several surprises.

The bombshell is that there is an eyewitness. One of the surviving roommates in the house actually saw, and probably heard, the murderer. Page four of the affidavit reads like a script from a horror movie: After being awakened by the barking of one victim’s dog and the cries of another victim, the young woman opens the door to encounter a tall, athletic figure with bushy eyebrows, dressed in black with a face mask covering his mouth and nose.

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The other interesting fact is that the killer left the leather sheath of a K-Bar knife in the bed of another victim. DNA from the snap on the sheath, processed through forensic genealogy, is what led investigators to Kohberger. The third category of evidence is digital in nature, with camera footage of the suspect’s car and cell pings from his mobile phone revealing a travel route that put him in the immediate area—not only on the night of the murders, but at least 12 times in three months prior to Nov. 13.

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Would someone with Kohberger’s education in criminal justice and experience in private security (after high school, he worked part time as a security guard for his local school district) be so careless as to drive his own car, carry a phone, and leave behind the murder weapon sheath with his DNA on it? And when a killer has dispatched four victims and happens upon a fifth person on his way out the door, he usually dispatches them as well in order to maximize his chances of getting away with it.

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Kohberger’s Pennsylvania attorney is on record that his client “looks forward to being exonerated.” Taken along with the accused’s apparent inquiry while being booked for murder, these two statements beg the question as to whether he might be so well versed in the workings of the criminal justice system that he anticipated the possibility of arrest and set up these breadcrumbs of reasonable doubt in advance. Intelligent and organized murderers, knowing full well which typology of criminal they fit, often belie their predicted behavior patterns with calculated acts, like the carelessness described above, designed to throw off investigators. Murderers and rapists have been known to plant imported DNA evidence (such as someone else’s hair, blood, or semen) during their crimes as a red herring, believing that contra-indicating evidence linking the crime to someone else guarantees them a get-out-of-jail-free card.

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One of Kohberger’s former professors from DeSales described him as “brilliant.” Consider, then, the hypothesis that Kohberger is factually guilty. The question remains whether his penchant for forensic psychology contributed to the alleged murder. Did a fantasy for bloodletting predate his studies? Did his study of the criminal mind contribute to his decision to conduct a real-life experiment as to whether he possessed the capacity to commit a heinous murder—and the wherewithal to get away with it? In short, assuming Kohberger is the murderer, was his passion for studying criminology a cause or an effect?

Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI profiler and director of the forensic science program at George Mason University, is on record as believing that Kohberger’s interest in murder predated his criminology studies, stating, “We’re going to have to really dig a lot deeper into the personality to see if these degrees were a method, a means to an ends, for him getting into the mind of someone like this … or if they actually had nothing to do with it.” O’Toole added: “So many students have those degrees … and they’re the furthest thing away from being violent.”

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Professors must take at face value the motives of a student pursuing a career in criminal justice. But if, following one’s training and skills, or a gut feeling, you suspect something more, what should you do? The conundrum has surely left the crime experts and professors who taught Bryan Kohberger feeling not just horrified by the crime but plagued with self-doubt. It’s not our job to diagnose, but in the face of such tragedy it is human nature to ask: How could I have missed that? Professors and college administrators who tried, with varying degrees of success, to raise their suspicions about James Holmes, Cho Seung-Hui, and Jared Lee Loughner would recognize that the process is difficult, if not futile.

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There were signs with Kohberger, but they are so vague and commonplace as to be meaningless, none rising to the status of a major red flag in threat assessment. The slaying of the four UI students was technically a mass murder, but nothing like the profiles used for campus shootings. From the outset, the psychology of the unknown murderer always seemed as if it would fit that of the rare hybrid killer, a murderer who represents an amalgam of homicide categories and profiles.

