Colorado resident Chris Watts confessed to the unthinkable in November 2018. He admitted to murdering not only his pregnant wife Shanann, but also their two young daughters: Bella and Celeste. With that, the case may have seemed closed. But as we’ll discover later, a new Lifetime movie opened up a new conversation with the victims’ family – and they had a lot to say.
Shanann and Chris tied the knot in November 2012 – two years after they had first met. Subsequently, 13 months later the pair welcomed their first daughter named Bella Marie Watts into the world. Then in July 2015 the couple had another girl, Celeste Cathryn, who the family referred to as Cece.
At the time, Chris was an employee of Anadarko Petroleum, while Shannan worked as a marketing company representative. But things would soon unravel for the former. From the outside, the couple’s life together appeared to be perfectly normal, and they were even expecting a little boy who they planned to name Niko Lee. But before her January 2019 due date, Shannan and her two young daughters disappeared from their house in Frederick, Colorado.
At first, it seemed like a terrifying missing persons’ case. Shanann had arrived home in the early hours of August 13, 2018, after her friend Nickole Utoft Atkinson had dropped her off following a business trip. After that, she hadn’t heard from Shanann again. The pregnant mom wasn’t responding to texts, missed an OB-GYN appointment and skipped out on a work meeting.
The missed business meeting was the last straw for Nickole. So when Shanann didn’t show up for it, she went to her home, knocked on the door and waited. Then after no one answered, the mom-of-two’s colleague called the police. Officers arrived to check the house at 1:40 p.m. – at which time Chris had come home, too.
Chris subsequently allowed the cops into his home to look for his wife and daughters. The police didn’t find anyone inside, but they did discover Shanann’s cell phone, keys and wedding ring. Her car remained in the garage – still outfitted with Bella and Cece’s car seats. Soon enough, the news of the vanished family hit airwaves, and Chris spoke out about the shock of them all disappearing.
Talking to the TV station KUSA in August 2018, Chris said he was “hoping right now that [Shanann]’s somewhere safe.” The father-of-two added that he could barely cope with his empty abode. He added, “This house is not the same. Last night was traumatic. Last night was – I can’t really stay in this house again with nobody here.”
Chris told KDVR in August 2018, “It’s not something I could ever, ever fathom would happen in my lifetime, and I have no inclination of where [Shannan] is.” He claimed that all he had to go on were his wife’s supposed last whereabouts. Chris continued, “She said she was going to a friend’s house with the kids and that’s the last thing I heard, and that was it. It was very vague.”
But things started to clear up on August 15, 2018, which was just two days after Shanann, Bella and Cece had disappeared. On that day, the authorities had a suspect in cuffs and under arrest. He’d failed a polygraph test and had then admitted to murdering Shanann. It was, of course, her husband and the father of her children: Chris.
At first, Chris told a story that presented Shanann as an irreversibly scorned wife. According to KTRK-TV, he claimed during the police investigation that he’d asked his pregnant spouse for a divorce. In response, she had strangled Bella and Cece, and he’d subsequently strangled her once he realized what she had done to their kids. Then, he removed all three bodies from the family’s home.
At least one detail from Chris’ story did line up, however. He told the police that he had taken Shanann, Bella and Cece’s bodies to Anadarko Petroleum’s oil-storage site – where he worked. There, investigators found the young girls’ bodies in on-site oil tanks. They uncovered Shanann’s body hidden in a shallow grave, too.
In spite of Chris’ version of events, the authorities charged him with the murders of Shanann, Bella and Cece. The deaths of his daughters also brought two additional charges of first-degree murder. That’s because Chris held a “position of trust” over them, and due to the fact that both girls were younger than 12 years old. Plus, he faced a charge of unlawful termination of a pregnancy and three counts of tampering with a body.
As news of the horrific murders spread, people began to wonder why Chris would kill Shanann and his two daughters. By August 20 People reported that friends had noticed tension between the pair. Regardless, Frederick resident Terry Witt explained, “You never expect one of your neighbors to do something like this.”
