“This changed all of us”: A year after Watts murders shook Frederick, investigators on the case continue grappling with trauma

As the anniversary of the high-profile case draws near, Colorado law enforcement reflect on their own experiences

Dave Baumhover, lead detective for Frederick Police on the Christopher Watts case, stands outside his home in Frederick on July 25, 2019. Baumhover has been on leave from the department since the spring when he was diagnosed with acute PTSD stemming from the Watts case.
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Frederick police Detective Dave Baumhover fled the restaurant when the two little girls walked in.

Even hundreds of miles away in Phoenix, he couldn’t escape reminders of the case he was trying to move past.

At the sight of the girls, he once again was at the Weld County oil site where eight months ago he had recovered the bodies of Bella and Celeste Watts. In movie-like detail, he saw the hazmat crew pull their bodies from the oil storage tanks where they had been dumped by their father. He smelled the oil that coated them. He saw their mother’s shallow grave nearby.

The trip was supposed to be a chance for him to clear his head after leading the investigation into the murders of the girls and their pregnant mother, Shanann Watts. The killer, father and husband to the victims, had already confessed and received multiple life sentences. Baumhover’s work was done.

But as he bolted from the restaurant to the parking lot to escape the flashback — rage, grief and anxiety flooding his body — he knew it would take more than a trip to heal the post-traumatic stress disorder he was diagnosed with after the case. He knew he would need time before he could see little girls without being triggered.

“It’s like when you’re a kid and you go on the wrong carnival ride and all you want to do is get off,” he said. “But you can’t. You have no choice until the ride shuts off.”

A year after the high-profile murders shocked Colorado and drew international attention to the small Weld County town, some of those who investigated the case still are grappling with its impact. They suffer nightmares about oil wells or are haunted by a lasting memory of the girls’ giggles. Veteran law enforcement officers can’t shake images of the well site where their bodies were recovered. Intense public and media interest in the case continues, making it difficult for investigators to heal.

The killings prompted difficult discussions about mental health at the Colorado organizations involved in the case as agencies across the nation are grappling with the mental wellness of their staffs. For the first time, the federal government is studying exactly how prevalent mental health issues are within law enforcement and is searching for best practices in a career where seeking help has long been stigmatized.

“This is not an issue that is new,” said Shannon Scully, manager of criminal justice and advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “But this is an issue that we can’t ignore anymore.”

For Baumhover, however, the change didn’t come soon enough. The 52-year-old hasn’t worked since his PTSD diagnosis in March because his symptoms are so severe. He’s not sure whether he will be able to return to law enforcement, a career that once drew him like a magnet. He doesn’t think he can expose himself again to the inherent trauma of the job.

“I have a hard time dealing with the probability that my career is ended, and not the way that I wanted it to,” he said. “Some days you feel defeated.”

According to Christopher Watts' arrest affidavit, ...
Shanann Watts’ body was found in a shallow grave near this oil work site near Roggen, seen here on Aug. 21, 2018. The bodies of both her daughters, 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste, were submerged for days in oil tanks in rural eastern Colorado, prosecutors said.

Unavoidable memories

Baumhover’s flashbacks started soon after returning from Wisconsin, where he interviewed Christopher Watts in prison and learned the exact horrific manner of how he murdered his wife and children.

During the prison interview, Watts revealed how he killed Shanann and put her body on the floor in the back seat of his truck. How he then put the girls in the back seat, their feet dangling above their pregnant mother’s body during the entire ride to the rural oil site. He explained how he smothered the girls individually, how 4-year-old Bella had to watch her little sister die.

Baumhover went to Wisconsin because he needed to know what happened. He thought knowing would give him closure.

And it did, he said, but the answers came at a price.

The night after the confession, Baumhover lay on his hotel room bed. Anxious calls and texts from his wife lit up his phone. But Baumhover couldn’t answer. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t understand how such horror was possible and how Watts could coldly detail it step by step. It seemed surreal.

His first morning back at home in Frederick, Baumhover broke down sobbing at his kitchen table. He didn’t know how he was going to tell Shanann’s parents. He knew it would destroy them. It was the first time his wife, Lori, had seen him cry.

