Ahead of the Netflix documentary, American Murder: The Family Next Door, which chronicles the events that led Chris Watts to kill his 34 year old pregnant wife and two children in 2018, I wanted to write a post about the crime that shook the nation. Who were they? What went wrong? What do we know now? And why?
The upcoming documentary, directed by Jenny Popplewell, uses archival footage with no narration, no re-enactments, but includes social media posts, law enforcement recordings, text messages and never-before-seen home videos to illustrate a fragmented marriage which resulted in adultery and ultimately murder — giving a voice to the victims and highlighting the increasing issue of domestic violence.
Who: Chris and Shan’ann Watts lived in Frederick, Colorado with their two toddler daughters, Bella-4, and Celeste-3. They met in 2010 in North Carolina, then married in 2012 and quickly moved to Colorado to start a family.
What: After returning from a work trip to Arizona, Shan’ann arrived home early on the morning of August 13th after being dropped off by a coworker. According to Watts’ confession, the couple had sex later that same morning and shortly afterward he strangled her to death. He proceeded to load her body into his work truck, put their two children in the back seat while they were still alive, then drove 40 miles east to an oil site.
Where: The dump site where he buried Shan’ann and Niko, their unborn son in a shallow grave, then killed and dumped their two daughters, Bella and Celeste in separate crude oil drums, was located on the property of his employer — Anadarko Petroleum.
After dumping the bodies of his family, Chris continued like it was a regular day. He texted his mistress, reached out to a real estate broker about selling his house, and even contacted the girls’ school to inform them they would not be enrolling next semester. After receiving a call, he drove back to his Colorado home to find that his neighbor, a friend of Shan’ann, had called the police to report them missing.
During inspection of the house, investigators became suspicious of Chris. Especially after he appeared emotionally reserved and avoided eye contact as they examined the neighbor’s surveillance footage of him loading his truck earlier that morning.
On Wednesday, August 15th, Chris Watts appeared on television pleading for his wife and kids to return home. An FBI profiler who examined the footage stated that he showed arrogance and a lack of empathy.
Former FBI senior profiler and forensic behavioral expert Mary Ellen O’Toole said Watts’ interview speaks to what he thinks is his ability to be persuasive.
“When somebody kills their own family and then they go on TV to say ‘But I didn’t have anything to do with it,’ that ability to be so very sure of your own interpersonal skills that you can attempt to fool a national and international audience is very unusual,” said O’Toole. “That’s a lot of arrogance and confidence that you could pull this off, and that’s not typical.”
O’Toole said Watts’ insistence that he didn’t know where his family members were shows an attempt to distance himself from the investigation. “If I don’t know anything, obviously I can’t have anything to do with it,” O’Toole said, describing the implication of Watts’ comments.
But O’Toole said he also contradicted himself by calling the situation a “nightmare,” while at the same time maintaining he didn’t know what happened.
O’Toole also noted that during a portion of the interview, Watts talked about himself and didn’t show any emotion or empathy for Shan’ann and the girls.
“There is a noticeable absence of emotional behavior or words of emotion like, ‘I’m so scared,’ ‘I’m so worried about them,’” O’Toole said. “He talks about the house being empty, but that’s not the same as expressions of empathy. There is an absence of that.”
The next day, Thursday, August 16th, the bodies of Shan’ann, Bella, and Celeste were found at an oil site on the premise of Anadarko Petroleum — Watts’ employer, after he led investigators there following his confession after failing a polygraph.
Why: The real question: Why did he do it? How could a supposedly, happily married man, expecting his third child, kill his entire family, then go on television pleading for their return?
Friends, family, and other sources close to the investigation have come forward to shed some light, claiming that the couple were having difficulties in their marriage. There was a report of Shan’ann being suspicious of Chris’ infidelities and confiding in a friend about it but feeling hesitant about taking action. With a neighbor even stating that the couple put on a front, meanwhile, their relationship was clearly crumbling behind the scenes. They’d even been seen arguing in public earlier that same summer according to a source in People: “I think they were always putting on a show,” says Melinda Phillips, who recalls seeing Chris and Shan’ann “clearly having an argument” in their driveway one day earlier this summer.“Their body language was really angry, and they were just fighting back and forth,” Phillips, 34, says. “He was gesturing his hands and they were shaking their heads, and it was definitely an argument.”“I didn’t really think much of it, because Lord knows that I’ve had the same arguments with my husband,” she continues. “They caught my eye and suddenly, everything changed. They stopped being so angry, and they started talking a lot more calmly. He even gave her a hug. Mind you, this was in the space of 30 seconds to a minute.”“From a full-blown fight to hugs in less than a minute, it was incredible,” she says.
Among various alleged revelations was the fact that Chris cheated on his wife with coworker, Nichol Kessinger (1) who cooperated with police soon after Shan’ann and the girls went missing. After Watts’ arrest, various sources alleged that he was also bisexual, providing information about his extra-marital affairs — including the unverified disclosure from a male escort, Trent Bolte, who claims he and Watts had a 10-month relationship in which he even met the children. The Daily Mail mentions that Bolte claimed he met Watts on the dating app MeetMe, and they began seeing each other regularly just a short time before he murdered his family.
