It’s been over a year since four students at the University of Idaho were violently killed in their home, but the passing of time has not fatigued the public’s interest in the case. Quite the opposite. In the last 12 months, there have been several television documentaries (Dateline’s “Killings in a College Town,” and 48 Hours’ “The Idaho College Murders”) devoted to the case dubbed the “Moscow Murders.” In May, James Patterson and investigative journalist Vicky Ward announced that they are working on a nonfiction book about the tragic deaths of students Ethan Chapin, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle and Kaylee Goncalves, which will eventually become a docuseries.
On Feb. 6, Paramount + is releasing “#Cybersleuths: The Idaho Murders,” a three-part docuseries about internet sleuths on TikTok who try and find the Idaho college killer. The absence of any solid leads in the case created an information vacuum that the TikTokers were eager to fill. The docuseries follows several so-called sleuths who attempt to separate rumor from fact while examining police statements and hunting for digital clues. The amateur detectives, who are not members of the media, visit the crime scene, speak to the victims’ families, dig up potential theories and name potential suspects, which ensues in witch hunts and cyberbullying.
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The docuseries comes weeks after Bryan Kohberger, who has been charged with four counts of murder in connection to the case, appeared in an Idaho courtroom — where his lawyers’ attempts to toss out the charges against him were denied.
Variety spoke to “#Cybersleuths: The Idaho Murders” director Lucie Jourdan about online sleuths, and whether they do more harm than good.
In Netflix’s “Don’t F*ck with Cats” and Max’s “They Called Him Mostly Harmless,” internet sleuths are the heroes. In “#Cybersleuths: The Idaho Murders,” their role is murky. Was it always your intent to expose the potential ramifications of internet sleuthing?
From what this series was from concept to what it ended up being was a little bit different. At a surface level, there were a lot of interesting things with this case that made you think that there should be questions and that there should be these people on the internet who could find the answers. A lot of these [smaller] police departments are not tech savvy like kids on TikTok are. So I went in thinking one thing, and it became something [else]. It became a bit of a warning. Initially it was a little bit more pro until we dove in.
Did you have any desire to wait for the Kohberger trial to start before releasing this series? That way, you could have determined if the sleuths in your series had gotten anything right?
I feel like this case was the entry point to a story about the TikTok true crime generation. So when we were pitching the series, the outcome of the case was always irrelevant. It wasn’t about that. It was about this social media phenomenon around the murders that had taken things by storm.
I thought the story warranted a documentary, because it’s a very specific time in our culture that has allowed for this. You’ve got a blatant distrust of the media, so people are looking for new voices. You’ve got a world that is essentially an ADD society who needs snackable content and can’t sit down and digest things, so you turn to these [sleuths]. I wanted to show that these sleuths are people. They are entertainers. They are not qualified. They have opinions and they talk — and that’s entertaining. We are in a strange place where especially the younger generation can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s entertaining, so I thought it was really important to shine a light on this topic.
Do you think open cases like the Idaho case are harder for internet sleuths to solve than closed cases?
Cold cases are where [internet sleuths] should exist. People need those cold cases solved. [The problems] come when [sleuths] are involved in an active investigation. Never before has a police department had to spend over a million dollars on a rumor mill website to combat the rumors and the false tips that were coming in because of online sleuths.
Not one of the sleuths featured in the series had any inkling about Bryan Kohberger’s alleged involvement in the crime. Did you film them in real time when they found out about his arrest?
No. We got involved a bit later. We used a lot of videos that they had created before [his arrest] to help tell the story. When we got involved last year, Brian had already been caught. But a lot of the sleuths don’t believe Bryan’s guilty.
The doc shows how close Kaylee Goncalves’ father, Steve, is to one of the Idaho murder sleuths — Olivia at #chroniclesofolivia — who is trying to solve the case without any real leads. Did that surprise you?
Yes, I was surprised, but I also thought that he is a grieving dad. He’s looking for any connection to his daughter who is now gone. And [Kaylee] shared Olivia’s TikTok videos with [her dad] because she followed Olivia. But, yeah we would stop filming, and Steve would be talking to Olivia in the other room, and I thought that was just wild.
There were points where I overheard him asking her advice and I was like, “Man, she’s in her mid-twenties.” It was shocking to me. But he’s just so desperate for answers and this has taken so long.
Steve does not appear in your series. Was that intentional, or did he decline your request to appear on camera?
We reached out, and Steve had agreed to be in, per Olivia. He was very positive about Olivia. But when we went to actually go film, his lawyer shut that down pretty quickly.
With this docuseries, you are giving the sleuths who you followed that much more exposure. Does that concern you?
People need to see this, because they need to know what’s out there. We can’t just close our eyes and pretend it doesn’t exist. Yes, of course this might grow platforms for some people who are a little unscrupulous, and might not need the attention. But I think the greater good is to showcase what’s going on to a larger audience so that they can take part in understanding what’s happening.
This interview has been edited and condensed. “#Cybersleuths: The Idaho Murders” streams on Paramount+ on Feb. 6.
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