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University of Idaho holds a vigil for 4 students stabbed to death last month

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Last night, the University of Idaho held a vigil for the four students who were stabbed to death in an off-campus house on November 13. Police have yet to identify a suspect, and that is casting a shadow over the campus. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Moscow, Idaho.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Usually this would be an intense time of year here, a time for exams and final semester projects. But this week, things are quiet because after Thanksgiving, many of the 9,000 students enrolled here just didn't come back. Freshman Mysti Gardner is one of those who did.

MYSTI GARDNER: I kind of came back because I didn't want my friends to feel alone because a few of my friends were here by themselves because their parents made them come back.

KASTE: But she says school is hardly back to normal.

GARDNER: Some of my classes were either canceled altogether or put on Zoom or made completely optional, and I don't even have finals in most of my classes because of what's happened.

KASTE: What's happened is the gruesome middle-of-the-night murders of Xana Kernodle, Ethan Chapin, Kaylee Goncalves and Madison Mogen and the fact that police have, quote, "no named suspects" despite massive help from the FBI and state police. They've tried to reassure students and the surrounding community, but they've also been very selective about what information they release. This is Moscow Police Captain Roger Lanier being pressed on that question at the most recent news conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROGER LANIER: We told the public very clearly from the beginning that we believe it was a targeted attack. I mean, 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.

KASTE: As the police continue to withhold details to protect their investigation, the professors are trying to help their students finish the semester.

CAITLIN CIESLIK-MISKIMEN: All right. So just giving those folks online a couple of minutes to have their audio connected.

KASTE: Assistant Professor Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen is starting her media history class with four students present. Usually there'd be 25. More students are logging in remotely, using the system that was set up during the pandemic. After the murders, the University of Idaho told professors to be flexible with students.

CIESLIK-MISKIMEN: It's really hard to figure out how much to push them to power through.

KASTE: Cieslik-Miskimen says she wants to give students room to grieve or find comfort with family while still finding a way to finish academic projects. She says what's distracting the students isn't so much a sense of fear for their personal safety.

CIESLIK-MISKIMEN: It's less the fear and the - more it's just not knowing really anything. It's not knowing if this was targeted. It's not knowing when we're going to know more.

KASTE: Students are also getting fed up with the curiosity of the outside world. It's been more than two weeks since the incident, and there are still reporters prowling the campus.

TAYSIA MENDENHALL: Yeah, I was a little bit understanding at first. And then it started to become frustrating. Now it's, like, straight aggravating because it - like, leave us alone a little bit.

KASTE: Junior Taysia Mendenhall says what's really wearing her down are all the amateur sleuths on the internet, on places like Instagram and Reddit, who think they can solve this case from afar, often by taking aim at potential suspects.

MENDENHALL: Harassing, like, the roommates of the victims and, like, anyone that they think could be involved. And it's like, you don't know anything. You're not from here. Why are you so invested in this? I don't appreciate it.

KASTE: The online sleuthing has been so intense the police have had to deny many of the theories, which they say are, quote, "stoking community fears."

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) ...Speak for me. Let them speak for me.

KASTE: At last night's campus vigil, livestreamed around the region, there was a similar sentiment expressed during the closing prayer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We pray for clarity in the midst of our uncertainty. Guard our hearts and minds from speculation and rumor. That someday we may have some answers.

KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News, Moscow, Idaho. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.