Bryan Kohberger and the Myth of the Bullied Kid who Seeks Revenge

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Is the joining of “social media” and “true crime entertainment” getting way worse or am I just paying more attention lately? Because back in 2021 it was the murder of Gabby Petito, a woman who captured the world’s attention when she disappeared while on a trip with her boyfriend. TikTok was flooded with absolutely disgusting people claiming they could psychically sense what happened and where she was, which turned out to be dead in a National Forest in Wyoming. Her boyfriend eventually admitted killing her before shooting himself. Were any of the “psychics” correct? Who cares. They were all guessing wildly based on details they feverishly pulled from the victim’s social media and what little the police leaked to the public, exploiting a horrific example of domestic violence in order to gain likes or follows or faves or whatever the fuck they’ve decided is worth more than their own humanity.

The most recent version of this absolutely galling circus is found in the fatal stabbings of four students at University of Idaho in November. The case immediately became fodder for True Crime YouTubers, TikTokkers, and podcasters who took whatever was reported in the news and dutifully relayed it to their audiences, along with, of course, moody music, creepy visuals, and rampant speculation about what might have happened. 

For six weeks, all the general public knew was that four college students sleeping in the same home were mysteriously stabbed to death one night, apparently while two other roommates were on a lower floor unharmed. In much the same way that, as I reported last week, anti-vaxxers seized on the time between Damar Hamlin collapsing during Monday Night Football and actual doctors tending to him reported what happened, the phony fortune tellers of TikTok used those six weeks to peddle their exploitative garbage about what they think happened in that house that night.

Here’s one example: tarot reader Ashley Guillard drummed up 2.6 million likes on TikTok by claiming her magic cards told her that the killer was Rebecca Scofield, a history professor at University of Idaho. Why Scofield? Because Guillard was running a classic “psychic” con, in which you make a wild guess and if it turns out to be true, you are hailed as a true seer and fame and fortune are yours. If you’re wrong, you make excuses, manipulate peoples’ memories, delete those old TikToks, highlight other things you got right, and wait for people to simply forget that miss.

Unfortunately for Guillard, she’s not good enough at the con. She kept harping on Scofield, making up completely ridiculous stories like an affair she had with one of the murdered students, which convinced Guillard’s fans to accuse Scofield of the horrific crime, leading them to harass Scofield, which finally led Scofield to file a lawsuit against Guillard for defamation after Guillard allegedly ignored two cease and desist letters. You know I’m not the biggest fan of libel lawsuits but sometimes they are necessary – I’m not sure if this will make things better or worse for Scofield but I certainly understand why she would do it.

At the end of December, authorities finally moved in on their lead suspect: Bryan Christopher Kohberger, a grad student at nearby Washington State University (different state but only a 10-minute drive away). This arrest has inspired an entirely new kettle of vultures to peddle their nonsense: the amateur criminal psychologists, who are not only positive the police got the right suspect but have created entire theories of why he did it.

As of this recording, the most prominent narrative I’ve seen is that Kohberger murdered four innocent people because he was bullied. (By girls.)

“Sarah Healey, who went to Pleasant Valley High School with Kohberger, said he was shy and kept to himself and a small group of friends, but some of their classmates – especially girls – mocked Kohberger and threw things at him.

“It was bad,” Healey said. “There was definitely something off about him, like we couldn’t tell exactly what it was. I remember one time when I was walking in the hallway, and he stopped me and was like, ‘Do you want to hang out?’”

At that point, they didn’t know each other or run in the same social circles, said Healey. 

“It was just weird,” she said. “But Bryan was bullied a lot, and I never got a chance to say something to defend him, because he would always run away.”

Healey said she heard other girls tell Kohberger in their high school to “go away, creep” or “I don’t want to hang out with you.”

“I honestly think that’s what led up to this, because he didn’t get the proper help, and it was mainly females that bullied him,” Healey said.”

So that’s where all this started: mainstream news (in this case Fox) was desperate for any information on this guy, found a girl willing to go on record about how he seemed to be in high school, and ran her conjecture as a headline. That has now been picked up on social media, like in this video that YouTube actually recommended to me, in which a “licensed professional counselor” racked up half a million views by very slowly repeating this as fact.

There are a few problems with this narrative. For a start, Kohberger is 28 years old. IF he was bullied in high school by anyone, it was at least a DECADE ago. So you’re telling me that when he was a teenager, some girls told him to go away, and TEN YEARS LATER he struck back by murdering four random people. Uh huh. Sure.

Second of all, WAS that “bullying?” I hesitate to question the judgment or memory recall of, let’s see, a random girl who went to the same high school as him ten years ago, but if you tell me that a teen girl told a teen boy “I don’t want to hang out with you,” I would personally call that “setting healthy boundaries,” not “bullying.”

Others who knew Kohberger in high school have pointed out that he was, in fact, a heroin addict, which, yeah I don’t know but I think not wanting to hang out with a heroin addict in high school is pretty understandable. Oh, also several of his former classmates reported that he was actually a bully. So.

The misinformation spread so easily thanks to a confluence of events: first is the mainstream media’s 24-hour news cycle requiring information as quickly as possible, running with anything they can get their hands on. Then there’s social media’s even more cut-throat cycle, which requires that same quick response with even less fact-checking or independent research.

Finally, there’s the way that this story satisfies our preconceived notions and desires: no one wants to think that horrible things happen to normal people for no reason. If we can blame the victims, great! Now we don’t have to worry about similar things happening to US, because WE are good and careful and not bullies. If we can’t blame the victims, we can at least come up with a tidy story for why the killer did what he did: it’s the fault of mean teen girls, of course! Girls, with all their meanness and their bullying. Girls are the reason why men kill girls.

We also now have a built-in assumption that bullied kids will lash out and murder, stemming back at least to America’s First Big School Shooting (™), Columbine. Remember that? I know, we’ve had so many shooting since then that it seems quaint now that the entire country was captivated by this story for months: in April of 1999, two teen boys rampaged through their high school shooting and killing 12 students and one teacher, and injuring 21 more people.

I remember the aftermath, when the news reported that these two killers committed this act because they were bullied. We were told they were part of something called the “Trench Coat Mafia,” that they were quiet, weird goth kids who were pushed around and bullied by the popular kids, the athletes, the cheerleaders, so they finally snapped and got back at them. It made sense to the general public: sure, bullied kids can only take so much, and now we have an easy explanation for why this happened and how we can prevent it in the future. Just crack down on the bullies! Keep the guns, but the mean teenagers simply must go.

The only problem is that the “bully” explanation was entirely wrong, based on mainstream media desperately filling in the blanks before having all the information. According to Dave Cullen, author of several books on mass shootings including Columbine, there WAS a group of dorks who called themselves the “Trench Coat Mafia” at Columbine High School but the two killers weren’t even in that clique; the killers’ peers reported that THEY were the ones who bullied others, including one of them spending the year prior to the murders threatening his classmates to the point that one kid’s parents contacted the police and asked them for help (which the cops ignored).

As with, well, just about everything, things are more complicated than we want them to be, more complicated than we can easily convey in headlines, and more complicated than we can understand in the minutes or hours or days after a scary tragedy that happens in a place we don’t live to people we don’t know.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way we’ve built our society: we want to know as much as possible right now, and if we can’t get the truth then we’ll settle for a soothing or intriguing or sensible-sounding lie. Don’t buy into it, and don’t reward the vultures.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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