Every so often, the world is rocked by a murder case in which a seemingly picture-perfect family is killed in cold blood—and the father turns out to be the culprit.
In January 2002, Christian Longo, a 27-year-old father of three, was apprehended in Mexico after the bodies of his wife and three children were found in a river near their home in Oregon. He was tried, convicted and is currently on death row.
Just over a year later, in April 2003, the remains of Laci Peterson and her prenatal son Conner washed up on a beach in Richmond, California. Peterson’s husband, Scott, was charged with killing them both. Scott Peterson was convicted and is currently on death row.
And more recently, in August 2018, the world was stunned yet again when Chris Watts, a 33-year-old operator at an oil-and-gas company in Frederick, Colorado, was taken into custody on suspicion of killing his wife, Shanann, and two daughters, Bella and Celeste. In every case, the victim’s family and friends are left stunned and asking why.
The act of people killing their families—called familicide—is rare. Researchers have found the vast majority of people who engage in familicide are men with a history of domestic violence toward their families. But what tips the scale from abuse to murder? And which men are most likely to kill? A&E Real Crime spoke with Dr. Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, about why some men murder their families.
Tell me about the type of person who kills his family. Is there a ‘profile’?
There isn’t one type of person who kills his family. But in general, these men are fragile and unable to cope with humiliation. They’re unable to make appropriate decisions when burdened by anxiety, rage or depression.
Who commits familicide more often, men or women?
Men tend to kill more often than women, but there have been women mass-murderers who have wiped out their entire families as well. Each case of a father who kills his family has a distinct set of influences, but men who tend to be controlling, or who view themselves as ‘in charge’ of a family are at greater risk for familicide if conditions arise that significantly threaten them. The ones who are most at risk are men with a rigid sense of control or who feel desperate.
What are some of the reasons men kill their families?
Each situation is different. In Christian Longo’s case, he was a manipulator who had a lot of anger issues. He had these grand ideas about what kind of person he was and what his life should look like, but the reality was he was managing a Starbucks and couldn’t pay his bills. Ultimately he felt like a failure on multiple levels and wanted to erase [his life] and start over. It was an ego thing.
Unemployment and financial strain, coupled with prior domestic violence, is a huge risk factor for familicide. Why is that?
Men in our culture are trained to believe they’re [the] breadwinners. They’re considered the primary caretaker in terms of making sure their children have resources and enough to eat, so when they fail at that, that’s a pretty humiliating blow to their ego.
[Typically] men don’t [handle] humiliation [well], and for some who don’t want their family to know they’ve failed, the answer is to kill themselves and eliminate everyone else.
What’s the difference between familicide and coercive suicide?
Coercive suicide means one person wants to kill himself and also take people with him—they are coercing other people to die alongside him, either to make a statement or for another reason.
A father might be suicidal over divorce or custody issues, or he might want to kill the kids as punishment to his ex. That’s a different mindset than a mass murderer who kills in order to become famous or just has a desire to take out people. Or, like the Scott Peterson case, a [man] kills because his wife is having a baby, and he doesn’t want to change his lifestyle because he’s so self-centered.
If some of these men are suicidal, why do they feel the need to take their families with them?
It really depends on the mindset, because suicides are not homogenous. In the (1971) John List case, List was suicidal [after losing his home], and he claimed he was going to kill himself but then didn’t. He killed his children, along with his wife and his mother, because he thought their souls were in danger and he had to send them to heaven to save them.
Josh Powell, on the other hand, killed himself [and his two children] in desperation [after being considered a person of interest in his wife’s disappearance]. I think it was the fact investigators were closing in, his father was under investigation and he could also potentially lose his kids—he probably felt like he had no choice but to blow it all up. It was not a carefully planned situation, unlike List. So it’s very much about the individual and his circumstances.