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Idaho police chief regrets lack of transparency during early stages of probe into slayings of 4 college students

Idaho police chief regrets lack of transparency during early stages of probe into slayings of 4 college students

The Idaho police chief who led the high-profile investigation into the slayings of four students at the University of Idaho in November, said he regretted not being more open with the public after the November homicides.

“I took the responsibility at the very beginning for not getting out into the press and talking about it. That would be a thing I would change in the future. It’s a learned lesson,” Moscow Police Chief James Fry told NBC News on Saturday during an emotional sit-down interview in which he teared up.

Fry said getting a message out earlier could have reduced some public anxiety and fear.

A more transparent approach, Fry said, would “give a little bit of assurance to people that we’ve locked the scene down. We’re getting search warrants. We got the state police coming. We got the FBI coming. I think that gives a little bit of calm.”

Fry and the department were heavily criticized during the nearly two-month investigation for a lack of transparency and for sending mixed messages about the case.

The shocking crimes have captivated the nation, generating about 19,000 tips from the public that police said were crucial to the probe. 

Bryan Christopher Kohberger, 28, a resident of Pullman, Washington, was apprehended in Albrightsville in northeastern Pennsylvania, about 2,500 miles from the Idaho campus, officials announced Friday.

He’ll be charged with four counts of first-degree murder and burglary, for allegedly breaking into the Moscow, Idaho, home with the intent to commit a felony, authorities said.

DNA evidence played a key role in linking the murders to Kohberger, two law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation told NBC News.

Kohberger was arrested by the Pennsylvania State Police seven weeks after four students were stabbed to death in their beds — an event that stunned residents in tiny Moscow, perplexed police and prompted a nationwide manhunt.

Fry apologized Saturday to the families of the victims for their heartache. He said he hoped the suspect’s arrest leads to some closure for the families and noted investigators will do everything possible to provide them with answers.

“We care. We’ve always cared and we’ll continue to work hard to give them the answers they need. We can give them answers and we can give them some closure to understand. That’s what we’re here to offer. That’s what we’re here to accomplish.”

Kohberger appeared to have a keen interest in crime. He was listed as a Ph.D. student in the department of criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University (WSU), which is 10 miles west and just across the state line from the University of Idaho.

A Pennsylvania judge in Monroe County, north of Allentown, on Friday ordered that Kohberger be extradited to Idaho next month, court records showed.

Killed in the Nov. 13 attack were Ethan Chapin, 20, of Conway, Washington; Madison Mogen, 21, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; Xana Kernodle, 20, of Avondale, Arizona; and Kaylee Goncalves, 21, of Rathdrum, Idaho.

From top left, Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Ethan Chapin and Xana Kernodle.

Authorities have not released a motive in the slayings and Fry has said he’s shielded by law in what he can disclose to public.

A probable cause affidavit, with details supporting Kohberger’s arrest, is sealed and cannot be made public until he sets foot in Idaho and is served with those papers in court, authorities said.

On Saturday the public defender of Monroe County, Pennsylvania, where Kohberger is being held, says he intends to waive his extradition hearing to face charges in Idaho.

“He should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise — not tried in the court of public opinion,” public defender Jason LaBar says in a statement, adding, “Mr. Kohberger is eager to be exonerated of these charges and looks forward to resolving these matters as promptly as possible.”

Fry said Saturday despite all the criticism his department faced, he tried not to listen to it.

Authorities have said investigators didn’t want to disclose key details of the investigation in order not to compromise a potential conviction and so a suspect wouldn’t be tipped off.

“I had a job to do. I stayed focused on that. I stayed true to that,” Fry said. “We stayed true and the result is we got an individual in custody.”

In Monroe County, Pa. where the suspect was apprehended Friday, some residents interviewed by NBC News recounted run-ins with Kohberger prior to the slayings in Idaho.

Jordan Serulneck, 34, lives in Center Valley, and is owner of Seven Sirens Brewing Company. Serulneck says Kohberger came to his brewery a few times and female staff would often complain about his behavior. Serulneck said the brewery is located in a college town and it’s not unusual for them to get “unusual characters,” but he remembered Kohberger from some interactions he had with female patrons and staff. He said Kohberger often come by himself, sit at the bar and be “observing and watching.”

Serulneck said staff scans everyone’s ID’s and they have a system where they can add notes about a patron that pop up whenever the ID is scanned.

“Staff put in there, ‘Hey, this guy makes creepy comments, keep an eye on him. He’ll have two or three beers and then just get a little too comfortable.’” Serulneck said Kohberger would ask the female staff or customers who they were at the brewery with, where they lived. He said if the women blew him off, “he would get upset with them a little bit,” noting that one time he called one of his staff members a b—- when she refused to answer his questions.

These interactions were months ago, Serulneck said, likely when Kohberger was a student at DeSales. During their final interaction Serulneck said he approached Kohberger.

“I went up to him and I said, ‘Hey Bryan, welcome back. We appreciate you coming back. … I just wanted to talk to you real quick and make sure that you’re going to be respectful this time and we’re not going to have any issues.’” He said Kohberger was taken aback. “He was shocked that I was saying that, and he said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. You totally have me confused.’” He said Kohberger had one beer and left and he never came back to the brewery.

BK Norton, a WSU classmate of Kohberger, told NBC News that they first met him in August at a student orientation. “We took classes together this past semester. We didn’t work on any project together but we spent extensive time together because our courses were very long,” Norton said. Norton said Kohberger seemed “odd from the beginning” but they thought it was because he was awkward.

“I am in complete shock over this murder, because he continued to attend classes and continued on like nothing had happened, I still can’t wrap my head around it,” Norton said. “He did attend class, up until the end of the semester and seemed more upbeat, honestly. When discussed in class, Bryan did not mention or contribute to the conversation of the murders. We were released from class early after the murders to get home when it was still light out, and Bryan was in those classes with us.”

Minyvonne Burke reporting from Monroe County, Pennsylvania.

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