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Moscow, ID residents shaken by murders, prepare for what’s next following suspect's arrest

caption: University of Idaho campus. Moscow, ID.
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University of Idaho campus. Moscow, ID.
Courtesy of Unsplash/Andrew Lang

School is back in session for students at the University of Idaho. This follows nearly two months of uncertainty after the campus and surrounding communities of Moscow and Pullman were shaken by the stabbing deaths of four students last year in the early morning hours of Sunday, Nov. 13.

A Washington State University graduate student has been arrested and charged in the deaths. To get a sense of how this violence has affected people there, KUOW’s Kim Malcolm talked to Northwest Public Broadcasting reporter Lauren Paterson, based in Moscow, Idaho.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kim Malcolm: Many of our listeners went to WSU or have kids that do. For those who aren't familiar, describe the community around Moscow and Pullman.

Lauren Paterson: There's a lot of back and forth between these two small towns that straddle the state line. They're surrounded by farms and rolling hills dotted with trees. It's a slower pace of life. And there's less than 10 miles in between them. People go back and forth all the time between Moscow and Pullman for shopping and dining. Students go partying back and forth. They attend sporting events and so much more. Unlike college in a bigger city, you're more likely to see professors from Washington State University and the University of Idaho, or your fellow students, out and about in the community picking up groceries or maybe down at the local bar.

It took more than a month and a half until a suspect was arrested. You've reported on how tough this was on people, especially college students. Can you tell us more about what that period was like?

It was pretty rough. It took days for law enforcement to talk to us. I first learned about it through a university alert my husband got on his phone. All we knew at first was that it was a homicide, with multiple victims. That's when the rumor mill really started churning. First, I heard it was guns. Then someone said maybe it's drugs. And then we started hearing it was a stabbing. Wednesday was the first time police decided to have a press conference. Despite originally saying they believed the attack was targeted and there wasn't a threat to the community, they ended up walking that back and saying there is a threat to the community.

What impact did that admission have on people?

Honestly, after that, it felt like a huge cloud [hung] over Moscow. People were locking their doors, carrying guns. I talked to one student who said he was sleeping with a baseball bat under his bed. Some folks bought cameras to keep a better eye on their house. Many of the students left for Thanksgiving break and didn't come back for the rest of the semester because they feared for their safety. Luckily, the university was really good about allowing flexibility for students and options for online classes.

An arrest was made, and students are back this week. What are you hearing from people about what it's like to be back together now?

I've heard from some professors already that they're seeing higher attendance. And I've definitely heard a word that keeps coming back — "relief." Relief that there's a suspect in custody, relief that there might be some closure coming for our community. I spoke to James Ahtokah. He grew up in Idaho and is a resident of nearby Clarkston, Wash. Ahtokah says he was relieved to hear a suspect was caught, like many of the people I've talked to, but he says it shines a light on how the local police force lacks the proper training to handle a crime of this caliber.

“No one expects murders to happen in their backyard, but you'd think those of them that take the oath to protect and serve have the tools available to actually protect us," Ahtokah says. "This made us feel vulnerable, in my opinion.”

Then there are all the national media outlets who have camped out there, a major presence in the community for the last few weeks. How did people respond to that?

I think that's the part of all this that people really don't understand about Idaho culture. People don't live in Idaho or come to school here to be the center of attention. To have your small town on every cable news network for the last two months has been completely surreal. I also spoke with Lewiston, Idaho resident Zach Wilson, who says he's been completely surprised by the notoriety this case has reached:

“It's an awful story, an awful event, but for it to go from something in small central Idaho, to on every news outlet every single day for the last few weeks, and it's going to be months going forward, it was surprising. I mean, you just don’t think, you hear about stories, and stuff does happen here, but for it to be the top story on CNN and all the major news outlets was shocking.”

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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