As time went on, though, Chris’ motive appeared to become clearer. Court documents alleged that the husband and new-dad-to-be had embarked on an affair with one of his colleagues. Eventually, the other woman spoke to the press. Her name was Nichol Kessinger, and she had a simple message for The Denver Post in November 2018. She said, “[Chris is] a liar. He lied about everything.”
According to Nichol, she and Chris began seeing one another a month before Shanann, Bella and Cece had gone missing. She said that they decided to take their new relationship slowly, as the father-of-two had allegedly told her that he was in the midst of obtaining an amicable divorce with his wife.
Chris also supposedly told Nichol that he and Shanann just had to iron out the financial side of their split. And he apparently made no mention of the fact that his wife was pregnant, either. Instead, Kessinger said, “He made me believe that he was doing all of the things that a rational man and good father would do.”
And things got worse as the authorities investigated the triple murder further. Chris had, of course, admitted to killing Shanann, but he claimed that he’d only done so after she had killed their two daughters. But police began to question his story, and by August 28 sources revealed that the cops had yet to find evidence that the mother-to-be had strangled her two daughters.
An anonymous source told People, “There is absolutely no evidence that [Shanann] killed her children. None at all. And there is physical evidence to tie [Chris] to their murders. Strangulation is a very personal way to kill someone – with a lot of physical contact. Just based on the preliminary evidence, everything is consistent with him killing them all.”
But Chris did have two people in his corner – his parents Ronnie and Cindy Watts. They spoke to KMGH in November 2018 and alleged that Shanann had isolated their son from them over the course of a supposedly abusive marriage. Cindy claimed, “It was a very hard relationship. It was a very hard relationship with her as far as I’m concerned. I couldn’t do anything right.”
Ronnie and Cindy said that Chris had admitted killing Shannan after becoming blind with rage, and they added that he’d profusely apologized to them afterwards. He supposedly said, “I am so sorry. I ruined your life. I ruined my life.” Chris also explained the way he’d hidden the bodies – telling his parents he couldn’t put his wife alongside his daughters.
But Shanann’s family didn’t take the Chris’ parents’ statement laying down. Instead, her parents Frank and Sandra Rzucek, responded to Cindy and Ronnie’s allegations by sharing a different picture of their slain daughter. The Rzuceks released a statement that said, “Shanann Watts was a faithful wife, and the most gentle and loving mother in the world to her children Bella, Celeste, and Nico. She was also the best daughter any parent could ever hope for. Shanann was a wonderful soul.”
The Rzuceks said that Chris’ actions proved their point. And on November 6, 2018, the latter pleaded guilty to the murders of Shanann, Bella and Cece. And despite the horrific nature of the crimes he committed, the district attorney removed the death penalty as a potential punishment at the behest of his wife’s family, who didn’t want anyone else to die.
Still, Chris would face serious consequences for taking three lives – as well as the life of his unborn son. After pleading guilty, the Colorado resident received five life sentences. He was also handed 48 years for terminating Shanann’s pregnancy and 36 years for tampering with his wife and daughters’ bodies after the slayings.
Although Chris’ crimes were chilling, to say the least, his public defender read a short statement expressing his remorse later in November 2018. The attorney said, “Mr. Watts has asked us to share this morning that he is devastated by all of this. Although he understands that words are hollow at this point, he is sincerely sorry for all of this.”
Life in prison would give Chris plenty of time to reflect on such sentiments, too. Even at the start of his time in jail, a source claimed to People that he kept a photo of his slain family in his cell with him. The person said, “He has nothing to do but reflect on what happened. That’s basically it.”
Elsewhere, in December 2018 the authorities decided to move Chris to an out-of-state prison, as they had concerns for his security closer to home. Now, he will spend the rest of his days at a maximum-security facility in Waupun, Wisconsin.
