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

Month: May 2019

What to expect from “Family Man, Family Murderer: An ID Murder Mystery” [airs Sunday, June 2 at 10 p.m. on Investigation Discovery]

We’re about two-and-a-half months shy of the one year anniversary of the horrific Watts Family Murders, and Investigation Discovery are the first to do what looks like a thorough and in-depth recap.

The heaviest hitter in the true crime special is deputy district attorney Steve Wrenn. This is him:

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Although Wrenn seems to be a relatively unfamiliar figure in the Watts saga, especially given the prominent role of Michael Rourke, he was part and parcel of the prosecution team from the beginning.

We also saw him in court on the few occasions [just three in fact] when the case was actually heard within the protocols and prescriptions of a criminal trial.  While Rourke addressed the court at the sentencing trial, and stood by while Frank senior and Frank junior read their statements [Rourke also read Frankie’s statement for him], Wrenn stood beside Sandi Rzucek when she read her statement.

According to Fox News:

The mini-series features interviews with those familiar with the tragedy and experts who have covered the case extensively. It also highlights body camera footage from the Frederick Police Department, as well as new details from the investigation following Watts’ jailhouse confession. Steve Wrenn, the Deputy District Attorney for Weld County who was interviewed for the special, told Fox News those who handled the case are still attempting to make sense of it.

A year after the family annihilation, almost everyone involved is still asking why. This suggests that the interrogations of FBI agent Grahm Coder and CBI agent Tammy Lee may continue until there is a better handle on Watts – at least from the perspective of the authorities and prosecutors.


Wrenn describes the “ripple effect” of the crime on first responders as being “phenomenal”. While those involved in the recovery of the Watts children from the tanks may be damaged psychologically, perhaps permanently, Watts himself seems to have emerged from his own handiwork relatively unscathed, and even upbeat.


Perhaps there is a world of difference between killing someone who is alive [even one’s own family] and the gruesome task of reaching into the dark to fish out their remains. This may seem a silly statement, but it’s one I’m grappling with as part of the research for OBLIVION, the 8th book in the TWO FACE series. In our rush to judge murderers, we ourselves tend to prefer them to be worse – sometimes – than they really are. And so when given the option of their committing a crime in a harsh and callous manner, that seems to fit better than a more subtle, strategic and painless [planned] taking of lives.

Even Watts – during the First Confession phase – seemed to wince at the prospect of being involved in fishing out the remains of his daughters. He was appalled at the notion of his coworkers being involved in the same operation. Not that this is absolute proof or proof of any kind, but when Coder prodded Watts on whether he shoved the bodies of Bella and Celeste through the thief hatches while they were alive, Watts was similarly aghast.

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In the second interview the same issue came up and Watts again denied it.

Fullscreen capture 20190530 221951 Wrenn also describes his own feelings while watching Watts during his interrogations.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more frustrated in my life watching something take place.”

When Watts casually describes doing the unthinkable, there is a sense that there is a serious screw loose with this guy, and only he seems unaware of it. Even so, he seems to be trying awful hard to be everyone’s pal. It’s this aspect that seems to distinguish Watts from other sociopaths. He does the unthinkable, and yet he seems to care very much what people think of him, and tries very hard to appear not as monstrous as he otherwise might. It’s not just that, what’s unnerving is his effort to be pals with law enforcement, when they know who and what he really is. His game seems to be making friends, which is precisely the ruse they use to extract more information from him.  It’s done gently, painstakingly and the result is the cops get something for their trouble [maybe not very much] and Watts also gets something [ditto].

Wrenn refers to the post-conviction interview conducted in mid to late February 2019 [the so-called Second Confession] as providing “glimpses” into why what happened happened. It will be interesting to see whether Wrenn will take a firm position, or express himself clearly on Watts’ latest version of events.

Rourke seems to have accepted it, and the media as well, which suggests further towing of the lie line. But this version presents both Shan’ann’s murder and that of the children afterwards as spontaneous [in other words, unplanned].

