True Crime Analysis, Breakthroughs, Insights & Discussions Hosted by Bestselling Author Nick van der Leek

5 Questions to Speculate Over – True Crime Guru Badge [#5]

Normally we’re less interested in opinions than in facts at TCRS.


The Chris Watts case isn’t a normal case.

There is a place for speculation in true crime, but speculation needs to be informed and anchored in the patterns, personalities and dynamics of a particular case to be meaningful or worthwhile. Typically, speculation needs to be limited.

In a criminal trial, a prosecutor can rap the knuckles of his opposition counsel [or witnesses] by objecting to “speculation”, ditto defense counsel.  For the most part we try to run the same sort of tight ship in true crime. What can be proven? What does the evidence say? What do we know for a fact? Where does it take us?

As a true crime narrator, I try to weigh any speculation down with a host of references, facts and underlying data. Once anchored, we can set the ship adrift and see which way the tide draws it.

The Watts case is an enigma because despite having a tsunami of information, we really don’t seem to have anything concrete – about anything.

The five questions below are meant to check your knowledge, insight and understanding in this case. If you’re able to answer any of these questions instantly, chances are you’ve still not developed the capacity to really think critically and constructively about this case. Good true crime makes us better thinkers, and ultimately, better people.

Incidentally, there are no right or wrong answers to these 5 questions, just varying degrees of being better, or closer to reality [whatever that might be]. So, without further ado, put on your thinking caps and lets get started:

1. Do you think the Rzuceks saw the autopsies? Motivate your answer.

2. Do you think the Watts family saw the autopsies? Motivate your answer.

3. Are the emails between Kessinger and Watts in the Discovery Documents? If so, where?

4. Why did Watts take the plea deal, if what he was getting [life in prison with no parole] was no different than what he would have gotten anyway? Motivate your answer.

5. Were the resources used in this case commensurate to the crime committed? Motivate your answer.

The best responses will be acknowledged, and used in a guest post.


  1. Liz

    Just brief speculative answers. Not too motivated to go into lengthy replies. Just want the plain cup of Joe, not the latte.
    1. The autopsy report, yes. Not pictures. They were declared next of kin to Shanann and filed a civil suit so I think they would have read the report.
    2. Maybe when Rourke talked with them about Chris taking the plea deal. To show the evidence that the children were smothered and not strangled like Chris said.
    3. There were some emails June 12th in the discovery document.
    4. Drowning sailor will take the rope. To keep further investigation from happening of Kessinger or her phone, if indeed the affair with Kessinger had been longer. This is According to the Rape of Cassandra book.
    5. Probably overabundance, but it certainly did get them their man rather than let it keep going on and on, although public opinion is still going on and on.

    • nickvdl

      So do you think Cindy saw any autopsy photos?

      • Anna

        Knowing Cindy she probably requested 8×10 glossies, suitable for framing…

  2. Liz

    I can’t imagine that she would want to see the photos if they were available to next of kin. I guess she could have see the grandkid’s photo, not sure about Shanann’s though. It’s possible she did because she certainly did a complete 180. I have been to a hospital on death of relative, and while I was told I could go to the morgue to see them, it was deeply suggested I did not.

  3. CBH

    Just based on what I’ve read over the years in true crime books, most family members do want to look at autopsy pictures, even though traumatic and sometimes of their own children (one such case which comes to mind is the Eastburn murders in the 1980s in which Army Captain Gary Eastburn’s wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 5 , were brutally murdered. He did view all the autopsy photos, which were horrific and traumatizing).

    • Diana

      CBH I’ve followed the Katie Eastburn case and I had no idea Gary Eastburn viewed autopsy photos of his wife and 2 daughters. How awful. I’ve always felt so bad for Gary and his surviving daughter Jana. The Eastburn killer, Timothy Hennis, is the only person I know of in the U.S. who was convicted and sentenced to death, got another trial and was found not guilty and freed, then put on trial again 20 years later and gets the death penalty again – all for the same 3 Eastburn murders! He sits on death row to this day.

      • CBH

        Yes, it was a tragic case. I had read the book by Whisnant and really thought Hennis was innocent. I was very surprised when he was re-arrested.

    • nickvdl

      It’s also difficult to imagine the Ramseys never viewed autopsy photos of JonBenet. In their book Death of Innocence they wrote on page 112:

      “Patsy and I could not, would not, and will not ever look at those autopsy photographs.”

      When Larry King asked John Ramsey if he’d studied the death certificate [probably meaning autopsy report] Ramsey and his wife both said no. If it was your child, murdered by an intruder, wouldn’t you bite the bullet and try to figure out what had happened?

