The True Story Behind Netflix’s ‘American Murder: The Family Next Door’

Chris Watts

TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains gruesome and real-life details of murder.

On August 13, 2018, Colorado man, Chris Watts, murdered his pregnant wife Shanann and their two daughters, four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste.

The triple homicide sent shockwaves around the USA. But what would lead a father to commit such a heinous crime?

Netflix’s documentary, American Murder: The Family Next Door, premieres on September 30 and is a look at how a father-of-two became a cold-blooded killer.

As details of their deaths made headlines worldwide, it became clear that Watts wasn’t the man he appeared to be. Through watching the documentary, viewers will experience a gripping and immersive examination of the disintegration of a marriage and subsequent killings.

So, what really happened the night of August 13, two years ago?

Chris Watts

The murders

At 2.00am on August 13, 2018, Shannan was dropped home after a business trip by her friend Nicole Atkinson.

The following morning, after Shannan had missed an obstetrician appointment and wasn’t answering her mobile, Atkinson became concerned for her friend’s welfare.

She then called Chris, followed by the local Colorado police department.

That afternoon, police conducted an investigation in the Watts household. Shannan and the girls were nowhere to be found, however, her car and personal belongings were still there. There were no signs of foul play.

Chris initially told police that he had no idea where his family were and the next day, they were declared missing and an “Endangered Missing Person alert” was released.

The investigation

Following their disappearance, Chris began to give media appearances, appealing for information about the whereabouts of his family. Each time, his story changed.

While he portrayed a grieving husband, the local police department, known as the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) went through his phone records and discovered that he was having an affair with an Anadarko Petroleum co-worker. Something he originally denied.

Chris told police that at around 5.00am on the morning of her death, he “began talking to Shanann about marital separation and informed her he wanted to initiate the separation”.

CCTV footage from a neighbouring home then showed him leave for work at the Petroleum plant at about 5.27am.

Two days later, on August 15, Chris failed a polygraph test. After his arrest, he was fired from his job.

Chris told police that he would talk to them, however, he asked to speak to his father first. During a previous conversation, Chris confessed to the murder of his wife, saying he had killed her in anger.

“While in the bedroom, via baby monitor located on Shanann’s nightstand, he observed Bella ‘sprawled’ out on her bed and blue, and Shanann actively strangling Celeste,” Chris had claimed. “Chris said he went into a rage and ultimately strangled Shanann to death.”

However, his story changed again and he confessed to the murder of all three of them. Upon his confession, he said, “They’re gone. There’s no bringing them back”.

Chris then told investigators that he drove out to the oil field at Anadarko Petroleum with the children alive and their mother dead on the floor of the truck. He then admitted to smothering Celeste in front of her sister, before killing Bella.

Chris then buried his wife in a shallow grave and put the bodies of his two daughters in oil tanks nearby. When police went searching, they were exactly where he said they would be.

Defence attorneys then sought DNA tests for the children, concluding that they had indeed been strangled.

Even though the causes of death were never made public, prosecutors alleged that Shanann was 15 weeks pregnant with a boy the family had named Nico who died “as a result of the unlawful termination of her pregnancy”.

Chris Watts

Chris is charged with murder

On August 21, 2018, Chris was charged with the murders of Shannan, Bella and Celeste.

“On or about August 13, 2018, Christopher Lee Watts unlawfully, feloniously, after deliberation, and with the intent to cause the death of a person other than himself, caused the death of Shanann Watts,” Weld county district judge Marcelo A. Kopcow said then continued to read the charges and names of his two daughters.

Chris was charged with five counts of murder in the deaths of his wife and his two daughters. Prosecutors brought two murder charges for each of the girls’ deaths citing the children “had not yet attained twelve years of age and the defendant was in a position of trust.”

While the family looked picture-perfect on social media, in 2015, they filed for bankruptcy with the couple in significant debt. Then, Chris had a six-week affair in 2018.

On ABCs Good Morning America, Atkinson said that in the lead up to her death, Shannan had suspected her husband was having an affair.

“He wasn’t being the loving Chris that he normally was,” she said. “He wasn’t touching or hugging or doing stuff like that.”

American Murder: The Family Next Door premiere’s on Netflix on September 30.

After the Netflix Series Premiered

According to The Sun Watts revealed more details of his pregnant wife’s murder in a letter he wrote to author Cherlyn Cadle for her book Letters From Christopher: The Tragic Confessions of the Watts Family Murders which was released on October 7.

In the letter, he said that he’d been thinking about killing his wife for “weeks” and then detailed what happened when she died.

“Her eyes filled with blood; as she looked at me and she died. I knew she was gone when she relieved herself,” he wrote.

Watts also tried to terminate his wife’s pregnancy, citing that he “thought it would be easier to be with Nichol if Shanann wasn’t pregnant” and had given her Oxycodone.

“When she started to get drowsy, I somehow knew how to squeeze the jugular veins until it cut off the blood flow to her brain, and she passed out,” he wrote.

“I knew if I took my hands off of her, she would still keep me from Nikki. They asked me why she couldn’t fight back, it’s because she couldn’t fight back.

“All the weeks of me thinking about killing her, and now I was faced with it.”

Watts also admitted how he tried unsuccessfully to smother his daughters using “a pillow from their bed”, however, they both regained consciousness.

The letters also showed that the children saw their mother wrapped up in a bedsheet. He told them that Shannan wasn’t feeling well before he put her in the truck before driving them to Anadarko.

According to the report, Watts buried Shannan and then smothered Celeste with her own blanket, before dropping her in the oil tanker all while Bella watched on. She was the only one to put up a fight.

As he is heard saying in his confessional in the series, Bella said, “Daddy, no!” as he killed her.

These letters were the first time that Watts had admitted to killing his daughters. He would later plead guilty to all three murders.

An autopsy found that Shannan was strangled and they found oil in both the children’s throats, stomachs and lungs.

On October 2, People magazine reported that Watts was “triggered” by the documentary that had been released on Netflix, however, more recent reports are suggesting that he is striking up friendships with women who “feel sorry” for him.

According to the same outlet, Watts spends most of his time behind bars “corresponding with multiple women” who “thought he was handsome and felt compassion for him”.

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