The TCRS position on this has been clear from the beginning – the murders were all premeditated.

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In Wrenn’s view the only possible explanation for the crime is that Watts is a sociopath. As labels go he’s not wrong. A sociopath can’t understand or quite get to grips with the feelings of others, and they don’t feel guilty about harming others. While this explains Watts within the confines of the crime, as well as the aftermath, it doesn’t explain why his wife loved him [and was fighting to stay married to him] until the moment he murdered her, or why a mistress fell in love with him and he with her. Are sociopaths lovable? Are sociopaths good fathers? Are sociopaths assets to families, desirable to singletons and beneficial to societies until they aren’t?

If the sociopath label works, it’s clearly reductionist and way too simplistic. See, it also rubs against the notions the Rzuceks shared of their son-in-law, as well as the community [including the Thrive Facebook community] who regarded the Watts family as the perfect family, and Watts himself as an ideal husband and father. The media and social media have been cooing about this aspect all along – but he [and they] looked so perfect and so perfectly happy! If sociopaths can only be identified by spouses, extended family and the community in the rear view mirror, then we as a society are in real trouble.

Our ongoing failure to understand this case – and Watts specifically – speaks to some kind of systemic failure in modern society, including our inability to see those around us for who they really are, or to simply fathom those around us [and perhaps ourselves].

Wrenn insisted that despite Watts’ tell-all to investigators, we may never truly know why he was willing to slaughter his entire family.

Curiously, although the documentary on Watts claims to [feature] interviews with those familiar with the tragedy and experts who have covered the case extensively zero contact was made with TCRS. This is either an indictment of TCRS and the seven books covering the Watts case [as the work of an amateur, and thus bogus and basically bullshit] or it’s an indictment of something else.

Which do you think it is?

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Source: Fortune 

Scott Reisch’s Video on Nichol Kessinger Removed from YouTube – let’s talk about it

On May 23rd, criminal defense lawyer and Chris Watts YouTuber Scott Reisch posted a video about Nichol Kessinger. I was in the Netherlands at the time, and not paying the usual amount of attention to the Watts case [or Crime Rocket for that matter]. But this particular video did blip on my radar, sufficiently so that I passed it along to another Watts case follower via WhatsApp.


The video has since been completely removed from YouTube.

I’m not surprised. In the video, Reisch [I can never remember how to spell his name] records himself in his vehicle doing a little undercover detective work. If I recall correctly Reisch – sporting dark glasses – also flashes briefly to the brand of his vehicle on the steering consol. I won’t repeat the brand here, but it’s not a VW beetle, let’s put it that way.

While driving he suggests he has the address of Kessinger and is simply going to see – firsthand – whether she’s home, whether she answers the door and what she has to say.

Reisch records himself knocking on a door, and soon after, driving away. The apartment complex can be imputed from the rear view behind Reisch as he drives slowly away.

Now it’s possible Reisch himself subsequently removed the video from YouTube. It’s also possible that Kessinger’s legal machinery kicked in because of a perceived violation of her privacy. Whether or not Kessinger is under witness protection, and whether or not she lodged an objection to the video, the video did feel like it crossed an invisible ethical boundary. That was my perception. Irrespective of Kessinger’s role in the Watts case, she has every right to want to protect her privacy.

When I covered the Van Breda case, I praised a tabloid reporter who had snuck into a complex and done the same thing Reisch did, except someone [I won’t say who] opened the door, saw it was a reporter and slammed the door. The reporter then wrote an article not only identifying the complex but providing a glimpse of who and what she saw when the door opened, and even what she smelled – if you can believe that. Someone related to the Van Breda case later contacted me [I won’t say who] and complained about me praising the mischief of the tabloid reporter.

I explained that as a journalist, I have respect for those who go the extra mile as it were. On a recent trip through Europe I jumped off the train platform to take a photo at track level of some poppies while a train was slowly approaching [and while a station policeman was hollering at me].

So that’s really what I’m getting at. When a journalist exercises the courage of his convictions it resonates with me, because I know how much it has cost me.

