Hello, and welcome to True Crime Rocket Science.
For most people, their first introduction to 33-year-old Chris Watts was on Tuesday, August 14th, 2018, during his seven-minute Sermon on the Porch. We watched as a well-groomed man, a Silver Fox, stood in charcoal shorts and a t-shirt, and spoke casually about his missing family.
Where were they? He wasn’t sure – he was concerned – but he also seemed unperturbed. Maybe they were safe, maybe they weren’t. The game of psychological cat and mouse was underway.
Over the course of these first few minutes we saw Watts for the first time, but most of us missed the first wave of telltale micro expressions. It didn’t really matter, because overall, what we did see was loud and clear. We could all see that his affect just wasn’t right. While many of us didn’t know what it meant, we suspected something bad had happened, and most of us were right about that.
Since then, dozens of experts have analyzed the footage recorded by media, media that incidentally Detective Baumhover made sure were there when Shan’ann and the children didn’t turn up over night, nor early the next morning. At around 07:00 in the morning the media were contacted, and by around 10:00 they were gathered around Watts’ porch – on 2825 Saratoga Trail, in Frederick Colorado.
From Dr. Phil to the District Attorney, from YouTubers to the millions around the world who started following this case , we all saw the same thing. We saw – before any forensic evidence was located, before any bodies were found – that Watts simply didn’t appear as we expected him to appear. As strangers, and even the reporters only met the Anadarko field worker for the first time that day, we knew something was off, we just didn’t know how off.
But someone did. The neighbor knew. And Shan’ann’s best friend knew. The detective and police knew. And then, once Watts was interrogated, and his interrogators got to know him, they realized just how oddly he was behaving, and the alarm bells started clanging.
This getting to know a suspect takes time. And we never really finish the job of assembling an identity that the perpetrator is doing his damnedest to conceal from us.
In this episode, True Crime Rocket Science will take you through the audio of these actual conversations, and deal with his affect in a new way. Firstly, we have to bear in mind what we don’t know, and what True Crime Rocket Science says about that. Secondly, we have to take our cues from those on the ground who knew Watts, but bearing in mind their context is limited too. Thirdly, we have to break into Watts’ mind and see why he was playing his cards the way he was playing them.
Finally, we want to take all of this, and apply it where it hasn’t been before, which is to ask whether – after a year and countless hours studying this particular killer – whether we’ve become effective not just at lie spotting, but putting together a personal profile. In other words, do we know who Watts is one year later?
Let’s begin at the beginning, with the Sermon on the Porch.
- The Sermon on the Porch
What we didn’t know when we saw Watts was how he really felt about Shan’ann. This really lay at the cruz of it. How did he really feel about his family? We know now that Watts would have wanted to conceal this, and also to minimize it when he dealt with it. Why? Because his enmity with his wife went directly to motive. The state of his finances, went directly to motive. The pregnancy, went directly to motive. The new love of his life, went directly to motive. So, if you were Watts, you wouldn’t want to draw attention to any of those things.
Meanwhile, you’d want the media and everyone watching, including and especially Nichol Kessinger, to think Watts cared about his family, but [given his schema], not that much.
SERMON ON THE PORCH AUDIO CLIP
He couldn’t be too traumatized, you see, or that might put his mistress off. After all, she needed to believe most of all that Shan’ann had just had enough of everything, taken the children, and left, and as it happened, initially at least she did believe this.
KESSINGER AUDIO CLIP
If we were encountering Watts for the first time during the Sermon on the Porch, we may have already seen photos of Shan’ann, and of the children, including on Facebook. That sketched a picture of harmony, even perfect harmony, but we couldn’t be sure how they were really getting along.
