3 Years After the Murder of Shanann Watts and Her Daughters, a Look Back at the Case
Chris Watts pleaded guilty to the Aug. 13, 2018, murders of wife, Shanann, and their daughters, Bella and Celeste
A FRIEND REQUEST LEADS TO LOVE
Shanann Watts was facing health problems in 2010 when she met Chris. "I was in a really, really, really bad place, and I got a friend request from Chris on Facebook," she said in an online video about four months before her death. "I was like, 'Oh what the heck, I'm never going to meet him.' Well, one thing led to another, and eight years later we have two kids, we live in Colorado, and he's the best thing that has ever happened to me."
THEIR FAMILY GROWS
After the couple moved to Colorado, they started a family. Bella was born in December 2013. "[Shanann] was so excited to have her first baby girl," her family wrote in her obituary. "How she loved and cherished her!"
Less than two years later, in July 2015, Celeste was born. "Oh how [Shanann] was so excited to be able to have another child because of her battle with Lupus," her family wrote. "Every moment with her was a blessing."
In 2018, Shanann became pregnant again with a baby boy she planned to name Niko.
By all outward appearances, the couple's marriage was strong. In the summer of 2018, however, Shanann had noticed that things had changed. "He has changed. I don't know who he is," she texted a friend on Aug. 7. "He hasn't touched me all week, kissed me, talked to me except for when I'm trying to figure out what is wrong. We've never had a problem in our relationship like this. I just want to cry."
SHANANN AND GIRLS DISAPPEAR
Shanann and the girls were last seen on Monday, Aug. 13, 2018. Chris Watts gave a series of stilted television interviews after their disappearance, pleading for their safe return. "We had an emotional conversation," he told Denver 7, a day after his family was reported missing. "She wasn't here. The kids weren't here. Nobody was here."
A GRISLY DISCOVERY
On Aug. 16, Shanann's body was found on the property of Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, an oil and gas company where Chris had worked. Daughters Bella and Celeste were located later that day in oil tanks near Shanann's body.
Shanann had been strangled, while the girls had been smothered — all with Chris' bare hands. Chris was arrested on three counts of first-degree murder and three counts of tampering with a body.
WATTS' SHOCKING DEFENSE
While in police custody, Chris claimed that he told Shanann that he wanted to separate. He alleged that he went downstairs and noticed Shanann strangling Celeste -- and that Bella's lifeless body was nearby. He ran upstairs in a "rage," he claimed, and strangled Shanann.
Cops didn't believe his story. "His story didn't match the evidence that we had," a police source told PEOPLE at the time. "We believe that Chris killed them all."
WATTS' SECRET DOUBLE LIFE IS DISCOVERED
Authorities soon learned that Chris was having an affair with Nichol Kessinger, who worked at his company. After she learned about the murders, Kessinger cooperated with police.
Before coming forward, Kessinger appeared to worry about the public shaming that she might face. "Did people hate Amber Frey?" she typed into an internet search, invoking the name of the woman who was having an affair with infamous killer Scott Peterson, who murdered his wife, Laci, and their unborn child in 2002. Kessinger told authorities that she believed that Watts was going through an amicable divorce.
SHANANN WATTS AND HER DAUGHTERS ARE LAID TO REST
Hundreds of mourners assembled at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pinehurst, N.C., to pay their final respects to Shanann, her daughters, and her unborn son, Niko.
"I always worried about her and the girls being so far because I couldn't protect them," Shanann's brother, Frankie Rzucek, wrote in her eulogy. Rzucek didn't mention Chris Watts in his eulogy, but had previously lashed out at him, calling him a "heartless psychopath" and saying that he "stole my whole world."
A SURPRISING PLEA
In a bombshell turn of events on Nov. 6, 2018, Watts pleaded guilty in the slayings of his pregnant wife and their young children in exchange for being spared a possible death sentence. "The evidence against him was overwhelming," a legal source close to Watts told PEOPLE at the time. "He really had no choice, considering the evidence. It took a little bit of time for him to come around, but he did."