At the same time, speaking to this person directly, I felt ashamed. I could see how such behavior [the tabloid journo spiel] was a total violation of privacy. In true crime there is a sort of consensus that everyone involved is fair game. While that is true to an extent in terms of investigating the situation, it doesn’t mean there are no boundaries whatsoever. It’s not a case that the innocent have total rights and that the guilty [and those related to them] have no rights.

Personally I was surprised by Reisch’s video before it was taken down. Going to the premises and finding someone not there is hardly content. It’s what journalists and editors call a “non-story”. Although Reisch never gave the details of the address, he did seem to hint that it was in Colorado and near to where someone he knew [I won’t repeat specifically who] was based. This potentially opened the door for others to figure out the address and possibly harass Kessinger.


There have been many lines crossed in the Watts case, none more so than the line crossed by Watts himself. Kessinger also crossed a line, but infidelity is hardly a face melting misdemeanor. It’s not classified as a crime, although certain legal and financial obligations can follow as a result. The point is it’s not behaviour exclusive to or monopolized by Kessinger, in fact it’s disturbingly common. When we talk about rights to privacy, and the way Facebook penetrates into the home, and onto a spouses’ phone for example, we can see how Facebook can ruin marriages. Ironically, Facebook seemed to play little role in the machinery or chicanery of the Watts case, certainly at face value.


What Watts did  plunged many into a nightmare, including Watts himself.  He soon saw his own privacy literally evaporate, and found himself completely out of his depth in trying to deal with it. But as troubling as Watts is a character [a man doomed by his own weaknesses and failures] what’s even more troubling is the Watts spiel as a whole. When we start to see the whole theater and all the players, something doesn’t sit well with us.


While I was in Europe, Anadarko started sewing up major merger talks with Occidental.  The Chris Watts case had simmered down just in time for billion dollar deal-making. Was that accidental? Coincidence? Or is this whole strange, suffocated legal procedure – the hushed, rushed plea deal – part of much larger shenanigans?

The Watts murders, diabolical as they are, is it simply the tip of an enormous glistening black asteroid, invisible and unseen, but nevertheless hurtling towards us?

I find the social-cultural aspect of true crime interesting, because as tempting as it is to believe, Watts didn’t emerge in a vacuum. He also didn’t cross those ethical lines when he committed this crime, in a vacuum.

When we explore these ideas, they invariably reflect back at us, and our approach to ethics, often in areas we know about but don’t particularly care about. Like privacy. Like industry, and the approach of corporates to the protection of information and their casual if not reckless attitudes to society and ethics.

Although we don’t particularly care about these aspects, they seem to care about us as a voting bloc, or a portion of the marketing pie. They affect us. So maybe we should care.

While in Europe I did some research during intervals of leisure reading. The subject matter had to do with the source of man’s alienation.

Is it from other individuals that alienation springs, or from society? Who is to blame? Another way of putting the question is:

Who is to blame for crime? 

It may seem a ridiculous question. Obviously the individual [the criminal] who commits a crime is responsible for it. While that’s certainly true, what’s underappreciated is the impact, or perhaps influence is a better word, of culture in who individuals ultimately become in our society.  Do we simply let the chips fall where they may, and if Chris Wattses are part of that equation, so be it…? Or should we have a hand, some kind of say, some kind of sway, in the kind of society that we’re part of?

At the same time that we raise this question, we can also ask a slightly more targeted inquiry.

What impact does the culture of the workplace have on people, and their attitudes to other people?

In effect, what impact does the attitude of corporates have on society – on people, on us – and how does that trickle down to the workers who work there? Is it mostly harmless? Is it worth caring about or only worth caring about when there’s an annihilation?

What we’re really addressing in this Reisch scenario is the idea of privacy. How much should we care about it? Do we expect our privacy to be respected? Should the privacy of others be respected too?

Privacy laws while necessary can also be used to nefarious ends – to protect those who have something to hide. Just think about the Mueller report and Trump’s financial statements [protected because he was supposedly under audit]. Privacy is a real issue of our time, and social media and true crime provide a fascinating fulcrum, a nexus, in which to examine it.


