Why the University of Idaho came to Moscow, scene of a national murder mystery

The Compass of Power, Episode VI

Moscow, Moscow, you drive me crazy. Want to leave you, but I’m just too lazy.

What are the odds of a national news story actually occurring in my old college stomping grounds of Moscow, Idaho? But there it happened. Four University of Idaho students were brutally murdered in the Palouse town. I attended the U of I for my undergraduate degree. I lived in Moscow longer than I went to the university, grew up on the Palouse near Moscow, got my first job as a reporter in Moscow working for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, where I covered Washington State University and Pullman, Washington.

So I know a bit about the geography of this place. And me being me, I know something about the history and the politics of it as well.

But before we get into that, let’s talk about the very real suffering here and the human lives lost. Madison Mogen, 21, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Kaylee Goncalves, 21 from Rathdrum. Xana Kernodle from Post Falls and Ethan Chapin from Conway, Washington were all killed. Obviously young people. Rathdrum, Post Falls, Coeur d’Alene, all North Idaho. Conway Washington is on the west side of Washington. Chapin was the man and he was from Washington State. And it’s just tragic that they should all be lost.

Obviously, their families are suffering. Their friends are suffering. Their siblings, their aunts, uncles, friends, teachers. I am very sorry for that, for everyone who knew them. This is not a True Crime podcast, although I hear that’s cool to do those. So, if you’re looking to solve the case that’s probably some other internet room that you can go to. 

We’re talking place in politics and in history, and let’s start with the history. What you see, if you read the coverage nationally or watch the television stories that have been going on for couple weeks now, it’s all about idyllic college town or the leaf strewn streets of Moscow, Idaho, or “small town is rattled,” or, you know, “college town residents on edge” after quadruple homicide.

How the University of Idaho and Washington State University wound up in small towns on the Palouse

A big part of the narrative is that this is a little town where these things don’t happen. And Moscow is beautiful. But it should just be a farm town on the Palouse, which is a gorgeous area. You will find it if you go onto your computer and look for desktop backgrounds. It’s always there. That’s how gorgeous it is. Now, nobody knows what it is. It’s, “Oh, look at these beautiful rolling hills. I’ll put that in the background behind all my icons.” But that’s the Palouse. Most of the towns there are small farming towns. And,Moscow stands out as a town of about 25,000 plus, you know, whatever, 10,000 college students. And so does Pullman Washington, which is only eight miles away. It’s a little smaller town and a much bigger college.

So what are they doing there? What is this idyllic little college doing in the idyllic little town? Why isn’t it like all the other little towns, which do not have a college? And why are there two of them? 

Let’s acknowledge that it’s weird enough that UI is literally 300 miles from Boise, which is the capital of Idaho and the population center of Idaho, 300 miles away in a different time zone. There’s the University of Idaho in a tiny little town.

Or, if you’re on the Washington state side, Pullman is 325 miles east of Olympia which is where I live. And over 280 miles from Seattle the population center of Washington. 

So these towns, from the perspective of the power bases of their states, are heck and gone away. Yet we send tens of thousands of students there and spend millions of dollars establishing these universities.

And that makes the Palouse a wonderful place. I really enjoy the dynamic because you end up with all these little farm towns and you have everything that you would normally have in those towns. Plus, you’ve got the theater programs and the football teams and the art students and the English students and the law students. At WSU in Washington, they used to have fly fishing classes, which is always impressive to see on their big football field. They would just have a hundred people lined out there practicing their fly fishing technique. Really interesting culture there. But why is it there? 

The answer is that the colleges were big, taxpayer-financed, public-spending investment bids — to keep that part of the world from succeeding from Washington or Idaho.

You see, way back when the west was getting settled and divided up into states, this was a contest for power between the North and the South, like we always talk about on this podcast. And who was gonna be in charge out here? Who was gonna run these new territories that would become states and get senators? (Remember, every state gets two senators no matter what.)

There’s another podcast episode out there you can listen to where I talk about how the West coast became the left coast. But the short version is the Yankees, the Puritans from New England, that sort of core cultural group of the North, actually beat the covered wagons out here. They got in their ships, sailed around the tip of South America, came up and founded San Francisco and Portland and Seattle and Olympia. They established control of the government.