      On the other hand, if you were somehow involved, wouldn’t you pretend to be so offended by the idea that you simply couldn’t view it because then you’d have to answer questions on it?

      One of the questions Ramsey was asked was why they didn’t exhume the body to test the theory that a stun gun had been used on her. Ramsey refused to exhume, claiming he didn’t want to disturb her.

      03-17-2000 ABCNEWS 20/20 -Barbara Walters Special Interview with John and Patsy Ramsey

      Barbara Walters: “Why wasn’t the body exhumed?”

      John Ramsey: “(PAUSE) Don’t know why the Police didn’t consider that. Uh we were asked when this theory first surfaced about a Stun gun that if the body were exhumed it could be proved conclusively but it had to be done fairly quickly. This was within months of when we’d just buried JonBenet. And I, as her father, could not bring myself to do that. I had laid my child to rest. She was at peace. And that was a that decision I couldn’t make.”

      Barbara Walters: “Even though it might have cleared you?”

      John Ramsey: “It wasn’t that was not the priority. The priority was my child was at rest.”

      • CBH

        I agree with your own insights. It’s as though they were playing at innocence.

      • Sylvester

        Darnay Hoffman, representing Robert Christian Wolf asked Ramsey if he had looked at the crime pictures to see if he recognized the knots tied around JonBenet’s neck and the garrote (John having served in the Navy and all) and he said no, he didn’t. Why? Because it would have been too disturbing. Uh huh. I guess John Ramsey wasn’t too interested in helping find out who murdered his little girl.

      • Ralph Oscar

        “John Ramsey: “It wasn’t that was not the priority. The priority was my child was at rest.””

        In other words, keep JonBenet’s body out of sight and out of reach so nobody else can go poking around and maybe find something incriminating.

  4. LaraLeon

    Dont they have to identify the bodies at the morgue?

  5. Diana

    Not sure if you’re asking if the autopsy REPORTS were viewed or autopsy PHOTOS. I will put a reminder here that autopsy reports generated due to homicide in the U.S. are public records, therefore, ALL individuals have the right to see the reports whether you’re a relative or not. Its the law! Relatives are not granted any more special rights to see the autopsies than the public is granted! Surprising, but true! Of course prosecutors and/or Medical Examiners do go to court to suppress the reports if releasing the reports could hinder any ongoing investigations and sometimes for other reasons as well. Sometimes I think suppressing them is the right action, sometimes not. Usually the media is the first to sue to view said autopsy reports. And guess what? Most of the cases that I’ve followed, the media usually prevails.

    • Nick

      Strange question Paula. If one is asking if they “saw the autopsies” how on earth could that not mean the photos. You’ve read the reports, so has everyone. Obviously it wasn’t a reference to the public reports.

      • matt

        it could of course mean saw the autopsies…being performed.

        • nickvdl

          Interesting. So you think the family members stood by while the autopsies were performed?

    • Nick

      Incidentally it’s one of the rules of this site not to use all caps. It tends to incite emotion and indignation. We try to have calm, civil, intelligent interactions here.

  6. Shannon

    Here goes:
    1) Someone has to identify the bodies, all 3. Probably Frank Rzucek did.
    2) No, there’s no reason for them to identify the bodies.
    3) June 5. 2018, early afternoon ( first email).
    4) Nov 6.2018, Watts enters Guilty.
    Nov 19.2018 Sentence hearing.
    He didn’t realize that there really is no death penalty. He was corced, bullied and lied to to by his Lawyers. He should not have taken any deal. He needed better lawyers.
    5) Given the fact that Chris caved in the interrogation room and saying where bodies where buried and he killed Shanann…not kids.
    What more evidence do they need.

    • Shannon

      To myself.
      No family member other then Coronor, cops, detectives allowed in the autopsy room. Only professional.
      Can you imagine….. Not….seeing that performed.
      I mean I’ve seen it done on internet, live.
      But still, on a loved one. No.
      All students, people going into this field of work, have to either witness or perform one.

