Chris Watts is many things — admitted triple murderer, adulterer, manipulator — but perhaps before he is anything else, he is a liar. And it is his lies that brought him to justice.
It took police not quite three days to arrest him in the deaths of his pregnant wife, Shanann Watts, and their daughters, Bella and Celeste. Three months after that, he pleaded guilty to all of his charges and was sentenced to life in prison.
It was a surprisingly quick resolution to such a high-profile prosecution (one legal expert predicted the case would drag on for years), but in hindsight Chris’ downfall began swiftly, only hours after Shanann and their girls were killed before sunrise on Aug. 13.
Police were involved less than 12 hours later, watching and growing more suspicious as Chris spun one story after another, first claiming that Shanann had gone to an unnamed friend’s house with their daughters after he left for work.
The Watts family home, in Frederick, Colorado, showed no urgent signs of violence, but there were oddities. For example, the sheets on the master bed had been stripped and all of the doors and windows were locked. If Shanann had left voluntarily, it looked like she took nothing of importance with her — not her purse, not her phone, not her car — except her kids.
“Many of the things that he [Chris] was saying just weren’t adding up,” Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke later told reporters. “Very, very early on” Chris became a suspect in the case.
Rourke said authorities “did an amazing job from the very outset to begin to focus on him, and rightly so.”
Shanann, Bella and Celeste were reported missing on Aug. 13. The following day, Chris stood outside their home and gave a series of pleading TV interviews, wishing for their safe return but eliding key details — telling one reporter that he and his wife had had an “emotional conversation” before she vanished but declining to elaborate.
Early on Aug. 15, the co-worker with whom Chris had been having an affair called law enforcement to reveal their relationship.
Also that day drones, launched by investigators, traced Chris’ movements on Aug. 13, when he said his family disappeared. Authorities used the GPS from Chris’ work truck, searching for signs of what had really happened. They found what they needed that afternoon.
At 11:02 that night — approximately 69 hours after his wife returned home and was shortly thereafter strangled — Chris was arrested on suspicion of murdering his entire family.
This reconstruction of how police closed in on him is based on court documents reviewed by PEOPLE, various news reports, statements by prosecutors and police and interviews given by both Chris and his family as well as information from sources connected to the case.
To Start: Chris Tells a Strange Story
It had only been a few hours since she last saw Shanann alive when her friend Nickole Atkinson called Chris early on Aug. 13, wondering where she was.
As Atkinson recalled to ABC News, she last saw Shanann after dropping her off about 1:45 a.m. on Aug. 13 following a work trip in Scottsdale, Arizona. She grew concerned when Shanann missed a 10 a.m. doctor’s appointment and, when Atkinson was unable to get inside the Watts home to check on her friend, she called Chris, worried Shanann may have had a health emergency.
Inside, however, there was no trace of Shanann or their daughters. About 1:40 p.m., police were dispatched by Atkinson to the home.
She later told ABC that Chris’ demeanor even before his arrest was disconcerting.
“He was defending himself, but it just didn’t make sense. Like in that moment it is kind of surreal,” she said. “He was just sitting there waiting for something to happen; it just didn’t seem right to me.”
Of his own accord, Atkinson said, Chris volunteered that he and his wife had been preparing to split up.
Speaking with responding officers, Chris said he had woken up about 5 o’clock that morning, after Shanann got home and the two had a “civil conversation” about him wanting to separate after nearly six years of marriage.
With another investigator, Chris changed the timeline slightly — saying he and his wife spoke at 4 a.m. about him wanting to separate and both were “upset and crying.”
Both stories ended the same way: Shanann said she was going to see a friend later that day. Last Chris saw, she was in bed when he went to work. When her friend Atkinson came to check on her later on Aug. 13, she found Shanann’s vehicle left in the garage, car seats still inside.
The family’s home was locked up tight. Shanann’s wallet, purse, phone and keys were all accounted for. But she and the girls were gone.
With the Family Still Missing, Authorities Widen Their Search
By 7 a.m. on Aug. 14, when police learned that Shanann, Bella and Celeste had not returned home, they took the possible missing persons case public, issuing a news release and requesting assistance from state and federal investigators.
Chris had already taken steps to conceal his crimes. After his families’ bodies were hidden away, he called his girls’ school to say they would not be enrolled there for the upcoming year — an apparent attempt to delay suspicions about their disappearance.
Chris also reached out to a Realtor about selling their home and he called a relative, both of which were “very odd and inconsistent with the rest of his conduct that day,” according to prosecutors.
Atkinson’s concern, so soon after Shanann vanished, was crucial to unraveling what happened.
“She was absolutely instrumental,” D.A. Rourke told reporters. Thanks to Atkinson, police became involved when they did which likely prevented more clean up of the crime scene, Rourke said.
