Psychologist Slams the Idea That Chris Watts Was 'Insane' When He Murdered His Family

Chris Watts interview
USA Today/YouTube

This August will mark two years since Chris Watts brutally murdered his family at their home in Frederick, Colorado. And yet no matter how much time has passed, the public's fascination with the case continues to grow. So do the lingering questions about how exactly a seemingly "normal," loving father could kill his pregnant wife and two children in cold blood before disposing of their bodies in such a callous way. A licensed psychotherapist who's familiar with the case is speaking out about what she believes was going on in Watts' mind around the time of the murders -- and no, she doesn't believe he was "insane" or mentally unsound.

  • Lena Derhally is a licensed psychotherapist and author of the book 'My Daddy is a Hero: How Chris Watts Went from Family Man to Family Killer.'

    In her book, Derhally attempts to peel back the many layers surrounding the charming "family man" -- who later confessed to strangling his wife, Shan'ann, and smothering his daughters, Bella, 4, and CeCe, 2.

    Derhally, who works as a clinical instructor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington School of Medicine, freely admitted that she's never personally met with Watts, but she has studied the case extensively. Based on the hours of evidence she's reviewed, she feels strongly that what happened on that fateful day in August 2018 “wasn’t a psychotic break," as some might have assumed.

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  • "[Watts] was not insane at the time of the murders," Derhally recently told HollywoodLife in an exclusive interview.

    Her beliefs about this have pretty much held firm since she first witnessed Watts' televised plea August 14 for his family to return -- just one day after his wife and daughters disappeared.

    “That was what drew me into the case initially,” Derhally told HollywoodLife of the bizarre interview. “There was something just really weird because he looked like this really nice, handsome guy from a middle-class family. He just seemed like a normal guy. But most people I think had this very strong gut feeling that something was off with what he was saying. As soon as people saw that interview, they were like, ‘Oh, it’s got to be him.’

    "Without even having evidence, it was just something about his interview, there’s something not right here. He became suspect number one based on that interview, and I think I felt the same way when I watched; like he has something to do with this.”

  • Derhally wasn't alone in her suspicion -- it was later learned that many people close to the couple voiced their concerns to police.

    One of them was Shan'ann's friend and coworker Nikole Atkinson, who had dropped Shan'ann off at her home around 2 a.m. August 13 after the pair returned home from a business trip. When Shan'ann failed to return text messages from Nikole the following day, she stopped by the home to check on her friend -- and grew worried when no one answered. 

    Calls to Chris Watts only left her even more alarmed, when Watts seemed unconcerned with the disappearance of his wife and kids.

  • In a 2018 interview, Atkinson said she “didn’t want to think the worst” of her friend's husband. But ultimately, things just weren't adding up.

    “He was defending himself, but it just didn’t make sense. Like in that moment it is kind of surreal,” Atkinson told Good Morning America shortly after the murders. “He was just sitting there waiting for something to happen; it just didn’t seem right to me.”

    Atkinson alerted police to the home, where Watts led them around, appearing unemotional and detached.

    “He just kept saying that he didn’t know where she was and that she was on a playdate. But he couldn’t give us the name of the friend,” Atkinson recalled. “I knew he had something to do with it the day I was at his house with him, but I didn’t want to think that.

    “Anyone in their right mind will start piecing things together and think something had happened, but you don’t want to go there," she continued. "You want to believe the best in people."

    When he was ultimately arrested two days later, Atkinson later said she was sadly "not surprised."

  • A neighbor who assisted police by handing over surveillance footage taken from a camera on his home also grew quickly suspicious of Watts.

    In body cam footage released last year, neighbor Nate Trinastich could be heard telling cops, “He is not acting right," before pointing out how "fidgety" Watts appeared. He also noted how it seemed odd that Watts kept “rocking back and forth" as he stood in Trinastich's home while reviewing surveillance footage. 

    But even more curious was what the actual surveillance footage showed: Watts had backed his pickup truck to his open garage in the early morning hours of August 13 and appeared to take quite a while loading it before driving away. He told investigators he was merely unloading tools before heading off to work. Unfortunately, that wasn't actually the case. 

  • In a taped jailhouse confession last year, Watts eventually confessed that he'd been loading his wife's dead body into the back of his truck.

