The Watts family murder: What really happened?

Large oil tankers in a hot and dusty location
Chris Watts disposed of his daughters' bodies in oil tanks | Image:

On 18th 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 Kessingerand 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.