In a devastating story, a Colorado man is facing murder charges after his pregnant wife and two daughters went missing earlier in the week. Chris Watts was taken into custody yesterday and is being held in a jail cell north of Denver, CNN reports. He is accused of killing Shanann Watts—who was 15 weeks pregnant—and their two young daughters. Watts initially told reporters his family disappeared without a trace. According to the local Fox affiliate, Watts is being held on three charges of first-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence.
The news raises questions about the unconscionable crime of “family annihilation,” and the scarcity of research that existed on the topic until recently. What possesses people to kill their own family?
One of the most-cited studies came in 2013 from a leading team of criminologists at Birmingham City University, where researchers—analyzing three decades of media reports on such crimes—determined it to be a “male-dominated crime found to be most common in August.” (Out of 71 annihilators identified by the researchers, 55 were male, and more than half were in their thirties.)
In the study, the researchers also attempted to isolate motivations. In doing so, they identified four types of family annihilator:
- Self-righteous: These men hold the mother responsible, blaming them for a “breakdown of the family.” They also tend to highly prize their own role as family breadwinner.
- Disappointed: In these cases, the killer believes his family has “let him down,” or acted in a way that undermined the family.
- Anomic: These killers link the idea of family and economy together. If they become economic failures, they may see the family as no longer their function.
- Paranoid: These killers act out because they perceive an external threat to the family—often a social service or the legal system, which stokes fears that the children will be taken away. In these cases, the murder is motivated by a warped desire to protect the family.
The research was conducted by BCU’s Elizabeth Yardley, David Wilson, and Adam Lynes and published in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice in 2013. You can read more about it here.