‘He reached out to me and messaged me,’ the man alleged. ‘It was small talk. He told me his age. He had two daughters…He told me he was looking for a relationship in the long run…he was not out and not ready to be out as far as sexuality…I asked him to make sure he’s not bisexual cause he had two children. He told me he didn’t know. At that moment he was attracted to me as a male.’
According to Kessinger, Watts had lied to her as well, claiming to be in the final stages of a divorce and looking for a new place to live. A 2,000-page report issued by the Weld County District Attorney’s Office revealed the details of various family crises to which Watts is said to have alluded while being interviewed by authorities. The discovery documents indicate that Watts made Kessinger believe he was about to divorce Shan’ann, and that he had fallen hard for his new girlfriend fast. According to the report, on July 25, Watts searched online for: “When to say I love you for the first time in a new relationship.”
And on Sunday, August 12th, text messages indicated that while attending a child’s birthday party with his two daughters, he was texting Kessinger, while also messaging another coworker, Roberts, at 5pm informing the man he would be making a trip to a distant oil field, the same one where his family’s bodies were found — revealing a level of premeditation to investigators.
Kessinger told The Denver Post, “He made me believe that he was doing all of the things that a rational man and good father would do.”
The Post reported that in the wake of Shan’ann and the kids vanishing, Kessinger said, “It seemed off. It got to a point that he was telling me so many lies that I eventually told him that I did not want to speak to him again until his family was found.”
Unfortunately, Watts’ family was found shortly thereafter.
And after a shaky confession to his father, investigators watched from another room, as he admitted that he “flew into a rage” and strangled his wife after witnessing her killing their two children through a baby monitor. The cops didn’t buy it.
After Watts’ confession he was arrested. And yet his family still remained insistent of his innocence. Cindy Watts, his mother, told ABC 11, “There’s not one person you can talk to that will say anything about this kid.” A comment made in reference to his final confession regarding killing Shan’ann after witnessing her murdering their children, which his father, Ronnie also believed.
“It’s hard for me to believe that he would hurt them girls no matter what,” Ronnie agreed. “The story he told me that night, I believed it: The way he looked at me, the way he was crying, I believed it.”
“He was normal,” Cindy insisted, “he didn’t have a temper, he was just easy-going like his dad. He’s not a monster.”
That’s a term she seems to reserve for her former daughter-in-law. Claiming that Chris changed after meeting his future bride in high school, Cindy said she could be abusive, manipulative and worked to isolate him from his family. Her interactions with Shan’ann often fraught, she said, “It was a very hard relationship.”
Cindy and Ronnie Watts actually believed that Shan’ann was more capable of killing the two children than their own son. Which, to me, indicates a textbook example of parents who would raise a sociopath with a selfish personality.
According to Investigation Discovery, On November 6, Watts is said to have avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty to three counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to five life sentences without the possibility of parole, three to be served consecutively and two to be served concurrently.
Although Chris Watts pleaded guilty to multiple homicides, it was reportedly part of a deal for him to avoid facing the death penalty if he went to trial. On the record, though, he was sticking to his original claim that Shan’ann murdered the two little girls, which caused him to, in turn, murder her ‘in a rage.’
But that changed too, on March 7, 2019, when the Colorado Department of Safety released audio files and written transcripts of interviews conducted with Watts on February 8 by agents from the FBI, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the Frederick Police Department.
During the recording, Watts reportedly came clean about killing Celeste and Bella, saying, “It’s like something else was controlling me that day. I had no control over [it], to fight back.”
He also reportedly expressed regret, stating “Right now, I’d have a five-year-old, a three-year-old and, more than likely, a one-month-old son, and a beautiful wife. And right now it’s just me.”
As for what happened with Shan’ann, Watts allegedly recalled that she came home from a business trip at about 2 A.M. and they had sex, which he experienced as a triggering incident, saying it was “like you push the button on a bomb and it just blows up.”
The transcripts indicate Watts said the couple argued about his infidelity, with Shan’ann threatening to take the kids away.
Watts reportedly said that’s what prompted him to attack his wife, stating, “Every time I think about it, I’m just like, ‘Did I know I was going to do that before I got on top of her?’… It just felt like there was already something in my mind that was implanted that I was gonna do it, and when I woke up that morning, it was gonna happen and I had no control over it.”
In May 2019, People reported that Chris Watts was considering options in regard to appealing his multiple murder convictions.
The magazine quoted a source with “knowledge of Watts’ legal case” saying, “Obviously, it would be an uphill battle for him, because he pleaded guilty. And with a guilty plea, you forfeit some of your rights to appeal. But that’s not absolute, so there’s a small chance that it could work out in his favor.”
The source also reportedly said, “He’s not sure he was in the right mind to plead guilty like he did. For him, it’s not just about him getting out of jail — it’s also that he hasn’t been able to really have his day in court.”
People also reported that the source said Watts has spoken with lawyers, but that any potential appeal “would cost him money that he just doesn’t have.”