The harrowing story of Chris Watts—the Colorado man serving three life sentences for the brutal murder of his wife Shanann and daughters Bella and Celeste—got even more complex earlier this year. Claiming to have had a religious conversion behind bars, the killer offered an expanded version of the grisly murders.
After his arrest in 2018, Watts initially claimed he strangled his wife in retaliation for harming their daughters, after Watts admitted to an extramarital affair. But in February, Watts sat down with investigators to explain how and why he killed his family and hid their bodies. Lawyers for Shanann’s family claim Watts made his admission because he has become an evangelical Christian behind bars and that his deep faith has inspired remorse.
When it comes to spiritual conversion in the high-stress environment of prison, Watts is far from alone among high-profile offenders. Read on for more detail about how murderers David Berkowitz, Jeffrey Dahmer and Karla Faye Tucker also claimed to have found or rediscovered God after being incarcerated—along with expert analysis about why so many notorious criminals might make such claims while behind bars.
His crime: Chris Watts murdered his pregnant wife, Shanann Watts, and their young daughters Bella and Celeste on August 13, 2018, in Frederick, Colorado. After strangling them, Watts hid his daughters’ bodies in oil tanks and Shanann in a shallow grave nearby.
His sentence: Watts pleaded guilty on November 6, 2018, to first-degree murder of his wife and daughters. He is serving out his sentence of life in prison at Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, Wisconsin.
His conversion: Attorneys for Shanann’s family claim Watts found remorse, and God, in February before agreeing to meet with them to provide more details about the murders. The recording was released on February 18 by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
How he lives his faith behind bars: After initially refusing to be forthcoming, Watts agreed to provide specifics of his three murders. Among other details, he revealed that Bella begged for her life after watching her sister’s murder. Lawyers say his conversion prompted his change of heart. “He is claiming that he is remorseful, and that he has found God,” attorney Thomas Grant explained. During his five-hour interview, Watts told investigators, “I never knew I could have a relationship with God like I do now.”
Why he became religious: “Murder is the ultimate taboo,” says criminal lawyer Norm Pattis. It’s this extreme that may lead someone like Watts to hit rock bottom and turn to religion: “When your community shuns you, the possibility of being open to grace is, I suspect, all that is left.”
Dr. Darrel Turner, president of Turner Forensic Psychology, adds that high-profile killers may feel they need the protection sometimes afforded by religious association. “There is protection in numbers,” he explains. “In many prisons, religious groups have a leader who represents them to staff and other inmates.”
His crime: David Berkowitz became known as the “Son of Sam” in 1976 and 1977, when he led police on a manhunt as he committed random shootings throughout New York City, wounding seven and killing six. In taunting letters, he claimed his neighbor’s dog instructed him to kill pretty young girls; later, he said the shootings were rituals related to a Satanic cult.
His sentence: Berkowitz, who is serving six 25-to-life sentences for murder, was initially confined to a psychiatric ward before spending time in Attica and winding up in Shawangunk Correctional Facility.
His conversion: Berkowitz claims on his website [run by an independent webmaster, since he has no internet access] that another inmate suggested he look into Christianity. After reading Psalm 34 one night in 1987, Berkowitz writes, “When I got up it felt as if a very heavy but invisible chain that had been around me for so many years was broken.”
How he lives his faith behind bars: Berkowitz releases videos about his Christian testimony from behind bars, in addition to giving advice to young people through letters and counseling other inmates.
Why he became more religious: Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Rupali Chadha, MD, suggests that occasionally, professed religious views may be the result of mental illness, as was sometimes suspected with Berkowitz: “It could be that they are psychotic and therefore hyper-religious stemming from that state,” she explains.
Another possible explanation, says Dr. Chadha, is that the positive social aspects of religion can inspire a genuine conversion for some: “While there are certainly a lot of ‘bad’ things happening in prison, there is actually a large population of inmates who are heavily involved in genuine attempts at spiritual growth.”
His crime: From 1978 to 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer killed at least 17 young men, primarily in Wisconsin and Ohio. Dahmer tricked the men into visiting his apartment with false promises, and his crimes often involved rape, necrophilia, cannibalism and dismemberment, along with murder.
His sentence: Dahmer received 15 life sentences on February 15, 1992. Christopher Scarver, another inmate, beat Dahmer to death in 1994 while they were incarcerated at the Columbia Correctional Institution.
His conversion: After taking a bible course at the suggestion of a friend, Dahmer sought conversion to Christianity. He met with a Church of Christ minister, Roy Ratcliff, and was baptized in prison in May 1994.
How he lived his faith behind bars: Dahmer met with Ratcliff regularly to study the Bible in prison.
Why he became more religious: Dahmer said his religious education taught him that the “lie of evolution” was the root of evil since it denies the presence of an all-powerful, all-seeing God. In an interview with MSNBC reporter Stone Phillips he posed the question: “If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”
Clinical psychotherapist and Christian counselor Kevon Owen says the isolation notorious killers like Dahmer often undergo (as Dahmer did during his first year in prison) may lead to conversion: “The extra time to face one’s guilt can produce a search for religious belief,” says Owen. “Prison gives plenty of time to hash and rehash what happened in a person’s life.”
Karla Faye Tucker
Her crime: On June 13, 1983, Karla Faye Tucker and a then-boyfriend, Danny Garrett, broke into the apartment of their friend Jerry Dean to rob him. Over the course of the burglary, Tucker murdered Dean and Deborah Ray Thornton—a woman staying at Dean’s apartment—with a pickaxe.
Her sentence: On April 25, 1984, Tucker was sentenced to death before being incarcerated at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas. Despite efforts by religious leaders to get her sentence commuted, Tucker was executed on February 3, 1998—apologizing to her victims’ families before her death.
Her conversion: Tucker said she became a born-again Christian in prison in October 1983 after bringing a Bible to her cell and being visited by the Holy Spirit.
How she lived her faith behind bars: Tucker counseled and worked with other inmates and even married her prison minister, Dana Brown, by proxy in a 1995 prison ceremony.
Why she became more religious: Tucker told Larry King before her execution: “Before I knew it, I was just—I was in the middle of my floor on my knees and I was just asking God to forgive me.”
Dr. Chadha explains that, while some remorse is real, some killers may lie in order to gain clemency: “Some people want their sentence reduced, and therefore embellish or falsify a spiritual belief in order to reduce their possible sentence or have the possibility of a parole board grant them early release.”