Chris Watts Case: What would Sherlock Holmes Do?

As a detective story, the Watts murder mystery isn’t very compelling. There’s a little intrigue about who did what, and given the current moratorium on releasing information to the press, people have become even more intrigued about what unknown unknowns may be out there, based on the known knowns [the surveillance video] and known unknowns [the children dumped into the tanks, but precisely where and how is uncertain].

For the world’s greatest detective, certainly in terms of evidence and investigative work, the Watts case looks set to be fairly open and shut. If Sherlock Holmes did walk the Earth today, it’s unlikely Weld County would call on him to consult – especially not about evidentiary aspects.

The second crime scene adds a complicated layer to the first, but the quick work of the cops means even the tissue evidence was still in a similar relatively fresh condition when their little bodies were recovered, compared to when the girls were dumped there just a few days earlier. Compared to the paper-thin cadaver evidence in the Casey Anthony and Scott Peterson cases, there’s going to be a whole lot more, an encyclopedia of tissue data, to go on in the Watts case.

There is some speculation, currently, that the delay over the release of the autopsy report is due to a lack of incriminating DNA evidence.

Is that so?

Although possible the lack of DNA theory seems unlikely, especially since 1) the remains as mentioned were recovered as quickly as they were, 2) the overall slapdash nature of the crime [shallow grave, cell phone found in the home, bed sheets stuffed in the kitchen trash etc] and let’s not forget 3) Watts’ shaky version of evidence as presented in his slippery-but-not-slick Sermon on the Porch.

The Science of Post Mortem Tick Tock 

Even if the DNA evidence is in doubt, the case could easily turn on something as elementary as whether the children died first. Has the coroner been able to establish with a reasonable degree of certainty how long before their mother’s death the children were killed? If the time of death difference is significant, the only logical inference is that Watts murdered all three victims.

Time of death is a science, but not an exact one, and even the prescient genius of Sherlock Holmes isn’t going to perform miracles in the area of clockwork.

We ought to caution ourselves on this matter of time, because in the same way if the murders may be demonstrated to have all occurred simultaneously [or cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt that they weren’t] , then the legal pendulum edges in Watts’ favor.

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In the Scott Peterson trial, time of death was a huge issue on two fronts. The second involved the contention by the defense that the fetus had developed for several more days after Laci went missing, and thus Laci was supposed to have been murdered several days later. The enormous uncertainty around her precise time of death, as well as the fetus, meant this area above all gifted the defense case with significant reasonable doubt.

Proving time of death in the case of the Watts children will probably come down to an analysis of stomach contents. If food remains of the birthday party are evident, then time of death may be imputed to as early as Sunday afternoon. That’s early afternoon – before dinner. If there are barbecue-type morsels in the digestive track, if they were murdered after dinner, then it may be less simple to separate the murders of the children from that of their mother.

In hindsight we can already see how things are shaping up for the defendant in court: Chris Watts may rue the fact that the flight delayed Shan’ann by several hours, especially if the children were killed in a premeditative fashion in terms of Watts’ initial estimate of Shan’ann’s arrival [in the relatively early evening].

Did Chris Watts anticipate time of death would be so vital to his defense, or lack of? Chris Watts was counting on the bodies never being discovered, and thus rendering any autopsy [let alone autopsy evidence] moot.

“Mr. Holmes, we need you to pick this man’s brain…”

But what makes the Watts case interesting – even terrifying – isn’t the forensic side at all, it’s the psychology. Why did a picture-perfect dad destroy such a picture-perfect family?

In that question [and in the questions around who was “picture perfect” and how much], there’s the real mystery. When we plumb through Shan’ann’s enormous archive of posts, pictures and videos, the psychological mystery deepens. All is not as it seems.

This is the area where we might want Mr. Holmes to apply his mind. Why did this guy commit the murder [or murders]? Was it economics? What was the motivational mechanism exactly?

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The worst criminals in true crime are also the most anal, and thus, the best detectives are also the most anal. Think about the likes of Dexter, Monk, Dr. Hannibal Lecter [when consulting for the FBI] and Mr Holmes himself. All sticklers for detail, all anal.

The anal aspect matters when it comes to forensics, but let’s face it, any idiot with a magnifying glass and tweezers can find and recover evidence if it’s there. Photography is there to record it. Technologies are there to decipher it. Great minds are no longer needed in the forensic side. They’re needed to decipher the criminal mind.

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Although popularly known as the world’s greatest detective, there’s actually someone better at the detective game than Sherlock Holmes, it’s his brother Mycroft.

This is Wikipedia’s description of Mycroft:

Possessing deductive powers exceeding even those of his younger brother, Mycroft is nevertheless incapable of performing detective work similar to that of Sherlock as he is unwilling to put in the physical effort necessary to bring cases to their conclusions. In “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” Sherlock Holmes says:

…he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right. Again and again I have taken a problem to him, and have received an explanation which has afterwards proved to be the correct one. And yet he was absolutely incapable of working out the practical points…

Though Sherlock initially tells Watson that Mycroft audits books for some government departments, he later reveals that Mycroft’s true role is more substantial. While Conan Doyle’s stories leave unclear what Mycroft Holmes’ exact position is in the British government, Sherlock Holmes says that “Occasionally he is the British government […] the most indispensable man in the country.” He apparently serves as a sort of human computer, as stated in “The Bruce-Partington Plans“:

He has the tidiest and most orderly brain, with the greatest capacity for storing facts, of any man living. The same great powers which I have turned to the detection of crime he has used for this particular business. The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange, the clearinghouse, which makes out the balance. All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience. 

I like to bring up Mycroft when I hear criticism that one cannot possibly know anything about a case [because it’s too early or too late], how can you know if you weren’t there, and “how can you write a book about a case before the trial” etc.

