Demolition of Idaho murders home paused amid discovery of asbestos and lead, objections from families

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(MOSCOW, Idaho) — Asbestos and lead — in addition to objections from some of the victims’ families — have delayed the process of tearing down the Idaho home where four college students were stabbed to death last fall.

The University of Idaho announced the sudden halt to the high-profile demolition Wednesday, saying it would pause plans for the house until October, which is also when the trial for Bryan Kohberger, the man accused in the murders of Ethan Chapin, 20; Madison Mogen, 21; Xana Kernodle, 20, and Kaylee Goncalves, 21, is set to start.

“While we look forward to removing this grim reminder of this tragedy, we feel holding until October is the right thing to do,” University President Scott Green said in a statement, acknowledging “every action and decision around this horrific incident is painful and invokes emotions.”

He also noted “every decision we have made” has been “with the families of the victims and our students in mind.”

Disaster response crews have been on-site for weeks, preparing for the eventual demolition of the home on King Road in Moscow, Idaho, cleaning and clearing out the property, and hauling out personal belongings for families to collect.

The investigative work that occurred after the bodies were found exposed “hazardous” materials, including asbestos, which must be eliminated before the building can be razed, Jodi Walker, the spokesperson for the University of Idaho, which now has control of the site, said in an interview.

Walker said the “lead and asbestos mitigation” inside the home requires meticulous “expertise” to “safely demolish the house.”

In the early morning hours of Nov. 13, 2022, prosecutors allege that Kohberger, a 28-year-old criminology Ph.D. student at nearby Washington State University, broke in and stabbed to death Chapin, Mogen, Kernodle and Goncalves inside the girls’ off-campus home.

A massive investigation ensued, and in their hunt for clues and evidence at the crime scene and the cleanup that followed, authorities scoured every inch of the property, cutting into walls and even pulling up flooring.

After a six-week hunt, police zeroed in on Kohberger as the suspect, arresting him on Dec. 30, 2022, at his family’s home in Pennsylvania. He was indicted in May and charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of burglary. At his arraignment, he declined to offer a plea, so the judge entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf.

Now, the interior of the King Road home bears little resemblance to how it looked before the killings, Latah County Prosecutor Bill Thompson, leading the case against Kohberger, told the university in an April email to the school, obtained by ABC News.

After the killings, the property owner donated the home to the school, which announced in February the site would be torn down as a “healing step” that “also removes efforts to further sensationalize the crime scene.”

Neither the prosecution nor Kohberger’s defense pushed back on the planned demolition, according to emails obtained by ABC.

In early April, Kohberger’s attorney Anne Taylor told the university that the defense had “no objection” to the school “proceeding as it sees fit” with the residence.

In another email obtained by ABC, prosecutor Thompson told the school’s general counsel he too had “no objection,” adding that the scene was “substantially altered from its condition at the time of the homicides” with “removal of some structural items such as wallboard and flooring.”

Though the site is so drastically changed from its original appearance, the structure remains standing and has become a “daily reminder of the horrific crime that happened there,” Walker said — explaining why the university had decided the house would be demolished.

“We have family members of the victims that look out on that house every day that they’re on campus,” she said. “On the flip side, it’s also that last visible piece of where those students lived.”

Moscow Mayor Art Bettge said it’s been tough for the community, too.

“Your eyes are drawn that way; you can’t help it. And it’s just sitting there boarded up and derelict. But it really should go; it needs to go away,” Bettge told ABC News.

The university had wanted it torn down before students returned from summer break. But now, more than seven months after the killings and just weeks before the fall semester begins, there is still no demolition date set for the house, Walker said.

The decision on timing is “incredibly difficult,” Walker said, and though the time-consuming process is underway, the university is weighing both families’ concerns and the health of those nearby.

“It is in a residential neighborhood, so we want to make sure that that process is done as safely as possible for the people in the other structures around,” she said. “There’s a whole expertise to that, that we certainly don’t have.”

Not everyone agreed with the plan to demolish the building. Some of the victims’ families said they fear the elimination of the home now, before Kohberger’s trial, could cause unanticipated problems for prosecutors as they work to secure a guilty verdict.

Shanon Gray, a lawyer representing the Goncalves family, had said postponing demolition “until after the trial would honor the [families’] wishes and support the judicial process if the home is needed in the future by the prosecution, defense or jurors.”

“The Goncalves Family, members of the Mogen Family and members of the Kernodle family have all expressed to the University that they do not want the home demolished,” Gray said in a statement before the university said they would pause their plans, adding those families “believe that there is an enormous amount of evidentiary value to the home.”

Kohberger’s trial in the quadruple homicide has been set for Oct. 2, though that could be delayed.

The prosecution has already ruled out the idea of a jury visit to the home. Though the walls still stand, because the insides have already started to get dismantled and have been “subjected to extensive chemical application creating a potential health hazard,” they concluded a “jury view” of the home “would not be appropriate,” Thompson said in his email to the school.

Gray maintains a jury walk-through could become relevant later, noting “the families [cannot] understand why” neither side has pushed back against the plans to tear the home down.

“There is simply no reason to not honor the wishes of the Victim’s families,” he said. “The reality is that what is good for the community is a fair trial and a conviction.”

While the school wants to “keep everything moving forward,” Walker said there are “many voices” to consider, and they have been in “regular contact with all of the families throughout this entire process,” who have “varying opinions and various ways of healing, much like the rest of the campus and the community.”

“And sometimes that just takes a little bit more time, and we want to make sure that we’re doing the right things for the right reasons,” she said. “The last thing we want to do is to cause any harm to those families.”

The university plans to build a memorial garden on campus to honor the slain students — something Mayor Bettge looks forward to.

“To have a place where people who go just to dwell in the horror that went on there is not useful to the community, the university, or anyone else,” Bettge said, preferring “to have a permanent memorial to them in a positive fashion that reflects the good that they were, and doesn’t dwell on the bad.”

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