Just days after J. Reuben Appelman heard that four students had been stabbed to death in their home, he headed to Moscow, Idaho.
Appelman, an author and private investigator, previously spent 10 years digging into the unsolved case of the Oakland County Child Killer and wrote a deeply personal book about it called The Kill Jar.
He says he wasn’t sure at first what he was doing in Moscow, a tiny college town that captured the world’s attention after four University of Idaho students—Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Kernodle’s boyfriend Ethan Chapin, 20—were murdered in the early morning hours of a Sunday in November.
“I was following the case like everybody else,” Appelman told Newsweek in an interview. “I just went there and I rented a motel room and I started talking to people.”
The case felt close to home for Appelman, who has lived in Boise for more than two decades and has a daughter who attended the University of Idaho.
“I’m not somebody who jumps on the next murder beat, so to speak,” he said. “I just worry about things happening in my backyard and this case is deeply rooted in the community that I’ve spent 25 years in.”
Weeks later, he was in the middle of writing a proposal for a book when an arrest in the case was made more than 2,500 miles away in Pennsylvania.
Appelman spent the next six months researching and writing While Idaho Slept: The Hunt for Answers in the Murders of Four Idaho Students, which is set to be released on October 3.
Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old former graduate student in criminology at the nearby Washington State University, is charged with four counts of murder. A judge entered not-guilty pleas on Kohberger’s behalf earlier this year.
Kohberger was initially scheduled to go on trial for the murders on October 2, but it was delayed after Kohberger waived his right to a speedy trial.
Appelman’s book shines a light on the gruesome nature of the murders (“our imaginations are strong enough,” he said) and doesn’t mention Kohberger’s name until more than half way through.
His paramount focus is on the four young people who lost their lives prematurely.
The faces of the four slain students have been widely shared on social media and in news reports, but Appelman’s book takes a significant number of pages to paint a picture of who Goncalves, Mogen, Kernodle and Chapin were before they lost their lives.
“I wanted to elevate the memory of the victims,” Appelman said.
“These are real kids,” he said. “You know, they look pretty on TV, they make good news stories, but they ran around in little pyjamas and ate snacks at snack time, just like everybody else when they were little.”
The most difficult aspect of writing the book was approaching the families of the victims and asking them to talk.
“We’re not talking about a cold case,” he said. “These people were still in mourning, they still are, so to get information out of them was not my main task.
“I felt like I’m going to write the story that I know that I can write, and I hope that they’ll want to participate and some of them did, but it really took a lot of precaution to not invade their privacy or their mourning… and I think that they will be happy with the book because the book in many ways memorializes their kids.”
He also feels that what he has written is something that will appeal both to people who know little about the case and the online sleuths who followed every development, searched for clues and shared theories on social media.
“It’s an incredible primer for going into the trial, so to speak… if you want to know about this case right now, read this book, and then follow the trial,” he said.
The true crime buffs “might know 75 or 80 percent of what’s in the book already,” he added.
“But they’ll be happy to see that certain things like the mention of this guy, Pappa Rodger, or the mention of other theories. They’ll be happy to see that because there’s a lot of what feels like truth to some of these theories… I wrote them in because I wanted to acknowledge them for all the work they’ve done.”
He didn’t say whether he believes Kohberger is guilty as charged.
“It’s just not my place to do that,” he said, adding: “I feel like everywhere I looked into him, I got the same answers: this was a troubled person from junior high on.”