Alice Oscura, Featured Writer
Warning: Contains sensitive topics and sometimes graphic descriptions. Parental discretion is advised.
Synopsis: American Murder: The Family Next Door is a Netflix true crime documentary film that tells the story of the Watts family murders that took place in Frederick, Colorado in 2018. The story is told using archival footage in the form of social media posts, law enforcement body cam footage, as well as interview room recordings, home videos and text messages. The timeline is easy to trace as victim Shanann Watts was regularly active on social media.
Shanann married Chris Watts back in 2012. She was married once before and had indicated that her first marriage was an unhappy one. Shanann was diagnosed with auto immune disease Lupus for which she had to take regular medication to control the symptoms. Shanann and Chris had two baby girls, Bella Marie in 2013, and Celeste “Cece” Cathryn in 2015. During the investigation, it was revealed that Chris’s parents did not like Shanann and did not attend their wedding. The issue seemed to be that Chris’s mother and sister did not like Shanann’s bossy and domineering attitude nor the fact that she made Chris move away from their home state of North Carolina to Colorado.
Shanann worked from home selling a product for the multi-level marketing company Le-Vel while Chris worked at Andarko Petroleum. In May 2018, Shanann discovered that she was pregnant with their third child (a boy to be named Nico). She recorded Chris’ reaction to the positive pregnancy test and it was a bit strange. By this time their marriage was beginning to show the cracks. Neighbours reported that they heard the couple shouting and even witnessed them fighting in their driveway.
Investigation and Sentencing
Nickole Atkinson (Shanann’s close friend and co-worker) dropped Shanann off at her house at around 1.48 am on the 13th of August 2018 after attending a business conference in Arizona. Atkinson said that she became increasingly worried after Shanann missed a scheduled OB-GYN appointment and failed to respond to her text messages. Because Atkinson was unsatisfied with Chris’ response as to where Shanann might have been she called the local police station to make a report.
Eventually a police officer met up with Atkinson and, accompanied by her son, visited the Watts residence to conduct a welfare check. Since Chris was not at home the officer couldn’t legally enter the house, especially since it seemed to be locked from the inside. The family’s pet dog Dieter can be heard barking from within the residence on the officer’s body cam footage. Just as Nickole was about to get the authorisation code for the garage door from Shanann’s parents Chris shows up and lets them all inside the house. They discover that not only is Shanann’s vehicle still in the garage but also the girls’ car seats. They also find her handbag which contained her prescribed medication, her cell phone, and wedding ring on the kitchen counter. Shanann was an extremely organised businesswoman, and it didn’t make any sense that she would leave her handbag or cell phone at the house. A couple of the girls’ blankets were also missing but apart from these discoveries the house is eerily neat.
The police officer obtained access to the neighbour’s camera footage which shows Chris parking his truck in driveway earlier in the morning. This was suspicious because normally Shanann didn’t like him to park there because the truck had a particularly bad oil leak and it would stain the driveway. The footage is grainy, but you can at least make out that Chris loaded something three times into the truck during this time period. But it should be noted that at this stage Chris Watts was not a suspect as yet and as far as anyone was concerned Shanann, Bella and Cece were still alive at this point.
However, after Chris Watts did an interview, his behaviour came into question as he showed no emotions of being a worried spouse or father. His lack of emotion and ghost of a smile during the interview threw suspicion on him finally, and the investigation took a turn into his direction. Shanann and Chris’ marital problems came to light especially when Shanann took the kids to North Carolina for an impromptu vacation for a little over a month without him. An incident at Chris’ mother’s house seemed to cause an even bigger rift between the two and Chris’ lack of communication with Shanann during that time made her suspect that he may have been cheating on her. Needless to say, that she was right—Chris was having an affair with a co-worker. However, when she eventually confronts him on it because their sexual relations were a no-go, Chris still denied it. It seemed as though the affair escalated after Shanann became pregnant and Chris admitted that he was not in love with her anymore and that he did not want the baby. Shanann was desperate to save her marriage and wanted them to go to marriage counselling but Chris refused.
In Chris’ narcissistic mind he wanted a new life with a clean slate and no attachments or obligations, so he was definitely not interested in saving the marriage. He was brought in for a polygraph test which he failed. And from the footage in the interview room we saw Chris ask for his father and confess to killing Shanann in a momentary fit of rage after having discovered that Shanann had strangled the girls when he asked her for a divorce. However, it was extremely clear to the investigators that Shanann wouldn’t commit such an act. After revealing where his family’s bodies were disposed of, Chris was arrested on the 15th of August 2018. It was during his trial that the truth was revealed—he killed Shanann (and by extension his unborn son Nico) first and when Bella walked in on them he told her that her mother was sick. He soon loaded Shanann’s body and his daughters into the back seat of his truck, carried them to the disposal location and proceeded to smother his daughters one after the other with a blanket.
Chris Watts was charged with five counts of first-degree murder and on the 19th of November he was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences (three consecutive and two concurrent) without the possibility of parole.
Many nasty comments were made against Shanann online after and during the trial. I honestly think that even though Shanann had a difficult personality by all accounts she seemed to be a great and attentive mother. What people described as being “bitchy” I would say that they misunderstood a woman that had a strong and ambitious personality. I think that she needed to be that way because of her girls and her chronic illness. I also think that Chris was a narcissistic sociopath from the beginning and over time it became increasingly worse. Shanann unfortunately just didn’t see the warning signs until it was too late. People seem to forget that Chris Watts basically annihilated his entire family including his unborn son and two sweet, energetic little girls who have been recorded saying that their Daddy was their hero. Innocent lives were cut short but in the end justice was well served.
The film was superbly done in the sense that you could follow the case along and join the FBI on their journey in piecing the evidence together. The story itself is extremely tragic but it also brings to mind the fact that although things may look perfect on the other side of the fence to the outside world, you never know what cracks may be hidden below the surface and what deep, dark secrets are waiting to be exposed.
Alice’s Score: 7.5 out of 10
Dark Alice has an old soul and a curious mind. I believe that anyone can be a hero and that the good guys should always win! I dislike cruelty to animals and think that they have far superior qualities to humans. My motto is there is no future without the past. I also have a weird penchant for Paranormal TV shows even though the slightest sound makes me jump. I enjoy writing reviews and throwing in fun facts to pique the readers’ curiosity. My ultimate goal in life would be to become a published writer one day. You can find me as Dark Alice Reviews on Facebook where you’ll get my reviews hot off the press. You can also find me on Instagram as alice_oscura and my Twitter handle is @lise_veliz2. For my extended bio you can click here.