He tried to go back to work, but the flashbacks worsened. He stopped sleeping. Gaps started to form in his memory. He couldn’t remember names or control his emotions. After his diagnosis in March, he entered counseling. After taking some sick time, he registered with worker’s compensation.

Baumhover has worked in Colorado law enforcement for the bulk of the past 20 years in a variety of roles. A few times he stepped away from policing to work in the private sector for better pay and at the request of family members who worried about him. But he always came back.

“It was just a calling,” he said. “Just a nagging. It kept pulling me in.”

After a few years away from the profession, Baumhover joined the Frederick Police Department full time in 2011 in search of a more low-key police job in a smaller community. He shortly after was promoted to the agency’s lone detective position. He loved the job, despite the long hours.

But police work comes at a cost. It wasn’t just the Watts case that caused his PTSD, Baumhover said. It was the accumulation of the difficult cases he’s worked in his career — a rash of teen suicides in Frederick, a toddler who shot himself in the face, horrific sexual assault causes. He never processed that trauma correctly.

“Looking back now, I should have gone and talked to someone after every single one of those bad ones,” he said.

Every bit of Baumhover family life has been reshaped by PTSD. It’s hard to leave the house, Lori said.

“Where do you go where you don’t see little girls?” she asked.

It’s dangerous to watch television or go online. If they go out, Lori directs her husband where he shouldn’t look so he can avoid seeing kids that might trigger him. Don’t look down that aisle, there’s a family, she’ll say. Don’t look right. Look up.

“I feel like if I don’t catch a little girl, like if I miss one, that I failed him,” she said, her voice cracking.

“It’s easier to just not go anywhere,” he said.

A makeshift memorial to Shanann, Bella ...
A makeshift memorial to Shanann, Bella and Celeste Watts was left outside the family home in Frederick on Aug. 16, 2018.

“You can’t get away from it”

Lasting trauma from the case was not limited to Baumhover.

Two days after witnessing the recovery of the bodies, Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent Tammy Lee suddenly broke down at a Denver hair salon while spending time with her mom and sister. A veteran investigator, she had handled scores of gruesome cases. She expected she would take this one in stride as well.

Instead, she sobbed at the hair salon as her helpless mother and sister looked on. She couldn’t stop, and she went to sit in the car. She called the number for a counselor that she had been given and said she didn’t understand what was happening.

“He said, ‘It was too much, too ugly, for too long,’ ” she said. “And I said, ‘I know.’ “

She scheduled a therapy appointment for 8 a.m. the following Monday. In the meantime, the counselor asked her to start writing down what would trigger her crying. She listed the incidents — mostly seeing moms with their kids. It would make her think of how Shanann would never get to have those small moments with her daughters again. That Shanann would never get to go to lunch with them again, or buy them a new outfit.

The endless videos and photos of the girls that Shanann posted online, which Lee reviewed during the investigation, created a vivid mental image of the sisters. She kept thinking of the video of the girls when Shanann told them that she was pregnant — how the girls laughed and jumped up and down at the news, pulling their mom into a long hug.

“I felt like I knew them,” Lee said. “I’ve been to many homicides of children. This one was different. I felt like I knew what they sounded like. I knew what they looked like when they played and how they sounded when they giggled. I felt like I was mourning their deaths.”

Weld County DA Michael Rourke poses ...
Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke is pictured at Weld County Courts Plaza on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. Rourke contributed to investigating the Watts family homicides.

Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke still has frequent nightmares about oil tanks. In his natural resource-rich county, he is bombarded by memories every time he sees a tank.

“I see those little girls. Their faces. And their names,” he said. “And then every time I think about them the next thought in my mind is about my own daughter.”

During the investigation and court proceedings, he would immerse himself all day in the gruesome facts of the case. Then he’d go home and see his stepdaughter, who is about the same age as the dead girls, dancing and playing. He’d think of Celeste and Bella.

“In a way, I think I became more hardened to what people can do to each other,” the veteran prosecutor said.

Through counseling, Lee said she was able to process her grief. She attended the interview with Christopher Watts in Wisconsin, where his full confession helped her find some closure, she said.