It was only when I researched the first book on the case, when I studied the transcript of the Sermon on the Porch in detail, that I realized what had been left out. Watts never mentions that Shan’ann was pregnant. He never mentioned the word divorce or a mistress. He never mentioned Shan’ann’s doctor’s important. He doesn’t mention Shan’ann’s plans for a gender reveal and why her disappearing then, given that context, was weird. Instead he spoke lightheartedly about his children throwing him with chicken nuggets, and how he missed them not getting their dessert after dinner.
When he was asked about the emotional conversation he had with Shan’ann Monday morning, he said it wasn’t very emotional. When he spoke to Coder and Lee about it, he said it was, and that they were both crying. Why the different statements in front of the camera and in the interrogation cubicle? Because when he was on camera Kessinger could listen in, when in the cubicle, she was essentially out of the game.
While the symbolism of many of his statements, and other colorful language was [and still is] a minefield of information, Watts’ affect was what stood out loud and clear. This raised the question – didn’t he know to act more concerned than he was? Didn’t he know that by acting more concerned Watts would be more convincing as someone who was innocent? Was Watts stupid? Because he didn’t show emotion and seemed to be enjoying being interviewed, was he a psychopath, or a narcissist?
But despite what the pundits said, Watts wasn’t a psychopath, or a narcissist, and neither was he being as stupid as he seemed to be. The critical thing was he wasn’t being himself, his affect showed a man portraying an appearance – a lie – and this clearly indicated he was hiding something.
This was an open question, and members of the public had their ideas, some on track, and some way off. Like these:
it was very obvious that this man committed this horrific crime from viewing this interview the first time I saw it.How anybody can do this to their own family, is beyond my comprehension.
I think you have completely misread what I have written. It is beyond my emotional and moral comprehension as to why someone could commit a heinous crime against their own family.
His affect is flat, he keeps grinning where a distressed person’s mouth would be downturned — if you didn’t know the subject matter and turned off the sound he would look like a guy talking about his preferred yard service.
HE is gay,he does not have another woman.I told my friend the first time I saw him”he is queer as a two dollar bill
2. Am I my Neighbor’s Keeper?
TRINASTICH AUDIO CLIP
It probably bears repeating that Nate Trinastich is very aware that Watts isn’t acting right. He tells the police, with Nickole Atkinson and her son Nicolas present, and both appear to be in consensus with the neighbor’s take on Watts. Trinastich role plays Watts rocking back and forth, something we noticed but perhaps not immediately. Trinastich pertinently says:
“He doesn’t look worried…He looks like he’s trying to cover his tracks.”
This is an excellent, and effective assessment for so early on. Then he provides reinforcing information.
“He’s normally quiet, more subdued.”
So for those of us who didn’t know Watts at this point, we couldn’t tell if he was being more talkative or less reserved than usual, but his neighbor could. Nickole Atkinson could. And giving out extraneous information, just being a lot more talkative than usual, is a classic symptom of lying.
Coming from a guy who didn’t talk much, this was difficult to see. When he was being interrogated by the FBI, and during his polygraph, Watts was trying very hard to appear like a regular guy. Open, talkative, transparent, not himself. He was doing this to hide the fact that there was an awful lot he was hiding. And it took a while for his interrogators to latch on this.
Let’s move on to the cubicle.
3. Interrogation Room
This is the late afternoon of August 15th, at around 16:15.
INTERROGATION AUDIO CLIP
Is affect important? How important is affect? Right here, we hear how forcefully Watts was confronted by both agents here, on his affect. And then, what happened after this? This confrontation took place about a minute before he asked to see his father. When that happened [20 minutes later] the game was over; that’s when Watts admitted to him for the first time, in a very low tone, that all three of his family members were dead. The ruse that he was hoping they were still alive was finally over.
We can see how, in an interrogation scenario, telling a suspect how his affect is raising suspicion, is a clear way of riling him up, but also potentially shutting him down. We know shortly after the agents told Watts his emotions weren’t right, he wanted to shut down the questioning and talk to his father. He knew he’d failed in his game, and needed an exit. He felt panic and wanted to fix his situation.
