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News / Northwest

WA mom reclaims son’s story after University of Idaho murders

“Why does someone who doesn’t know my son get to capitalize on his death?” Stacy Chapin’s at work to save Ethan’s legacy from tabloid headlines.

By Aspen Anderson, Crosscut
Published: May 29, 2024, 6:02am

It’s just one booth among many at the bustling 40th annual Tulip Festival Street Fair in Mount Vernon. Orange sunrise stickers on the booth read “Hug your people.” Copies of a children’s book called The Boy Who Wore Blue are stacked high. Bracelets that say “Live Life Like Ethan” are displayed. And fresh-cut tulip bouquets feature only one white and yellow variety. This booth is all about celebrating the life of Ethan Chapin.

“Ethan Chapin would want us to do something good with this,” Stacy Chapin said.

Stacy is the mother of Ethan, one of the four University of Idaho students stabbed to death on Nov. 13, 2022, in an off-campus house. The crime was sensationalized in national headlines and the deaths of the four students quickly became true-crime fodder. For Stacy Chapin, starting Ethan’s Smile Foundation has been paramount in navigating her grief for her son. She has been able to cultivate space to honor her son’s true essence and legacy, which she feels was overshadowed by the notorious homicides.

The Chapins are Skagit Valley locals, originally from nearby Conway, Washington. But they’ve generally avoided the annual spring tulip-festival madness in this part of the state until this year, when they established the Ethan’s Smile Foundation booth.

Throughout the three-day festival weekend, Stacy finds herself repeatedly approached by people expressing awe at her resilience. “How do you do it?” they ask.

“We have to be a role model to our kids,” she said. “We have to show them and everybody, actually, that under the worst of circumstances, you have to do something positive.”

Triplets Ethan, Hunter and Maizie Chapin shared a close-knit bond, participating in all activities together.

They journeyed from Conway K-8 School to the University of Idaho, where they all rushed and joined Greek life. Idaho held a familiar charm for the Chapin bunch, who spent much of their childhood at their house on Priest Lake.

Ethan was a star on the basketball court, enjoyed beach volleyball, and diligently worked in the tulip fields. His expansive circle of friends consistently set the pace, inevitably leading his siblings to follow in his footsteps. He and his brother joined Sigma Chi together. His mom noted that Maizie and Hunter have had to re-navigate their relationship, as Ethan was always the glue.

The Foundation’s “Smile Spotlights” featured on its website showcase anecdotes from Ethan’s friends, family and former teachers, illustrating the profound impact he made on their lives. It has become a space for people to gather and grieve.

Stacy observes that these spotlights highlight the breadth of Ethan’s influence, with people describing him as inspirational, authentic, sociable, inclusive and warm.

Sarah Dunn, his music teacher at Conway School from kindergarten through fourth grade, writes in a Smile Spotlight, “He wasn’t loud, but he had a natural way of drawing people out and making them feel safe. He smiled with his whole face.”

Like many locals, Ethan worked in the tulip fields, where he met Reese Gardner. Gardner, a couple years younger than Ethan at the time, remembers showing up to work for free just because he loved working with Ethan.

“He was one in a million,” Gardner said. “The lives he impacted were so wide. Without even doing anything, he was just himself.”

To commemorate Ethan, Gardner thought planting tulips would be a fitting tribute. He carefully planted a selection of white and yellow tulips, sourced from a local grower and endorsed by the CEO of Tulip Valley Farms, Andrew Miller, one of Ethan’s former bosses, who christened the variety “Ethan’s Smile.” These tulips were strategically placed at several landmarks and across a field in Mount Vernon. Gardner explained that white represents friendship and eternity and yellow signifies joy.

The colors stuck. Stacy believes they perfectly encapsulate her son’s sunny nature. The bulbs were sold nationwide.

“Every day we receive messages saying ‘Look at Ethan’s Smile growing in my garden today,’” Stacy said.

Selling tulip bulbs evolved into a scholarship foundation. Through the Foundation, Ethan’s parents, Stacy and Jim Chapin, raise funds to provide scholarships to local Skagit Valley students attending university.

Gardner himself was among the first recipients of one of the Foundation’s scholarships. He used the funds to cover expenses at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he is pursuing a pre-dental track. Recently at Baylor he spotted a student in an Ethan’s Smile sweatshirt who was not a Skagit Valley native – a testament to the foundation’s impact.

“For anyone that gets the scholarship, I hope they realize how special it is to receive a scholarship from Ethan’s Smile Foundation,” Gardner said. “It’s really such an honor, I cherish it.”

Gardner recalled one night when his co-workers joined a group bonfire after work. Gardner wasn’t initially invited because he was a bit younger, but Ethan wouldn’t take no for an answer, practically begging him to come along. Gardner says now it really showed how inclusive Ethan was to everyone around him.

Ryan Boon, a longtime family friend who has always admired the Chapin siblings, joined the same fraternity as Ethan and Hunter and recently received a scholarship from Ethan’s Smile.

