What drove 'family annihilator' Chris Watts to murder his pregnant wife and daughters?

Dr. Adam Lynes, a senior lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University, spoke to MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) to offer a deeper insight into the nuances and distinctive characteristics of such killers

                            What drove 'family annihilator' Chris Watts to murder his pregnant wife and daughters?
Christopher Watts (Getty Images)

Chris Watts killed his entire family, including his pregnant 34-year-old wife, Shanann, and their two daughters, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3, on August 13, 2018.

More than a year after the tragedy, friends and family are still mourning the disturbing killings as they remember the vibrant young mother and her two beloved daughters who were all snatched from them too soon. 

A number of criminologists and behavioral experts have since attempted to explain the disturbing motivations that drive men to kill their families. The studies use the term "family annihilator" to describe killers like Chris Watts.

Dr. Adam Lynes, a senior lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University, spoke to MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) to offer a deeper insight into the nuances and distinctive characteristics of such killers.

"There are multiple definitions of what constitutes a family annihilator, but they are generally defined as the husband and father who will kill their children and may or may not kill their partner and may or may not commit suicide after the event (this is due to the multiple motivations behind such an event)," Lynes said. "There are also female family annihilators though most are male."

Frank Rzucek the father of Shanann Watts, left, and her brother Frankie Rzucek were in court for Christopher Watts's arraignment hearing at the Weld County Courthouse on August 21, 2018, in Greeley, Colorado. (Getty Images)

When asked about the motivations that may cause such behavior, the professor explained his own research on family annihilators, highlighting at least four distinct typologies they observed.

The self-righteous 

These are men who were generally separated from their partners and who blame them for the break up of the “nuclear” family. They usually kill their children as a way to punish their former partners.

"For these men, their perceptions of value and status are linked to their role within the family as “breadwinners” and feel threatened when their partner separates and takes the children," Dr. Lynes said.

The anomic

These are men who over-internalize societal values in terms of monetary success and symbols of wealth such as expensive houses, cars, and other material possessions. Such men may have a history of hidden debt and on the brink of losing their status as wealthy and no longer able to provide what they think is important to their family.

"For such men, a social death is a fate worse than a literal death," the professor remarked.

The disappointed

The 'disappointed' family annihilator is one who feels that the family poorly represents their belief system and as such kills their family as a result of this perceived disappointment in other family members' roles as representatives of their own value or culture system, according to researchers.

The paranoid

A paranoid family killer is one who may have a known history of mental health issues and who generally perceives outside agencies (such as social or care workers or the courts) as a threat to their family and are scared their children may be taken out of their custody.

"This group tends to kill out of a warped sense of altruism and that they are somehow protecting their children from this perceived external threat," Dr. Lynes explained.

The way out

We asked Dr. Lynes about possible ways to identify and thereby offer counsel to such individuals but were told it was "extremely difficult" to answer that question at this stage of their research.

"This is extremely difficult as such men tend to have no criminal history and are often seen as 'quiet yet nice neighbors' by others when such cases are reported," he explained. "I think one of the most important factors to consider is mental health for men, as there is still a perceived stigma attached for many who feel they may need to seek support from a counselor or therapist."

Dr. Lynes insisted such men must be convinced that it is okay to talk about their mental health issues, considering several males think it a threat to their perceived masculinity.

"We also need to perhaps have a real conversation about our societal fixation on what it means to be successful in relation to materialism and wealth, as such expectations may form an unrealistic and unhealthy value set to the point where for some of these men a literal death was seen as better than a social death," he added.

According to the criminology expert, one of the challenges of such crimes is the "lack of any perceived motivation."

"This is what we call an Expressive Crime whereby it is not apparently clear why this happened and as such much harder to comprehend and rationalize (and this makes police investigations far more difficult)," Dr. Lynes.

Highlighting the importance of the study, the expert said that while such crimes are rather rare, it is an important issue that has "multiple facets that need to be addressed including cultural and societal expectations on what we consider to be successful, along with an honest conversation regarding mental health and the need to remove some of the perceived barriers and obstacles that some men feel are in the way of them seeking support."

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