The Unraveling of Chris Watts Before He Murdered His Family

Chris Watts killed his pregnant wife Shanann and their two daughters three years ago, a still-shocking crime that shattered those who thought they knew the picture-perfect young family.

By Natalie Finn Aug 13, 2021 10:00 AMTags
American Murder: The Family Next Door, Chris WattsShanann Watts/2020/Netflix

From the outside, the Watts family was rather adorable. 

Shanann Watts frequently documented their charming domestic exploits in small-town Colorado for social media, aided and abetted by her two young daughters, Bella Marie and Celeste Cathryn, and telegenic husband Chris, who could be seen in his wife's Facebook videos readily agreeing to post-cookie-baking cleanup or scooping his girls up for big hugs.

"Happy Husband Appreciation Day! I couldn't imagine a better man for us," Shanann captioned an Instagram post in April 2018. "You spoil us with love [and] attention! You put up with 3 impatient, demanding women in the house. You work so hard everyday to provide for us. I love you so much."

Chris and Shanann met in 2010 in their home state of North Carolina and got married on Nov. 3, 2012. During a trip out west, they fell in love with the scenery and overall vibe of Frederick, Colo., (pop. 8,709) and moved into a spacious five-bedroom house that they promptly started to fill up. They welcomed Bella on Dec. 17, 2013, and her sister, called Cece for short, was born July 17, 2015.

And Shanann was pregnant with their third child, a boy they were going to name Nico, when Chris Watts killed all of them.

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Because in the case of the Watts family, looks—which are so often deceiving—were masking the unraveling of Chris and Shanann's marriage, her attempts to hold their lifestyle together and his decline that led to the worst act imaginable.

"If I was thinking, this wouldn't have happened," Watts—who was 33 when he strangled Shanann, 34, and smothered Bella, 4, and Cece, 3, on Aug. 13, 2018—told police later.

But having desperate, homicidal thoughts isn't the same as not thinking. And while he said he had not planned to kill his family, he spent a long time living a lie—though it took barely 48 hours after the killings for the prison of his own design to close in on him.

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On Aug. 14, a Tuesday, he told Denver 7 News outside his house that Shanann had returned from the airport after a business trip to Arizona at 2 a.m. the day before. He was already in bed and then he left for his job with Anadarko Petroleum—"They respect him, which is huge, for any job that you have," Shanann said of her husband's employer in a Facebook video—at around 5:15 a.m.

Chris said he'd texted his wife a few times that morning, getting no reply, which he chalked up to her being busy, and at 12:10 p.m. her friend Nickole Atkinson showed up at the house. Shanann wasn't returning her messages, either. Nickole called Chris, he said, "and that's when I came home and then walked in the house and...nothing was here...I mean, she wasn't here, the kids weren't here, nobody was here."

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Meanwhile, Nickole also called the police to ask for a wellness check when no one answered the door. They found Shanann's cell phone stuffed between the couch cushions, her purse in the kitchen and a suitcase at the foot of the stairs. Frederick Police contacted the FBI and Colorado Bureau of Investigation for assistance, and entreated the public's help in finding the missing mother and children.

Chris said he hoped his family was safe, wherever they were. "Last night...I had every light in the house on, I was hoping that I would just get just ran over by the kids running in the door and just like barrel-rushing me," he told Denver 7, "but it didn't happen and it was just a traumatic night trying to be here."

Chris continued, "I mean, my kids are my life...Those smiles light up my life." He said he missed telling them they had to eat their dinner or else they wouldn't get dessert, and seeing them "cuddled up" on their Disney-themed child-size couches, watching Bubble Guppies.  "It was tearing me apart last night...to go into their rooms and...know that I wasn't going to turn their rain machines on and know that I wasn't going to turn their monitor on and know I wasn't going to kiss them... That's why last night was just horrible."

That part may have been true.

Asked if he and Shanann had argued at all before he last saw her, Chris admitted that they had an "emotional conversation." He told another news outlet that day, "She said she was going to a friend's house with the kids and that's the last thing I heard, and that was it. It was very vague."

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He did not share that they had spent five weeks apart that summer, or that he had told his wife their marriage was over and she had told him that he would never see their girls again.

"I miss and love you so much," Shanann, who was 15 weeks pregnant with their son, texted him from Scottsdale, where she attended a leadership seminar for her work as a brand promoter for the nutritional supplement company Le-Vel. "I am still in shock we are having a little boy! I'm so excited and happy!"