  7. KerryA

    Based on my experience as a med student who did a 12 week elective in pathology, I would guess the following: 1. Re: the Rzcueks, I believe they were told in broad and gentle terms the condition of the bodies and preliminary findings regarding cause of death. They were probably shown (and may have asked to see) a picture of Shan’ann. It would likely be after washing in the autopsy suite and her body draped in a white sheet. Her face would have been recognizable, with some discolouration and a blotchy skin appearance but still relatively presentable. (Gunshot wounds/blunt force trauma to the head are particularly disfiguring and not generally presentable but this was not the case with Shan’ann) Most of the discolouration and bloating would be to the torso which would likely be covered. I do not believe they were shown pictures of the children as they would not have been recognizable and they would have been strongly encouraged not to view these. (The condition of these bodies would be quite horrendous even to someone in the medical field. Note: covered in crude oil sludge when recovered with significant skin slippage upon washing at autopsy). In fact, I hope to God they did not see pictures of the children. 2. Re: the Watts Unfortunately, due to Cindy Watts tenacity and resistance to a plea deal, I believe she was shown more graphic images of the bodies. These would be with the intent to shock her into silence/compliance and were likely effective in this regard. I don’t think that Ronnie Watts was as resistant and I think he would have not been exposed as much if he was not with Cindy at the time. As far as #3, I don not know the answer. #4: I believe Chris took the plea deal because as Nick has noted “We don’t believe he has anything left to lose but he does”. There were a few doors Chris did not want opened for his own reasons. Whatever information that was, in his psychology, it was more important to keep it hidden than having a chance at freedom or a reduced sentence by going to trial. I can only guess at what that information is, but whatever it was had strong evidence behind it and would have been brought to light. 5. I think the resources used were commensurate to the crime, and were actually less than would normally be used because they knew the exact locations of the bodies relatively early and did not search extensively for them. They also had a confession and didn’t spend a lot of time chasing down useless leads and sightings (Just look at the resources/money/time spent on the Madeleine McCann case with still no answers). I actually believe Chris did not use or receive the full amount of defence resources he was entitled to. It seems this deal was rushed or pushed through quite quickly and I don’t believe Chris may have even fully understood the implications until it was all signed and done. I don’t know that he received solid legal advice from his counsel, or a full explanation/understanding of his rights I feel that there are several unanswered questions here and we may never get these answers.

    • Clean Queen

      KerryA – Wow! Thank you for sharing your insight. That was very interesting to read. I think you’re right that without Cindy, Ronnie would likely have seen nothing. If they did see any photos of the bodies, it would be because of Cindy.
      Your response to question #4 was thought-provoking. The fact that Chris has something more to hide and found life in prison to be better than revealing it rings especially true to me.

  8. KerryA

    In reference to the question of whether family members would be present at autopsy: I have never heard of this happening and it would not be allowed in most countries for obvious reasons. When homicide is suspected, entry to the autopsy suite is strictly limited to medical staff and law enforcement. Every person present is accounted for and identified in the supplemental autopsy report and non-essential medical staff and law enforcement are limited to viewing the autopsy only, not participating in any way, and stand a certain distance from the body throughout. Every person must also wear appropriate coverings on clothes, shoes and hair plus usually masks to prevent any contamination or risks to those present should toxic substances be present. The forensic pathologist conducts the autopsy and calls the shots: they are quite strict and mindful of proper procedures as there is every chance the findings of this autopsy can end up in court The notion of “identifying the body” is a little old fashioned today: used generally in cases of questionable identity of the victim (eg a body washes up on shore a day after 3 people go missing in a boating accident) In cases where the body is significantly decomposed or disfigured, it would be considered to be cruel to subject family members to that experience (and it would be questionable whether they could accurately identify the body anyways). Dental records have been used for many years and now DNA is used quite often to positively identify bodies beyond any doubt. In this case, with Chris’s confession and finding the bodies in the locations identified, there would be little question of their identities (DNA would likely be taken from tissue during autopsy and analyzed as a matter of procedure ). I don’t believe it would be necessary for family members to identify the bodies in the case, but naturally they would be told in broad terms the results of the autopsies.

    • CBH

      Really nice to receive insights on this from someone with medical expertise and experience. Thank you.

      • KerryA

        Of course! I am not an expert by any means but I have always had a keen interest in forensics and criminology and I plan to train further in forensic medicine in Scotland when I get my last child out of the nest (a 19 yr old boy who thinks he is Jim Morrison so it could be a while). I am so happy to have stumbled onto Nicks writing through this case, and will definitely be reading some of his other books. It’s great to have a community of intelligent and thoughtful people on this site where we can exchange ideas and really challenge our thinking and assumptions. Nick is a very talented writer and terrific at picking out those threads of nuance in this crime that I might never have noticed on my own.

        • CBH

          Lol 😆 about your 19 yr old. Very nice compliment to Nick, I fully agree.

        • Suzanne Dickson

          Jim Morrison lol, I have a Jim here too. He’s 21. This thread is intriguing to read. Thanks guys. This case is an unforgettable one. I hope nobody saw the bodies or pictures of same.

