Anyone that’s seen the Netflix documentary film American Murder: The Family Next Door will be well-acquainted with the story of Chris Watts. Following the disappearance of Chris’ wife, Shanann Watts, and the couple’s two children from a small Denver suburb in 2018, a major police hunt ensued. The documentary pieced together the events leading up to and following Shanann’s disappearance, and tried to uncover what really happened. The truth appeared to be much more disturbing than anyone could have imagined, and it soon became clear that Chris was living a double life.
While Shanann’s social media presence gave the impression of a perfect life and a happy family, the truth was apparently far from it. If you’ve followed the story in realtime, you know Chris remains a shady figure whose story has changed on multiple occasions. Here’s everything you need to know about Chris Watts’ double life.
Disclaimer: The details of this case are extremely disturbing. Some readers may find this story upsetting.
Chris Watts changed overnight
When Shanann Watts disappeared on August 13, 2018, she was pregnant with a son, and the mother to two daughters — 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste. And while expecting another baby would be a cause for celebration in most families, the announcement seemed to trigger something in Chris Watts. According to documents released by the Weld County District Attorney’s Office, Shanann told a friend in a text message sent on August 7, 2018, "I don’t feel safe with him after what he said about the baby." That same day, Shanann wrote, "He has changed. I don’t know who he is." As Oxygen noted, Shanann seemed to question her husband’s behavior and the way he was treating her in subsequent messages.
According to ABC News, Shanann’s mother, Sandra Rzucek, revealed on 20/20 that "her daughter had told her that the transformation happened over the course of ‘a few weeks, maybe a month.’" One of Shanann’s close friends, Nickole Atkinson, told ABC’s Nightline, "He wasn’t being the loving Chris that he normally was. He wasn’t touching or hugging or doing stuff like that. He wasn’t being as attentive to the girls as he normally is." She also shared that she knew Chris and Shanann "were having some issues about three weeks prior to everything." The seemingly happy marriage appeared to crumble very quickly in the summer of 2018.
Things moved fast for Chris Watts and Nichol Kessinger
On the surface, Chris Watts appeared to be a dedicated family man, with a loving wife, two young daughters, and a son on the way. However, in the months leading up to the murders of Shanann, Bella, and Celeste Watts, Chris entered into an extramarital relationship with a co-worker called Nichol Kessinger. Chris met Kessinger, a geologist, at Anadarko Petroleum. According to The Denver Post, "One day in the middle of June , [Chris] walked into [Nichol’s] office to introduce himself. They continued casual conversations. She noticed that Watts did not wear a wedding ring, and Kessinger, who was single, thought he was attractive."
As noted by People, "Over the summer, Shanann took her daughters to North Carolina to spend time with her parents and brother for about six weeks." It was reportedly during this time that Kessinger and Chris consummated their romance, with The Denver Post reporting that they "began a physical relationship in early July and saw each other four to five times a week." In fact, according to discovery documents released by the Weld County District Attorney’s Office, on July 25, Chris Googled, "When to say I love you for the first time in a new relationship," indicating that he was all in on his new girlfriend, and ready to declare his feelings to her.
Did Chris Watts lie to Nichol Kessinger?
Chris Watts’ co-worker and mistress, Nichol Kessinger, has proclaimed she had no idea that Shanann Watts was pregnant. As Kessinger told The Denver Post, "When I read the news, I found out he was still married and his wife was 15 weeks pregnant." Prior to this, Kessinger alleged that Chris had "said he was separated and at the end of divorce proceedings," per The Denver Post. However, it remains unclear whether Kessinger really knew the truth about her partner’s family, especially when police investigated her Google search history.
In November 2018, People shared "investigative documents" which showed that Kessinger "spent ‘over two hours’ searching Google for wedding dresses just nine days before Watts killed his wife and two daughters." Furthermore, People reported, "On July 24, Kessinger Google-searched the phrase ‘Man I’m having affair with says he will leave his wife,’" which suggests that she knew Chris was still a married man and was yet to actually separate from Shanann. And on August 8, 2018, Kessinger Googled "topics relating to ‘marrying your mistress,’" which also seems to imply that she knew Chris wasn’t really separated from his wife.
Chris Watts’ mistress hit the delete button
Though Nichol Kessinger reportedly tried to delete much of her correspondence with Chris Watts from her phone, the discovery file released by the Weld County District Attorney’s Office revealed many details about Kessinger and her relationship with Chris. As reported by A&E, "Kessinger deleted Watts’ contact info — as well as their texts and call logs — from her phone before contacting local police to disclose their affair." And according to the discovery file, she Googled, "How long do phone companies keep text messages."