So you had basically Northerners/Puritans in charge of the territory of Oregon, in charge of the territory of Washington. They love government and they love setting things up. They established their capitals in Salem and in Olympia and things were looking good. This is like the 1850s, 1860s. And then gold was discovered in them thar hills. And other various metals. That is to say that there was a gold rush. This happened frequently in the West. We all know about California, but that was just one of many.  There’s the Klondike in Alaska. People would find gold just laying around and suddenly mass population movements. And there was some of that into the mountains of what is now North Idaho, central Idaho. 

We can all agree that those were not actually Yankees. It wasn’t a bunch of New England merchants who said, “Hmm, I’m going to give up my prosperous shipping company and go out and scrounge around in the rivers of the Bitterroots.”

No, no, it was the Appalachians, it was the folks from the Ozarks and out of Missouri, my family came outta Missouri, part of them. They were in the covered wagons. Or no cover, just wagon, doesn’t matter. The point is people flooded in to try and get rich quick on those gold mines, on silver strikes, that sort of thing. Those people were not from the same culture as the Yankees who controlled the territory of Washington. 

And there was enough of these Democrats to change things. You have the Republicans as the party of the North. This is right around the start of the Civil War, and you have the party of the North, Republicans in control on the coast. But now the population is shifting to the East. That’s the Compass of Power.

The compass of power starts tipping. It was pointing towards the coast, but you have this big shift in population towards the mountains and it looks like you might be outta control. It looks like what is now the state of Washington would be run by the Democrats. The idea is another culture was vying for power and there’s lots of people going in there. 

And so, the good Republicans of Olympia at the time, the Northerners there, wrote to the president, who was Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, and they said, you gotta do something about this. 

If you ever look at the national map, you will notice that Idaho has a panhandle and a panhandle is a dead giveaway for some sort of political agreement. Florida has one, Oklahoma has one, Idaho has one.

And what they did, classic gerrymandering technique, they took the Democratic vote in this area between the Cascade and the Bitterroot Mountains and split it in half. They took all the mining territory and attached it to Boise and the South, and just made this narrow strip of what is now “North” Idaho. Most of the Palouse is in Washington, some is in Idaho. The Spokane area, they attach to the west coast of Washington. They split that vote. The Republicans stay in charge because they control Olympia and they stay in charge because they controlled Boise. And you’ve left the people in that weird place, where they had more in common with each other, in two different states. 

The way you keep them from rebelling against you is to give them a couple of colleges like, “Look, don’t worry. Yes, I know that it’s weird that you are in one state on this side of the creek and on that side of the creek, you’re in a different state.” And in both cases the capital is like 300 miles away, which is probably five days journey at that time. There’s no real selling point for the people who actually lived there. It was totally about national control and national power, but they did get was a college, which was a big deal back in the day. And don’t forget that colleges are not just generating degrees or hiring a few professors. They help with economic development to get small businesses going. 

And importantly, both of these land grant colleges have extension services that help the farmers. They develop new crops. The Cosmic Crisp apple, the most overhyped apple of all time, came out of Washington State University. There was a big patent argument, worth a lot of money over that Apple. The University of Idaho had a whole mining college for a long time because there were a lot of mines in Northern Idaho. You start out with the rush like, “Oh, gold, gold in the creek!” You get all of that immediately. Then you’re into corporate mining and digging far underground and people with little lamps on their heads. That requires planning, logistics, science. There was a mining college at University of Idaho forever and a forestry school to handle all that timber. So these were good deals. They did benefit the people of that area. 

You couldn’t be in eastern Washington, and be like, “Well, how come the people over there Idaho gave them a college? How come we didn’t get a college?” There it is, and you can’t do a vice versa. It doesn’t work the other way either. Like,”Hey, those people on over on that side of the Palouse, at least Washington gave them a university. What did we get?” No, look, there’s a university here, look at this. 

You create this kind of magical landscape that’s supported by the population bases far, far away in both cases, Idaho or Washington. Either way, you have to cross a mountain range to get from the population center/capital to where this university is. That’s how you end up with the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. 

The University of Idaho was the prestige School of Idaho for a long time, for a hundred years until of course, the population of Boise took off and football became the most important part of college. It’s really hard to build a huge fan base that far away from the population center. Actually as football became a driving force of American academia, Boise State, which was a junior college down in Boise, overtook the University of Idaho in most aspects. It’s in a big town. They can have big football games, they can get television coverage. WSU plays in a big league and they have some success. They do win. But their big challenge is getting premier talent, AKA 18-year-old kids who can really play football, to be willing to move to Pullman, Washington. It is tough to convince them to do that, when they could go play for UCLA or something. 

