American Murder: The Family Next Door has once again brought public attention to the murder of Shanann Watts, who was pregnant with her third child, along with her two daughters Bella (aged four) and Celeste (aged three).
The case gained national awareness in the United States after the family went missing from their Colorado home in 2018 without a trace. Shanann’s husband Chris Watts, father to the three children, was left seemingly bewildered by their disappearance and made public appeals for them to come home safely.
It later came to light that Chris, who had been having an affair with new girlfriend Nichol Kessinger, had killed his wife and children.
So why did he do it?
This question hangs over many true-crime stories, but the case of the Watts family is particularly hard to grasp.
One thread that wasn’t picked at in the documentary was the couple’s finances. They had filed for bankruptcy in 2015, with court documents (via MEAWW) showing that Chris was the main earner for the family at that time. They also had credit card debt, student loan repayments and outstanding medical bills.
Shanann then landed a new job with an impressive salary, which brought her independence and took her away on business trips. As shown in the Netflix show, Chris would stay home and look after the children while she was away working. This led the media to speculate about whether jealousy or resentment played a role in the murders.
As outlined in the show, the prosecution’s argument was that Chris Watts had murdered his wife and his children in order to start over with his new love interest.
American Murder itself didn’t attempt to offer up much analysis, but instead gave a play-by-play of events leading up to the crimes, some insight into their family life and a look at what happened to Chris Watts after his eventual confession.
By piecing together public social-media posts and text-message conversations, the 90-minute documentary painted a picture of a dedicated mother and wife who could sense that her husband was acting differently, but who was not fearful for her life.
Chris Watts was arrested two days after Shanann and the children were reported missing after failing a polygraph test. Still maintaining that he had not been having an affair, and that he had no involvement or knowledge about what had happened to his family, Chris’ polygraph result was an abysmal -18 (for reference, a score of -4 is usually considered an indicator that somebody is being dishonest, though the scientific validity of polygraph tests is dubious at best).
While the documentary featured some of the recordings of that test, the actual polygraph was said to have taken around five hours. In places, Watts referred to his daughters in the past tense even though, at that stage, the investigation was still treating them as missing.
Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent Tammy Lee was the one to conduct the test. In an interview for Oxygen’s Criminal Confessions, Lee said that Watts’ eventual account of what happened was “more horrible than I had even let my mind go to”.
“We had not even fathomed how horrible he could have been,” she added.
Chris eventually confessed to murder and went on to reveal the locations of their bodies, having admitted to burying his wife and hiding his daughters in oil tanks at a work location
Chris Watts was charged with five counts of first-degree murder (an additional count was added for each child due to their ages and his position of responsibility), unlawful termination of a pregnancy and three counts of tampering with a deceased human body. He pleaded guilty and was given five life sentences. The death penalty was not an option, at the request of Shanann’s family.
Despite confessing and pleading guilty, Chris has changed the finer details of his story multiple times. Originally, he blamed his daughters’ deaths on Shanann and claimed that he had then killed her in retaliation. It was an idea that had been subtly suggested by the investigators while interrogating Watts, using a technique of “vilifying Shanann” in order to get him talking.
“It’s a technique that we can use to eventually get the actual truth,” Lee said. “We just needed to find Shanann and the girls.”
Talking of the moment that they heard Watts partially confess to his father, Lee explained: “It was pretty much gut-wrenching to hear Chris talk about the fact that he murdered his wife to his own father. 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.”
Chris’ shifting of the blame led to Shanann’s family receiving all sorts of abuse, feeding into a toxic victim-blaming narrative that’s steeped in sexism (the Netflix documentary noted that some used Shanann’s strong-willed personality as a means of justifying Chris ‘snapping’).
He told investigators that he thought his marriage was over, and was planning on seeking a separation, but was adamant that he had not cheated on Shanann. Little did he know at that point that Nichol Kessinger, who he had been seeing romantically for about a month before the murders, had come forward to police.
Footage of Kessinger’s police conversations were included in the Netflix documentary. She said that Chris had lied to her when they first met, claiming that he was already separated from his wife.
Kessinger has said that she had first learned that Chris had been lying to her about his marriage through the news coverage of the disappearance. During an interview with the Post (via Marie Claire US), she revealed that she then started questioning him through texts and phone calls. Kessinger also noted that he “seemed off” and felt he was too calm given the circumstances.
“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,” she told the publication.
Her role in the investigation was said to be very important in helping police. “Nichol Kessinger turned out to have information that I can best describe as being a bombshell,” Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said in an interview that aired on Investigation Discovery in 2019 (via NBC News). It’s been reported that she could now be in witness protection.
Following his conviction, Chris Watts revealed further information about his crimes. Having originally claimed that he had killed Shanann in the heat of a moment, he later admitted in letters to Cheryln Cadle (later published as a book) that he had been planning it.
In a chilling and calculated move, Chris also admitted that he had previously attempted to force Shanann to miscarry by slipping her some tablets.
When questioned by Cadle as to where he had got the medication from, Chris allegedly told her that he would take that secret ‘to his death’.
Chris also revealed more information about what happened to his daughters on the day they died. He had previously described how he had killed them at the site where their bodies were found, but in the letters to Cadle he stated that he had actually attempted to smother them in their bedrooms using a pillow before his argument with Shanann.
He then later killed them at the site, after about an hour’s drive, and put their bodies into two different oil tanks.
In his letters (via Mirror), Watts claims that he murdered his family so that he could feel “free to be with [new girlfriend] Nikki”.
He said that “feelings of my love for her was overcoming me”, before later adding: “I felt evil, swallowed up by this thing inside of me. I felt like I could kill anything and be justified for doing it.”
In one letter, he’s said to have written: “If I had not met Nikki, I would never have killed my family.”
By taking this stance, once again, Watts is attempting to shift the blame on to a woman rather than take responsibility for his own actions.
According to a report published on People, a source close to Watts said that he is “curious” about the Netflix documentary (which he “can’t see”) but that “he hates even knowing that his texts [to his wife] are out there for the public to read”.
“It brings back awful memories of 2018 for him,” the source adds.
Watts is currently serving his life sentence in a maximum-security prison.
American Murder: The Family Next Door is available on Netflix.