Behind the Scenes of Family Murderer Chris Watts' Surprising Guilty Plea: 'He Made the Right Choice'
When Chris Watts first appeared on TV, standing outside his suburban Colorado home on Aug. 14, talking to a local news reporter, the only strange thing about him seemed to be the story he was telling.
His pregnant wife, Shan’ann Watts, and daughters Bella and Celeste were missing, he said.
He was unnaturally calm, even awkward — as though he had never expected to find himself in this position, talking about his family on the news, or like he had something to hide.
Chris said he and Shan’ann had had an “emotional conversation” before she vanished, but he declined to elaborate. He said he wanted her and their kids home safe. He pleaded: “This has got to stop, someone has got to come forward.”
Two days later, the first piece of the truth emerged: Authorities arrested Chris, 33, after confronting him about an affair he was carrying on with a co-worker. They charged him with first-degree murder in the deaths of his wife and daughters — even as he claimed in a police interview that Shan’ann, 34, was to blame, that he’d witnessed her strangling Celeste in apparent revenge when he announced he wanted a separation.
In the hours after Chris’ arrest, authorities found Shan’ann’s body buried at an oil site owned by his then-employer. Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3, were submerged in oil tanks nearby.
When Chris next appeared on TV — on Aug. 16, this time in chains — the nation was watching.
Privately, Chris was sticking to his story and preparing a defense that laid all blame with his wife of nearly six years, who was 15 weeks pregnant with a son at the time of her death.
A source who was in contact with him behind bars told PEOPLE Chris was “ready to fight,” and any battle was likely to be a long one.
Observers drew parallels between the Watts family murders and the case of Scott Peterson, a California man whose pregnant wife, Laci Peterson, vanished before the world learned that he, too, was having an affair and had also been caught up in his own web of lies. Like Chris, Scott had given media interviews and publicly assisted in the search for Laci before her body was found.
Scott maintained his innocence until the end, when he was sentenced in 2004 to death after being convicted of murdering Laci and their unborn son, Conner, around Christmas Eve two years earlier.
Ambrosio Rodriguez, a Los Angeles prosecutor turned defense attorney who is unconnected to the case, told PEOPLE that Chris’ case could take years to prosecute given its high profile and because he could be sentenced to die if convicted.
And then, on Nov. 6, a sudden reversal that had secretly been weeks in the making: In a deal with prosecutors, Chris pleaded guilty to everything, avoiding the death penalty but acknowledging reluctantly that he would spend the rest of his life in prison when he was sentenced on Monday.
Shan’ann’s parents and brother huddled together in court, crying as Chris admitted guilt.
Stoic himself, Chris fell apart afterward, the source close to him tells PEOPLE: “He lost everything, and he knows it.”
With his plea, a case that could have carried on without answers for years is all but resolved. Prosecutors have said several key questions will be answered once Chris is sentenced, including his motive and how his family was killed.
The source close to him says Chris had to be persuaded to plead but realized he had no other option, given the damning evidence against him. Even so, the decision was his alone.
“Even up until this week, it wasn’t clear if he would change his mind,” the source says. “He certainly could have. But he made the right choice for himself and probably the right choice for his family.”
Why did Chris change his mind? And how was a plea worked out?
Here is a timeline of events between his arrest and his surprising admission this month. (The timeline is based on court filings reviewed by PEOPLE, statements by prosecutors and interviews with sources connected to Chris and law enforcement.)
Aug. 15: After being questioned by police, Chris is arrested and held on suspicion of first-degree murder and tampering with dead bodies. He confesses to killing Shan’ann but blames her for the death of their daughters. The oil and gas company where he had worked — and on whose remote property he stashed all three bodies — fires him.
Aug. 16: Chris makes his first appearance in Weld County Court, shackled and in an orange jumpsuit. No formal charges have yet been filed but the court finds probable cause for his arrest after reviewing prosecutor filings. The judge orders him held without bond in the Weld County Jail. That day, the bodies of Shan’ann, Bella and Celeste are found.
Aug. 17: Chris’ attorneys file a motion seeking to collect DNA from the recovered bodies, possibly to implicate Shan’ann by suggesting she strangled the girls. In an unusual move, the defense team almost immediately begins filing a flurry of motions related to DNA testing.
University of Colorado law professor Aya Gruber, who is unconnected to the case, tells PEOPLE this was “absolutely the right thing to do on the side of the defense.”
