On 13th August 2018, 34-year-old Shanann Watts, who was 15 weeks pregnant, was reported missing by her friend and colleague Nickole Atkinson. Shanann and her two daughters, four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste weren’t at home and Shanann wasn’t answering messages from either Atkinson or her husband, Chris Watts. When Shanann missed a doctor’s appointment, Atkinson was worried and called in a welfare check.
When police searched the house, they found Shanann’s phone between the sofa cushions, her bag in the kitchen, and her car on the property. The following day, she and the girls were declared missing, and an investigation was launched.
33-year-old Chris Watts initially denied any knowledge of their whereabouts, even giving an emotional interview on television begging for their return, but his story soon changed. Finally, he admitted to being behind their disappearance. He had committed a family massacre, murdering his wife, their two daughters, and their unborn son.
So, what really happened, and what would lead a supposedly happy family man to commit familicide?
Chris and Shanann met in North Carolina in 2010 and married in 2012. They later moved to Colorado, where they had their daughters, Bella in 2013 and Celeste in 2015. The pair seemingly had a happy marriage, often posting effusive messages about each other and family life on social media. In June 2018, Shanann uploaded a video to Facebook of the moment she revealed to Chris they were having a third child, a boy they were going to name Nico. Chris can be seen on the video saying it’s “awesome”.
All was not as it seemed online, though. In 2015, the couple had been almost $450,000 in debt, and that year, they filed for bankruptcy. Though later their finances seemed to be improving—Shanann took a new job—by all accounts, their marriage was struggling.
The same month that Shanann revealed she was pregnant with their third child, she took their two daughters to her parents in North Carolina for a holiday, where they stayed for six weeks.
While Shanann continued to post loving tributes to her husband online during their time apart, Chris later said the couple was having difficulties in their relationship and using the time apart to see if separation could work. By the end of June, he had begun a new relationship, an affair with a co-worker, Nichol Kessinger. According to Kessinger, Chris told her he was in the process of separating from his wife.
By July, Shanann was beginning to question her husband’s behaviour, as texts between them would later show. Shanann claimed Chris was being distant; Chris reassured her everything was fine. Meanwhile, he was going on dates with Kessinger and leaving his wife’s calls unanswered.
Later that month, Chris travelled to North Carolina to be with them. But texts later showed conflict between the couple, as well as between Shanann and Chris’ extended family.
By 8th August, Shanann was telling friends that Chris wanted a divorce, while she didn’t. Chris had told her he was “scared to death” about the new baby and that he didn’t want it. She said he had “changed” towards her, that he was cold and physically distant.
On 9th August, Shanann left for Arizona on a work trip. She sent a friend a draft of a letter she was writing to Chris about their relationship, including how much she had missed him while they were apart and how painful it had been for her. While she was gone, Chris hired a babysitter for their girls and took Kessinger out.
In the early hours of 13th August, Shanann returned home from her trip and was dropped off by Atkinson who watched her walk into the house. It was the last time she saw Shanann.
While Chris initially played the grieving husband, it didn’t take police long to begin to question his story. Two days after Shanann had been reported missing, Kessinger (who had seen Chris on the news and realised he lied about the state of his marriage and Shanann’s pregnancy) told police she had been having an affair with Chris. He was then formally accused of Shanann’s murder. After he failed a lie detector test, he confessed to killing her.
He told the police that a few hours after Shanann had returned, they had got into a fight: he revealed he was having an affair and wanted a divorce; she threatened to take their kids away from him. At first, he accused Shanann of killing their daughters in retaliation (something he maintained up until his trial in November), before finally confessing to all of the murders.
Chris said that once he had killed Shannan, he told his daughters that she was ill and had to be taken to the hospital. He then put all three of them into his truck and drove out to a remote work site. He buried Shanann’s body in a shallow grave, before smothering his daughters and dumping their bodies in oil tanks. On 16th August, their bodies were recovered.
In 2019, Chris’ story changed again. In a letter written to author Cheryln Cadle, he confessed that the killings has been premeditated, rather than committed in a fit of rage as he had always claimed in the past. He even attempted to cause Shanann to miscarry, by slipping her oxycodone, as he thought that would make it easier for him to be with Kessinger. He then revealed he had attempted to kill both of his daughters before he strangled Shanann—an attack they survived—before taking them all out to the work site where ultimately, they died.
On 19th November, having submitted a plea deal to escape the death penalty, Chris Watts was found guilty. He was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences, plus an additional two to be served concurrently.
