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Police say target in Idaho killings remains unknown amid confusion

People attend a vigil Wednesday at the University of Idaho for the four students killed last month at an off-campus home. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Police in Idaho on Thursday sought to clarify that they do not know whether the four college students fatally stabbed last month were the intended victims, in an attempt to quell confusion that had heightened an atmosphere of fear on the University of Idaho campus.

As investigators continue looking for an attacker three weeks after the Nov. 13 killings near the University of Idaho campus, authorities said they were seeking to correct misconceptions that at least one of the occupants of the house where the students were killed had been targeted, saying it was undetermined.

Moscow police put out multiple statements in what they said were attempts to clarify what they meant, causing some confusion at a time when residents and students are trying to gauge their own safety in town with the attacker still at large. Police said their stance had never changed and their messages were all attempting to convey the same information.

The last statement Thursday evening indicated that investigators believe the home was indeed targeted but do not know whether the four were the intended victims.

“We remain consistent in our belief that this was a targeted attack, but investigators have not concluded if the target was the residence or if it was the occupants,” the statement said.

On campus, many students and parents have expressed anxiety about safety, and state troopers have been brought in to patrol. The university is allowing students to finish the semester remotely, as some have returned to their parents’ homes and said they will not return to campus until a suspect is off the streets.

The university has continued to grieve amid the uncertainty. At a vigil Wednesday, students held up electronic candles as the names of the victims were read aloud and a bell was rung for each. The families of three of the students spoke about the loss.

The back-and-forth between police and Latah County Prosecutor Bill Thompson began Tuesday, when Thompson told the television network NewsNation that different interpretations of the word “targeted” had muddled communication. He maintained that officials think the killer intentionally carried out the attack at the home just south of campus.

“My understanding is the investigators believe that whoever’s responsible was specifically looking at this particular residence, but that’s all that they can offer at this point,” he said.

Asked whether a particular person was targeted, Thompson said police were still trying to confirm that, but on Wednesday, a reporter for Boise news station KTVB tweeted that Thompson had confirmed that one of the victims was the target.

Moscow police then put out a correction, first saying Wednesday that news outlets had misconstrued Thompson’s comment. Hours later, they characterized Thompson’s remark as the result of a miscommunication among law enforcement.

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“We’re just saying that this was a targeted attack, but we haven’t specified or concluded that it was the residence or its occupants that was targeted,” Idaho State Police Trooper Tauna Davis told The Washington Post earlier Thursday. “Our stance has not changed. It’s not different, it’s not new information.”

Davis said authorities understand Moscow residents’ concern and desire for updates but could not say when investigators might provide more information about the case.

Officials have maintained since the killings that they were not random. Police initially said 20-year-olds Ethan Chapin and Xana Kernodle and 21-year-olds Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves had been killed in an “isolated, targeted attack.” On Nov. 23, Moscow police Capt. Roger Lanier again told reporters that the aggression was targeted, though he would not say who the target was.

“We’ve told the public very clearly from the beginning that we believe it was a targeted attack,” he said. “To be honest, you’re going to have to trust us on that at this point because we’re not going to release why we think that.”

Despite saying the attack was targeted, police have warned that they cannot guarantee there is no danger to the community. People in Moscow need to be vigilant and look out for others until an arrest is made, Chief James Fry said Nov. 16.

On the day of the killings, police found the victims on the second and third floors of the home after responding to a 911 call. Two surviving roommates had woken and called friends to come over when they thought one of the victims was unconscious. Several people spoke to the 911 dispatcher during the call from one of the surviving roommates’ phones, Fry said Nov. 20.

The victims had been socializing the night before — Chapin and Kernodle, who were dating, at a fraternity house and Mogen and Goncalves at a downtown bar. Police think they returned to the home, where the women lived, before 2 a.m.

In the following hours, the students were fatally stabbed with what police believe to be a fixed-blade knife. Autopsies showed that they were probably asleep when they were attacked and that some had tried to fight the killer. Authorities have not found the weapon.

Police have said they have ruled out several people as suspects: the surviving roommates; a man seen at a food truck Goncalves and Mogen visited before they were killed; a person who drove Goncalves and Mogen home that night; and a man whom the two women repeatedly called in the early morning hours.