  9. Sylvester

    1); 2) The Rzucek’s did not see the autopsies. Document #622 states that those who viewed the autopsies were Tammy Lee, Dr. Michael Burson (who performed the autopsies) Steve Wrenn, Patrick Roche, Graham Coder, Eric Bryant, Joey Weiner and Carl Blesch. The autopsies were performed August 17 2018. My opinion is Frank Rzucek read the autopsy reports and viewed the pictures of all three victims, before the autopsies were performed. Frank Rzucek would have wanted to see pictures of his daughter and granddaughters, by way of completion, to “see it through”, even though disturbing. The autopsy findings were released November 19, 2018 along with Watt’s sentencing where Mr. Rzucek’s impact statement was “you carried them out like trash.” Before the general public read the autopsies Frank Rzucek and most probably Frankie read the report, but were likely told further testing would be done to determine what the high BAC was attributed to. It’s likely Sandra Rzucek also read the report, but didn’t view the pictures. I don’t believe either Ron or Cindy Watts viewed the pictures, not wanting to see what their son had done, as a way of continuing their feelings of denial.

    3) Inter-office emails between Kessinger and Watts are in the discovery documents released by Anadarko after release approval. Where? Cannot find the specific page. Kessinger stated she communicated with Watts typically through text messaging, phone calls and occasionally via Skype which can be seen Document #1824 where Watts texts he will miss sleeping next to her warm body.

    4) Watt’s took the plea deal because the evidence was overwhelming that he committed murder. He said himself that when he killed Shan’ann he knew it was over for him. Had he fought it, his attorneys advised him it would take years in court to bring forward any kind of plausible defense that would have led to a lesser charge. He would have been charged with two counts of murder based on his confession – Shan’ann, and his unborn son. He also would have had no choice but to plead guilty to the other charges (which I don’t have in front of me) tampering with the dead bodies and the manner of burial. Watts had not the resources to mount such a defense. The murder of his wife may have been ruled manslaughter but doubtful. The current Governor of Colorado, who would not have signed a death penalty order won’t be around by the time Watts made his case in court – a new Governor could be pro-death penalty.

    5) Each and every person involved with this case had an exceptional role to play. From the first Officers on the scene to the K9 handlers, to the Investigators, to the CBI and FBI. When children go missing with their pregnant mother and there is no evidence that they left their house alive not only does the neighborhood community take that seriously but the law enforcement community does as well. Nickole Atkinson sounded the alarm, her son Nicolas found her phone and alerted Office Coonrod to the neighbor’s surveillance footage, Officers Coonrod, Lines and others had bodycam footage and observations that were invaluable, the K9 teams and dogs sniffed out areas of interest, and Agent Tammy Lee and Graham Coder got a confession. Agents behind the scenes put together the digital evidence which led them to the bodies before they could decompose to the point that cause of death wouldn’t have been determined. Yes, the resources used were commensurate to the crime committed: The suspect was nailed in four days.

    • Liz

      Sylvester says “Inter-office emails between Kessinger and Watts are in the discovery documents released by Anadarko after release approval. Where? Cannot find the specific page.”

      Actually, you can see the emails between the 2 on this site if you do a search on email. I’m not sure where Nick pulled them from. I looked back at the Discovery document and only saw a couple of references to them that they would be forthcoming or that they had been received.

      • nickvdl

        First of all, thanks to everyone who participated. I’m sure you’ll agree that these questions help us to think about this case, often in areas that we hadn’t considered before. These thoughts and ideas came up during a long, late night conversation with a fellow true crime addict.

        Second, and this is only my opinion, in terms of the 5th question, my opinion is that the resources allocated to this case were huge which is why it was resolved in the unusually rapid manner that it has been [confession within days, plea deal, no trial, Watts disappears to a faraway prison, Kessinger fades into witness protection…]. I don’t think the public knows half of the people who were actually involved in this case, behind the scenes.

        Third, your answers. The 5th Guru badge goes to KerryA for your answers to the first 2 questions in particular, and to some extent the 5th, and to Liz for picking up on the 3rd in your later comments. It’s an important insight [one Sylvester also mentioned] – the Watts-Kessinger emails are gone if you try to find them. They are not in the original 1960 pages of the Discovery Documents.

        While I agree with KerryA that something significant had to happen to cause Cindy Watts’ change of heart between the media blitz and the sentencing hearing, I have my doubts that anyone has been shown the autopsy images of the children outside of the DA, and a select few in law enforcement.