Mycroft manages to be omniscient without setting a toe on a crime scene, and doesn’t seem to talk to many of the people involved directly either. So how does he do it? He does it by gathering evidence, reading newspapers, listening to the news, listening to what people say about people and what the criminal says for himself. He does what no one does – he looks armed with sufficient background information [sufficient in the sense that this knowledge opens all the doors and windows to deepest and most difficult sanctum in true crime: human nature].

The Craft of Pattern Recognition in True Crime

When we are masters of psychology, the variations in human nature are a snip. Quickly,  intimately and intuitively one can step into a new crime scene schema and see how the strings tie-in, and how the puppets got themselves tangled.

Over time overlaps re-occur, repeat and reinforce themselves, generating so many  mental maps. Each new iteration allows for ever quicker and more effective processing of people, patterns and predispositions. Once he’s developed the handy psychological profiles and patterns, this sharp tool of the mind allows him to recognize systemic data shapes that can be easily mapped, matched and oriented.

That’s a fancy way of saying, for example, that when you spend time in true crime, the semantics repeat themselves. Criminals on different continents tend to default to the same patterns when lying and covering up.  Deception, it turns out, is fairly uniform in how it plays in the real world. Criminality tends not to reveal creativity and enterprize in the criminal mind, but the opposite: laziness, entropy, weakness, path-of-least-resistance programming, impulsivity, lack of foresight, lack of compassion etc.

In this respect, something as simple as simple observation – penetrating observation – where you see through things rather than simply seeing what everyone else sees, can be  a mighty skill.

The work of a true crime writer [ahem] is similar, except that unlike Mycroft he uses an actual computer, and through this extraordinary modern tool he becomes capable of Mycroft’ s superhuman data collection, data mining and data assembly. But even with a computer doing all the processing, he still needs the imagination and the intelligence to tie all the pieces of string together. That can’t be taught. It can be learned, and the skill honed and that’s the difference between a true crime rookie and a true crime maestro.

So you see, it’s not so much about how big and powerful your true crime grey matter is, it’s what you can do with what you have in your head that counts.

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The computer facilitates the same swift assembly of Mycroft’s mental palace. It does the rudimentary but colossal work of finding the right needles in the right haystacks. It collects these haystacks and needles and sorts them further into something that adds up to an orderly and untidied fabric. Finally, the structured mind must examine the fabric and see how haystracks and needles translate into trees, until trees become woods.  The woods then tear apart to reveal the castle. This is how a cogent narrative is conjured into being.

While the work of the lawyers, law enforcement, journalists, experts and pundits all matter, it’s only the true crime writer who synthesizes all of it, and if he truly has no horse in the race, then you’re probably going to get to the crux first, and best, via this  uniquely authentic omniscient narrative. Needles retrieved from haystacks need to build castles, not tee-pees of hay or worse, tee-pees of needles.

The narrative is the Holy Grail of true crime. It’s the story about what really happened, isn’t it? It’s such a simple question and yet how often is it adequately addressed, let alone answered.

What really happened?

In court, two narratives compete for jury votes, but the narrative in court is only the one that sells best based on the available evidence. It’s not what happened, but a distorted reflection at best. The distortion the jury likes best is voted on and becomes legal reality for the defendant. Think about the warped legal realities in the Casey Anthony, Oscar Pistorius and O.J. Simpson trials. Justice is an imperfect system, but with enough grease in the right gears, the wheels do turn and sometimes it can and does work.

A narrative needs to be more and do more than just turn a few gears. It has to do more than reflect a cool distillation of all the facts. A good example of a narrative that simply loads the reader with information is Perfect Murder Perfect Town. The book provides no insight into who killed JonBenet, other than to offer every conceivable tidbit about who it might be. That’s a cop out. It has to be better than that!

After gathering all the information, there has to be an intuitive flourish at the end – not necessarily demonstrable or even provable, but accurate all the same. This is why the thing that differentiates the exceptional true crime narrative from the trial narrative and the media narrative and the defendant’s narrative, is the ability to decisively answer not the forensic question, but the psychology.

Why?

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3 thoughts on “Chris Watts Case: What would Sherlock Holmes Do?

  1. As they all lived in the home, how would DNA prove anything?
    My best friend was strangled to death by 2 people who were in the house every day. We were told because their DNA was already all over the apartment. DNA found on her would not be enough to convict .

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  2. Hi Nick,  I just finished reading both books you have on Chris Watts but I didn’t see anything in there about Nikole Atkinson. Did I miss it somewhere and did I see that it was in the “Beneath the Oil”book?Thanks, Karen Welch

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  3. Nick Van der Leek:

    Analyzing any single video of Shannan Watts , Chris Watts interview before confessing the crime that fast, as well as other psychological aspects of both, I think it was a premeditated crime. There was not any emotional conversation at all at that time in the morning. He probably killed the children 24 hours before Shannan arrived from the trip. When she got to the house at 02:00 am probably asked Chriss for the children and went to see them sleeping. He told her what happened to the children and gave her a precise reason for killing her also at the moment , not giving her any chance to ask for help.

    The interview of Chris Watts talks by itself. At that moment he felt he is the lead Actor thru Social Media instead of Shannan. He wanted to feel important and he took the risk to talk without thinking that police and experts would analyze any single movement of him .

    This man was keeping inside negative feelings for long time pretending he had a happy family. Unfortunately, Shannan never accepted inside of her the fact that Chris Watts did not love her at all , always trying to demonstrate the world all things that she never had, forcing a very risky situation inside their home.

    I love children and I really am very shocked about the death of such beautifull girls. I cannot imagine how they died and if they suffered at that moment.

    My respect to Shannan family.

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