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Monday, April 19, 2021

This hunt for a small girl turned into one of the coldest, most disturbing murder cases of the year

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It took a haunting photograph of three children huddled together on a bed for James Tarver, an Albuquerque private investigator, to connect one dazed, scared little girl to the case of a husband and father who recently killed his wife and young children in Colorado.

Tarver spent hours trying to figure out the identity of the girl — who was also captured on security video hours before the bodies were found — and the meaning of the image that contradicted everything she had told him.

It was the kind of odd, seemingly random detail that can often lead private investigators and agents like Tarver across the country and back to a single city. But Tarver, who has worked in the federal government and is now in private practice in Albuquerque, had the right agent: Wyss Tuttle, a Denver law enforcement agent who specialized in serving warrants and interrogating suspects in cold cases. Together, they whittled down all the leads they’d gathered to one: an account from a police informant.

That informant had told police that she’d seen Christopher Watts, the husband and father of three whose ex-wife and two young daughters were murdered earlier this month, acting strangely as a court permitted his search for a new house on Sept. 9.

So a day after Watts had been seen buying a shovel and a gas grill from a Wal-Mart, Tuttle told Tarver, he was back in town with his two young daughters. Although Tarver wasn’t in Denver when they arrived, he did drive by a hotel where Watts was staying. A few minutes later, he told Tuttle, Watts took a cab to a bank where he withdrew $750 from an ATM, then went to a rented BMW for 20 minutes.

That night, the little girl woke up her mother and asked, “Mommy, are you OK?” Watts was gone. The girl then asked her mother if she could sleep in the same bed as her sister, the Denver Post reported on Thursday.

Christopher Watts was arrested on Monday, three days after law enforcement agents discovered his wife and two daughters’ bodies buried in oil tanks at his family’s house.

Tarver was hired by one of the family’s lawyers and has been helping with interviews and investigation.

Tarver and Tuttle said that even though Watts had been in the news for years, searching for his family’s bodies may have been the most frustrating case for them. Tarver said that Watts’ family and friends were not cooperating with investigators as much as they should have been. “We thought there was a lot of head scratching going on,” Tarver said.

In interviews, Tarver shared his theory that what drew Tarver to the case was the pictures of the three young girls. He said the little girl in the picture was the one he’d tried to find in Denver, and it led him to a natural conclusion: Watts kidnapped the girl, abducted her and took her to Denver before returning her to her father. He wanted Tarver to figure out the connection between that little girl and Watts, who had been working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska.

The five-year pattern that Tarver saw in the two photos and talking to a police informant left him convinced that Watts had killed his family before taking off to Denver, Tarver said. He added that many questions about the case remain unanswered, and he expects that will be the case for some time.

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