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  • Writer's pictureKaren Campbell

THE RISE OF THE FAMILY ANNIHILATOR: What leads people to kill their families?


Photo by Breaking Through


Written by: Karen Campbell


Closing arguments in the Alex Murdaugh double murder case are expected to conclude today. Prosecutors are trying to convince a South Carolina jury that Murdaugh murdered his wife Maggie, 52, and son Paul, 22. They say the disgraced attorney was a "family annihilator " who used the killings of his wife and son to thwart the investigation into his alleged financial, business and drug crimes. The case is expected to go to the jury today.


In a surprise move, Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell were in court for a Zoom hearing this week. Vallow and Daybell are charged with conspiracy to commit first degree murder in the deaths of Lori’s children Tylee Ryan, and JJ Vallow, as well as the deaths of both their spouses.


Last year Colorado man Chris Watts, 33, murdered his pregnant wife Shannan and their two daughters, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3, and buried their bodies at an oil construction site. Although Watts initially denied any involvement in the deaths of his wife and daughters, he later admitted strangling Shannan at home, and suffocating his two daughters in the back of his truck while he was on the way to bury them. Prosecutors said Watts killed his family because he was having an affair with another woman and wanted a new life with her.


Family annihilations used to be rare, 10-20 a year, compared to the 1,500 murders a year as a result of domestic violence, according to Dr. Neil Websdale, director of the Northern Arizona Domestic Violence Institute, who published a book on the topic in 2010. But now they seem to be in the news on a regular basis.


Websdale defines a family annihilator as someone who kills multiple family members, usually in response to financial, professional, or relationship stress. Most of these killers are men in their 30s, according to studies of domestic killers.


Dr. Websdale reports that family breakdown cases are often triggered by events such as unemployment or an affair. Perhaps the most chilling fact, reports Webdale, is that approximately one-third of people who kill family members are the more repressed, depressed offenders, who have no known history of domestic violence. Then something causes them to snap with uncontrollable rage.


Alex Murdaugh was a respected lawyer, volunteer prosecutor and family man who by all appearances loved his wife and son. Lori Vallow was seen as a typical suburban mom, driving car pools to after school activities and doing homework with her children. There are hours upon hours of videos showing Chris Watts playing with his children. He was considered a devoted father with a gentle nature by all who knew him.


The horrific nature of someone killing their entire family tends to generate extensive media coverage and crime show specials, such as DATELINE and 20/20. Studies show that most family murderers kill their families and then kill themselves. The conventional wisdom is that these killers believe they are sparing their children distress by murdering them. But Vallow, Murdaugh and Watts are still alive. What is changing the profile of people who kill their families?


Over the next few weeks we will cover the cases of family annihilators in order to see patterns that can lead to early intervention. Dr. Websdale's quotes were first reported in an article by EJ Dickson, Rollingstone Magazine.


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