Shanann had posted the video of her pregnancy reveal in June, in which Chris walked in to find her wearing a T-shirt reading "Oops we did it again," to which he replied, "Really? That's awesome."

She had also left Chris a two-page handwritten letter. During their time apart, she wrote, "I missed watching you laugh and play with the kids. I love seeing their smile with you."

But on the morning of Aug. 7, she had texted a friend (per messages revealed in court documents), "Chris told me last night he's scared to death about this third baby. And he's happy with just Bella and Celeste and doesn't want another baby." When the friend tried to reassure her that everything would be fine once the baby arrived, Shanann replied, "He has changed. I don't know who he is...He hasn't touched me all week, kissed me, talked to me except for when I'm trying to figure out what is wrong."

Which explained another text she sent to Chris during her weekend away: "Thank you for letting me hold you this morning, it felt good."

Shanann Watts/2020/Netflix

Nickole, who was on the trip to Arizona with Shanann, told the officer who responded to her first call that she had indeed dropped her friend off at 2 a.m. when they returned to Frederick, and she had been out of sorts. "She was very distraught over the weekend, wasn't eating normally, or drinking," Nickole said, "and we kept trying to force it on her." 

In another text she sent to her husband, revealed in the 2020 Netflix documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door, Shanann wrote, "I realized [during] this trip what's missing in our relationship! It's only one way emotions and feelings. I can't come back like this. I need you to meet me halfway. You don't consider others at all, nor think about feelings."

Another message read, "I try to give you space, but while you are working and living the bachelor life I'm carrying our 3rd and fighting with two kids daily and trying to work and make money. It's not hard texting love you and miss you. If you don't mean it then I get it, but we need to talk. I kept looking at my phone all night and no response from you. Like seriously! We didn't just start dating yesterday! We've been together 8 years and have 2.5 kids together."

Chris also told Denver 7, "If they are safe, they're coming back, but if they're not...this has got to stop...Somebody has to come forward."

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The following night, Wednesday, Aug. 15, he was arrested. On Thursday, authorities found three bodies: Shanann was buried in a shallow grave about 40 miles east of their home at a work site belonging to her husband's former employer (which fired him when he was taken into custody) and Bella and Cece were discovered in crude-oil storage drums, their bodies having been submerged in oil for four days.

Chris later told investigators in a prison interview that he "prayed for the HazMat workers and anyone else who had to see the aftermath."

On Aug. 21, he was charged with three counts of first-degree murder, plus two counts of murder of a child younger than 12 while "in a position of trust," three counts of tampering with a deceased human body and unlawful termination of a pregnancy.

Netflix/2020

In court that day, bail was denied and Watts didn't enter a plea, but he had already admitted to authorities that he had strangled Shanann in a rage and disposed of all three bodies. However, according to an arrest affidavit, he first claimed that she killed their daughters, that Bella was already dead by the time he saw on the baby monitor screen Shanann choking Celeste upstairs. It was a version of events that investigators weren't buying.

Shanann's father, Frank Rzucek, wept at the hearing and her brother, Frank Jr., glared at Chris throughout. "Yes, sir," was all Chris said when the judge asked if he understood that he could face the death penalty if convicted of murder.

Meanwhile, in the course of barely a week, the relatably-frazzled-but-happy family tableau that Shanann presented to most of the world—in person and especially online—had shattered completely.

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Chris' parents, Cindy and Ronnie Watts, didn't attend their son's 2012 wedding, his mother later told North Carolina's 9News, "because Shanann and I just couldn't get along. I didn't like the way she treated him."

 

And after Chris' arrest, reporters quickly unearthed the family's June 2015 bankruptcy filing, which indicated that, with a combined $90,000 income in 2014, they were drowning under monthly $3,000 mortgage payments and $600 car payments, student loans, medical bills and credit card debt and owed $70,000 (not including the mortgage). At the time, Chris had been working at Anadarko for six months with a salary of $61,500 a year, per the filing, and Shanann made $18 an hour answering phones at a children's hospital call center. They had $864 in their joint checking account.

In January 2016 she started working with Le-Vel. "Every single person that connected with her felt her light," co-worker Cynthia DeRossett told CBS affiliate KPHO after Shanann's death, noting that she seemed her usual upbeat self over the weekend in Arizona. "Never in a thousand years would you think this."

