The Watts family murders occurred on the early morning of August 13, 2018, in Frederick, Colorado, US. While being interviewed by police, Christopher Lee Watts (born May 16, 1985) admitted to killing his pregnant wife Shan'ann Cathryn Watts (née Rzucek, born January 10, 1984) by strangulation. Their daughters, four-year-old Bella, and three-year-old Celeste, died by asphyxiation due to smothering. Watts then disposed of his daughters' bodies in oil tanks and buried his wife in a shallow grave at his work-site. He pleaded guilty on November 6, 2018, to multiple counts of first-degree murder as part of a plea deal when the death penalty was removed from sentencing. He was sentenced to five life sentences without the possibility of parole, three to be served consecutively and two to be served concurrently.
Christopher Lee Watts and Shan'ann Cathryn Watts were natives of Spring Lake and Aberdeen, North Carolina, respectively. They met in 2010, and were married in Mecklenburg County on November 3, 2012, according to online records. They had two daughters: Bella Marie Watts (born December 17, 2013) and Celeste Cathryn "Cece" Watts (born July 17, 2015). The family lived in a five-bedroom home in Frederick, Colorado, purchased in 2013; the couple declared bankruptcy in 2015. Chris Watts was employed by Anadarko Petroleum, while Shan'ann was an independent representative for the multi-level marketing company Le-vel, selling a product called Thrive. At the time of her death, she was fifteen weeks pregnant with a child which they planned to name Niko Lee Watts; her due date was January 31, 2019.
Shan'ann returned home from a business trip to Arizona at about 1:48 a.m. on August 13, 2018, having received a ride from friend and colleague Nickole Utoft Atkinson. Chris was home with the children. Later that day, Shan'ann and the two children were reported missing by Atkinson, who had become concerned when Shan'ann missed a scheduled OB-GYN appointment and failed to return text messages. After Shan'ann missed a business meeting, Atkinson went to the Watts' home at approximately 12:10 p.m. When the doorbell and knocks went unanswered, Atkinson notified Chris and called the Frederick Police Department. An officer arrived to conduct a welfare check at about 1:40 p.m. Chris, who had arrived home from work, talked with the officer and discussed ways to locate his missing family. During the welfare check, he gave the police officer permission to search the house, but none of the family was found. The searchers discovered Shan'ann's purse containing her phone and keys. Her car, which still contained the children's car seats, was in the garage. Her wedding ring was found on the couple's bed.
The FBI and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation joined the investigation the next day, August 14. Chris gave interviews to Denver stations KMGH-TV and KUSA-TV outside his house pleading for his family's return. Investigators with cadaver and search dogs could be heard on the property during the interview.
Arrest and charges
Chris Watts was arrested late on August 15, 2018. According to the arrest affidavit, Watts failed a polygraph test and subsequently confessed to murdering Shan'ann. He asked to speak to his father before confessing. According to the affidavit, Watts was having an affair and claimed to have asked for a separation from his wife. During the investigation, he claimed Shan'ann had strangled the children in response to his request for separation, and in a fit of rage, he strangled her and then transported the three bodies to a remote oil-storage site where he worked.
The authorities located the bodies of Watts' family on the property of his former employer, Anadarko Petroleum, on August 16. Watts had been fired from his job on August 15, the day of his arrest. The children's bodies were found hidden in the oil tanks. Shan'ann was buried in a shallow grave nearby.
On August 21, Watts was charged with five counts of first-degree murder, including an additional one count per child cited as "death of a child who had not yet attained 12 years of age and the defendant was in a position of trust"; unlawful termination of a pregnancy; and three counts of tampering with a deceased human body.
The case has been connected in the media to the crime of family annihilation. Many of these crimes occur in August, before school starts, which may delay detection and investigation. According to former FBI profiler Candice DeLong, cases such as Chris Watts' are rare, because "family annihilators usually commit suicide after the murders," an action that Watts claimed to have contemplated out of guilt for his actions. Also, Watts had a new girlfriend, that he was very excited about, on the side.
In an interview with Dr. Phil, Watts' lawyer claimed that he confessed to killing Shan'ann after an argument regarding divorce. During the murder, Bella walked in. Watts then told his daughter that her mother was sick. He loaded Shan'ann's body into the back of his work truck and his daughters without car seats in the back. Later he smothered both children, one after the other, with a blanket in the back seat of his truck. Chris later confessed in a letter to Cheryln Cadle (published in her book, Letters from Christopher) that he attempted to smother his daughters first, however after doing so and proceeding to Shan'ann, his daughters awoke from unconsciousness and discovered him with Shan'ann wrapped in a sheet, at which point he told them that she "was sick".
Plea deal and sentencing
Chris Watts pleaded guilty to the murders on November 6. The death penalty was not put forward by the district attorney on the request of Shan'ann's family who did not wish for any further deaths. They were supportive of the decision to accept the plea deal. On November 19, Watts was sentenced to five life sentences – three consecutive and two concurrent – without the possibility of parole. He received an additional 48 years for the unlawful termination of his wife's pregnancy and 36 years for three charges of tampering with a deceased body.
On December 3, 2018, Watts was moved to an out-of-state location due to "security concerns". On December 5, 2018, he arrived at the Dodge Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison, in Waupun, Wisconsin, to continue serving his life sentences.
On a December 2018 episode of the ABC News television news magazine 20/20, Shan'ann's parents, Frank and Sandra Rzucek, were interviewed for the first time since their daughter and granddaughters' murders.
HLN aired a special report show in December 2018 titled Family Massacre: Chris Watts Exposed in which police body cam and video recorded police interviews of Chris Watts were revealed. In a newly released Colorado Bureau of Investigation video-recorded interview with Watts' mistress Nichol Kessinger, she revealed his behavioral changes in the days prior to the murders.
On a December 2018 episode of the American talk show Dr. Phil, Dr. Phil consulted with four crime experts: former prosecutor and TV journalist Nancy Grace, former FBI profiler Candice DeLong, law enforcement consultant Steve Kardian, and body language expert Susan Constantine. The experts analyzed the motivation, secret life, and profiling of Chris Watts.
On a January 2019 episode of the talk show The Dr. Oz Show, commentary is provided on the Watts case by the neighbor who helped build the case against Watts, who is interviewed in-studio.
On January 26, 2020, Lifetime released a film called Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer as part of its "Ripped from the Headlines" feature film. The film stars Sean Kleier as Chris Watts and Ashley Williams as Shan'ann Watts.