One of the surviving roommates who lived in the house where four students from the University of Idaho were killed told investigators that he nearly came face-to-face with a masked man that night and went into a «frozen shock phase,» a response that medical experts say is not uncommon in potentially threatening situations.
Police initially said surviving roommates Dylan Mortensen and Bethany Funke were believed to have been sleeping during the stabbings, but court records unsealed Thursday revealed Mortensen, identified as DM in a sworn declarationmet the suspect as he was fleeing the home in Moscow, Idaho.
Brian Kohberger, a criminology doctoral student at nearby Washington State University at the time, has been charged with four counts of murder in the November deaths of 21-year-old Madison Mogen; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; Xana Kernodle, 20; and Ethan Chapin, 20.
According to the affidavit, Mortensen “described the figure as 5’10” or taller, masculine, not heavily muscled, but athletically built with bushy eyebrows. The man walked past DM while she was in a ‘frozen shock phase’. The man walked to the rear sliding glass door. DM locked himself in her room after seeing the man.”
Nearly eight hours later, around noon, authorities were called from a cell phone belonging to one of the roommates, according to court documents. It was not clear who had made the call.
What has been described as a «frozen shock phase» could slide into a series of acute traumatic responses, such as dissociation and tonic immobility, that are commonly triggered by stressful settings, experts said Friday.
It all comes down to the basic human fight, flight or freeze response when people believe they might be under threat, said Dr. Judith F. Joseph, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. at NYU Langone Health.
“When your body is in shock and you think you are going to die or you think you are in a threatening situation, adrenaline increases your sympathetic nervous system and it kicks in, and you can experience a frozen state where you consciously know what is going on. . , but then one coping mechanism is for you to disassociate,” Joseph said.
People who have experienced it said they felt as if they were not part of their bodies, a state brought on by traumatic shock, he said. “People can disengage for hours, especially if they’ve been through severe trauma,” Joseph said, adding that their minds wander elsewhere to get away from the trauma or fear.
Mortensen and Funke described in statements the pain they felt after the loss of their friends and housemates.
“My life was greatly impacted by meeting these four beautiful people,” Mortensen wrote, “my people who changed my life in so many ways and made me so happy.”
Mortensen said she heard Goncalves playing with her dog around 4 a.m. and a short time later, she heard her housemate say, «There’s someone here,» according to court documents.
Then, she said, she heard crying in Kernodle’s room and a male voice saying «something to the effect of ‘okay, I’ll help you,'» according to the affidavit.
Based on forensic evidence and interviews, investigators believe all four victims were killed sometime between 4 a.m. and 4:25 a.m.
At 11:58 a.m., a 911 call was made from the cell phone of one of the surviving housemates requesting assistance for an «unconscious person,» according to court documents.
«It’s possible that what happened to her was that she went into a dissociative state and was a little confused and shocked and not really understanding what was going on,» said Dr. Akeem Marsh, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Grossman University of New York. NYU Langone Health School of Medicine, referring to Mortensen.
«In those states, the mind is really shutting down to protect itself.»
Marsh said a person might «have no concept of time, it could be so many hours, and you really don’t even know what happened until you finally come back to reality and realize something happened.»
These are all responses to traumatic shock, he said, that could affect cognitive ability, including decision-making. She said survivors may continue to experience symptoms of shock, which could linger for weeks after the trauma, especially as their understanding of what happened grows.
Emily Dworkin, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said another common response triggered by Mortensen’s «frozen shock phase» could be tonic immobility, a state similar to paralysis. .
«In a way, you’re completely turned off while you’re still able to encode what’s going on, so you’re still actively processing what’s going on in the environment, but your ability to respond is turned off,» he said.
Tonic immobility can last for hours in some people, he said.
«While you can still remember what happened, you can’t act in response to that environment, so you can’t fight, you can’t run, you can do some small things, but a lot of those larger responses to a threat shut down,» said.
Dworkin stressed that any speculation about the mental state is «to interpret it through the lens of what we know now» versus what Mortensen knew at the time.
“There are many possible interpretations from his perspective of what was happening at the time,” he said.
“As someone living in a house with college-age roommates with guests coming and going, it’s probably not uncommon to hear noises and see people you don’t recognize early in the morning,” she said.
“Hearing a strange noise or seeing a man you don’t recognize can be startling, but not necessarily out of the ordinary, and many people will tell themselves they are overreacting and be dissuaded if they don’t. they felt afraid. There are different things that could be operating with his frozen state, and I think all of them would be reasonable.»