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But some friends knew that Shanann and Chris had been having problems—though, like Cynthia, no one suspected "this" could happen.

Ashley Bell, whose daughter played with Bella and Cece, told CBS News after the bodies were found, "Those two little girls are so innocent and so sweet, and I just don't understand how you could do this to your family." As for Shanann, Ashley said, "I kept telling myself, 'No, no, no. He wouldn't do anything to her.'"

Friend Amanda Thayer told the outlet, "It came to her mind that possibly he could be cheating."

Frankie Jr., Shanann's only sibling, wrote on Facebook, per CNN, "I just want 30 seconds alone with that heartless psychopath. May Satan have mercy on his soul. Doesn't take a genius to know who was suspect...I just want to know why."

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While it wouldn't be publicly known for a few months, Shanann had suspected correctly. 

Chris admitted to investigators that he'd been having an affair with co-worker Nichol Kessinger. They met in June 2018, he said, and he stayed with her almost every night while his wife and children were in North Carolina for weeks visiting family.

RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

In September 2018, the Denver Post reported that the defendant's lawyers had requested an investigation into alleged leaks from law enforcement or prosecutors about the case to the media, but the Weld County District Attorney's Office maintained that the press, while they quoted some unnamed sources, were mainly utilizing official documents, such as Chris' arrest affidavit, in their reporting.

"Driven in large part by the now unnerving pleas of help made by the defendant himself, local community members and individuals around the country followed constant news reports of the search for Shanann, Belle, and Celeste Watts," read the prosecution's response. "Now that [the] defendant has been charged with murdering his family and disposing of their deceased bodies, national media interest in the case is likely to persist."

But while some convicted murderers have on appeal pointed to "media interest" as the reason why they supposedly didn't get a fair trial—Scott Peterson's lawyers have certainly alleged as much in the course of fighting to overturn his first-degree murder conviction for killing his pregnant wife, Laci—Chris opted to put a stop to the proceedings himself. He pleaded guilty to all three murders on Nov. 6, 2018, and was sentenced to life in prison five times over.

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Her name had been redacted from Chris' arrest report, keeping her out of the news for awhile, but after he confessed Nichol Kessinger told the Denver Post that, on the day Shanann, Bella and Cece went missing, Chris had texted her to check in, saying he'd been busy. They conversed normally during work hours, she said, but at 3:45 p.m. he texted her saying that his family was "gone." He later told her Shanann and the kids went to a play date and never came home. He was very unemotional about it, she recalled.

When she saw on the news that Shanann had been pregnant, she was admittedly shocked. "I thought, If he was able to lie to me and hide something that big, what else was he lying about?" Nichol said.

All of his communications after that "seemed off," she said, and "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."

On the morning of Aug. 15, before Chris was arrested, Nichol called the police and told them she'd been having an affair with the missing woman's husband. They connected her with the FBI, and hours later, Chris was in handcuffs.

"I just wanted to help," Nichol explained. "With a pregnant woman and two children missing, I was going to do anything that I could."

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Ultimately, she didn't doubt that he killed all three of them. "He's a liar," she said. "He lied about everything."

Per notes and audio recordings shared with reporters from an interview with federal investigators conducted Feb. 18, 2019, Chris painted a picture of his affair as an escape from the pressures of family life. He said that Nichol "wanted to have sex all the time" and "he never had to worry about saying something stupid around [her] and never had to plan what he was going to say when he was with her." Nichol knew he was married, he said, but "lied" and pretended she didn't. (He also denied ever having sexual encounters with men, one guy from Wyoming having come forward claiming he met Chris on WhatsApp and they had an affair. Chris said he never had "any gay experiences or interests in the past.") 

Nichol told the Denver Post that Chris had told her he was at the tail end of divorce proceedings.

He didn't blame the affair for his actions, but it may have "accelerated the process," he said. Over the course of five hours, he proceeded to speak openly for the first time about what he did, even though he left plenty of questions unanswered about why and how he could do it. 

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On the morning he killed his family, Chris said, Shanann had confronted him about being unfaithful, saying she knew "there was someone else." He denied it, but agreed that their marriage was probably over and told Shanann that he didn't love her.