The culture and drinking culture of the Palouse. 

That’s Moscow Pullman, but what’s the underlying culture there?

As per usual, we have to talk about the native peoples, who who lived there and who were totally divested of their land. But the farmers who settled in that area, which is where I grew up, has kinda like a Midwestern vibe. You’re talking about folks either from the Midwest or literally off the boat, like first generation immigrants from Norway, Sweden, Germany. That’s why it has kind of a Midwestern vibe, because if you go back and you check like the areas around Pennsylvania stretching out into Iowa and stuff, that is a culture that was not founded in the Yankee tradition of making the world a righteous place. It was not founded in the Southern tradition of creating little plantation empires everywhere based on cheap labor/ slavery. Instead it’s this sort of like, “Well, I’m gonna mind my farm and you mind yours.” Middle America essentially has its roots in Quakerism and German farming. 

It’s a real live-and-let-live kind of place, which is different from, “We all must come and agree that whatever is the greatest thing.” It’s not that. It’s, “You do your thing and I’ll do mine and I’ll be happy and polite.” People on the Palouse are super nice and super polite, and that creates this narrative that we’re talking about. When you have this quadruple homicide, four young people stabbed to death in their beds at night, that does not jive with this super small town quaint, friendly atmosphere that’s going on.

Why University of Idaho has all the bars, Washington State University all the students

Let’s just talk a little bit about how politics drive and shape the place and culture a little bit deeper. We’ve talked about why there’s two colleges there and why the University of Idaho’s there. Now, if you ever go there, you’re going to notice immediately that while WSU is a much bigger school. It is a much bigger school, enrollment wise than say the University of Idaho. And yet there are very few bars. It’s 21,000 people enrolled at WSU Pullman. And yet if you go there, there’s like two bars. Why? Why would that be?

And if you go to Moscow, they might claim to have 14,000 students, which is totally a lie. You know colleges play the enrollment game. The point is — twice as big over there, three bars. And let’s be honest, Pullman, other than Rico’s, they’re not that great. You go to Moscow and there’s bars all up and down the main street, which is very close to the campus. It’s an ideal universe to be young, trust me on this, because wherever your apartment is or wherever your frat house is, you can walk yourself down to the bars downtown. You have a good time and stumble your way back usually. Or people catch rides. Some of these students caught a ride, which is a totally responsible thing to do. 

To understand why Moscow has a bar scene, we must keep this in our minds. Most students in Washington, very few bars, most bars Idaho, few students. If you go back to the eighties when there were different drinking ages, the drinking age in Idaho was the 18 or 19, and the drinking age in Washington was 21. So the Puritans in Washington were like, “We’re raising the drinking age.” This is in Ronald Reagan’s era, and he wanted the drinking age to be 21. In Idaho they were holding out. They’re like, “No, come on. You know, you’re old enough to sign up for the Army, you’re old enough to drink.” So you could drink at a much younger age, or what felt like a much younger age, in Moscow.

So the bar scene was in Moscow. As a child, I can remember those days — not because I was 18 or 19, I was a little kid — but I remember my family would go from the Idaho side over to the Washington side, drive to Pullman on a weeknight, and there was just a steady stream of cars. An endless stream of cars going from Pullman into Moscow to hit the bars. Because if you were 20 years old at WSU in the 1980s, you just drove across the state line and you could legally drink. 

I have talked to some folks where they would actually buy a keg of beer in Idaho, load it into the U-Haul, drive around and drink; drink your keg of beer in Idaho, and then you’d give it back and haul yourself back to Pullman.

So that’s how you end up with this scene in which these four young people are out.  Anyone who went to UofI, I hope that’s what you did because it’s a safe place to do it. And here’s just a story I picked up from my old Moscow Pullman Daily News a couple days ago. It says that Chapin of Conway, Skagit County and  of Post Falls, Idaho were dating and they were seen at the Sigma Chi party from eight to 9:00 PM on Nesper Drive. Goncalves, 21 of Rathdrum and Mogen, 21 of Coeur d’Alene were seen at the Corner Club from 10:00 PM to 1:30 AM.

The Corner Club is a solid concrete building at the north end of downtown. I remember the Corner Club.  Then they visited the Grub truck on Main Street about 1:40 AM before making their way back to King Road residence about 1:45 AM.

