The Watts Family Murders

Last week, I discussed the 1959 murder of the entire Walker family in Florida. This week’s topic is the Watts family murders. This crime occurred in 2018 in Frederick, Colorado. But the killer in this case was not an outsider.

The Family

Christopher “Chris” Watts and Shan’nann Rzucek were natives of North Carolina. They met in 2010 and married in Mecklenburg County in November 2012. Shan’nann had been briefly married before, but in Chris, thought she had found her perfect mate. In 2013, they moved to Frederick, Colorado, a suburb of Denver near Boulder. Chris worked as a field technician for Anadarko Petroleum while Shan’nann was a representative for a multi-level marketing company, Le-Vel, selling a product called Thrive.

By the summer of 2018, the couple had two daughters, Bella, 4, and Celeste whom they called CeCe, 3. Shan’nann was also pregnant with their third child, a boy. Although they lived in a lovely five-bedroom home in Frederick, all was not entirely well. They were apparently living beyond their means because they declared bankruptcy in 2015.

Shan'nann, Bella, and CeCe Watts, victims in the Watts family murders
Shan’nann Watts with CeCe (L) and Bella (R)

Trouble really started brewing in the summer of 2018, when Shan’nann took the girls to North Carolina for six weeks to visit family. Chris did join the family for the final week. But he did little to defuse the tension that had arisen between Shan’nann and her in-laws. Besides, in the interim, he had acquired a girlfriend, a coworker named Nikki Kessinger.

Chris Watts with his girlfriend, Nikki Kessinger.  Photo taken before the Watts family murders.
Chris Watts with his mistress, Nikki Kessinger

The Watts Family Murders

Shan’nann went to Arizona for a Le-Vel meeting and returned in the early hours of August 13, 2018. Friends became concerned when they were unable to locate the usually social and loquacious young woman. Reluctantly reporting her absence to police, Chris theorized that she had taken the children and gone off somewhere. This seemed unlikely since Shan’nann’s car and the girls’ car seats were still in the garage.

It didn’t take police long to finger Chris as their prime suspect, especially after he failed a polygraph examination. Slowly, the truth began to emerge. At first, Chris claimed that he killed Shan’nann in a rage because she had killed the girls. But that story didn’t hold water. Eventually, he admitted to smothering the girls and then strangling Shan’nann.

However, Chris failed to kill either of his daughters initially and they were alive as he drove them—with their dead mother’s body on the floorboard—to one of the oil well site where he worked. There, he finished off the girls and dumped each little body into a different oil tank. Disgustingly, he described to investigators how he waited to hear the splash each body made as it hit the oil. Then he dug a shallow grave and buried Shan’nann.

Mugshot of Christopher Lee Watts after being arrested for the Watts family murders
Christopher Lee Watts mugshot

Watts Avoids Trial—And the Death Penalty

Prosecutors charged Chris with five counts of first-degree murder, unlawful termination of a pregnancy, and three counts of tampering with a deceased human body. An additional count for each child made up the five. This was for “death of a child who had not yet attained 12 years of age and the defendant was in a position of trust.”

Rather than face a possible death penalty verdict, Watts chose to plead guilty to all counts. This both shocked and displeased his family, who initially believed him to be innocent. But subsequent interviews leave no doubt that Watts is every bit the monster these crimes show him to be.

On November 19, 2018, Christopher Watts was sentenced to three consecutive and two concurrent life sentences, all without the possibility of parole. He received an additional 48 years for unlawful termination of a pregnancy and 36 years for tampering with the three corpses.

Shortly after sentencing, the State of Colorado moved Chris to the Dodge Correctional Facility in Waupun, Wisconsin. This is the same facility that housed infamous serial killer Ed Gein until his death. Inmate exchanges between states are not common but may be used in cases where the inmate is in particular danger.

More to the Story

The Watts family murders were the subject of a book, My Daddy is a Hero, by psychologist Lena Derhally . Beyond presenting the grim story, Ms. Derhally attempts to analyze why an apparently normal and happy family man suddenly became a family annihilator. There probably will never be a completely satisfactory answer to that question.

Today Chris Watts sits in prison. He gives occasional interviews. In most of he moans about how he messed up his life. Too bad Shan’nann, Bella, and CeCe don’t have that same opportunity.

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