Christopher Watts and ‘American Murder’: What to Know About the Case


One day after killing his pregnant wife and two daughters, Christopher Watts gave a TV interview from his porch in Frederick, Colo., begging them to come home. The haunting interview, recorded as an all-hands search effort combed the area for his missing family members, helped ignite nationwide interest in the 2018 case, which is the subject of a new Netflix documentary.

A lawyer from the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender — which represented Mr. Watts when he pleaded guilty to murder in November 2018 — declined to comment on the documentary, which touched off a new wave of fascination with the grisly murders.

Here’s what to know about the case.

On Aug. 13, 2018, Mr. Watts’s wife, Shanann Watts, 34, who was 15 weeks pregnant, and the couple’s young daughters were reported missing.

Three days later, the authorities announced that Ms. Watts’s body and the bodies of her daughters, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3, had been found on the property of the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, the oil company that had employed Mr. Watts.

Mr. Watts’s arrest the day before the grisly announcement put an end to the nearly three-day search across Frederick, a small town about 30 miles north of Denver.

The 20-person Frederick Police Department worked around the clock, and the search effort eventually grew to include the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the F.B.I.

According to the police, Mr. Watts had been having an affair with a co-worker, and in the early hours of Aug. 13, he told his wife he wanted to separate.

He told the police that afterward, he had looked at the family’s baby monitor and had seen his wife strangling their younger daughter, Celeste. He said that their older daughter, Bella, was lying on her bed and that she had looked blue. After that, he said, he strangled his wife.

Though Mr. Watts initially insisted that he had not killed his children, he said he had dumped their bodies in oil tanks and had buried his wife nearby. He later admitted to killing all three and disposing of their bodies.

Michael J. Rourke, the Weld County district attorney, said Mr. Watts had “smothered his daughters.”

“Bella fought back for her life,” he said, adding that she had bitten her tongue several times before she died.

Mr. Rourke said that Mr. Watts had squeezed his daughters’ bodies through an eight-inch opening to hide them in the oil tank.

“A tuft of blonde hair was found in the entrance of the tank,” Mr. Rourke said.

Before Mr. Watts was arrested, he was interviewed by a TV reporter on Aug. 14, pleading for his family to return home after they had been reported missing.

“Shanann, Bella, Celeste, if you’re out there, just come back,” Mr. Watts said, staring into the camera. “If somebody has her, just bring her back. I need to see everybody, I need to see everybody again. This house is not complete without anybody here.”

On Aug. 15, the day after his interview with Denver7, an ABC affiliate, Mr. Watts was arrested and accused of killing his wife and daughters. He later faced nine criminal counts, including murder, the unlawful termination of a pregnancy and tampering with dead bodies.

That November, Mr. Watts pleaded guilty to nine criminal counts in a deal with prosecutors, who agreed not to pursue the death penalty.

Under the agreement, Mr. Watts agreed to serve consecutive life sentences for each of the three deaths.

“He deserves a life sentence for each and every act on top of one another,” Mr. Rourke said. “It was important that each of those beautiful human beings be reflected in the ultimate sentence that will be imposed.”

In a sentencing hearing on Nov. 19, Mr. Watts was sentenced to five life sentences without the possibility of parole. His sentence also included 48 years for the unlawful termination of Ms. Watts’s pregnancy and 36 years for the disposal of the victims’ bodies.

“I trusted you to take care of them, not kill them, and they also trusted you,” said Ms. Watts’s father, Frank Rzucek Sr. “You disgust me.”

In a February 2019 prison interview with investigators, Mr. Watts confessed that his daughters had still been alive when he put his dead wife’s body in his truck and drove to the oil field where all the bodies were disposed at.

In the nearly five-hour interview, he admitted to strangling his wife after a fight in their home. He said that when he had told Ms. Watts he wanted to end their marriage, she had told him that he would never see their daughters again. After he strangled Ms. Watts, he said, 4-year-old Bella saw her father dragging her mother’s body down the stairs.

He then loaded his daughters into his truck, with their mother’s body nearby, and drove them about 45 minutes to the oil site.

When he got there, he told investigators, he used a blanket to smother Celeste first and dropped her in an oil tank. He then did the same to Bella.

“Is the same thing gonna happen to me as Cece?” he said Bella had asked him before she died.

Last month, the case began to recapture Americans’ attention when Netflix released a documentary on the murders, the Wattses’ marriage and the police investigation. The documentary was made using social media posts, recordings from law enforcement personnel, text messages and home videos, according to Netflix.

The documentary’s director, Jenny Popplewell, said in an interview with Netflix that she wanted people to watch the film to understand how the narratives of the case shifted.

“It was imperative” for her “to have the blessing” of Ms. Watts’s family, the Rzuceks, to make the film, Ms. Popplewell said.

“When I went out to meet with them in North Carolina, they provided me with access to Shanann’s laptop and her mobile phone without any restrictions other than a request to tell the truth,” Ms. Popplewell said. “I’m just so indebted to their trust.”

Niraj Chokshi, Sandra E. Garcia, Sarah Mervosh and Mihir Zaveri contributed reporting.



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