So here’s a rule. If you are in your twenties and you were driving between the hours of 1, 2, 3, or four in Moscow, Idaho, you’re gonna get pulled over because the bars are allowed to stay open until 2 AM. Again, we’re talking about geography all around the university, which if we’re thinking about this in relation to downtown would be like on the southeast side. It is ringed by apartments and fraternities and whatnot, and then everybody picks up, they go downtown, sort of in the center, they do their thing. By about 1:30 is the last call; you’re starting to get thrown out. You’ve had too much to drink, and then you go get something to eat and you, you go to the taco truck. You know of all the bar fights I ever saw, most of them were actually a Jack in the Box. Jack in the Box, Moscow, Idaho, 2:00 AM in the 1990s, terrible scene.

But that’s the same thing that’s been reenacted for 25 years. It was happening that night. And that these murders took place and it was technically early Sunday morning. Now I know again, we’re not trying to solve the case here. I’m just trying to explain all of these things, they seemed like, “Oh, it’s just what college kids would do.” 

But I hope you’re starting to see that if you dig back far enough in the history, all of these things were driven by political choices made. Our lives are so driven by choices that people in power make that have downstream effects. People in power didn’t want to lose control to the inland empire, a place that has no name now, but it’s Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho. So they made some choices, they drew a boundary down the middle and that meant the center of political power went and stayed in Olympia for one part, and Boise the other part.

Those places make different choices about drinking ages. Then you end up setting up a dynamic where Moscow has a bunch of bars and WSU does not. You set up this dynamic where Moscow is the idyllic little college town. Because if you’re going to the University of Idaho, the biggest town you’re from is probably Boise, which is not even a million people. 

Biggest town you’re from if you are at WSU, probably Seattle, Tacoma, you know, a little tougher, a little rougher places. So the scene in Pullman, not only is it more about house parties, parties in your apartment, not at the bar, but there’s also a little bit more edginess there. Dare I say, there was a straight up riot at Washington State University while I was going to University of Idaho. How many riots do you think there were at the University of Idaho? Do you think that the good kids who grew up in Boise came up there to burn the place down? No.

And let me say that I have had many conversations with the Moscow Police Department and we’ve come to our understanding. A big chunk of their job, as you can imagine, is to go around in the hours between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. every night and tell a bunch of really inebriated kids to go home and sleep it off. 

Now things have changed a little bit. There’s an interesting story I saw where they’re like, well, look at all these strange reports of weird things happening. People calling 9 1 1 in Moscow being like, “Oh, I saw a strange dude. He was like wearing a ski mask. Or, there was a guy tearing down posters downtown.”

Listen, I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not there right now. But also there’s this tendency to assume that we’re gonna solve the case by catching the person in, in person. And another unwritten rule of Moscow is, if you are a male and you are young and you were out late at night and not at the bars, then you were presumed to be doing something you’re not supposed to do. I remember my friends being accosted by the police for walking across campus late at night. Weren’t doing anything. They’re like, “What are you guys doing?” It’s like, “Nothing. We’re just bored and we’re walking.” Well, it’s time to go home. You’re supposed to behave according to the expected paradigm of going downtown and going back, staying in your zone and not doing weird stuff like walk sober across campus late at night.

I don’t know where this is gonna go. Obviously the Moscow police who spend most of the time telling drunk kids to go home are now challenged with trying to figure out a quadruple homicide. And clearly the killer, knowing the rhythms of Moscow, Idaho went into the house where all these kids were — I think there was like six people living in this house — every one of ’em was sleeping it off. 

I don’t know how intoxicated people were. I’m not like trying to cast disparagement. I’m just saying if you went into your average college rental at three in the morning on Sunday, you are going to find a lot of intoxicated kids just sleeping it off. They’ll be fine at 10 in the morning. But instead somebody went in and stabbed these poor people. And that’s the time to do it, right?

If you’re a murderer, if you’re evil because you know, and that’s the only way it would work. How could you, you go around on a stabbing spree and kill four people with no one noticing except for literally everyone in that town, everyone in that block, all of the people in this demographic are all doing the same thing — which is not much except for laying there. It’s just, it’s just terrible. 

And so, it’s hard for the Moscow police to figure this out. It makes no sense. They don’t have footage of anything. Clearly, they’ve pleaded for tips. We can bring this home a little bit cuz — surprise! — I’m not gonna solve the case for you. 