    He had wrapped Shan'ann in bedsheets after strangling her in their bedroom, and he dragged her body down the stairs before getting interrupted by Bella, who woke up during the commotion and asked him, "What's wrong with Mommy?"

    "Mommy was sick," Watts claimed to have told her, though he later admitted she could clearly sense something was wrong. Soon after, 3-year-old CeCe was up too, and Watts made the decision to take both his daughters with him to a job site near where he worked at Anadarko Petroleum.

    Once there, he buried Shan'ann's body in a shallow grave before smothering his daughters one by one and stuffing their bodies into large tanks filled with crude oil.

  • According to Derhally, Watts' behavior before the crimes proves it "wasn’t a psychotic break or some kind of schizophrenia or mental illness."

    “He was completely of sound mind," she told HollywoodLife. "[In] one of Chris’ confessions, he does describe premeditating these murders for weeks, and I believe a lot of the evidence backs that up. It does seem quite premeditated based on his behavior in the weeks before he killed them.”

    That "behavior" included a full-blown affair with his coworker Nichol Kessinger, which continued through most of the summer while his wife and children were visiting his in-laws in North Carolina.

    According to a woman named Anna, who claimed to speak regularly with Watts in prison, the affair caused Watts to change in ways that were out of his control. But according to Derhally, the blame rests squarely on Watts -- not his mistress, who told police she had no idea Watts was even still married.

    "Chris feels that if the affair would have never happened and [Nichol Kessinger] would have never came into his life, that the murders would never have happened," Anna shared in the 2019 special Lies, Crimes & Video on HLN. "He thinks that she had this strong control over him, that he describes like a ‘leash’ that he wasn’t able to get off of or get away from, and he thinks that that has played a role in what happened."

  • So how does a seemingly kind, caring husband wake up one day and decide to kill his family? The answer to that one is complicated.

    Derhally explained that even though Watts likely didn't experience a sudden "break," he does exhibit signs of being a psychopath and narcissist.

    “One of the things that psychopathic and narcissistic people are so good at doing is crafting a mask that is completely different than who they are, and it can be a very charming mask,” she explained to HollywoodLife. “They know exactly what to do to manipulate people, they know how to get people to like them. The mask can sometimes be so good because they worked so hard at it. They’re different from normal people and so they’re working hard to blend in. Often they can seem even nicer or more empathetic than an average person, which is really interesting.”

  • Empathy, she says, is the key ingredient Watts is clearly missing.

    Derhally said the scariest part of this kind of person is that the "mask" they wear is so good -- it can often fool anyone. 

    “But sometimes you can see the cracks in the mask, and eventually they do come out, the cracks happen eventually," she said. "As was the case here is that it just needed a precipitating event for the mask to crack with Chris. This was one of those situations where it’s so frightening because it would be impossible to tell that this could happen. Nobody saw it coming and that’s the most frightening and unique aspect about this case.”

  • Most troubling of all, Derhally notes, is that Watts was capable of murdering one of his daughters in front of the other, without hesitating.

    “The parental instinct is the exact opposite of what Chris did," the psychotherapist shared. "A person who does this has absolutely no empathy.

    "The fact that he even killed his daughter in front of the other one and subjected her to that," she continued, referring to how Watts smothered CeCe in the front of his truck before moving on to Bella. "I mean, there is absolutely zero empathy there. This is someone who does not take the perspective of another person. This is someone who’s severely narcissistic in the sense that they’re only taking their wants and needs into account and they’re entitled to think that they can do anything in order to get what they want.”

  • In her professional opinion, Derhally believes Shan'ann likely had no idea what her own husband was capable of.

    "I 100% believe that there was no way anybody could have known that he was capable of that," she said.

    Sadly, that likely offers little solace to her family, who continue to mourn the wife and mother they held so dear and the granddaughters who brought them so much joy.

    Speaking with ABC News in late 2018, Shan'ann's mother Sandra Rzucek admitted that she too had been fooled by her daughter's "amazing" husband, but now sees him for the "monster" he truly is. For her, that facade began to crack the day after her daughter disappeared.

    "Who did you see on that front porch [during Watts's media plea]?" ABC's Amy Robach asked the Rzuceks. 

    "Definitely somebody else," Sandra answered. "And it was frightening."