Using the GPS in Chris’ work truck, investigators retraced his travel on Aug. 13, searching by foot and by air, with drones.
About 4:15 p.m. on Aug. 15, a drone spotted a telltale bed sheet at an oil site owned by Anadarko Petroleum, where Chris worked as a field coordinator. The sheet was familiar: It matched a set that had been pulled from the master bed and stuffed in the trash at the Watts home.
His Mistress Comes Clean — and He Tells His Boldest Lie
Nichol Kessinger, Chris’ Anadarko co-worker turned girlfriend, had been seeing him regularly for about a month when she realized that that she really didn’t know him at all, she told the Denver Post.
As they pursued a relationship, he’d told her he was separated from his wife and nearly at the end of their pending divorce. He talked about finding a new apartment where his girls could also stay.
And then, on Aug. 13, he texted Kessinger the same basic lie he’d told police: Shanann took the girls to a friends to play but hadn’t returned. They were “gone,” he said. But he did not seem upset.
Cascading news reports alarmed her, however. That’s when she learned Chris, in fact, was not getting a divorce and that his wife was 15 weeks pregnant.
“I thought, ‘If he was able to lie to me and hide something that big, what else was he lying about?’ ” she said in an interview with the Post.
In calls and texts, Chris was no more transparent, but he denied having harmed his wife and kids.
“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,” Kessinger said.
Early on Aug. 15, she called the police.
Confirmation of Chris’ affair was one of several pieces of incriminating evidence gathered over the course of Aug. 15, culminating in Chris’ arrest that night for murder.
He had agreed to be questioned by investigators that day at the police department, likely not realizing the work that was going on around him.
At the same time he was speaking with police, authorities were confirming his affair — which they have said was key to his motive — as well as discovering the abandoned bed sheet at the oil site. Chris, too, was opening up about his fractured marriage with Shanann.
“So all of that was coming together while they were talking to him, that information was being communicated to the investigators and they started confronting him with that,” explained Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wrenn
“That’s ultimately when he changed directions with his story dramatically,” Wrenn said.
Speaking with local TV station KUSA last week, Chris’ mom, Cindy Watts, described her belief, as the investigation rolled on, that no foul play would be discovered.
“I was not worried. I thought [Shanann] has just gone off and ‘I’m going to punish you for this and you’re going to worry about me,’ ” Cindy told KUSA.
She said Chris was being transparent with law enforcement — sitting for hours of questions, letting them into his home.
“When Christopher called us, I said, ‘Do you want us to come down now?” Cindy said. “He said, ‘Tell dad I need him. Tell dad I need him to come down.’ I said, ‘What about me?’ He said, ‘No, mom. Just stay. Send dad.’ ”
Chris’ father, Ronnie Watts, flew to Denver “and they drove to the police station, and Chris still didn’t say anything to him,” Cindy said. “Nothing. He had already been interrogated seven hours prior to that. … He was going in for another interrogation.”
When Chris cracked, this is what Cindy heard: “After five hours, they called Ronnie and said, ‘Your son wants to talk to you before he tells us anything.’ ”
According to his arrest affidavit, Chris said he would “tell the truth” after he spoke with his dad, who was also at the police station. Then he revealed his final and most brazen lie: Shanann was responsible for the death of their daughters, in retaliation after he told her he wanted to split up, and he’d been forced to strangle her in “a rage.”
“Christopher broke down and cried and said, ‘I’m sorry dad,’ ” Cindy recalled to KUSA. “He said, ‘I went into a rage and I killed her after she killed Cece and Bella.’ ”
He hid their bodies at an Anadarko site, and he pointed out their locations from a photo. Shanann, Bella and Celeste’s remains were recovered, exactly where he said they would be, on Aug. 16.
“This is absolutely the worst outcome that any of us could imagine,” Colorado Bureau of Investigation Director John Camper said then.
At Last, ‘a Gruesome Homicide Solved’
Authorities say that, for all of his lies and pleas in TV interviews, Chris never dissuaded their suspicions.
“I think it was very clear from the outset that he was responsible for this and frankly was pulling the wool over the eyes of the media — to the extent that anyone in the media believed him,” Rourke said.
“In a matter of three days a gruesome triple homicide including a pregnant woman solved is a testament to the efforts of the men and women who participated in this investigation,” he said.
Chris was booked into the Weld County Jail at 12:03 a.m. on Aug. 16. Anadarko fired him on Aug. 15, the day of his arrest.
Asource close to the investigation who was present for his booking told PEOPLE he “showed no emotion the entire time.”
“He looked like he couldn’t be bothered by the whole thing.”
• With reporting by KC BAKER