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Crime in Culture: The King Road Killings, In Cold Blood, Bundy and Bryan Kohberger.


Note the water tower (it comes up later)

In the world of crime it is true that cases that get the most attention are most likely to get solved. They will have more person power, the public will be more likely to have their memories jogged and contact investigators when they have information that could prove relevant. Attention is important, but also there are some crimes which get more than just attention from the local populace in the area they are comited. They get attention around the world, with people who may never have heard of the place or the people involved by any stretch of the imagination, suddenly knowing intimate details about their deaths. People who have no skin in the game, can reveal no missing piece of information. So it was with the University of Idaho or King Road Killings.

Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle, Kaylee Gonclaves and Ethan Chapman

On November 13th 2022 the bodies of four students, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle, Kaylee Goncalves, and Ethan Chapin, who attended Idaho University were found in an off-campus sorority house. Two others who also lived at the house while studying survived. News of these killings went round the world. They shocked everyone. In part this is because of the youth of those killed. All the victims were either 20 or 21, they were young people on the cusp of adulthood, taking steps out into the world.

Millions of parents wave their children off to Univeristy or College every year. Hoping that they have done a good enough job in prepairing them for the world, and aware that everyone has their fair share of bumps along the road to true independence. Parents may have many fears for their kids future which will probably be hightened at the moment of waving them off, but over time will gradually fade. What happened in Idaho was every parents nightmare. All parents who read the story will have had a moment, even subconciously where they feel themselves in the shoes of the victims parents. Many young people, those who are looking forward to leaving for university soon, and those who are there now, or just left, will also see themselves, momentarily in the place of the victims. At least in part this story got attention because so many of us can see ourselves or our children there, in a place where we think they should be safe to start exploring life and the world, and having that life taken from them. I don’t think this is the only thing that meant there were headlines around the world about this happening. Part of it is to do with the way we build storys.

It is typical in writing either fiction or non-fiction to lean on the works of other writers in your genre, especially your predecessors. It is easy to see that JK Rowlings Harry Potter stories they reference the rest of British childrens literature, the less read Narnia stories, Mary Poppins, The Sword in the Stone, The Illiad (which is not a children’s story but a foundational myth), and all the many many folk tales which pop out of every corner of the British Isles. Most of the time when writers employ this technique it is done in a serupticious way, so that those who don’t know won’t notice, but for those to do it is a clever little knowing wink, a shared moment between writer and reader.

The Kings Road Killings, are of course not fiction. The crimes involved are all too terribly real. However, as humans we are primed to try and find patterns in things, it helps us give meaning to the world and it’s happening around us. Part of creating compelling non-fiction, which will pull an audience in and make them care is to use literary techniques more often associated with fiction. So although possibly not consciously done, The Kings Road Killings nods to two events in previous American true crime history.

Host Kayna Whitworth starts the currently seven episode podcast with the most particularly American activity of attending a college football game. It works to set up the ordinariness the every-day wholesome America which the story is set in. Indeed for the student residents of King Road the most dramatic crime they had ever been involved in were a few noise complaints from the neighbours. It is the very ordinariness of the setting, which gives us riffs of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

Note the water tower. It came up earlier.

In Cold Blood is pinpointed as the first ever true crime novel. It is not the first time that true crime was published, as obviously newspapers have been around for several hundred years. We can go further back and see that the Bible and the Talmud is full of crime. Crime has been around for as long as there have been human beings. Truman Capote, spent four years in Kansas researching and interviewing people about the murder of the Clutter family, all four of them were murdered in one the night, in their family home.

What Capote did was to minutely examine the Clutters emotional lives, and their place in their local community. The outcome is a compelling read, one where you feel asthough you know the Clutters and the town as if you had been there yourself. He then flipps the table and and we delve into the world of the men who committed the murders, as part of a robbery, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. While there were serious questions about the veracity of the some of Capotes writing the book has stood the testimony of time, and seventy years later is still a classic of true crime. It’s precicely Capote’s intimate depiction of small town America which infiltraits any small town narrative that comes from America, but especially the small town narratives in true crime.