These one-offs are extremely rare, but can be found in Richard Speck, who stabbed and strangled eight student nurses in their dormitory apartment, one by one, over the course of several hours. Others would be Danny Rolling, who stabbed five University of Florida–Gainesville students to death in three incidents over four days, or Elliot Rodger, the misogynist spree killer who stabbed to death two roommates and a friend before continuing his rampage on the University of California, Santa Barbara campus, injuring 14 people and killing six before taking his own life. They are defined as mass or spree killers, but what do they all have in common? They fit a fantasy-driven power-control profile of a serial killer.

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Power and control, where the perpetrator derives gratification from exerting control over a vulnerable victim, is the most common typology of serial killing. Power is such a driving force in sexual assault that criminologists categorize rapists as both power-compensatory and power-reassurance. In criminology, it’s the need for power that regularly surfaces as the lowest common denominator in our analysis of violent crime.

“One thing he would always do, almost without fail, was find the most complicated way to explain something,” said Ben Roberts, a fellow grad student in Kohberger’s program, to a reporter. “He had to make sure you knew that he knew it.” The accused murderer was described as “awkward” and “detached” by other students. The consensus was that Kohberger exhibited signs of impostor syndrome so common to first-year Ph.D. students.

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Deep insecurity may have been the root of Kohberger’s need for recognition, an overcompensation for inner turmoil that manifested in heterosexist remarks, harsh grading of undergraduates, and scathing feedback on their papers. In an interesting turn, after the UI student murders took place, those same WSU undergraduates began receiving scores of 100 from Kohberger, with no additional comments offered. Perhaps a sense of control over some inner conflict had been regained.

On the first day of every criminology class I’ve taught since 1988, to more than 6,000 students at five different universities, I have students take out a sheet of paper for a 100-percent anonymous self-reported survey of the worst crime they’ve ever committed, and whether they were caught. It’s an exercise in understanding the “dark figure” criminologists talk about when explaining Uniform Crime Reporting statistics, an effort to demonstrate how much crime is committed—even by criminal justice students—that goes undetected.

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I assure that all answers will be shredded in front of them. The students are encouraged to be truthful and detailed, when possible, to add veracity to the exercise, and based on the consistent candor of responses received over the years, I have no doubt that students take it seriously.

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There’s the usual stuff: speeding and shoplifting, drug use and dealing, underage drinking and DUIs. In the realm of violent crime, the most common is aggravated assault by way of barroom fight. The surprises are poignant: prostitution to support a heroin habit, grand larceny to pay tuition, child abuse during postpartum depression, and then—four admissions of murder.

These anonymous notes confessing to these homicides, for whom no one was arrested, have included explanations ranging from gang initiation to street-justice revenge. For every self-disclosed killing, there was always a postscript in which the student insisted that they were a different person at the time, that they learned from their crime and are now making good. “I’m here to turn my life around,” one wrote.

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The most disturbing admissions were to violence unaccompanied by explanation or apology, such as the student who bragged about beating unconscious any person of color (he used extremely racist terms) who set foot in his all-white neighborhood. And then there was the student who wrote that while in the military, he and his buddies beat, to the point of black eyes and knocked-out teeth, and savagely gang-raped a sex worker who had tried to “rip us off.” No, he had not been caught for this or any of the other assaults he had committed.

I remember exhaling slowly at the brazen nature of this student’s answer. When I read it out loud, the class shifted uncomfortably in their seats, refusing to glance around for any sign of the self-admitted rapist. I shredded the answer, only to look up at a young man in the front row wearing a sweatshirt that proclaimed MARINES in huge letters across his broad chest. He sat up straighter and stared at me with a shit-eating grin, unapologetic to the core.

In the coming months, as Kohberger wends his way through the criminal justice system he studied, the profilers and criminologists—including those who mentored him—will be studying him. As evidence unfolds, it may paint a portrait of a troubled young man eager to overcome fear and prove himself worthy, a fledgling academic so obsessed with understanding those unicorns of criminology, the outliers like Rader and Bundy, that he aspired to join their ranks.

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