Chris’ public defenders “had an idea that these bodies, their condition and the story that they told about what happened would be a critical issue in the case,” she says.
Still, the judge is largely unconvinced by the defense’s arguments about how the DNA should be collected. (The autopsies for Shan’ann, Bella and Celeste have yet to be made public, though their release is expected once Chris is sentenced.)
Aug. 20: Chris is formally charged with three counts of first-degree murder, two additional first-degree murder charges causing the death of a child under age 12, three counts of tampering with a body and one count of first-degree unlawful termination of a pregnancy.
Aug. 21: Chris appears in court, where he hears the charges filed against him. The judge denies bail. He waives his right to a preliminary hearing.
Shan’ann’s father, Frank Rzucek, and brother, Frankie Rzucek, sit in the first row, just feet away from Chris, with Frankie consoling his dad as they listen to the proceedings.
Sept. 13: Prosecutors file a motion demanding that Chris turn over DNA samples, fingerprints, palm prints and photographs of his hands to aid in the testing of various pieces of evidence — which are undisclosed except for the revelation that a bag with a possible footprint was found near the bodies.
Chris’ attorneys file a motion to deny this request, which former L.A. defense attorney Ambrosio Rodriguez says is “standard in death penalty cases. They’re going to get his DNA and his fingerprints. It’s fighting for the sake of fighting.”
The defense, Rodriguez says, faces “an extremely difficult case because it’s hard to believe [Chris’] story.”
Before the end of the month, the judge grants the prosecution’s request for Chris’ DNA.
September-October: The source who is in contact with Chris says he has grown depressed behind bars, where he is placed on suicide watch and confined to his cell for 23 hours a day. “He’s not doing well at all,” this source says. “The gravity of the situation has hit him like a ton of bricks. Depression is setting in, and he’s despondent.”
The source says Chris has two personal effects with him: a Bible and a photo of his family.
Early October: Chris’ attorneys approach the prosecution about a possible plea deal.
“I can’t tell you the exact date but it’s been several weeks in the making,” Michael Rourke, the Weld County district attorney, tells reporters after Chris’ guilty plea. Prosecutors travel to North Carolina to meet with Shan’ann’s family to discuss the case and the ramifications of seeking the death penalty. Rourke says her relatives have been firmly against a possible execution for Chris.
Rourke tells reporters that he doesn’t know what prompted the defense team to approach him but that he made it clear that he wouldn’t dismiss any charges. “I was not willing to entertain any further concessions above and beyond removing the death penalty,” he says.
That alone was always likely to be enough motivation, according to law professor Gruber.
More than a month before Chris’ plea, she tells PEOPLE: “The most likely scenario I would see with a plea would be if they said, ‘We’re considering the death penalty given those children and we’ll drop it out if you plead guilty to first-degree murder without the death penalty being on the table.’ That would be huge incentive to plead guilty.”
Days before Chris’ plea: Shan’ann’s family, led by her mother, Sandra Rzucek, asks the district attorney not to pursue the death penalty, Rourke later reveals.
“Sandi said it very, very poignantly to me,” he says. “She said, ‘[Chris] made the choice to take those lives. I do not want to be in the position to take his.’ ”
Throughout October and leading up to Chris’ plea: His attorneys discuss the idea of him admitting guilt, which he resists, according to the source close to him. The source says, in contrast to his earlier despondency, Chris is more engaged with his legal team.
“Chris had to come to terms with reality,” the source says. “He didn’t like it at all, but he’s smart enough to know that his back was against the wall, and the best thing for him to do was to plead guilty.”
When Chris finally decides to announce his guilt in court, “There was some yelling, and some crying,” the source says. “But eventually, he acknowledged that his life was over after he killed Shan’ann. He would have been facing years of legal challenges and, best-case scenario, he would have been acquitted. Worst-case scenario, he gets put to death.
“This was actually a winnable defense case, but he didn’t have the resources to fight it, and in the end I don’t think he had the energy or the inclination to do it,” the source explains. “He will spend the rest of his life in jail, and he’s resigned to that fact now.”
Tuesday: After Chris pleads guilty to all charges, the D.A. holds a news conference, saying he felt “sick” and “saddened” at the violence that befell Shan’ann, Bella Celeste and her unborn son, Nico, and the Rzucek family.
He says, quoting another investigator: “No one wins today.”
• With reporting by ADAM CARLSON