As noted by A&E, the aforementioned discovery document contains much correspondence between Chris and Kessinger, "including texts, love letters, phone logs and photos of the two together on overnight trips." Chris managed to keep explicit messages and photos from Kessinger on his phone using "an app called Secret Calculator," so that no-one else could find them easily. Plus, as the phone records show, Kessinger and Chris were in close contact on the night of the murders, and the following day.
Kessinger told the Denver Post that she was "shocked" when she found out about Chris’ actions. "I don’t think there is a logical explanation for what he did," she said. "It’s a senseless act, and it’s horrific."
Chris Watts allegedly had multiple affairs
While Chris Watts’ relationship with Nichol Kessinger is the one that hit the headlines, he has also been linked to a number of other potential partners. In November 2018, Daily Mail reported that a male escort called Trent Bolte alleged to investigators that he’d previously been in a ten-month relationship with Chris, who was married to Shanann Watts at the time of the affair. The site also noted that Bolte’s mother, Colleen, confirmed her son’s relationship when questioned by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Bolte’s mother reportedly alleged that Chris had given her son money for lip injections on several occasions.
In December 2018, Amanda McMahon told Inside Edition that she’d allegedly met Chris on Tinder. "He seemed like a genuine guy," she told the publication. "He was funny. He was charming." However, according to McMahon, things got a little strange when she was intimate with Chris. McMahon alleged, "The best way I can describe it that he almost zoned out into a different person." McMahon went on to describe Chris as "very forceful," alleging that he’d put his hand on her neck at one point.
A psychotherapist said the murders ‘seem quite premeditated’
After his wife, Shanann Watts, and their daughters disappeared, Chris Watts appeared calm and collected during a television appearance as he begged for their safe return. However, some reports suggest it was likely Chris planned to murder his family for a significant amount of time before he went through with it. In an interview with HollywoodLife, psychotherapist and author of My Daddy is a Hero: How Chris Watts Went from Family Man to Family Killer, Lena Derhally, claimed, "He was completely of sound mind. One of Chris’ confessions, he does describe premeditating these murders for weeks and I believe a lot of the evidence backs that up. It does seem quite premeditated based on his behavior in the weeks before he killed them."
Author Cheryln Cadle released a book called Letters from Christopher, based upon her correspondence with the felon. In October 2019, she shared an excerpt from one of the alleged letters with Daily Mail, which read, "All the weeks of me thinking about killing her, and now I was faced with it." He allegedly also wrote, "August 12th when I finished putting the girls to bed, I walked away and said ”That’s the last time I’m going to be tucking my babies in.’ I knew what was going to happen the day before and I did nothing to stop it!" If the correspondence contained in Cadle’s book is authentic, it would appear that Chris had been secretly planning the tragic event for some time.
Chris Watts wanted to be seen as the perfect husband
In social media posts on Shanann Watts’ Facebook page, Chris Watts appeared to be the perfect husband. For instance, on June 20, 2018, Shanann revealed Chris’ response when she sent him the ultrasound of baby number three. She captioned the snap, "I love Chris! He’s the best dad us girls could ask for." However, Chris and Shanann’s relationship had even caused concern to neighbors, some of which was evident in the documentary, American Murder: The Family Next Door. In fact, the nearly 2,000-page discovery report compiled about the murders featured testimony from Chris and Shanann’s neighbors. According to The Denver Channel, "The report also states that [Shanann’s friend, Nikole] Atkinson and another neighbor, Nathaniel ‘felt Christopher was extremely nervous.’ At one point, Nathaniel said ‘he had heard Christopher numerous times in the past yelling loudly at Shanann.’"
The report also made it clear that Shanann’s own family suspected Chris when she disappeared, suggesting that, behind closed doors, their relationship was less than ideal. Per The Denver Channel, "The report states that while police were searching the family home, ‘Shanann’s mother called during this time and was adamant that Christopher had done something and that I (the detective in the case) needed to check the GPS on his truck.’ … Shanann’s family suspected Watts from day one."
Nichol Kessinger and Chris Watts’ romance turned sour
When Nichol Kessinger first started talking to her co-worker Chris Watts, she was impressed with his manners and gentle persona. In an exclusive interview with The Denver Post in November 2018, Kessinger explained, "When he spoke to me, he was very soft spoken. He appeared to be a good listener." Kessinger also revealed that she was under the impression he was divorcing Shanann Watts. "He made me believe that he was doing all of the things that a rational man and good father would do," Kessinger told The Denver Post.
The article also claimed that Kessinger started dating Chris in July 2018, and she said, "We had just met … I barely knew him." According to Kessinger, when she found out that Chris’ wife and daughters had gone missing on August 13, her lover was suspiciously calm. It was only later, once Kessinger learned more details about the shocking disappearances, that she started to question Chris. "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," she told The Denver Post. "I just wanted to help. With a pregnant woman and two children missing, I was going to do anything that I could."
