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Family Killer: The Story of Chris Watts
Chris and Shanann Watts, and their two daughters
True Crime

Family Killer: The Story of Chris Watts

In 2018, Chris Watts murdered his pregnant wife, Shanann, and two daughters. Here's what led to the incomprehensible act, and what happened next.

Let’s be clear from the start: Chris Watts is in a maximum-security prison -- the Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, Wisconsin, to be precise. He's serving five consecutive life sentences, with no hope of parole. Given the heinous nature of his crimes, most will agree that's the least he deserves.

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What is initially less clear is what drove a seemingly peaceful family man to murder his pregnant wife and their two daughters. However, we'll do our best to comb through the facts, and gain some understanding of the horrible events of Aug. 13, 2018. Because, as the layers of Chris Watts’ life are peeled back, it becomes all too obvious he was a dangerous and disturbed man.

Who Is Chris Watts?

Chris Watts and Shanann Watts (Photo: Netflix)
Chris Watts and Shanann Watts (Photo: Netflix)

Chris Watts is now known as a calculating and ruthless killer, as well as an adulterer and a liar. But before the horrific crimes he committed in the early hours of Aug. 13, 2018, Chris possessed the facade of a consummate family man.

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Then 33 years old, Chris lived with his family in Frederick, Colorado, southeast of Longmont. Married for nearly six years, he and wife Shanann had two daughters -- Bella, age 4, and Celeste, age 3 -- and were expecting a third. Chris was employed by Anadarko Petroleum, while Shanann, 34, worked at a call center for a children's hospital. They appeared happy in family photos. But looks, as is so often the case, can be deceiving.

The Watts had filed for bankruptcy in June 2015, after becoming buried in debt by their mortgage, credit cards, medical bills and student loans. By late summer 2018, Chris was having an affair with Nichol Kessinger, whom he met through work. He purportedly claimed to be separated from his wife, and that a divorce was imminent. Instead, however, Chris was coldly planning the murder of his family, including their unborn child.

Why Did Chris Watts Murder His Family?

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Shanann Watts, with daughters Bella and Celeste (Photo: Netflix)

Chris Watts is what experts call a “family annihilator," someone -- typically, a white man in his early 30s -- who murders everyone in the household. He's typically viewed by friends and neighbors as a "perfect" father and husband. However, he's usually depressed or paranoid, and led to the heinous act by relationship or financial stressors, or by the belief that he's relieving perceived suffering. In most cases, the annihilator then takes his own life.

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Chris felt trapped by his marriage and growing family, and wanted to start a new life with Nichol. But rather than seeking therapy, or filing for divorce and working out terms for support and custody, Chris chose to do the unimaginable.

This wasn't a crime of passion. Chris planned for weeks, if not longer, to murder his wife and daughters. What’s less clear is how he thought he would get away with it.

The Watts Family Murders

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Photo: Netflix

Chris later recalled the night he killed his family, in almost minute-by-minute fashion. This wasn't someone suffering a breakdown, but instead a cold, meticulous man. The details of the killings are difficult to read about, so we'll spare you most of them. They don’t make the story any less comprehensible, so let this summary suffice.

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In the early hours of Aug. 13, 2018, Chris first used a pillow to smother daughters Bella and Celeste, affectionately known as CeCe. Afterward, he climbed back into bed beside his pregnant wife, Shanann, with whom he immediately began to argue. Chris then strangled her.

At this point, both daughters, whom he thought were already dead, woke up, and followed him around the house. He apparently loaded his dead wife and living girls into his truck and drove to an oil field he knew from work. Watts then redoubled his focus on murdering his children, and this time he was successful. He later described how Bella put up a fight, because she seemed to realize what he was doing. Chris buried Shanann in a shallow grave, and dumped Bella and Celeste into a crude-oil tank.

The Days After the Watts Murders

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Chris Watts, captured on police body-camera video, on the day of his family's disappearance

A friend and colleague of Shanann reported her missing later that afternoon. When police perform a welfare at the Watts home, they found her keys, purse and phone. However, Chris insisted Shanann told him she and the girls were goring to a friend's home.

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Chris spent the next few days publicly appealing for the safe return of his missing family. He denied any knowledge of what happened to them, and texted to his mistress that he was innocent. All the while, his behavior seemed odd and his grief strangely lacking.

Police quickly closed in on him, largely due to evidence obtained from security camera-footage and a suspicious neighbor. Chris failed a lie-detector test, and was formally charged. He confessed at first, but said the deaths were a result of a crime of passion. He late admitted he planned the murders.

What Was Chris Watts’ Sentence?

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Chris Watts in court (Photo: Netflix)

So, where is Chris Watts now? As mentioned previously, he's in a maximum-security prison in Waupun, Wisconsin -- and he'll remain there for the rest of his life.

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Chris was imprisoned on Nov. 19, 2018, to five life sentences. He was convicted on three counts of murder, two counts of murder of a child under age 12, one count of unlawful termination of a pregnancy, and three counts of tampering with a human body.

Claiming to have found religion behind bars, Chris Watts spends his days reading from the Bible. Chris purportedly keeps photos of his wife and daughters in his cell, and speaks to them.

However, once again, Chris may not be what he seems. In May 2022, former fellow inmate David Carter revealed that Chris insisted it was Nichol Kessinger who smothered his daughters. He also claimed Nichol helped to dig Shanann's grave, and to place the girls' bodies in the oil tank.

American Murder: The Family Next Door

If you’re interested in a closer look at the chilling Watts family murders, Netflix has you covered. The streaming giant in 2020 debuted true crime documentary, American Murder: The Family Next Door, that thoroughly details the case. It became the most-viewed documentary film at the time of its release.

Be advised that, of course, that the two-hour movie is troubling to watch, as one might expect from the subject matter.


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