From his new surroundings, Chris wrote a letter to Cherlyn Cadle – with whom he had conversed regularly about the case. She published the contents of their discussions in her 2019 book Letters From Christopher. But one of his explosive letters was released to the public, and it revealed his account of the night that Shanann, Bella and Cece died.
DailyMailTV obtained the letter and published it a few days ahead of Cherlyn’s book release. Chris wrote, “[On the morning of] August 13… I went to the girls’ room first, before Shanann and I had our argument. I went to Bella’s room, then Cece’s room and used a pillow from their bed [to kill them].”
After that, Chris wrote that he “climbed back in bed with Shanann and our argument ensued.” He wrote that he then killed his wife – but the slayings didn’t end there. The murderer revealed, “Bella and Cece woke back up. I’m not sure how they woke back up, but they did. Bella’s eyes were bruised and both girls looked like they had been through trauma.”
Chris went on to kill Bella and Cece, and, in his letter, he admitted that he had been planning theirs and Shanann’s murders before they had happened. He wrote, “[On] August 12 when I finished putting the girls to bed, I walked away and said, ‘That’s the last time I’m going to be tucking my babies in.’’ I knew what was going to happen the day before and I did nothing to stop it!”
It wasn’t just the letter or the trial that grabbed headlines, though; the Watts family case grabbed national headlines from the start. Perhaps because of this, Lifetime filmed a movie and documentary about the case – both of which were released back-to-back on the evening of January 25, 2020.
The movie, titled Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer, starred Sean Kleier as the eponymous murderer and Ashley Williams as his wife Shanann. Even the trailer elicited fear from viewers, as it featured a dramatization of the killer’s lie detector test spliced with scenes of his alleged abuse of his wife.
Lifetime aired a public service announcement after the film in an attempt to help other women who might be in abusive relationships. From there, the network also presented Beyond the Headlines: The Watts Family Tragedy. The true crime documentary featured interviews from Shanann’s friends, as well as from Tammy Lee – an agent from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation who led the charge in putting Chris behind bars.
The public may have had interest in both films, of course, but Shanann’s family wasn’t happy with the release of the fictionalized version of the heinous crimes. The Rzuceks’ attorney, Steven Lambert, spoke to Denver7 and claimed that the family had felt “re-victimized” as a result of the Lifetime movie trailers – which had aired around the holidays.
Steven also alleged that Lifetime hadn’t reached out to the Rzuceks for their input in the film, nor did they give them a heads up that the movie would be coming out. And, when he’d tried to get in touch with the network about their impending release, Lifetime supposedly waited until the flick was nearly completed before responding.
For their part, the Rzuceks believed that the Lifetime movie wouldn’t portray the story correctly. Attorney Steven said, “It’s not an accurate portrayal of their daughter, of their grandchildren, or even Chris Watts himself.” But without the network canceling their presentation of the movie, the family could only request vigilance from the public.
For one thing, the Rzuceks advised people not to buy anything bearing the Watts name. Although the family had no affiliation with such items, they clarified that they received no profits from the creation of such films or other materials. On that note, Shanann’s loved ones maintained that they received no financial compensation for their public appearances – which included interviews on 20/20 and Dr. Phil.
Instead, the Rzuceks had given away all of Shanann’s remaining possessions to non-profit organizations and charities. Their attorney Steven hinted to Denver7 that they may be donating their own time to production companies that promised to put out films or documentaries with their consent and input.
In the meantime, though, the Rzuceks worried that the Lifetime flicks could get people talking about their daughter and granddaughters’ case once again. People online had long harassed them in the wake of the slayings – with some commenters contending that Chris wasn’t actually guilty of the crimes.
As to the speculation over who murdered Shannan, the Rzucek family had little tolerance. Their lawyer Steven sent out a message on their behalf, saying, “Armchair detectives going out there trying to find scraps of evidence, saying, ‘Chris really wasn’t the killer, it was X,’ or, ‘His original confession was the true confession and Shanann did have a hand in this,’ or, ‘There is some sort of conspiracy’ – that kind of stuff bothers them a lot.”