But not everyone was happy with the plea agreement; Watts' mother, Cindy, said in several interviews that she thought the confession and the plea were "coerced."
LIFE BEHIND BARS — WITHOUT PAROLE
On Nov. 19, 2018, Watts was formally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. "The defendant coldly and deliberately ended four lives," prosecutors said of Shanann, her girls and her unborn child.
During the victim impact statements, Shanann's father, Frank Rzucek, repeatedly referred to Watts as a monster and an evil person. "I have no idea who gave you the right to take their lives," Shanann's mother, Sandra Rzucek (pictured), said, "But I know God and his mighty angels were there in that moment to bring them home to paradise."
WATTS COMES CLEAN
On March 7, 2019, a video of Chris Watts' full confession -- which he'd provided to investigators in February -- was made public.
In the video, he told investigators from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation that on the night of the murders, he'd jumped on Shanann in bed after he'd told her he didn't love her anymore. He claims she threatened to leave him and take the children.
Then Watts drove 45 minutes to a remote oil field, with Shanann's corpse in the bed of the truck and his still-living girls in the backseat.
Before burying Shanann in a shallow grave, Watts said he smothered Celeste in the backseat. After dumping Celeste's body in an old field, he returned to smother Bella, who begged for her life.
As he went to kill her, Bella screamed, "Daddy, No!" and "it was the last words she spoke," the report reads.
'HE WISHES HE HAD HANDLED THINGS DIFFERENTLY'
According to sources, Watts' life in jail is anything but stimulating. For an hour a day, he gets out of his cell for showers and exercise. He remains in the evaluation unit of the prison.
In in his cell, he's allowed to have a Bible, but not much more.
With so much free time, Watts has spent a lot of time thinking about his past, says a friend of Watts' who asked PEOPLE only to be identified as Kim.
"He's sad that everyone is hurting," Kim tells PEOPLE. "He wishes he could go back in time. He wishes he had handled things differently."
LETTERS TO MOM: 'I'M STILL A DAD! I'M STILL A SON!'
In July 2019, Chris Watts claimed in a chilling jailhouse letter to his mother that he was a changed man with a newfound relationship with God.
His mother, Cindy Watts, was interviewed in the HLN special: Killer Dad: Chris Watts Speaks. During the show, she read the letter she received from her son.
"I'm still a Dad! I'm still a son! No matter what," Watts wrote. "Now, I can add servant of God to that mix! He has shown me peace, peace, love and forgiveness, and that's how I live every day."
CASE FEATURED IN NETFLIX DOC
A 2020 Netflix documentary, titled American Murder: The Family Next Door, revealed the final text messages Shanann sent her husband.
″Finally on plane and about to take off,″ she wrote in her last text to Chris. ″Thank God! Prayers for a safe flight. Love you!"
Chris did not respond.
After the release of the widely viewed Netflix documentary, Shanann Watts' brother thanked the filmmakers on social media for giving a "voice" to the victims.
"I highly recommend watching this," Frankie Rzucek wrote on Facebook. "The director made sure we were a part of the whole process and we met the whole team personally. They made sure we were ok with them making this before they even started."
"This documentary gives my sister a voice and she speaks throughout it," he continued. "It also shows what her life was like before he came along and how happy she was with her beautiful family until he cheated and turned into a different person and became that monster."
WATTS IS 'OUTCAST, EVEN AMONG CRIMINALS'
A source who regularly speaks to Watts told PEOPLE in 2021 that Watts is ostracized by the other inmates and guards.
"No one wants anything to do with him," said the source. "He's on the lowest social tier of the entire prison. He's in protective custody because if he's around other inmates, he'd be in real danger. He's an outcast, even among criminals."
"He's probably the most hated man in that prison," the source says, "because he killed children. There's a definite pecking order in jail, and someone who hurts or kills kids is at the very bottom."