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University of Idaho student recounts the painful weeks since four students were killed

I roll over in bed and check my phone on a slow Sunday afternoon, expecting the usual notifications regarding game updates, Outlook emails and social media messages.

Katarina Hockema, originally from Homer, Alaska, is a senior majoring in journalism and minoring in marketing at the University of Idaho.
Katarina Hockema, originally from Homer, Alaska, is a senior majoring in journalism and minoring in marketing at the University of Idaho.

Instead, sprawled across my screen is a text message still burned into my mind more than three weeks later.

Vandal Alert: Moscow PD investigating a homicide on King Rd. near campus. Suspect is not known at this time. Stay away from the area and shelter in place.

It is Nov. 13, and that text is the start of a surreal day for me and every other student at the University of Idaho, a quiet campus in Moscow, Idaho.

I am puzzled.

“Did they really mean homicide? As in, murder? Someone killing someone else?”

My mind races.

Surely, the situation isn’t that serious, and we would get updates shortly on the details of the scene. A suspect is bound to be in custody soon, and the news cycle and community can move on.

People are crazy.

My boyfriend Conner receives a phone call from his dad in Boise. He’s heard the news already and wants to make sure his son is safe.

“Wow, I guess people outside of Moscow already know what happened,” I think.

The fragile bubble I felt around our town quickly pops.

My mind wanders for the next four hours, lazing in bed and chatting with Conner about anything and everything. I have been invited to a birthday party in Lewiston that evening, where the itinerary includes a game of glow-in-the-dark capture the flag in a public park. I don’t feel comfortable driving myself 35 miles, and I’m ironing out a ride when a new text pulls my eyes to the top of my phone screen.

Moscow police continues to investigate the death of four people near campus. They indicate there is no ongoing threat. More information available soon via email.

“Four? What do you mean four? That’s impossible.”

My mind can’t wrap around the messages, but, before I know it, I’m in a car full of strangers on a 45-minute drive to frolic in the dark after some of the most unexpected and tragic news I’ve heard.

Mom: Missed Call

Mom: Call me tomorrow please

With my ringer off and my thoughts elsewhere, I have missed a phone call from my mom.

“I’m sure she just wants to make sure I’m OK and wants to know more about the situation,” I thought to myself.

No need to think much more about it tonight. The police say there’s no ongoing threat anyways.

The night begins, full of new, friendly faces, games, hot cocoa with peppermint Schnapps, pizza and a bonfire. Beyond the easy conversation and joyful mood, there is an air of uncertainty, an air of fear.

“Four people died tonight. No, four people were murdered. And we’re just hanging out like everything is normal,” I think.

But the party doesn’t stop.

“I think it would be fun to get a cartoonish tattoo.”

“Do you think class will be canceled tomorrow?”

“I have work in the morning.”

“I heard they were all Greek.”

“Oof, too much Schnapps!”

“Bro, you’re literally a track star, how were you running so fast to get that flag?”

“Really? One person with a knife against four people?”

“Premade charcuterie boards are still valid.”

“My friend in this sorority knows more of what happened, but isn’t saying anything.”

A lovely goodbye, a curt drive home.

Emails, emails, emails.

Postponed. Canceled. Tragedy. Loss of these young lives. More to come. Hang in there. Stay safe.

I call my mom the next morning, and her chipper voice surprises me.

“What’s up? Did you need something last night?”

“Oh, I just wanted to remind you to make sure you get your snow tires on before you leave for Thanksgiving,” she says.

Confusion lines my face.

“Oh, OK. … Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

“No, why? What’s going on?”

“Do you not know what happened here?”

“No, What?

“…”

“Kat, you’re scaring me.”

I trip over my words and pause. I had not talked with anyone about this who didn’t already know. I had barely heard it spoken about out loud.

This is real.

“Four people were killed here yesterday.”

“What!?”

And suddenly, the floodgates open.

I sob like a baby as I tell my mother everything I know. She reminds me that she and my dad are in the middle of a social media detox and have not been watching the news. I, on the other hand, feel like I am drowning a little more and more with every gut-wrenching development.

In 24 hours, it has gone from just another police incident to an unsettling reality.

As a journalist and a UI journalism student, my friends, former colleagues and familiar alums have been at the forefront of local and state coverage for this case. I’ve seen friends lose sleep, and friendly faces deluged in endless Twitter threads and Facebook comments, fighting misinformation or careless speculation, ensuring that the most trusted and accurate, although heartbreaking, coverage comes from home. I’ve seen borrowed headlines on Twitter posts from national and international coverage. I cried the first and only time I sought out broadcast coverage on my television.

I am frustrated. Maddened by the cruelty and disregard for human life this person (or these people) displayed. Anxious from the lack of critical information, and the seemingly endless days of little to no updates. Anxious for my safety, as a lack of suspect and a lack of threat do not align. Saddened and heartbroken for these families, these friends, and all of those who were close to Xana Kernodle, Ethan Chapin, Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves.

Xana was in my consumer behavior marketing class, and Kaylee was in my friend’s sorority. Ethan shared a class with my roommate, and both Xana and Madison worked as servers at Mad Greek, a popular restaurant in Moscow. My parents swear that Xana waited on us the last time we ate there. Despite all of this, I don’t pretend to have known them. But U of I is a small campus, and this touches all of us. Every student.

How safe I feel has been an ever-swinging pendulum. From feeling no threat in the first 24 hours, to nearly going home completely, to long, emotional phone calls with my parents and tough conversations with Conner on what to do in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, my feelings of security have been rattled.

In some ways, I don’t believe I will ever view Moscow in the same light.

Is it still the quiet, safe, small town it was before?

Where can I walk?

When can I be alone?

How much do I worry about the darkness that now visits at 4 p.m.?

Pepper spray isn’t exactly the kind of thoughtful roommate gift you think you need until it’s attached to your keychain, weighing you down with the truth of your new reality.

I’m back on campus after this new reality made me stay away for three weeks. I’ve thrown myself into my remaining assignments, my job as editor of Blot, U of I’s student magazine, my internship responsibilities and the small hope that normalcy can return sooner rather than later.

I am still an Idaho Vandal. We are “Brave and Bold,” according to our university’s motto. For the past few weeks, I haven’t felt that way.

Katarina Hockema, originally from Homer, Alaska, is a senior majoring in journalism and minoring in marketing at the University of Idaho.