Chris Watts: your questions answered
How was Chris Watts caught?
The path to justice for Watts’ family began with that lie detector test, just days after the murders took place. By this point, police were already highly suspicious about Watts’ relaxed and breezy demeanour, the oddly detached way he referred to Bella and Celeste as ‘those kids’, and how he was using the past tense about them even though it wasn’t yet a murder investigation.
Watts was under no legal obligation to take the test and the investigator even warned him that ‘it would be really stupid’ to do so if he was lying. Watts presumably felt there was no other way to allay the suspicions of detectives and perhaps believed he could somehow fool the technology by remaining as calm as possible during the test.
In this, he was sorely mistaken. Watts failed the lie detector by a considerable margin, prompting investigators to turn the screws and sternly ask him to come clean. Watts kept up the innocent act at first, practically begging the investigators to believe that he’d told the truth during the polygraph. Then, prompted by the presence of his father, Watts relented to a degree, providing his infamous initial confession that he’d killed Shanann in a rage after catching her murdering their daughters.
Investigators didn’t believe this outlandish tale, and later in August, he was hauled into court on charges of killing his entire family. It wasn’t until November that Watts finally, fully admitted what he’d done as part of a plea deal that spared him the death penalty.
Shanann’s family reached out to secure this deal because they wanted a swift resolution to the nightmare which had engulfed them. They also wanted no more deaths to occur. The district attorney quoted Shanann’s mother as saying, ‘He made the choice to take those lives, I do not want to be in a position of making the choice to take his.’
The district attorney was keen to emphasise that Watts’ plea absolutely confirmed what most people already knew: that Chris Watts, rather than Shanann, was the one behind the girls’ deaths. ‘The spotlight shines directly where it belongs – on him.’
How many years did Chris Watts get?
During the sentencing, the judge described Watts’ crimes as ‘senseless’, ‘despicable’, and the most ‘inhumane and vicious’ that he’d ever had to deal with in his judicial career. Watts was handed a life sentence with no possibility of parole for each separate murder, 48 years for the unlawful termination of a pregnancy (the death of his unborn baby son Nico), and another 36 years for tampering with the bodies of his victims.
What was Chris Watts’ job?
At the time of the murders, Chris Watts was working as an oil field operator at Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. One colleague, Brian Spence, later recounted to People magazine how Watts’ demeanour had changed in the lead up to the atrocities.
‘I watched him get more and more unhappy with his life,’ Spence remembered. ‘He went from being a friendly guy to being withdrawn and angry. I saw him lose his temper over little workplace annoyances. He had an irritable side with the contractors. He could be combative.’
How did they recover the bodies of Shanann, Bella and Celeste?
Shanann and her unborn baby were found in a shallow grave on an Anadarko Petroleum work site. Bella and Celeste had been disposed of nearby, their bodies unceremoniously dumped into vast tanks of crude oil. The tanks had to be emptied of oil so the corpses could be carefully extracted.
‘Looking at those oil tanks and seeing the size of the hatch at the top where their little bodies were shoved through and then to have to pull them out of that oil,’ the district attorney later said, ‘I wouldn't wish that upon my worst enemy.’
How did Chris Watts avoid the death penalty?
Shanann’s family decided not to pursue the death penalty against Watts because they didn’t want his death on their conscience. They also wanted immediate closure rather than having to spend years, possibly decades, thinking about the far-off execution. The state of Colorado has since abolished the death penalty.
What did Chris Watts say in his letters?
After being imprisoned, Chris Watts sent letters to correspondents which laid out more details on the murders. Written in his usual bland, unruffled tone, the letters revealed how calculated the crimes were, how he had literally thought to himself, ‘that’s the last time I'm going to be tucking my babies in’ the night before the murders, and how he’d had to smother the children repeatedly before they eventually passed away.
Is Nichol Kessinger in witness protection?
Some media outlets have alleged that, due to the public outcry over the case, Chris Watts’ lover, Nichol Kessinger, had been placed into witness protection by the authorities. This seems unlikely, given that it was widely reported that she applied to change her name in 2020. Her current whereabouts are unknown.
Where is the Watts family buried?
Shanann, Bella, Celeste and Nico are buried together at Bethesda Cemetery in Aberdeen, North Carolina. The grave bears Shannan’s maiden name, Rzucek, with ‘Watts’ nowhere to be seen.
Where is Chris Watts now?
Chris Watts is incarcerated at the Dodge Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Waupun, Wisconsin.