Last year, Chris Watts, a 33-year-old Colorado man, murdered his pregnant wife Shannan and two daughters, 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste, and buried their bodies in an oil work site. Although Watts initially denied having any involvement with his wife’s and daughters’ deaths, he later confessed to strangling Shannan and suffocating his two daughters, which, prosecutors argued, he did because he was having an affair with another woman and wanted to leave his family. In November 2018, Watts pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to five life sentences — three consecutive and two concurrent — without the possibility of parole.
Now, new details have emerged regarding the Watts case. First, Watts gave an interview to police from a Wisconsin prison on Feb. 18, reportedly after finding religion while incarcerated. Then, Steven Lambert, the attorney for Shannan Watts’ family, went on Dr. Phil to talk about what Watts had said. During the televised interview, Lambert said that Watts strangled his wife after revealing to her that he was having an affair with a coworker and wanted a divorce. (The coworker, Nichol Kessinger, 30, has claimed that Watts told her he was in the process of divorcing his wife and that they were separated.) “And she had said something to the effect of, ‘Well, you’re not gonna see the kids again.’ As a consequence of that conversation, he strangled her to death,” Lambert said on the show.
Lambert also revealed that Watts’ 4-year-old daughter, Bella, saw Watts preparing to move Shannan’s body “and what he said was that, ‘Mommy is sick, we need to take her to the hospital to make her better.'” Watts then took the girls into his truck and smothered them before burying them in an oil drum.
Although the case horrified people across the country, Watts’ acts are not unprecedented. In many ways, he fits squarely in the pattern of family annihilators, a term for men (mostly white males in their 30s) who murder their entire families. Here’s an overview of the psychology behind family annihilation, and what drives the men who commit such heinous acts.
What is family annihilation?
Family annihilators is a term used to describe men (mostly white males in their 30s) who murder their entire families. The technical term is “familicide, which basically refers to the killing of one’s partner or spouse and one or the more of the children, [often] followed by the suicide of the perpetrator,” explains Dr. Neil Websdale, director of the Family Violence Institute at Northern Arizona, who published a 2010 book on the subject.
Often, family annihilation cases are prompted by an inciting incident, such as a job loss, says Dr. N.G. Berrill, forensic psychologist and director of New York Forensics, a private consulting group in New York City. (Neither Websdale nor Berrill have any connection to the Watts case.) There are “several different scenarios: one is that there’s long-term chaos or strife in the house, or if there’s concerns about [a wife’s] infidelity, or there’s a history of domestic violence,” he says.
Regardless, it is usually “the culmination of a very bad situation that’s festered,” Berrill says.
What are some of the defining characteristics of family annihilators?
Broadly speaking, family annihilation cases tend to fall on something of a “continuum,” says Websdale. “Some cases involve very violent, controlling batterers who are misogynistic, who engage in lots of acts of domestic violence up to the time of the killing,” he says. “At the other end of the continuum — which is really about the ability to regulate or repress anger — you’re looking at more controlled, repressed, depressed individuals who may be on the edge of a psychotic break.”
Occasionally, family annihilators will struggle with drug or alcohol abuse, which will reduce their ability to control their impulses; sometimes, they will exhibit signs of psychotic behavior, such as delusions or paranoia. “I’ve seen a number of occasions where the psychotic response or the delusions that run the psychotic behavior have this individual convinced that something evil is afloat, maybe possession. People in the family are out to kill them,” says Berrill. “It’s kind of done in a retaliatory manner, but acting out of psychotic belief.”
Perhaps most terrifyingly, Webdale says that “roughly about a third” of men who kill their families “involve the more repressed, depressed offenders, where we don’t have any known history of domestic violence.” While he’s careful to note that that doesn’t mean there was not a history of domestic violence (and for what it’s worth, there is no indication that Watts was violent toward his wife and daughters), it’s clear that the phenomenon is not limited to men who fit the profile for domestic abusers.
More often, family annihilators are characterized by an overwhelming sense of rage, whether it’s repressed or not. “There had to be one final stressor in those kind of scenarios, where someone just determines they were so angry or enraged they are just going to kill their family,” says Berrill.
How does the Watts case fit in with all this?
In the larger context of family annihilation cases, Watts’s case is somewhat unique. For starters, there is no evidence that he tried to take his own life after killing his family, as most family annihilators do. “The person who does it feels like they’re sparing their family from eminent financial harm or ruin or embarrassment, so they kill their family and themselves,” Berrill says. In fact, mere hours after their disappearance was reported, Watts appeared on local TV to plead for their safe return, and his web history reveals that he was happily planning a relationship with his new girlfriend, Googling jewelry and secluded weekend getaways.
Websdale believes this behavior may have stemmed from Watts’ belief that he could get away with the murders. “I think the fact that he didn’t commit suicide…may speak to this aggressive, narcissistic kind of personality, which says that he thinks he may be able to get away with this,” he says. “It speaks to the fact that he’s very very much self-centered and [felt] entitled to do these things.”
Additionally, unlike many family annihilators, Watts didn’t have a history of domestic violence or controlling, abusive behavior; nor was he motivated by an impending catastrophic event, such as an impending job loss or financial disaster. While he hasn’t revealed his motive, judging by the prosecutor’s report that he had argued with Shannan about wanting a divorce shortly before the murders, it seems that he was simply driven by a desire to start a new relationship with another woman, without being burdened by his family. “He [likely wanted to] preserve his right to pursue a relationship he wanted to pursue, and ideally without being incarcerated,” Berrill says.
Lambert’s revelation that Shannan threatened to take the kids away from Watts could also have played into his motive for the murders. “If he was being confronted by his spouse and she was threatening to take the kids away and he’d never see them again because of his affair, it might have provoked a level of rage that resulted in his inability to control himself,” Berrill says. “Rather than ‘you’ll take the kids away from me,’ it’s ‘I’ll take the kids away by murdering them.'” For this reason, Websdale believes that Watts “fits the profile for some sort of antisocial personality disorder,” which he says describes about one-fifth of family annihilators.
How common are family annihilation cases?
All told, family annihilation cases are not common at all: Webdale estimates that there are only “between 10 and 20 cases a year,” which, contrasted with the rate of intimate partner homicide cases (1,500 per year), makes it an extremely rare phenomenon.
But when they do occur, the horrific nature of the crime, as well as the wider implications of such cases, usually results in a great deal of media coverage. “There is a lesson here for a lot of people, and…it’s that you can never know what’s in someone’s heart and soul completely, especially when they’re as vulnerable and psychically flawed as some of these folks are,” Webdale says.
While somewhat of an exception in the context of family annihilation cases, the Watts case reveals not just the horrific depths to which humanity can sink, but also just how little we can do to anticipate such events or prevent them from occurring. The truth of the Watts case — that we can never truly know what goes on inside someone’s heart — is so bleak that knowing how rare such cases are is little comfort.
“To be quite blunt with you, I get asked this question all the time with regards to intimate partner homicide. You can’t predict [it] at all,” Websdale states flatly when asked if there are any signs that a man may be capable of murdering his family. “[We] see folks who end up being killed and are not aware of someone’s potential for that, thinking, ‘Oh, no, he could never do this to me,’ or, ‘He could never do this to the kids.’ The research is clear: these guys have secret lives, to be candid. They fantasize. They plan. They strategize, sometimes. They keep it to themselves. Bearing that in mind is important.”