Home News Should a Notorious Crime Scene Be Demolished Before Trial?

Should a Notorious Crime Scene Be Demolished Before Trial?

by Staff

At the house where four University of Idaho students were murdered last year, sheets of plywood cover the windows. A temporary fence surrounds the yard. Security guards, posted in a blue trailer, keep watch 24 hours a day.

And yet, for a university trying to erase the remnants of a tragedy that cast a terrifying shadow over the past academic year, the house on a hillside near campus remains uncomfortably conspicuous — visible from nearby fraternity houses and sought out as a photo spot by true-crime aficionados from around the country. University officials hope to demolish it before a new class of students arrives in August.

But the plan has distressed some family members of the four students killed, who worry that the house could be vital to the prosecution of the accused killer, and to a jury’s understanding of how the four students could have been slaughtered in bedrooms on the second and third floors without alerting two other roommates in the house. They have pressed the university to hold off on any demolition.

“What’s best for the case is for us to take caution and protect what the jury may possibly want to wrap their heads around,” Steve Goncalves, the father of one of the victims, Kaylee Goncalves, said of the university’s announcement.

The parents of Ethan Chapin, another one of the victims, said the situation was difficult, with no easy answers. On one hand, they agree with Mr. Goncalves that demolishing the home this summer “feels very early,” said Mr. Chapin’s mother, Stacy. But she noted that their two other children — they were triplets — are still students at the University of Idaho, and one of them has a room that looks out toward the house, providing a constant reminder.

“Our kids have to walk past that house every day,” Ms. Chapin said. “The kids, they need to heal. The university needs to heal. And the community.”

The house in Idaho joins a growing roster of notorious properties around the country whose fates have become the subject of complex legal and ethical debates, as communities try to decide what, if anything, should remain in the aftermath of a mass murder.

In Newtown, Conn., the Sandy Hook Elementary School building was razed and rebuilt after the 2012 mass shooting that left 26 people dead. In Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers last year, the school district has similar plans to demolish the school and build a new one.

Other communities have left such crime scenes intact. The large hunting estate in South Carolina where Alex Murdaugh’s wife and younger son were killed in 2021 was sold for $3.9 million just weeks after Mr. Murdaugh, a prominent lawyer, was convicted of murdering them. Students in Santa Fe, Texas, returned within weeks to the high school where a gunman killed 10 people in 2018.

And while some residents called for demolishing the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., that was the site of a mass shooting in 2012, it was instead renamed, remodeled and reopened within six months.

The case in Idaho is not the only one where some have advocated leaving the crime scene standing for jurors. The classroom building in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 students and staff members five years ago is still standing, fenced off from where students attend classes in adjacent buildings. Jurors visited the abandoned building last year during the sentencing trial for the gunman, making their way past shards of glass, walls riddled with bullet holes and floors still smeared with blood.

After the acquittal last week of a school resource officer who failed to confront the gunman — the last criminal case stemming from the shootings — school officials said they now planned to proceed with demolition. But first, the authorities began allowing victims’ relatives to walk the building’s hallways this week for the first time since the shooting, if they wanted to.

Jurors visited the Murdaugh crime scene in Islandton, S.C., during Mr. Murdaugh’s trial this year. They spent about an hour walking around the area where the victims were shot, including a shed and feed room. Similarly, when the novelist Michael Peterson was on trial in 2003, accused of killing his wife, jurors were given a chance to examine the stairwell where she died in their home. The house remains standing, though it has been sold several times since Mr. Peterson’s trial, including at one point to a man who describes himself as a “clairvoyant medium.”

The stabbings in Idaho on Nov. 13 left four students dead: Ms. Goncalves, 21; Madison Mogen, 21; Xana Kernodle, 20; and Mr. Chapin, 20. Their bodies were not discovered for hours, and a suspect was not identified for weeks. Investigators ultimately arrested Bryan Kohberger in late December, a Ph.D. criminology student at nearby Washington State University.

Jodi Walker, a university spokeswoman, said that the house, in the middle of a student housing area, has been a constant reminder of what transpired there. She said officials were also considering the needs of all the students and staff members on campus when they made the decision to demolish the structure.

“This is another step toward healing,” she said. “It’s definitely a balancing act.”

Mr. Kohberger’s defense lawyer, Anne Taylor, told campus officials in April that she had “no objection” to the plan, according to an email. The county prosecutor, Bill Thompson, told the university that he also did not object, because the authorities did not think it would be needed for trial.

“The scene has been substantially altered from its condition at the time of the homicides including removal of relevant property and furnishings, removal of some structural items such as wallboard and flooring, and subjected to extensive chemical application creating a potential health hazard,” Mr. Thompson wrote in a separate email. “These are some of the reasons that we have concluded that a ‘jury view’ would not be appropriate.”

Last week, trucks pulled up to the house to begin removing the former residents’ belongings, a process that could take several weeks. Demolition was set to begin soon after.

But some family members of the victims say that with the trial not scheduled until October, it is too soon to destroy the site of the murders.

Shanon Gray, a lawyer representing the Goncalves family, said jurors may need to see the house to understand how noise traveled in the building, and how a killer could move through the home’s unusual six-bedroom layout.

He argued that the university was rushing to demolish it because it wanted to leave the tragedy behind before fully dealing with it.

“It’s for the University of Idaho, trying to tell everybody to hurry up and forget this ever happened,” he said.

Members of Ms. Mogen’s family and Ms. Kernodle’s family also want to see the home preserved until the criminal case is resolved, Mr. Gray said.

The landlord of the house where the killings occurred donated the house to the university, leaving its fate in the hands of the school administration. Public ownership can make it easier to demolish homes with bad histories, but homes in private ownership often wind up with the same fate. The house in Illinois where many of John Wayne Gacy’s victims were found was razed and a new one was built; in Wisconsin, the apartment building where Jeffrey Dahmer committed a series of gruesome murders was also torn down. The lot remains empty today.

University of Idaho officials have not put forward a plan for how the property in Moscow is to be used after the house is razed.

Neighbors have been largely silent on the fate of the house, which lies on a dead-end street south of campus, close to several other residences.

Vanessa Lopez, 25, lives near the home and sees it every day. She said the property had become a sort of tourist attraction, which she found disrespectful, and a constant reminder of the horrors that happened in what had always been a quiet little town.

Ms. Lopez said the wishes of the victims’ families should come first, but she would welcome seeing the house gone. “With that still being there, it just brings up the memories,” she said.

For Mr. Goncalves, the house holds a deeply personal meaning, both as a place where his daughter had many of her life’s best moments, and as a symbol of how he believes the community failed to keep her and her friends safe. But the more immediate issue now, he said, is preserving it to ensure there is accountability for the murders. Tearing the house down, he said, will not make the nightmare that happened there go away.

“It’s just going to be a freaking hole in the ground,” he said. “Is that somehow better?”

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