The Watts family murders occurred on the early morning of 13 August 2018, when Chris Watts (born 16 May 1985) murdered his pregnant wife Shanann Watts (born 10 January 1984) and their daughters Bella, 4, and Celeste 3, in their Frederick, Colorado, home. Chris Watts pleaded guilty on 6 November 2018 to multiple counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to five life sentences, three to be served consecutively and two to be served concurrently.
Shanann (born Rzucek) and Christopher Lee Watts were an American couple who were married for six years and had two daughters: Bella, born 17 December 2013, and Celeste, born 17 July 2015. The family lived in a five-bedroom home in Frederick, Colorado, purchased in 2013, but later declared bankruptcy in 2015. The husband was employed by Anadarko Petroleum, while Shanann was an independent representative for the multi-level marketing company Le-vel. At the time of her death, she was fifteen weeks pregnant.
Shanann Watts returned home from a business-related trip to Scottsdale, Arizona, around 1:40 a.m. on 13 August 2018, having received a ride from friend and colleague Nickole Utoft Atkinson. Her husband, Chris Watts, was home with the children.
Later that day, Shanann and the two children were reported missing by Atkinson, who had become concerned when Shanann missed a scheduled OB-GYN appointment and failed to return text messages. After Shanann also 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 Watts and called the Frederick Police Department. Officers arrived to conduct a welfare check around 1:40 p.m. Chris Watts, who had arrived home from work, gave the police permission to search the house, which was empty. The police discovered Shanann’s purse, phone, and keys inside; her car and the children’s car seats were also at the house.
The FBI and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation joined the investigation the next day, August 14. Chris Watts gave an interview to a local television station outside his house pleading for his family’s return. Investigators with cadaver dogs could be seen on the property during the interview.
Arrest and charges
Chris Watts was arrested late on August 15, 2018. According to the arrest affidavit, Chris confessed after failing a polygraph test to strangling his wife and disposing of the three bodies. Chris asked to speak to his father, Ronnie Watts, before making the confession. According to the affidavit, Chris Watts was having an affair and claimed to have asked for a separation from his wife. During the investigation, Watts claimed Shanann 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 an oil site where he worked.
The bodies were located by the authorities on the property of Watts’ now-former employer on August 16. (Watts had been fired from his job on August 15, the day of his arrest.) The children’s bodies were found in oil tanks, while Shanann was buried in a shallow grave nearby.
On August 21, Watts was charged with five counts of first-degree murder, including 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. According to the former FBI profiler Candice DeLong, cases such as Chris Watts’ are rare, because “family annihilators usually commit suicide after the murders”.
Plea deal and sentencing
Chris Watts pleaded guilty to the murders on November 6 to avoid the possibility of the death penalty. Shanann’s family was supportive of the district attorney’s decision to accept the plea deal. On November 19, Watts was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
On December 3, 2018, Watts was moved to an “undisclosed” out-of-state location due to “security concerns.” On December 5, 2018, he arrived to the Dodge Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison, in Waupun, Wisconsin, to serve the remainder of his life sentences.
The funeral for the victims was held in Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Many of the stuffed animals left at the memorial in front of the Watts’ home were repurposed by the local fire and police departments for young children in crisis situations.