Idaho murders: Forensics expert questions 'urgency' in removing victims' personal belongings from crime scene

Sunday marked three weeks since four University of Idaho students were murdered in off-campus home

MOSCOW, Idaho — Just hours after Moscow, Idaho, police personnel removed some of the victims’ personal belongings from the crime scene, law enforcement and forensics experts began weighing in about the decision to do so, with some warning there’s no turning back. 

"I worked as a death investigator for a long, long time. It's important for families to have something to hold on to – they need those things," said longtime forensics expert Joseph Scott Morgan. "But, you don't want to do anything that is going to be to the detriment of the case. Because you cannot predict what is going to happen months from now, a year from now, when this person is caught and they go to trial."

On Wednesday, Moscow Police Chief James Fry and other law enforcement officers packed some, but not all, of the victims’ belongings from inside the crime scene at 1122 King Road. 

More than three weeks ago, on Nov. 13, University of Idaho students Ethan Chapin, Xana Kernodle, both 20, and Kaylee Goncalves and Madison Mogen, both 21, were discovered fatally stabbed on the second and third floors of the home. 

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The belongings of the victims of the University of Idaho quadruple homicide are removed from the house in Moscow, Idaho, Wednesday, December 7, 2022.

The belongings of the victims of the University of Idaho quadruple homicide are removed from the house in Moscow, Idaho, Wednesday, December 7, 2022. (Derek Shook for Fox News Digital)

The case remains unsolved, and the murder weapon has not been recovered, police have said.

Officials previously noted that the items that were removed from the crime scene "are no longer needed for the investigation" and would be taken to a secure location for the family to collect. 

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Morgan, one of the nation’s foremost forensics investigators, told Fox News Digital Thursday he felt police had released the items from the crime scene too soon. 

Speaking generally, Morgan explained that an offender who is using a knife to assault or kill someone will leave remnants of "cast off" while carrying out the stabbing motions. 

"As they withdraw [the knife], droplets of blood travel through the air," he explained. "Now, sometimes these droplets can’t be fully appreciated. You can’t see them necessarily. And that droplet may deposit itself on just some kind of arbitrary item in a room."

But once the item has been removed from the spot where it sat during the course of the crime, he said, "you can never go back and place that item in its original orientation."

"You lose all context," Morgan added. "You can’t go back and say, ‘Well, we missed this. We’re going to place it back here.’"

The distinguished scholar of applied forensics at Jacksonville State University called the decision to remove some of the victims’ belongings "a big thing. That’s why this is so significant for me as a forensics person." 

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The belongings of the victims of the University of Idaho quadruple homicide are removed from the house in Moscow, Idaho, Wednesday, December 7, 2022.

The belongings of the victims of the University of Idaho quadruple homicide are removed from the house in Moscow, Idaho, Wednesday, December 7, 2022. (Derek Shook for Fox News Digital)

Morgan wondered what the urgency was to remove the victims' possessions.

"Items that the family would like to have, how does that trump practical necessity?" he said. "What’s it going to hurt to lock this thing down for a longer time just to make sure everything has been considered."

Former FBI Special Agent Jonathan Gilliam expressed similar concerns regarding the decision, adding, "From an evidentiary standpoint, the crime scene had been altered. And that’s a problem.

"Crime scenes hold onto evidence," he explained. "And sometimes you don’t realize in a case like that until you find a subject. … Now, that crime scene has been tainted because they have removed things. And it was tainted already because people had been in there and quite possibly removed things because they didn't want to get in trouble."

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Gilliam, also a former U.S. Navy SEAL, noted that a case "does not just involve investigations. It also involves prosecution."

"If you have … a crime that has not been solved, and you have a crime scene that was that filled with evidence and was also altered by other people, I would think you would want to keep that crime scene as long as possible," he said. "Because when you do find a subject, there may be a reason why you have to go back and look for something else."

Removing items from a crime scene typically signals "the end of the process," said John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Joseph Giacalone.

The belongings of the victims of the University of Idaho quadruple homicide are removed from the house in Moscow, Idaho, Wednesday, December 7, 2022.

The belongings of the victims of the University of Idaho quadruple homicide are removed from the house in Moscow, Idaho, Wednesday, December 7, 2022. (Derek Shook for Fox News Digital)

"If they’re removing personal items now and all that other kind of stuff, they’re done processing the scene," he told Fox News Digital. "They’ve gotten whatever they think they could have gotten, and they'll just wait for test results back on a variety of things because, at this point, there's no going back."

Chief Fry spoke to reporters outside the home Wednesday and said he and other personnel had taken "some of the things the family wanted and other belongings that were there."

"We owe this to the families. We owe this to the victims," he said. "We owe this to our community."

Belongings of the victims of the University of Idaho quadruple homicide are removed from a house in Moscow, Idaho, Wednesday, December 7, 2022.

Belongings of the victims of the University of Idaho quadruple homicide are removed from a house in Moscow, Idaho, Wednesday, December 7, 2022. (Derek Shook for Fox News Digital)

Chapin, Goncalves, Kernodle and Mogen were discovered fatally stabbed inside the three-story home at 1122 King Road just before noon Nov. 13. 

The home is located just one block from the University of Idaho campus and near some fraternity houses. 

Ethan Chapin, 20, Xana Kernodle, 20, Madison Mogen, 21, and Kaylee Goncalves, 21, along with the women's two other roommates in Kaylee Goncalves' final Instagram post, shared the day before the slayings.

Ethan Chapin, 20, Xana Kernodle, 20, Madison Mogen, 21, and Kaylee Goncalves, 21, along with the women's two other roommates in Kaylee Goncalves' final Instagram post, shared the day before the slayings. (@kayleegoncalves/Instagram)

Officials have said they believe the victims were asleep when they were attacked between 3 and 4 a.m. Each victim suffered several stab wounds, and some showed signs of trying to defend themselves. 

Two other roommates were on the bottom floor of the home and survived, police said. 

The victims of the Nov. 13 University of Idaho killings. 

The victims of the Nov. 13 University of Idaho killings.  (Instagram @xanakernodle / @maddiemogen / @kayleegoncalves)

The Moscow Police Department is urging the public to submit any images or information that they think could be important or useful to their investigation. They can do so by calling 208-883-7180, submitting tips through tipline@ci.moscow.id.us and sending digital media here.

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Authorities have also created a dedicated webpage related to the King Road attack.

Fox News Digital's Rebecca Rosenberg contributed to this report.