What we learned about the Chris Watts case from American Murder: The Family Next Door

If you’re a true crime fanatic, it’s a safe bet that Netflix’s documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door is already on your list — but just because it’s a must-watch, doesn’t mean it’s an easy watch. The doc focuses on the gripping disappearance of Shanann Watts and her two young daughters, which rocked a quiet Denver suburb in 2018. If you were on the Internet at all during the late summer and fall of that year, you probably recall watching the horrific details play out in real time. As it turns out, it was way more horrific than any of us could’ve imagined.

On the surface, Shanann and her husband, Chris Watts, appeared to have a perfect marriage. The soon-to-be mother-of-three regularly gushed about her family on social media, but Instagram isn’t real life. And there were a number of issues brewing beneath the surface — from tension with in-laws to Chris’ illicit affair with a coworker.

Through the use of home videos, private text messages, and surveillance footage, American Murder attempts to answer everyone’s biggest question: Why? What could possibly be the motive for a crime this disturbing? Could there be a motive at all? The truth didn’t come out until months after the murders took place. Here’s what we learned from the doc.

Disclaimer: The details of this case are extremely disturbing. Some readers may find this story upsetting.

Shanann Watts surprised Chris Watts with her third pregnancy

One of the most disturbing aspects of American Murder: The Family Next Door is the fact that Shanann Watts’ disappearance kicked off with good news. She and husband Chris Watts — who already had a 4-year-old named Bella and 3-year-old named Celeste — were expecting their third child. According to various reports, sometime between May and June 2018, Shanann surprised Chris with a pregnancy announcement and filmed his reaction for social media. That resulting video, where Shanann dons a shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Oops … we did it again,” has now been widely circulated across news reports and social media.

At the time, it seemed like the couple had been trying for another child. The clip clearly showed Chris laughing and calling the pregnancy “awesome.” He even gave Shanann a kiss, and the expecting mother later gushed about her husband on Facebook, where she called him “the best dad us girls could ask for.” 

This was just two months before Shanann went missing. According to Aug. 7 text messages obtained by Oxygen, the expecting mother revealed that Chris had changed his mind about welcoming a third child, writing, “I don’t feel safe with him after what he said about the baby.”

Chris Watts was having an affair with a co-worker

Not long after Shanann Watts’ pregnancy announcement, Chris Watts entered an affair with his co-worker, Nichol Kessinger. According to Insider, she claimed that they only “seriously” started dating at the end of June 2018. This matched police records, which showed that he first put her contact information into his phone on June 14 of that year. From there, it was a whirlwind. By July — a month before the murders — Chris searched Google for “when to say I love you for the first time in a new relationship,” and left Kessinger a love letter, per People. By August, Kessinger was looking at wedding dresses online.

Beyond that, it didn’t seem like Kessinger was willingly a mistress. She believed Chris’ marriage was over, and told The Denver Post that November that he wasn’t wearing a wedding band when they first met. She later found out about his wife and kids, telling police that Chris claimed to be in the “process of separating” from Shanann, according to Insider. However, as Harper’s Bazaar points out, this may not be entirely the truth. 

The Frederick Police Department’s discovery document, which outlined Kessinger’s Google searches, found that she looked up “man I’m having an affair with says he will leave his wife” in late July, which could signal that she may not have thought the relationship was over.

The pair had marital problems, largely stemming from Shanann Watts' in-laws

With Shanann Watts’ loved-up social media posts, it’s hard to imagine that her marriage was marred with some pretty deep issues. In reality, things began unravelling at the end of June 2018, as Chris Watts was deep in the throes of his affair. A good chunk of American Murder: The Family Next Door focuses on the events and aftermath of the five-week vacation that the family took to North Carolina around this time. There, they visited Chris’ parents — but Shanann’s relationship with her in-laws was clearly tumultuous and a source of strain on their marriage.

According to Insider, Shanann and the kids went ahead to the tar heel state while Chris stayed behind to work (and have multiple dates — including an overnight rendezvous — with Kessinger). He ended up joining his family later on, but Shanann had already started to notice that he was acting distant. A text message (via Insider), revealed a massive fight the couple had after Chris’ mother was allegedly flagrant about their daughter’s nut allergy. Shanann called his mom “evil” and “willing to risk [their] daughter’s life just to get under [her] skin.” She also accused Chris of not really missing her.

The pair’s rough patch was bad enough that Shanann began to vent to friends. According to Oxygen, she canceled her baby’s gender reveal party after Chris was “very cold to her” at an ultrasound appointment.

Shanann Watts discovered Chris Watts' affair during a business trip

If there’s one thing American Murder: The Family Next Door did show us, it’s that Shanann Watts believed her marriage was worth saving, no matter how difficult things had been. Though Oxygen reports that she texted a friend on Aug. 7, 2018, claiming that she didn’t “feel safe” with her husband, that feeling was fleeting.

By the time Shanann left for a business trip to Arizona on Aug. 9, the mother-of-two was feeling hopeful. According to Insider, Shanann told a friend that they had their “best talk yet.” That same day, she texted a friend a draft of a handwritten letter that she planned to give husband Chris Watts. In it, she claimed that she “missed the hell out of [him]” and that she “can’t change what happened,” but she could “try to work things out” with him and his parents.

Unfortunately, it takes two people to fix a marriage — and Chris was using Shanann’s time away to see mistress Nichol Kessinger. We learned in the documentary that Shanann discovered Chris’ affair through a $60 charge on their shared card from a local sports bar called The Lazy Dog. Per Harper’s Bazaar, Shanann searched online for the restaurant’s menu in an attempt to determine if Chris had been eating with another person. She was due to return from her business trip the next day and planned to confront him, hoping that they could work together to save their marriage.