Still, the continued public and media interest in the case makes it difficult to move on, investigators said. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation still regularly receives emails, social media messages and calls about the case. The district attorney’s office has been contacted by people from as far away as the United Kingdom and Japan who want information. Television stations continue to create documentaries.

“You can’t get away from it,” Lee said.

Members of the community gather for a candlelight vigil to honor Shanann, Bella and Celeste Watts outside the family’s home on Aug. 17, 2018.

Hope for change

For many of the agencies involved, the case prompted frank conversations about mental health.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation was already in the process of creating a peer support program, but the case accelerated the process, director John Camper said. He knew that his staff would need extra support after he was texted images from the oil site where the bodies were recovered. He called a counseling service immediately.

“I mean, it affected me deeply and I wasn’t on scene,” he said. “I wasn’t even there. It took me a month to get those images out of my mind.”

At the Weld County District Attorney’s Office, Rourke tried to foster a healthy environment by checking in personally with his staff. He brought in therapists from North Range Behavioral Health to help his staff.

“This changed all of us,” he said.

Prosecutors have lagged behind law enforcement in addressing the effect their cases have on their health, Rourke said.

“The case caused me to be much more cognizant of what it is that we do and the impact that it has on the people who work in this office,” he said.

John Nicoletti, a Denver psychologist who specializes in treating public safety professionals, said he has seen a seismic shift in the conversation surrounding mental health in law enforcement over his 40-year career.

When he started in 1975, officers were hesitant to come for treatment because of a prevailing stigma that seeking help was a weakness or because they feared their problems wouldn’t be kept confidential, he said. That has shifted as agencies and their leaders have recognized the importance of cultural change that encourages them to seek help.

Colorado agencies have made professional counseling easily accessible for their staff, created peer support programs and, in some cases, made counseling mandatory after certain types of traumatic events, Nicoletti said.

“We’re fortunate in Colorado that departments are doing a good job in this,” he said.

State legislators have also addressed the issue. During the 2019 session, lawmakers expanded access to the Peace Officer Mental Health Grant, which was created in 2017 and pays for counseling services at local agencies. Also in 2017, the legislature added PTSD as a diagnosis that qualifies a person for workers’ compensation, allowing people like Baumhover to access the program.

Roses are placed on a statue outside Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Pinehurst, North Carolina, before the funeral mass for Shanann Watts, 34, her daughters Bella, 4, Celeste, 3, and unborn son Nico on Sept. 1, 2018.

The changes are part of a nationwide culture change that is working to mitigate harm in a profession where suicide is four times higher than the national average, said Scully of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. At least 167 officers died by suicide in 2018. Those who died had an average age of 42, according to the nonprofit BLUE H.E.L.P., which tracks the deaths.

A report by the U.S. Department of Justice released in April recommended 22 changes that should be made to improve mental health wellness among law enforcement, including that agencies embed mental health professionals, create programs that support officers’ families and implementing regular mental health wellness checks. The report also recommended the creation of a nationwide study of law enforcement suicides and the circumstances surrounding them.

The Watts case was so traumatic for law enforcement and the general public, in part, because it was simultaneously unlike so many other cases and also too familiar, said Nicoletti, who worked with some who investigated the case.

The killings didn’t make sense to people, he said. There were few of the hallmarks of other murders because there didn’t seem to be any signs of violence before the killings. The Watts family also seemed so normal, he said. Many people could see themselves in the family.

“Those things linger,” Nicoletti said.

Baumhover said he’s not sure what he will do if he decides not to resume police work, but he’s considering using his experience to talk with other law enforcement about the importance of mental wellness. Cops need to hear from other cops, he said. Lori already has started compiling resources that are available to officers. She wants to make sure all departments know what is available so that other families can avoid the hell they’ve been through.

“I’ve always felt that there’s a bigger purpose to this,” Baumhover said.

In the meantime, Baumhover can’t wait for summer to end, for the neighborhood kids to go back to school, so he can look out at the playground visible from his back porch or walk the dog and not worry about running into children that trigger his flashbacks.

“It’ll be a big victory when we can get to just having joy in watching little kids play,” Lori said.

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