“It’s super-cool that in a way I get to represent Ethan and everything he stood for and what made him such a good person.”

During the April 2023 launch of the flowers and the Foundation, the Chapins spoke out for the first time, with excitement buzzing for the Foundation and Stacy feeling she finally had something to share.

She recalls a transformative moment four months after Ethan died that she shared with her husband at dawn. They acknowledged their two options: throw in the towel or confront it head-on. Retreat wasn’t an option. Since then they’ve committed to facing each day with their best foot forward, prioritizing their two children above all else.

Maizie and Hunter will graduate from the University of Idaho next year, as members of the same class in which Ethan, a freshman when he died, was expecting to graduate.

“I am just moved by their courage and strength,” Stacy said. “I can sit here and talk to you about what it’s like to lose a kid, but I cannot imagine being a triplet.”

The Foundation’s logo is an orange and yellow sunrise to signify the time that Stacy and her husband spend each morning drinking coffee together, dedicating that time to Ethan and listening to his favorite songs.

On Mother’s Day 2022, Ethan texted his mom the song “Mother’s Day” by Morgan Wallen. That song and other favorites, “Something in the Orange” by Zach Bryan and “Wherever You Are Tonight” by Kenny Chesney, are played on a loop.

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In the 17 months since the multiple homicide that took Ethan’s life, the case has garnered widespread attention. Along with Ethan, his girlfriend, junior Xana Kernodle, and seniors Kaylee Goncalves and Madison Mogen also were fatally stabbed at the house where the three young women lived, shocking the community of Moscow. The bluish-gray house has since been demolished, a decision the Chapins agreed with.

A local grower also named a white and pink tulip variety “Forever Sisters” in memory of the three young women.

Bryan Kohberger, a criminology Ph.D. candidate at Washington State University, was arrested weeks after the four were killed. He pleaded not guilty to four counts of murder and one count of burglary. The trial date remains undetermined, as Kohberger opted to waive his right to a speedy trial.

Stacy Chapin recounts her lawyer warning her of the prolonged legal process ahead. She tries to detach herself from the breaking news surrounding the case.

Aficionados of true crime also latched onto the case almost immediately, to Stacy’s chagrin. A number of books have already been written on it. An academic spoke about the Idaho case at CrimeCon, a convention for true-crime aficionados.

“Why does someone who doesn’t know my son get to capitalize on his death?”  Stacy said. “It kills me.”

After doing some research, she realized that anyone has the right to her son’s story, and these books were legal. She pondered how, as his mother, she could take the narrative back and tell people about the Ethan she knew.

One night she woke up abruptly and said, “I am going to write a book today.” Her children’s book about Ethan is titled The Boy Who Wore Blue.

Ethan always wore blue, his designated “triplet” color, while Maizie wore pink and Hunter was dressed in green.

“Everyone loved him; he was forever funny, laughing, easy-going and eternally sunny,” Stacy wrote in The Boy Who Wore Blue.

She describes the book as something of a memoir, tracing the triplets’ journey from their birth through milestones like their first day of school, their time on the basketball court, all the way to Ethan’s work in the tulip fields and even moving to Idaho.

The book’s illustrations are all based on real photographs, presenting a collection of Ethan’s favorite memories and offering a glimpse into his inclusive, fun-loving nature.

“Life is short, so give it your best. Be happy, smile and encourage the rest!” Stacy wrote.

Stacy noted that Maizie and Hunter will be able to pass down their brother’s story to their own children, reclaiming ownership of the family narrative through this book. She refers to it as one of her greatest achievements.

“It’s so bittersweet,” she said.

During the fair weekend, the Foundation raised $15,000 and sold out of tulip bunches and sweatshirts. This sunny booth brought hugs and kind words.

The scholarship program prioritizes local Skagit Valley students; those who knew Ethan; alumni of Conway School, which the Chapins attended; or students who plan to attend the University of Idaho. But the Chapins encourage all interested students to apply. The scholarship includes three short-answer questions, and financial awards this year will differ based on the applicant’s need.

On April 30 the Foundation mailed the 2024 scholarships, providing around $50,000 to 33 students from the pool of 50 applicants.

The trial for the case is ongoing. Stacy continues to maintain that her son was in the “right place at the wrong time,” believing Moscow, Idaho, was one of the safest places he could be. The Chapins cannot speak highly enough of the University of Idaho, and Jim and Stacy were even given honorary degrees.

“I would not change anything if I could go back, even knowing the outcome,” she said. “We literally spent a lifetime with him … we are so blessed to have had him for 20 years.”

The Chapins feel so lucky that they had spent so much quality time with their son for as long as they got him.

“I told the kids at the beginning, this is not going to sink us,” Stacy said. “We are going to take a left turn, and our family looks a lot different right now, but by God we will persevere.”

The Chapins plan to expand the scholarship and Foundation each year. They hope the Foundation will continue forever, and that one day Maizie and Hunter will take it on.

Stacy waves goodbye as people begin to flock toward the fair booth. “Don’t forget to lock your door,” she says.

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.