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Trail of Questions: A University of Idaho freshman wanders out of town and never returns

A trail of missed opportunities leads to a student's death


Near the end, Joseph Wiederrick's footprints cut aimless circles in the snow-covered fields. A popular University of Idaho freshman with wavy blond hair, he had walked all night, straying several miles from the heart of Moscow, Idaho, out into the open hills beyond. With a starry sky against the distant mountains, he wandered the endless stubblefields until cold and exhaustion caught up with him.

Alone, he eventually came to rest beneath a small bridge, leaving a bright life unfinished and a trail of questions.

In the days since, local authorities and loved ones have struggled to understand what drove him out into the unknown. Witnesses say he was drinking, but others thought him lucid. Investigators continue to reconstruct his path, piecing together cell phone calls, brief encounters and his final footsteps.

"It's been a tragic event," Moscow Police Chief David Duke says. "It's shocked the community."

On Jan. 20, Wiederrick slipped out of an on-campus party shortly after midnight. He likely joined hundreds of other students on the streets of the small college town, stumbling into the frigid morning for a short walk home. But while others staggered back to the warmth of their dorm rooms, he turned north and headed away from campus.

No one knows why.

Investigators say Wiederrick called two friends and stopped by at least two random homes, but never really asked for help. All night he drifted through the city of 23,800 people. He told others he was heading home, but never returned.

His family lives with what could have been. What if he had stayed at the party? What if someone had called for help? What if he had been found sooner? His father, Bob Wiederrick, recounts his son's many interactions along his route and sees missed chances.

"It's just a senseless tragedy," he says. "He could have been saved at so many different times along the way."

Born and raised in Hailey, Idaho, Wiederrick grew up in the rugged backcountry of the Sun Valley region, east of Boise. His father says the 18-year-old enjoyed mountain biking, hiking, skiing and target shooting. He made friends easily.

"He was just a great kid," his father says. "He had a tremendous amount of friends. He was just very well liked and is very well missed."

Wiederrick, known as Joe, started at the University of Idaho in the fall. His father says he planned to study architecture. Even as a young boy, he had sketched out floor plans for buildings, giving structure to his imagination.

"He's always been a good artist," he says. "He was way more talented than I ever was."

When many of his friends headed to the University of Idaho, Wiederrick followed along, his father says. He shared a dorm room with a childhood friend in the Theophilus Tower residence hall on campus.

Wiederrick had barely started his second semester when another friend from Hailey invited him to a birthday party at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. The large brick fraternity house sits on Deakin Avenue near the eastern edge of campus, just a half-mile from Theophilus Tower.

Police Chief Duke says witnesses estimate about 120 students attended the party that night. Students reported Wiederrick was seen drinking, but they could not say how much. Nobody remembers seeing him walk out, but investigators believe he left shortly after midnight.

Police Chief David Duke says the toxicology tests measured Wiederrick's blood-alcohol level at .17 percent at the time of his death. Factoring in his four hours of wandering, investigators estimate his blood-alcohol level could have started as high as 0.25 to 0.3 percent.

Wearing a blue winter coat, a backpack and lightweight Vans shoes, Wiederrick disappeared into the night. His roommate returned to their dorm room around 2:30 a.m., Duke says, and no one was there. Wiederrick continued to wander the streets.

"He was disoriented," Duke says, "and he apparently was lost."

At about 3 a.m., Wiederrick called his roommate. The roommate tells authorities Wiederrick did not say where he was or hint at any distress. Wiederrick just said he was on his way home. The roommate went to sleep.

Standing alongside a large black-and-white map of Moscow, Duke says investigators do not know exactly where Wiederrick went after leaving the party. The chief points to a secluded residential neighborhood in the northeast part of town where Wiederrick showed up two and a half hours later.

A woman living along the 1100 block of Highland Drive--about two and a half miles from campus--tells authorities she heard a door open just before 3 a.m. When she went to check, she found Wiederrick in her basement.

"He had entered a house through an unlocked door and laid down on the floor," Duke says. "The homeowner came down thinking it was her children and saw him laying there. ... He said his name was Joe."

When the woman asked why he was there, Wiederrick reportedly said he thought he was still at the fraternity house. Duke says the woman saw Wiederrick was obviously confused, but he otherwise seemed fine. She asked if she could call anyone for him.

"He said no and apologized," Duke says. "[Then he] started walking out the door and apologized again."

Investigators believe this is when Wiederrick called his roommate as he walked south along Orchard Avenue back into the city. But instead of heading toward campus, Duke says, he appears to have turned east down D Street.

D Street would carry Wiederrick out past several blocks of single-family homes, past schools and playgrounds, past leafless trees and chain-link fences. A yellow "Dead End" sign stands at the far east end of the street, just shy of the city limits.

Investigators say Wiederrick appears to have walked past the sign and out beyond the edge of the city, down to the end of the road where it runs into a steep pasture. Weather records show the temperature had dropped throughout the morning, nearing 24 degrees as Wiederrick struck out into the field, stomping through several inches of snow.

As the body's core temperature drops, people often become confused and lose coordination. Medical studies show hypothermia starts with shivering and mumbling. Decision-making becomes muddled. Fatigue sets in. Hypothermia is known to cause apathy or lack of concern about perilous conditions.

"A person with hypothermia usually isn't aware of his or her condition, because the symptoms often begin gradually and because the confused thinking associated with hypothermia prevents self-awareness," a Mayo Clinic report states.

Alcohol can intensify the effects of hypothermia. Studies show alcohol causes blood vessels to expand, speeding up heat loss through the skin. Drinking also impairs judgment, further undermining decision-making.