Weld County DA says Watts case might have been most difficult of his career
GREELEY — A day after Frederick resident Christopher Watts was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the county’s top prosecutor sat down with The Greeley Tribune to talk about some of the decisions he made during the case.
Despite the agreement brokered with the Colorado Public Defender’s Office, Weld District Attorney Michael Rourke said it was no less daunting a task asking Weld District Court Judge Marcelo Kopcow to send a man to prison for the rest of his life.
“I was as nervous as I could be,” Rourke said. “Media outlets from all over the country were following this (case), and I knew if I didn’t stand up and do a professional job for the victim’s family and for everyone who worked on this case, it was going to make us look like buffoons.”
Not to suggest Watts didn’t get what he deserved for the murders of his pregnant wife, Shanann, 34, and their two daughters, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3, but Rourke said he expects to wrestle for a long time with how a man with a seemingly normal life crossed over to becoming a convicted murderer.
“We throw that phrase around all the time — life in prison without the possibility of parole — but try to imagine what that is really like,” Rourke said. “The only physical contact you’re ever going to have again is with prison guards, you’re never going to have a romantic connection with anyone ever again, you’re going to be surrounded by barbed wire, and you know the last thing you are going to see is the inside of a prison before they drag you out in a box.
“I can’t even begin to understand that, and when we’re standing up making the argument (to send someone to prison for life), there’s a lot of solemnity that goes along with it. It’s just about as big as it gets.”
Rourke and his co-workers spent the better part of Sunday trying to strike a balance between giving Judge Kopcow the details he needed to sign off on the plea deal of three life terms plus 84 years while also minimizing vicarious trauma to everyone else in the courtroom.
“We tried to be really cognizant of the people who were in the courtroom who had never heard any of this” evidence, Rourke said. “We talked about the point where we thought we would get an emotional response from the gallery, and that’s exactly what we got when I said the girls had been smothered.”
But Rourke said it was essential to go into some of those graphic details because Judge Kopcow needed to know the sentence the district attorney’s office was asking for was appropriate given the nature of the crime.
Rourke said this might have been the most difficult case of his career. It struck a particularly painful chord when photos of the oil tanks where the girls were found were relayed to his office. One of the photos is of an open hatch at the top of a crude oil tank. An investigator had placed a ruler across the opening to show it was only eight inches in diameter.
“I remember thinking, ‘This can’t possibly be true,” Rourke said. “Then you look and you realize there’s really no other way into that tank.
“Then you have the cold, callous way he described how he held them up by their wrists and put them down feet first, and knew Bella’s tank was more full than Celeste’s because of the sound the splash made,” Rourke said. “Are you kidding me? Those are your kids.”
Rourke called out Watts during Monday’s hearing, challenging him to make a statement to give Shanann’s family, the Rzuceks. But when Judge Kopcow presented Watts with the opportunity to make a statement, he declined with a simple, “No, sir.”
Rourke is hopeful Watts will speak out some day, but he’s not willing to bet on it.
Read more at GreeleyTribune.com.