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Kentucky college student murder shocks campus as killings plague schools: ‘Could happen to everybody anywhere’

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Friends and family of a beloved freshman athlete at a Christian Kentucky college cannot fathom why his wrestling teammate allegedly strangled him in his dorm room just days before their team traveled to Kansas to compete for a national championship.

Josiah Kilman, 18, was found dead in his dorm at Campbellsville University just before 1 a.m. Feb. 24. His death is one of four homicides on college campuses nationwide in a 10-day span.

Student Samuel Knopp, 24, and Celie Rain Montgomery, 26, were murdered in a dorm room at the University of Colorado at Colorado Spring campus Feb. 16. Augusta University nursing student Laken Riley, 22, was killed on Feb. 22 while jogging on a trail on the University of Georgia’s campus in Athens.

“It boggles my mind,” O’Brien Byrd, Kilman’s soccer coach from eighth grade through high school, told Fox News Digital. “I hope to God this isn’t a pattern we’re seeing, but I also think that this could happen to everybody anywhere.”


A Campbellsville wrestling teammate who asked not to be identified said Kilman had three roommates in his room in the school’s South East dorm. It’s unclear where they were at the time of his death or how Kilman’s body was discovered. 

The Kentucky State Medical Examiner’s Office determined Kilman’s cause of death to be asphyxia by manual strangulation, the Campbellsville Police Department announced Monday.

Sophomore teammate and engineering major Charles “Zeke” Escalera, 21, faces murder and burglary charges and is being held at Taylor County Detention Center on $2 million bail, according to a criminal complaint obtained by Fox News Digital. 

The Campbellsville Police Department has not released a motive in the shocking homicide.


Tyler Gilfry, 19, Kilman’s childhood best friend from his hometown in Columbia Falls, Montana, characterized the slain student as thoughtful, humble, gracious and kind. He grappled with what could possibly have pushed the suspect to the “unthinkable” act.

“He wasn’t the dude to start fights, but he was a dude that everybody liked – I can see someone getting jealous over him just being himself,” Gilfry told Fox News Digital about Kilman. “Someone who was struggling with themselves seeing someone so outstanding and outgoing, just a great human being. That’s all I can think of. I can’t see anyone who would want to do that to Josiah.”

Charles Escalera

Byrd echoed Gilfry’s disbelief.

“Unthinkable. It’s unthinkable. Whatever his involvement was, we don’t know yet. I’m sure we will find out one way or another, but Josiah’s not an instigator of violence at all,” Byrd told Fox News Digital. “He was a peaceful guy, a loving guy and a leader.”

Escalera’s preliminary court hearing is scheduled for next week in Taylor County Circuit Court. Taylor County Attorney John D. Bertram said a public attorney had been appointed for Escalera. 


Bertram told Fox News Digital the burglary charges stem from Escalera’s arrest rather than the violent incident in the dorm room. 

A farmer on the border of Taylor and Green counties ended an hours-long manhunt for Escalera around 5:15 p.m. after reporting that the wanted man had broken into a barn on his property Saturday evening. 

Josiah Kilman

Escalera allegedly stole food while on the run, local outlet WHAS 11 reported. 

Before Escalera was apprehended, students at the Christian college of 12,000 were ordered to “shelter in place” on lockdown. 


A member of the school’s wrestling team told Fox News Digital the entire team hunkered down at their coach’s house until word of the arrest. 

“There are petty things that are going to take place at any school, but nothing like this,” Bertram said, saying that the incident was “extremely” atypical for the quiet college town. 

Charles Escalera in Campbellsville Lowe's

Neither Bertram nor the Campbellsville Police Department released a potential motive for the killing. 

On Monday, college President Joe Hopkins said Kilman was known for his “brilliant smile” and for “boldly shar[ing] Christ and lovingly strengthen[ing] the faith of those around him.” 

Campbellsville’s wrestling team was en route to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics’ national wrestling championships in Kansas on Tuesday. 


Josiah Kilman and Tyler Gilfry

“It’s had a big toll on us for sure,” Kilman’s teammate told Fox News Digital. “Some of us have been through a situation like this before, but at this time in the season it’s definitely taken a toll on us, trying to get our minds right and focus on this tournament. A lot of people would go home and be with their families. But we’re going out there to wrestle for his family.”

The fellow wrestler said the freshman from Montana “always brought a different, good type of energy to our team, no matter if he was hurt or out there wrestling, winning or losing.”

“If there was a fight, he was always trying to resolve it by spreading the gospel and being peaceful in any situation.” 


Josiah Kilman

Sarah Cook, Kilman’s cousin, told Fox News Digital the 18-year-old attended Campbellsville on a biblical scholarship with “dreams of leading others to follow the Lord through the Christian principles.”

“Josiah influenced many hearts, and he was a true example of compassion, kindness and love,” Cook said. “His example compelled so many others to make the same changes he wished to see in the world, and his impact on their lives will never truly be forgotten.”

Gilfry told Fox News Digital Kilman practiced Messianic Judaism, wearing a Star of David around his neck and adhering to both Christian and Jewish principles. 

“I remember just going out to eat breakfast, all we’d talk about is religion,” Gilfry recalled. “We’d make fun of him for not eating bacon, and he’d say ‘that’s just who I am.’ That’s all he wanted to do. He was the kind of guy who always questioned you and made you think deeper into everything, always pushed you to be better at what you were doing and encouraged you to try something new.”

O'Brien Byrd and Josiah Kilman

Since Kilman’s death, Gilfry said, he has been “protect[ing] himself and the people around [him] a little more,” making sure to lock his doors and that his friends don’t go out alone.

Byrd, a soccer coach at Columbia Falls High School, said he appointed Kilman captain of the school’s team his senior year due to his remarkable grace and maturity. 

In addition to wrestling, soccer, weightlifting and heavy involvement at the Fellowship Alliance Church, Kilman helped teach soccer to young kids at an annual summer camp, Byrd said.

“He was a full-blooded American teenage boy, a rascal like we all are in those years. He liked to pull pranks and tell jokes. He was just like all of his friends in that regard. But he had such great leadership characteristics,” Byrd said Tuesday. 

“He always was able to say the hard things to his buddies. In society today, kids are afraid to speak up and say things that are unpopular. But Josiah never had an issue with that, he would say what they needed to hear,” Byrd added. 

“He always knew when younger eyes were on him. … He knew those little kids were looking up to him, and he wasn’t going to waste that opportunity to make an impression in the right way.”

Kilman left behind two older sisters and an older brother, along with a 6-year-old younger brother Aurelius. 

Josiah Kilman and friends

“Josiah, Jojo as Arelius would call him, was his hero, his absolute hero,” Byrd said. “[The community is] thinking a lot about Aurelius now.” 

Kilman’s parents, Jessica and Joe, have raised over $65,000 on GoFundMe to transport the undergrad’s body home and cover his funeral expenses. Members of the teen’s wrestling team will fly into Montana to join Kilman’s family for a funeral service next week, Byrd said. 

“I’ve talked with his father almost every day,” Byrd said. “He’s in survival mode for his family right now. I can say that there’s been some really hard moments. He’s got a lot of responsibility right now to get Josiah home. He’s got daughters and sons to love on and a wife to comfort and, of course, he he has to maneuver through this himself.”

As his family works to get his body sent back to Montana, Kilman’s car also sits abandoned in a Campbellsville University parking lot. One classmate shared photos of a memorial of flowers and photos on its windshield. 

Byrd said Kilman is the third youth under 19 to die young in Columbia Falls in the last seven years, but his former team captain’s death is “on a different level” due to the lingering questions left after his “unimaginable” death. 

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