My second suggested reason for the viral reaction to this crime is that it has echo’s of previous crimes which have also become of American true crime history. Ted Bundy. While Bundy did operate in Idaho and is linked to one murder there, it is the setting, a sorority house rather than the state that is redolent of Bundy’s killings. On the 15th of January 1978 Bundy entered the Chi Omega sorority house at Florida State University where he sexually assaulted, raped and killed two residents, severely beating three others, who were left with permeant damage from the attacks. All the women were between 20 and 21.

Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy.

In the immediate aftermath there were similar questions to the ones that have been asked in the Kings Road Killings. How was it done? Who was the intended target? Why did the others not wake up? Who is that brazzen? And of course, the continual and main question in the crime genre, why? Of course the similarity of the King Road killings to the Chi Omega killings also sparked another question. Is the perpetrator of the King Road Killings another Ted Bundy? Bundy being very prolific, this question comes with a not inconsiderable amount of worry and concern. If one tries to find other parallells with Bundy and the man about to be tried for the Idaho killings, Bryan Kohberg, they are tenuious verging on flimsy.

Bundy posed as a police officer, and Kohberger had wanted to go into the police. While this may seam strange there are many serial killers who are attracted to law enforcement as a profession. Notable are Ed Kemper and Dennis Raider. Not because they want to protect people, but because the uniform gives them a certain power, respect, authority and control which immediately comes with the position. Serial Killers are people who often don’t want to, or are not able to put in the hard work or have the patience it actually takes to gain others respect, therefore donning a uniform and carrying a badge is seen as the easy way to exerting the control they want to.

Kohberger was studying criminology, and Bundy studied law. Kohberger researched the emotional state of criminals just before they committed a crime. Bundy wrote a dissertation on the psychology of juries, which is relevant as he represented himself in trial to the point where the judge appeared to grudgingly admire his legal ability. We’re both men trying to understand themselves, or trying to understand how to wiggle their way through the system? Or is it a third possibility a strange mix of both of them?

These suggestions are so flimsy because there is still much we do not know about Kohberger. Reports from those who knew him in his younger years talk of a personality change that happened when he lost weight and started a drug addiction. As an adult his studies and work appear to be mared by interpersonal conflict. People rarely start their criminal career at killing four strangers, so had he killed before? More obscure is his motivation. So far no one has found a link between Kohberg and his victims. It’s notable that Bundy also had no link to his victims, other than rather pathetically they looked a bit like the ex-girlfriend who broke his heart.

 Gloria Davy, Patricia Matusek, Nina Jo Schmale, Pamela Wilkening, Suzanne Farris, Mary Ann Jordan, Merlita Gargullo, and Valentina Pasion

Bundy however was not the first person to kills women students in their homes. For those who have watched Mindhunter they may remember Richard Speck, who killed eight student nurses in their shared home in Chicago. This was twelve years before the Chi Omega killing but trying to draw a line from Speck, to Bundy to Kohlberger is completely futile as any similarities are pure coincidences. Although it is interesting to notice the escilating academic ability from Speck who struggled in school, to Kohberger who was a PHD candidate.

Without more knowledge of what exactly happened in Idaho it is impossible to say if any link with other killers has any deeper meaning, or if it is purely the human mind trying to make sense of what appears senseless by finding patterns or something familure. The trial of Kohberger, which was due to start on 2nd October, but currently delayed, may answer some of the questions. Equally it may not, sometimes withholding information is a last act of control these people can exercise, and their craving for control is terrible, superseding any sense of empathy for the victims families. I, like so many others who recognise in this crime the deeper echoes of others, will be listening to the King Road Killings as it covers the trial of Kohberger to see if any of our question will be answered.

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