        This was, I believe, the reason the autopsies were so heavily guarded. Some may recall that the press were in the process of taking the coroner to court [trial set in December] to sue for access. The DA was going to participate. Then that entire manoeuvre was rendered moot by the sudden announcement of the plea deal by the DA and the publishing of the controversial data by the DA.

        The questions posed here are unquestionably tough. I’ve considered covering them on TCRS but each deserves a fair amount of references, context and backstory. Even then it’s not gospel, an informed opinion perhaps, but still opinion. Instead of covering these questions and issues here in depth, I will cover them instead in a chapter in the 6th or 7th book in the ongoing series.

  10. Sylvester

    I had read previously that Nichole’s father paid to have her correspondence with Watts expunged. So it’s gone – technically.

    • JC

      Her father secured Ed Hopkins as their attorney, which seems to be a very smart decision he made on Nichole’s behalf. My first thought when Nick wrote the post about the article disappearing on the TCRS facebook page was that he happened upon an article that has been flagged for removal from social media. This is the guy to call if you’re ever in a situation where your reputation and privacy has been compromised.

      • Sylvester

        Thank you JC – you are always so diligent and factual!

  11. Sylvester

    By the way, this is an extremely interesting podcast (link at right) with Keith Greer, the man who won in the civil case against Adam Shacknai, and so great that they have more evidence they are working on to present. He says “evidence shows it’s him – just don’t have any evidence it’s anyone else” and I wonder if someone did help him. So Adam, and Jonah’s money, aren’t off the hook yet. And now that Adam’s insurance company offered a settlement then from here on out it will be Jonah’s money if he wants to continue defending his brother.

    • nancyjames3358

      I was on vacation in San Diego when Rebecca was killed, and continue to be horrified at the crime, her treatment by authorities and fascinated by the brothers. Keeping track ever since.

      I know you are only a mere mortal Nick, and these sites are a lot of work, but I have to ask. Any chance a Zahau site for us posters to dissect the upcoming phase of the case.

      Agree Sylvester, great podcast by Greer. Awesome chess move by Greer and Zahau family.
      Proof being histrionics by Adam.

      • Nick

        It’s an infuriating case isn’t it? I will do a few posts on it at some point. And there will be a 2nd book, probably this year.

      • Sylvester

        Just found and listened to Adam Shacknai’s interview on the radio podcast. His whole demeanor, etc., his over- emphasis and seeming preoccupation with Shubari leads me to think that he wasn’t visiting Rebecca that night to confront her about Max’s fall so much as he was there to intimidate her and make some sexual advance. Someone looked up Asian porn. I think it was him. He likely surprised her when she came out of the shower or had been watching her inside the main house. Tying her up and easing her over the balcony likely gave him some kind of a thrill. When asked if he talks to his brother Jonah much or after he replies by saying his brother tried to help by finding him good legal representation. That’s strange. Sounds like Jonah wanted to keep a safe distance from what Adam did or didn’t do to Rebecca. Doubtful these brothers were ever close.

        • Shannon

          Who are these people?
          Isn’t this alittle off topic.
          I’ve seen a few comments about this, Rebecca.

    • Ralph Oscar

      @Shannon: Rebecca Zhau, from Nick’s book “Zhau: Into the Belly of the Whale”. I live in the San Diego area; I remember when this was in the news. Rich guy, lives in a mansion – while his 3-yr-old son is visiting, son falls down the long stairway and dies. His girlfriend, Rebecca Zhau, was there when it happened. Several days later, she is found hung from the bannister – she’s naked and her hands are bound behind her and her feet are bound. The police ruled it a SUICIDE!! It was unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. I believe her family had to sue to get the police to properly investigate!

      • Shannon

        Oh yes, I remember this in the news.
        Forgot all about it.
        Okie dokie.

  12. nancyjames3358

    Yep, infuriating!
    Not a healthy, balanced person on the planet believes she committed suicide they way they are saying she did.
    Greer gives us hope that all attorney’s aren’t, well, lawyers with an ad on tv.
    Looking forward to the day Justice is served.

  13. nancyjames3358


  14. Sylvester

    Shannon – yes, off topic for this forum, but NVDL wrote a book about the case, and if there is to be another and a post about it then I think you will find it as fascinating as this case – “Zahau: Into the Belly of the Whale”

  15. Ek

    I cannot locate the full recovery process photographs along with the autopsy photographs. I know they were leaked in the coroners email but I’m struggling to locate the file nx images. Where can we find the full recovery photographs and autopsy photographs? Thanks.

    • Shannon

      There are no pictures as of yet.

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