A new and unsettling way of life has struck the small college town of Moscow, Idaho, in the days since four university students were murdered near their campus.
Police presence has multiplied, students have fled in droves, and community members are plagued by fear and anxiety as the case remains unsolved.
The town of some 26,000 residents had not recorded a single murder since 2015 before it was upended. Four University of Idaho students – Ethan Chapin, 20; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; Xana Kernodle, 20; and Madison Mogen, 21 – were found stabbed to death on the second and third floors of their shared off-campus home, according to authorities.
The university’s typically packed parking lots had many open spots after many students decided to leave the area early, before the start of their fall recess. Many left because of how “emotionally difficult” it was to stay on campus, according to Tanner McClain, president of Associated Students of the University of Idaho, the school’s student governing body.
“The whole situation is just terrifying from the start,” McClain told CNN. “I’m across the other side of the state right now, and I’m still scared from the overall situation.”
Nearly one week after the murders shattered Moscow’s sense of security, the community remains on edge as they wait for police to release more details surrounding the students’ deaths, locate the weapon used to carry out the heinous attacks and, ultimately, identify and catch a suspect.
Some students, such as Emma Vigil, a senior, said “there are no plans” to return to campus until police bring a suspect into custody.
“I don’t know how anyone is supposed to feel safe or go back. All of my friends have left,” Vigil, who lives just feet away from the house where the four students were killed, told CNN this week.
“I don’t know how I could be safe if they haven’t caught the person who did it,” Vigil added.
University offers resources, support
The University of Idaho is offering resources for employees and students to help them cope, including drop-in counseling, therapy dog support, and additional security officers on campus to escort students across campus, according to a statement.
“We need to remain flexible this week and grant our students and colleagues room to process these unprecedented events in their own ways. Students, you are encouraged to do what is right for you. Whether this is going home early or staying in class, you have our support,” University President Scott Green said in a statement Thursday.
Many professors canceled classes this past week, including Zachary Turpin, assistant professor of American Literature, who wrote on Twitter he “can’t in good conscience hold class” until police release more information or identify a suspect in the murders.
Other schools near the university campus have also increased security following the attacks. The Moscow School District, which serves roughly 2,200 students, said Idaho State Police ramped up a presence near the city’s public schools on Thursday and Friday, to assist local police in the murder investigation.
Superintendent Greg Bailey told CNN the loss has “hit everyone in the community,” which has rarely, if ever, experienced this level of collective tragedy.
Bailey said the school district already had security measures in place with automatically locked doors and cameras. Counselors and teachers are actively monitoring their elementary, junior high and high school students to see whether they are experiencing any levels of stress.
“I think everyone has just a little bit of fear of this scenario because they haven’t identified the perpetrator,” Bailey said, “People are alert, and it’s obviously the discussion.”
“We’re just having to sit back and wait until further information is available, but there’s an understanding that they can’t get all the information so that [police] can have a better chance of catching the person.”
Students describe ‘dark’ campus atmosphere
The atmosphere of campus “completely changed” since the tragedy, said McClain, a 21-year-old junior who left the town on Tuesday to stay with his sister in the Boise area. The campus has been inundated with police officers, security and reporters this week, McClain said.
“I was there yesterday, and I’ve never seen [the] campus, the atmosphere, that dark before,” McClain said on Tuesday. “Campus is usually very lively very, very fun, very bright. There’s always stuff going on, there’s always activities, there’s always events being put on.”
McClain said he intends to return to campus to finish the semester out of his own sense of responsibility as student body president to bring the community together during this time.
“It’s very sad to see, you know, how this tragedy has just, you know, truly devastated our small local community,” he said.
The four victims were active in the Greek community, which connected them with many members of fraternities and sororities at the school.
In between long pauses and with an emotional heaviness in his voice, McClain described in an interview to CNN how the group of four friends touched the lives of “countless students” and said he noticed a significant number of students who are part of Greek life fled campus this week.
“Everyone in Greek life in Moscow knows each other in some way or another, which is why the loss … just devastated that community,” McClain said.
Lack of details has students on edge
The unease among the community was compounded after Moscow police, who initially said there was no threat to the public and described the killings as a “targeted attack,” backtracked their stance on Wednesday.
“We cannot say there’s no threat to the community,” said Moscow Police Department Chief James Fry during the Wednesday news conference. “And as we have stated, please stay vigilant, report any suspicious activity and be aware of your surroundings at all times.”
Jim Chapin, the father of Ethan Chapin, said in a statement this week the lack of information from the university and local police “only fuels false rumors and innuendo in the press and social media,” adding “the silence further compounds our family’s agony after our son’s murder.”
The news conference put some students even more on edge, including Amanda Bauer, a graduate student.
In an interview with CNN affiliate KLEW, Bauer said it was “nerve-wracking to hear them say that we are no longer like totally safe since their first comment, in the beginning, was that we were safe. So, it was definitely a change that made a lot of my friends and I uncomfortable.”
Bauer told KLEW she has to stay on campus until Monday when her flight is scheduled to depart, otherwise she would have left sooner.
“My home is in California, so my flight isn’t until Monday. But I wish I could go home,” Bauer told KLEW.
Other students told CNN because no perpetrator has been caught, the sense of fear on campus is elevated.
“Everybody kind of just went back home because they’re scared. … It’s definitely uneasy on campus right now,” student Nathan Tinno told CNN.
Another student, Ava Driftmeyer, lives near where the students were killed and described the emotional and mental toll the tragedy has taken on students who feel “helpless” due to the lack of information.
She told CNN police have handled the investigation “poorly” and noted the community was not equipped to deal with this level of tragedy.
Driftmeyer said she had to stay in the area due to her job, and estimated more than half the school’s students have left.
“I just don’t even think it’s like set in yet. … You know how insane this is? And the fact that there’s no answers is like the worst feeling ever,” she said.
Other students, such as Chad Huscrost, decided to stay on campus out of respect for the victims and as a show of support to his community, he told CNN affiliate KLEW.
“They’re not alone right now,” Huscrost told KLEW.
“There is a community, and I think we have to fight back and know that we can conquer over fear,” he added.
CNN’s Isabelle Chapman, Audrey Ash, David Williams and Aya Elamroussi contributed to this report.