On August 15, 2018, two days after Shanann was reported missing, Kessinger met with the FBI to tell them everything she knew, and Chris was arrested later that same day.
The Watts family had financial troubles
While the Watts family presented an idyllic life to the outside world, they’d apparently been dealing with some hefty money troubles for quite some time. As reported by CNN, Shanann and Chris Watts had filed for bankruptcy in 2015, and prior to filing, "they were about $70,000 in debt, most of it from student loans and credit card purchases … The couple reported two savings accounts with a total of $9.51 and a joint checking account with $864." Meanwhile, People confirmed that, with the couple’s house, their total liabilities were $448,820 when they filed for bankruptcy. Unfortunately, Shanann and Chris’ finances likely placed a huge amount of stress on the couple.
As noted by People, the Watts filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which asks the court to write off financial debts such as credit cards and loans, but allows the applicant to keep making payments on assets such as houses and cars. However, it’s unclear if Shanann and Chris were granted the filing, per People. Chris’ mistress, Nichol Kessinger, appeared to confirm the financial issues the Watts family had been dealing with during her police interview. According to the discovery documents, Kessinger told police that Chris and Shanann "did not get along well and their financial life was also troubling." The report added, "She said Chris was struggling with finances and now he had a third kid on the way and she does not know if he could afford another kid." The doc went on to state that Kessinger told police that "Shanann was not responsive to this financial trouble."
Many thought Chris Watts was ‘a family man’
As well as seeming like a nice family man to most outsiders, Chris Watts had gotten rave reviews from his friends in the press. One of his former classmates, Brandi Smith, told Daily Beast in 2018, "Most of our conversations that I recall were about music and things like that … I was a bit of an outcast and he kinda just seemed to understand me." Smith continued, "Everyone liked him … It’s actually amazing how many people that knew him have completely turned on him and think he’s this monster when he hasn’t even been convicted." Obviously, since this statement was made, Watts has been sentenced "to three consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole," via The Denver Channel, proving that appearances can be deceptive.
Meanwhile, another friend, Kris Landon, told People in August 2018, "It’s beyond belief, really … I never saw this coming." Landon continued, "His entire persona was as a family man, talking about his wife and his girls … I believed until the other day that his entire life was those girls, and that he would die for them." As the old adage goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. And despite reportedly being a good friend to several people in his life, it’s much more difficult to defend Chris after he pleaded guilty to several counts of murder.
Shanann Watts suspected her husband of cheating
The Netflix documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door went into detail about the disintegration of Chris and Shanann Watts’ marriage. While the family seemed picture-perfect to onlookers, Shanann had noticed a change in her husband. Prior to her death on August 13, Shanann was on a business trip in Arizona. With his wife away, Chris decided to hire a babysitter and take his mistress, Nichol Kessinger, out to The Lazy Dog Sports Bar and Grill in Erie, Colorado. However, Shanann noticed that Chris had spent around $60 and had charged it to their shared card. According to the Frederick Police Department’s discovery report, Shanann Googled "Lazy Dog Menu" on August 11, presumably trying to determine how much one meal versus two would cost at the establishment.
As noted by Associated Press, Shanann reportedly quizzed Chris about the charge and "told a friend that her husband claimed to have eaten a salmon dinner and drank a beer with friends after the game, but the $62 bill aroused her suspicions, as it seemed pricey for fish and beer." Basically, Shanann was beyond doubtful. Meanwhile, Kessinger reportedly told police, via Associated Press, "Watts used a credit card to pay for the meal. She took that as a positive sign in their relationship, because Watts usually paid for items with gift cards, a practice she took as an attempt by Watts to conceal his activities from his wife."
Chris Watts wanted a ‘fresh start’
Chris Watts’ motives for murdering his wife, two daughters, and unborn son, have long been questioned by those following the case. He has often been labeled as a "family annihilator." As noted by People, "The morning after he killed his family and disposed of their bodies at an oil work site owned by his then-employer, Chris called the school the girls were set to attend, saying they would no longer be coming." And then, Chris "contacted a realtor to discuss the selling of his house" and "texted with his girlfriend about their future," Weld County, Colorado’s District Attorney, Michael Rourke, said at Chris’ sentencing hearing, according to People. It seems that Chris started implementing plans to start a new life on the very same day that he murdered his family.
Explaining Chris’ potential motive, Rourke continued, "He had a desire for a fresh start: to begin a relationship with a new love that overpowered all decency and feelings for his wife, his daughters and his unborn son." Chris’ incomprehensible actions are impossible to understand for most of us watching the case unfold. But as Chris had recently struck up a new relationship with Nichol Kessinger, and was known to be having some troubles in his marriage, it seems extremely possible that he killed his family with the belief that he could start a brand new life, which is seriously chilling.