Why did Chris Watts kill his family? How can someone murder everyone they (claim to) love? In November 2018, then 33-year-old Colorado resident, Christopher Watts, murdered his pregnant wife Shanann and two young daughters, 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste. He buried their bodies in an oil site where he worked.
Watts initially denied having any involvement with his family’s deaths, but he later confessed to strangling Shanann and suffocating his two daughters. Watts pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to five life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Fast forward three years to the present day, and new details have emerged regarding the tragic case. After reportedly finding religion while incarcerated, Watts agreed to have an interview with the police. Watts admitted that he strangled his wife after revealing that he wanted a divorce because he was having an affair with a coworker. He said that Shanann then disapproved of his seeing the kids again, so he strangled her to death. Watts’s coworker, Nichol Kessinger, corroborates the affair and claims that Watts told her that he was in the process of divorcing his wife and that they were separated.
What is family annihilation, and how does Watts fit in?
According to former FBI agent Brad Garrett, family annihilators “are driven to kill their family for a number of reasons. Many times it’s for financial problems. And the belief is that men, in particular, will kill their family because they have lost their ability to support them. And it gets into the male ego identity. Losing identity is the key component here.”
Dr. Neil Websdale, director of the Family Violence Institute at Northern Arizona, explains that family annihilation cases are relatively uncommon, and Watts’s case is somewhat unique for several reasons:
- There is no evidence pointing to Watts trying to take his own life after killing his family, as most family annihilators do.
- Unlike many family annihilators, Watts didn’t have a history of dangerous behavior, like domestic violence or aggressiveness
- No catastrophic event, such as a job loss or devastating health diagnosis, served as Watts’s motivation.
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If Chris Watts doesn’t fit the typical mold of a family annihilator, then what was his motive?
It seems that Watts was driven by a desire to start a new relationship with Nichol without being burdened by his family. His web history revealed that he was happily planning this new relationship, googling jewelry and secluded weekend getaways.
In an exchange of pen-pal letters from prison to a woman named Cheryln Cadle, Watts admitted knowing that if he took his hands off of Shanann, she would still keep him from Nichol. Watts also admitted that he had previously drugged Shanann with Oxycodone in an attempt to cause a miscarriage because it would have been easier to be with Nichol if Shanann wasn’t pregnant.
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If Watts’s wife, Shanann, was threatening to take his kids away from him and that he’d never see them again because of his affair, it could have provoked a level of rage that Watts simply couldn’t control. Rather than the kids being taken away from him, he tried to control the situation by taking away the kids himself. For this reason, Websdale believes that Watts “fits the profile for some sort of antisocial personality disorder,” which describes about one-fifth of family annihilators.
The fact that Watts didn’t commit suicide after the murders may speak to an aggressive, narcissistic kind of personality that drove Watts to think that he may be able to get away with his troubling actions. Self-centered Watts felt entitled to take charge and do what he needed to do to live the life he wanted and thought he deserved.
According to CNN, court records show that the Watts’s had filed for bankruptcy in 2015, just three years before Chris’s atrocious crimes. Shanann eventually landed a new job that provided her with perks: a higher salary, a new Lexus car, and paid-for trips around the world. This information led to speculation about whether Watts’s motive was resentment over Shanann’s newfound success and jealousy that she was out, enjoying the life he wanted.
Regardless of Chris Watts’s motive, the case reveals an unnerving truth: we can never really know what goes on inside someone’s head and heart, no matter how much we think we know them.
Written by Elena Shmerling