He said that she then told him he'd never see the kids again. And then he strangled her in their bed. Bella walked into the room and asked, "What's wrong with Mommy?" he recalled. Chris said she didn't feel good. (Chris also noted that it was a detective who first asked him if Shanann had perhaps killed the children, so he "just went with it" at the time. In a December 2019 episode of Oxygen's Criminal Confessions, one of the agents who first interviewed him, Tammy Lee of the CBI, explained, "Vilifying Shanann, it's a technique that we can use to eventually get the actual truth. We just needed to find Shanann and the girls.")

So, Chris continued, he wrapped Shanann's body in a sheet and put her in the backseat of his truck on the floor, Bella crying as he dragged her lifeless mom down the stairs. He put Bella and Cece in the backseat, too, then drove them to the oil site, where he smothered Cece with her own blanket. He said that Bella asked him softly, "Is the same thing gonna happen to me as Cece?'"

Her last words were "Daddy, no!" and she struggled as he smothered her, Chris remembered. He told the interviewers he kept photos of his late wife and children in his cell and "talks to them every morning and every night."

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"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?" he said of killing Shanann. "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."

And he has his sympathizers.

In a July 2019 episode of HLN's Lies, Crimes & Video, a woman identified as Anna—one of two women visiting Chris in prison at the time—said on camera, "When Chris talks to me about Shanann, he talks about how great she was and how much he loved her. Chris feels like he had a break in reality like he snapped, like he was demon-possessed."

Another woman, Cheryln Cadle, corresponded with him so much she got a book out of it, Letters From Christopher, released in October 2019.

More recently, Christa Richello, a clinical psychologist who started writing to Chris and is now engaged to his cellmate, said on Lifetime's Cellmate Secrets, "I found it very odd, the way the case was handled. I've never seen a case in history that somebody took a plea agreement so quickly, a case was completely ended and not investigated."

A couple weeks after her son pleaded guilty, Cindy Watts was still wondering why Chris didn't want a trial, telling 9News in Spring Lake, N.C., that his attorney had cut off contact between Chris and their family. (The attorney didn't respond to 9News' request for comment about that claim.)

"It would have helped us so much to be able to talk to him," she said. "I wouldn't have to go through all this now. Everything seems to be shrouded in secrecy. Just tell us what is going on."

After his arrest, Chris had asked to see his dad, and authorities eventually let Ronnie Watts into the interview room, where Chris then claimed that he had strangled Shanann after she killed the girls.

"It was pretty much gut-wrenching to hear Chris talk about the fact that he murdered his wife to his own father," CBI agent Tammy Lee said on Criminal Confessions. "It was the theme of Shanann doing something to the girls, that I had just given him prior to leaving the room. But to actually hear that come out of his mouth, was shocking."

A source close to Chris told People at the time that he took the plea because "there was physical evidence and his own words that would convict him. His story didn't work. He got angry. He didn't want to plead guilty. But he really had no choice, considering the evidence. It took a little bit of time for him to come around, but he did."

"There was some yelling, and some crying," the source also said. "But eventually he acknowledged that his life was over after he killed Shanann. He would have been facing years of legal challenges, and best-case scenario he would have been acquitted. Worst-case scenario, he gets put to death."

Chris "is not the sociopath next door. He's not a psychopath," Cindy insisted to 9News. Despite his confession, she still wondered if Chris really did kill the children—but either way the thought of him doing so "scares me to death," she admitted. "It scares me to death to think that he could have done all of this. And I don't wanna go there. I don't wanna go there now."

In the meantime, she missed her grandchildren. "Bella was just like Chris," Cindy said. "Shy, cautious, conservative. Cece was a ball of fire. I mean she was fearless—completely fearless. She just loved to run, run, run, run, run. They were wonderful. It breaks my heart to know that they're not here. They were beautiful children."

"I wake up every morning crying, you know, thinking this is not going to be what's going to happen every single day," she added. "It's just so hard to get through it. I just don't know how to get through it."

But that was before Chris gave his horrifying recollection of what really happened to authorities. Cindy, along with the rest of the world, would hear from her son soon enough.

CBI agent Tammy Lee explained why she and fellow investigators went back to Chris in prison—he was transferred from Colorado to an undisclosed facility in Wisconsin—in February 2019. "I needed to hear him say that Shanann did not murder her children," she said. "I needed to have that come out of his mouth."

For more true crime updates on your need-to-know cases, head to Oxygen.com.