But coming back to this notion of hoping his family are safe, he’s not hoping. He knows they’re dead. What he’s doing is pretending to hope, pretending to not know what happened, pretending to be unaware of his own actions. And through this lack of caring, what he’s trying to do is fool them into believing he’s innocent. Ironically there is some truth in his ability to pretend not to care – he didn’t care, that’s why he killed them.
I hope it’s clear from this that by acting unemotional, Watts wasn’t stupid. It did initially lead many to think maybe Shan’ann had run off, and maybe she’d be back the next morning. Let’s face it, even Shan’ann’s mother gave him the benefit of the doubt until the next morning. So did Kessinger, and Nickole Atkinson [who went to work], as well as law enforcement. While law enforcement bided their time on Monday night, Watts cleaned and vacuumed the crime scene. Why, because he had succeeded in infecting them with false hope.
4. True Crime Rocket Science Assessment
If Watts’s affect was unemotional, that isn’t to say actually committing the murder wasn’t emotional for him, or traumatic, or difficult. He likely felt a range of emotions, from reluctance, to resistance to relief, and even joy when it was over. Perhaps, as the knowledge flushed through his veins that his family were “taken care of”, perhaps he felt exhilaration…because now nothing – hopefully – stood between him and his happily ever after with his mistress.
So, what’s the takeout from all this?
It’s very difficult for any person to be objective about their own subjectivity. So when Watts is confronted about his affect, he instinctively and immediately ratchets his affect up a notch. He sniffles. They want to see it [otherwise they’re suspicious], and he quickly obliges.
When he talks to his father his demeanor and his voice changes. When he lies about Shan’ann killing the kids, Watts also makes his voice sound strained and anguished, but this is all an act too. What this shows is the scale and scope of not only Watts’ deceit, but his capacity towards sadism. It’s one thing to lie, it’s another to implicate on something he did, while pretending to care.
Affect is a primary giveaway in true crime, but it’s difficult to interpret. One might say it’s the best tool of True Crime Rocket Science, but it’s also the one that we can almost never use because it’s so difficult to use correctly. This is why it’s seldom used in court, and when it is, the flip side of the coin can just as easily be used to argue innocence.
In the Madeleine McCann case, the insistence from Madeleine’s parents has also been that they remain hopeful. Why? In the alternative, if it turns out Madeleine didn’t disappear, but died, then suspicion turns to someone. This is why pretending to hope is a red flag. In the McCann case, as in the Watts case [early on] the question was always: is the pretense to hide what he did, or is it simply human weakness?
A year later, many people feel they are experts on Watts, but I’m not so sure we are. A year later, many people feel they are experts on Kessinger, but I’m not so sure we are. A good True Crime Rocket Scientist never knows all there is to know – instead he always suspects that there is more, perhaps a lot more, he doesn’t know.
A year after we studied his body language, counted his tells, figured out his psychology, and became experts at lie spotting, the followers of this case are split into two camps.
1. Children murdered first, at home; premeditated murder. There are those who believe Watts killed his children at home before Shan’ann arrived home in a cold, callous, calculated fashion – a premeditated crime and an introverted criminal who defaults to premeditation.
2. Children murdered last, at the well site; Watts “just snapped”. And those who believe Watts. Who believe him when he said he didn’t know what to do, he snapped, and he killed one or both of his children at the well site.
If Watts fully intended to get away with murder, and he did, he would never have taken the enormous risk to take his children – alive – to the well site and murder them there. True Crime Rocket Science allows us to use the psychology and identity of a person to see what they won’t allow us to see, and to see their shadowy intentions for what they really are, rather than what they want us to believe. The shadows on the driveway that some see as a child brought back to life, is the same hopefulness blinding us to the truth.
When we get to know Watts inside out, we can see he tried to leave nothing to chance, and in the next episode, we’ll see just how close he actually may have gotten, to getting away with triple murder.