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Jumping the gun

The legal case stemming from the killing last year of four University of Idaho students is underway, with no result – conviction, acquittal or something else – likely for months to come. During what may be an extended pause in the visible part of the process, there’s time to consider what’s happened so far.

My prompt for that is a new book (slated for release on October 4), While Idaho Slept, by J. Reuben Appelman, piecing together the substantial mass of details about the case collected and publicly available.

Absent a legal resolution of the case, the book may seem premature. Still, some months ago a book by Leah Sottile, “When the Moon Turns to Blood,” successfully reviewed another not-yet-folly-resolved criminal case by considering not so much the crime itself as the background relating to it. Appelman may be doing the same here, providing a focus for pause and reflection.

Too often, the focus in crimes like this is on the perpetrator, which may have the effect of feeding a criminal’s simple hunger for attention. (It’s only a gesture, but I won’t name the accused in this column.) Appelman seems to have considered this, and while fully backgrounding the accused, said of his effort that “My goal in writing it was to elevate public memory of the victims … What happened to the victims on King Road has made me appreciate how truly valuable each of our lives are, and taught me to hold tightly to the many people who have stayed with me throughout the years.”

Much of the book does focus on them, though an assembly of information about the subsequent investigation inevitably had to extend further.

But in reading the book, I was reminded of something else.

Last December, about three weeks following the killings but before an arrest has been made or suspect named, I wrote, “And while complaints are abundant about that not having happened yet, and about the relative scarcity of information that’s been released, those of us not in the middle of the investigation really have little way of knowing how well law enforcement is or isn’t doing. (Credit due, though, for the willingness to clear people who have been thrown into the rumor circle’s suspect pile.) Eventually, we will be able to evaluate.”

While Idaho Slept makes a good case that law enforcement did in fact do its job.

The word that comes to mind, after knowing now much more about the inquiry, is “methodical,” in a good way. In many murder cases, the offender is either obvious or someone on a suspect short list, and that wasn’t remotely the case here. (The actual connection between the accused and the victims still seems, based on publicly available information, the thinnest part of the case.) Investigators didn’t seem to have a lot to work with in tracking down their suspect.

But they used effectively what data they did have, including a knife sheath, GPS records and other odds and ends, which were put carefully through their paces. Each time Appelman brought up some detail related to the case, I thought: I hope the cops checked that out. And then it turned out they did, more efficiently and energetically than it probably seemed from the outside at the time. While people not only in Moscow but around the world were hollering about the lack of an arrest, the police were patiently assembling the pieces and tracking down their guy, while being careful not to spook him and send him into flight.

Law enforcement comes off pretty well in this story.

Of course, there’s no conviction so far, and as always we have yet to see how a jury reacts to the evidence presented (which could include more than we’re publicly aware of now).

Sometimes, patience is what’s called for.


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