What does it mean exactly to respect privacy?

When someone is involved in some way in a crime, especially a high-profile crime like this, do the same standards of privacy apply? For my part, I thought Nichol Kessinger was treated very mildly by investigators, given the time-sensitive circumstances and scale and scope of what happened [a triple murder, adultery, the pregnancy etc]. Even when she appeared to be less than completely forthcoming, there didn’t seem to be any threat attached to either withholding critical information, or – arguably – delaying the release of it. So privacy does work both ways.

By the same token, if we look at Shan’ann’s Facebook profile [which is still public], should the victim’s privacy be treated in a special way, perhaps even counter to their own wishes [in terms of social media]?

Are our modern laws – especially those pertaining to the online space – up to date in terms of the rational and reasonable rights citizens ought to have in terms of privacy?


In general, our obsession with cases presupposes a level of access to the information particular to criminal cases, but how much access is in the public interest and how much is intrusion?

Is Everest a crime scene?

2019 is turning out to be another lethal year in the climbing history of of the almost 9 kilometer high Mount Everest. The dead have reached double figures. Given the traffic jams the uptick in fatalities is hardly surprising, but given the sheer numbers climbing this year, it’s remarkable that more people [queuing for four hours in the Death Zone on the way up, and for almost as long on the way down] didn’t lose their lives.

traffic jam on everest

Fortunately, this year the weather was both a boon and a bane. Narrow weather windows caused bottlenecks, but once the windows were there they stayed open long enough for the climbers to ascend and descend without having to worry about storms.

But why is the madness on Everest persisting, and if anything, becoming more popular?

Because it’s there? And if the trend continues, if the numbers aren’t managed in future, isn’t a disaster that will dwarf 1996 inevitable?

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@benfogle: My view on @nimsdai view from Everest. Its complicated. I’ve been there. I’ve been part of the problem and now I want to help with a solution. Don’t blame the climbers pursuing their dreams. It’s time to limit (not stop) the number of climbers on Everest. I’d like to see the introduction of a lottery style climbing permit. Lots of our wilderness is under stress from footfall. Machu Pichu, Angkor Wat, the Galapagos. There are plenty of examples of places that have successfully introduced limits on visitor numbers. The fee and a donation for this article have been contributed to the inspiring #projectpossible @nimsdai @unenvironment #mounteverestofficial #everest2019

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To address the possibility of a catastrophe means we have to understand the motivations for going there. Because it’s there is not why people climb mountains, and not an acceptable [or complete] explanation for why people climb Everest.

We all go to the mountain, some by choice [to test ourselves], some unwillingly. However we get there, and however high the mountain, the mountain reveals not only the scale of itself, but the smallness of ourselves in relation to our grand illusions.

And illusions are grand. Close your eyes and listen to the clip below for 90 seconds. This is what illusions feel like:

So what is the deal with Everest? Illusions or not, the world’s highest mountain is a symbol above all others. But is Everest a theater for heroism or a playground for the rich and privileged? Is it an arena for humans to express the best of themselves or a wrestling ring tilted near vertical designed to expose the worst in us? In effect, since people die on the mountain every year [and in increasing numbers] has Mount Everest become a crime scene?

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Today marks the anniversary of the first summit of Everest in 1953 [although some claim even the first summit wasn’t the first].  In 1953 man’s ascent of the mountain the locals call Chomolungma felt epic. That achievement was trumped by an even more remote adventure – to the icy wastes of space and the moon in 1969.  

But as Earth’s middle class have streamed to this world’s highest summit in droves, smartphones in hand, Instagram accounts and hashtags at the ready, motivations seemed to have plummeted. Why do they do it? For a hero badge? As the mob push for the summit, increasingly they push one another aside, and part of this selfishness involves stepping over dead bodies on the way to the Holy Peak and again on the way back.

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On May 26th this year, the New York Times described Everest as an unruly, overcrowded “zoo”.