A close friend first noticed that Shanann Watts was missing on Aug. 13

American Murder: The Family Next Door taught us that Shanann Watts kept close friends — the kind that drive you home from the airport in the early hours of the morning and the kind that follow up not long after. The mother-of-two wasn’t gone for very long when she was reported missing by her friend, Nickole Atkinson.

According to Harper’s Bazaar, Atkinson didn’t drop Shanann home until shortly before 2:00 a.m. on Aug. 13, 2018 (as seen in security footage from a neighbor’s house). The following day, Atkinson couldn’t reach her — leaving “dozens of calls and messages,” as reported by Esquire — so she dropped by her house. Per Insider‘s report, no one answered the door, but Shanann’s car was in the garage. Atkinson found this strange and alerted the police, who conducted a welfare check and searched the premises after Chris let them inside.

There, police found Shanann’s cell phone, purse, and medication, which prompted them to open a missing person’s case. As we saw in the documentary, Chris initially had little explanation for his family’s disappearance, only claiming that Shanann had taken the girls to a friend’s house (via People). It was a neighbor who suggested the father-of-two was acting odd, leaving before 5:30 a.m. that morning. Chris claimed that’s when he left for work. The following day, he appeared on local TV pleading for his wife’s return. “If you’re out there, just come back,” he said.

Chris Watts failed a polygraph test after his mistress went to the police

Nichol Kessinger could have very easily been a villain, but American Murder: The Family Next Door taught us that Chris Watts’ mistress was actually a key part of the investigation. As the media circus surrounding Shanann Watts’ disappearance snowballed, Kessinger realized the man she had loved had lied. He wasn’t in the midst of a divorce at all. Rather, Shanann was 15 weeks pregnant.

In a November 2018 interview with The Denver Post, Kessinger revealed that she had texted Chris asking about “what he had done” regarding his wife’s disappearance. He claimed he “would never hurt his family.” However, Kessinger told the outlet, “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 added, “I just wanted to help. With a pregnant woman and two children missing, I was going to do anything that I could.”

Kessinger ultimately went to the Weld County Sheriff’s Office to tell the police about her affair on Aug. 15. She met with FBI investigators that same day, and Chris was given a polygraph test. He failed — and that’s when the truth finally started coming out.

Chris Watts initially claimed Shanann Watts killed their children

Most people familiar with this case don’t realize that Chris Watts initially tried to blame his wife for the murder of their young daughters, Bella and Celeste. As American Murder: The Family Next Door revealed, Chris confessed to killing Shanann — but only because she had smothered their children to death, first. It was revenge, and a story we saw fed to him by officers during questioning. 

In truth, Shanann had no motive to kill her kids. Earlier in the month — during the pair’s massive argument that Chris dubbed “nutgate” — Shanann admitted (via Insider), “These kids are my world and I have to protect them from the evil of the world.” She didn’t know the evil was actually living in her house. 

Here’s what actually happened: Shanann got home for her business trip in the early morning hours of Aug. 13, 2018, she accused Chris of cheating, and he “strangled her to death.” According to Insider, it was such a noisy argument that one of their daughters, Bella, actually woke up and walked into the bedroom, where she asked, “What’s wrong with Mommy?” Chris brushed it off, wrapped Shanann’s body in a sheet, and dragged it into his truck.

It took months for Chris Watts to come clean

Though it took just three days to recover all of the bodies, it took months for Chris Watts to come clean. He only owned up to murdering his daughters, Bella and Celeste, during his trial in November 2018, and it wasn’t even a flat-out admission. It was the consequence of pleading guilty to all five counts of first-degree murder (according to Insider, “two additional murder charges were added” because his daughters were younger than 12 years old). But we still didn’t know why or how.

In February 2019, Chris finally shared the whole story, which was graphically detailed in American Murder: The Family Next Door. Per Harper’s Bazaar, he claimed he drove his daughters and wife Shanann Watts’ body — which was wrapped in a sheet in the back of the truck — to the oil site where he worked. There, he buried Shanann, smothered his two children, and disposed of their bodies in two nearby oil tanks. According to Chris (via ABC News), Bella’s last words were a devastating, “Daddy, no!”

Chris Watts was given the maximum punishment

Chris Watts’ horrific actions landed him a bevvy of charges, which were all laid out in Netflix’s September 2020 documentary, American Murder: The Family Next Door. Per Inside Edition, on Aug. 20, 2018, he was officially charged with “three counts of first-degree murder; two counts of first-degree murder for causing the death of a person under the age of 12 while being in a position of trust; one count of unlawful termination of a pregnancy and three counts of tampering with a deceased body.” This amounted to nine counts, after additional charges were added because of his children’s young age.

According to The New York Times, Chris ended up pleading guilty to all nine charges in a deal that spared him from the death penalty. Death ultimately wasn’t what Shanann Watts’ family wanted. CNN reports that her mother, Sandy Rzucek, believed that it wasn’t her “right” to take Chris’ life, saying in court that his life was “between [him] and God.”

Chris was given the maximum punishment: five consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole. Judge Marcelo Kopcow, who handed out the sentencing, called the murders “the most inhumane and vicious crime that I have handled out of the thousands of cases that I have seen.” Though Chris, who is imprisoned in Wisconsin, was reportedly aware of Netflix’s documentary, People reports that “it makes him feel a lot of shame,” with a source claiming, “He’ll probably never see it.”

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