Culture and the parents’ reactions

Let’s look at how those politics, those cultural values can shape our reaction to these things. Chapin who was the kid from western Washington, his father put out a statement to the Associated Press saying that the lack of information from the police department 

“only fuels false rumors and innuendo and the press and social media, the silence further compounds our family’s agony after our son’s murder. I urge officials to speak the truth, share what they know, find the assailant and protect the greater community.”

 Is that not exactly what you would expect from an outraged Yankee parent, right? The culture of Western Washington is like, what, where is the government on this? You have an obligation to the community. You are supposed to be doing your job. And I totally understand where this father’s coming from, and the frustration, and I’m in no way criticizing him. I’m just saying, can’t you see if we zoom out a little bit, the cultural imprint here? I feel like when you’re angry, it’s like your accent comes out more, but also maybe your cultural underpinnings come out more. So Western Washington parent is like, “police, government officials, do your job and solve this and protect the community.”

 Now, Goncalves, who’s from Rathdrum, a town smaller than Moscow and the old logging and mining territory of North Idaho, where remember we talked about some of the Appalachians moved in a long time ago, and the type of folk who are not like the Yankees of Western Washington, here’s their statement:

“To whomever is responsible, we will find you. We will never stop. The pain you caused has fueled our hatred and sealed your fate. Justice will be served.”

 That I submit to you is a classic Appalachian attitude. I mean, these are prepared statements composed beforehand, thought about beforehand. So they’re not totally like just off the cuff statements and they’re both about justice. They’re both about loss. But the one from the coast is that the government needs to do better and do right by the community. And the one from the mountains is, you better pray the sheriff finds you before we do.

I hope the killer’s caught. I don’t know that you can ever get justice in a case like this. And I doubt you’re dealing with the same perpetrator and nothing, of course can bring back those young people. And that’s a tragedy. But I do hope that we can see by taking the lens of place and culture to this story, you can see that it, it all makes a certain kind of sense and resolving, you know, like how is it gonna be resolved? I I will only say this about death and murder in Moscow, Idaho. It, it takes strange forms and it is not uncommon. There’s a lot of this national tone of like, oh, this never happens here. Or it’s first murder in so many years. But let me tell you, people die in Moscow White House in strange and tragic ways. While I was there in 99, there was the case of Will Hendrick a student there who went missing in a skull was found in the woods in 2003.

No charges were ever filed. He was just stolen in the night and murdered and dumped in the woods. And I don’t think that there’s ever been, there’s never even been like a big lead in that story. Tanya Hart, here’s, oh my gosh, she was in her trailer in Moscow, 2001, just got back from a Hanukkah party. Somebody knocks on the door of the trailer, she opens the door and she gets shot in the face and in the chest, and then there’s like footprints in the snow outside leading away. And that was a big mystery for a while. It seemed like a, a hit, somebody just walked up, knocked on the door and shot her. And it turned out that it was, you know, some people at the pizza shop David Meister was convicted of the murder, but he said that I think it was a boyfriend of Tonya Hart or former boyfriend Jesse Linderman, said he’d pay him a thousand dollars to kill Hart and an extra hundred bucks if she was dead before Christmas.

Now isn’t that cheery? And it’s just, it, it’s stupid, right? It’s like plain hitman. But that’s, that’s how that murder went down, is that it was like enacting something they’d seen on television. And in 2 20 13 poor kid froze to death under the Paradise Creek Bridge. He was, I think he was 18, but he was just wandering around and he froze to death because he was a college student. He had had too much to drink, he got lost. It’s the dead of winter. He knocks on some doors and people were like, go home kid. I think he snuck into somebody’s basement trying to warm up and they’re like, what are you doing in my basement? Get out. Like this is not like, it’s an understandable perspective for someone to have, like, who is a strange man in my basement. On the other hand, it’s like a drunk kid who was trying to warm up and I think that he fell into the creek, you know, and got hypothermia and died.

So I dunno, we could go on. But the point is people do die in Moscow and I am very sorry for this incident, but it’s not like nobody who lives in Moscow knows anything about what it’s like to live in a place where people are killed. That is a story that the national media is making up for dramatic purposes. But if I who live there many moons ago can remember, you know, a handful of murders, then certainly the people who live there now are well aware of it. And I hope that they find the killer. I hope that the community feels safe again. And I hope that we’ve all, if nothing else, we’ve learned that we’re all acting out in a world that was shaped before we came. All right, as per usual, you can go to the website to compass power.com. Thank you for listening. I have a lot of coughing to edit out at the end of this, so I better get to it. Thanks, everybody.

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