One reason summit fever takes hold of so many is the “sunk cost” of climbing the mountain. Some commit their life savings to the trip, and some make several trips, often returning with fewer body parts each times. Besides the money [anywhere between $35 000 and over $100 000] is the effort involved. After weeks of climbing, with a summit so close, how many are capable of turning their back on the a titillating flagpole marking the world’s highest point, even if lives are on the line?

In an article posted today on CNN we get a topical reply:

“Grinning climbers with frostbite, showing their blackened fingers but refusing to leave the mountain. Climbers who tried to keep going despite hacking coughs that shattered ribs. Those who were about to collapse, but kept going with the voice of their loved one crackling through a radio…”

We see them giving interviews with stubs on their arms that used to be wrists, hands and fingers. They smile below the mountain though their faces are blackened and destroyed as if by death itself.

Those who survive the mountain [like Beck Weathers, pictured above] tend to make speeches [often for money] and publish books. Weathers’ experience on Everest was triumphantly portrayed by the charismatic Josh Brolin, the handsome actor who played the all-powerful Titan Thanos in Avenger’s Endgame. Really? Was Weathers’ misadventure [he never reached the summit, but couldn’t admit to quitting his attempt either] a triumph of the human spirit? Is Beck Weathers a hero, or at the very least, a man with an indomitable spirit [again, he never made it to the summit…]

The poster child for this narcissism is arguably a socialite who was in the thick of the things during the infamous 1996 Everest tragedy. I’ve written three books on the disaster so far. But to get a real feel for the folks climbing Chomolungma today [a name that intuits lungs gasping for breath], read Pitons are served [since removed online].

Further reading:

Socialite vilified after Everest catastrophe breaks silence

The Real Story of Sandy Hill Pittman, Everest’s Socialite Climber

Everest catastrophe survivor burns prayer shawls at Burning Man

False Summit

The Everest Opera on Opening Night

‘Total bull’: Into Thin Air author’s opinion of Everest movie

Stop this deadly Everest free-for-all, says leading mountaineer

Absurd Ascents: 5 Everest Stories We Won’t be Covering this Season

My Mountain Mania books on mountaineering on Everest and K2:

Crime Rocket is in France: Vincent van Gogh’s last journey in the summer of 1890 #LastJourney

Almost 130 years ago, Vincent van Gogh checked himself out of the asylum at St. Remy in the south of France, caught a train to Paris [where his brother lived] and moved into a small apartment above a restaurant in Auvers. Auvers is a small satellite town in the countryside set beside the river Oise. It’s about an hour by rail from Paris.

After researching a few lines of inquiry in Portugal, I travelled to Auvers in the south of France where Vincent van Gogh set up his “studio in the south” in the famous Yellow House. It’s also the setting for a violent and bloody act, perhaps even an assault. The ear incident.

From Auvers I journey along the same tracks north as Vincent did, to Paris, past the smouldering ruin of Notre Damme, and then Auvers where Vincent died at the height of summer, at the end of July 1890. I believe he was murdered, and in June this year, the murder weapon [or suicide gun] will be auctioned off.

How much that 7 mm Lefaucheux revolver actually sells for will be an indication of whether the world believes its authentic or not. How much of what we know about the world, and history, and the famous mythology of people like Vincent van Gogh is true? I’m here to find out. Follow #LastJourney on Twitter and Instagram to keep up to speed on where I am.

Crime Rocket is in Portugal – follow #DeepIntoDarkness to find out why

True crime never rests, true crime research never sleeps. If it seems like CrimeRocket is on hiatus, well, I’m sharpening the saw elsewhere.

For ten days I’ve been on the ground in a tourist resort on the Algarve known as Praia da Luz. I’m following up a number of lines of inquiry I first wrote about in the DOUBT trilogy, in 2017.

This year I wanted to be in the area at the exact time, and on the same date as the abduction. Follow the hashtag #DeepIntoDarkness on Twitter and Instagram to get a sneak peek on where I’ve been and what’s coming soon.