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Full Story Behind American Murder
If you’re any sort of true crime aficionado, Netflix’s latest documentary, American Murder: The Family Next Door, is a heartbreaking must-watch. The movie dives into the heinous familicide committed by Chris Watts on August 13, 2018, in which he murdered his pregnant wife Shanann and their daughters Celeste and Bella, who were 3 and 4 years old at the time, respectively. Using police footage and real content from Shanann’s Facebook page, American Murder recounts the events leading up to Chris’ horrific crime, his attempted cover-up, and his November 2018 sentencing to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
On the morning of August 13, Shanann had uncharacteristically missed dozens of calls and texts. After a friend contacted the police and Chris returned home from work, a search of their Frederick, Colorado home found Shanann and the two young girls missing. Two days later, as media coverage of the disappearances ballooned, Chris’s secret girlfriend Nichol Kessinger realized that he had lied to her—he was actually not in the process of a divorce like he had told her when they met.
“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 told the Denver Post in 2018, explaining that “with a pregnant woman and two children missing, I was going to do anything that I could.”
They had only been seeing one another for a few weeks, but her growing concern led Kessinger to go to the police with the information she had. Having learned about the affair, the police questioned Watts again, but after he denied the affair, they asked if he would agree to a polygraph. Watts consented to take the polygraph but lied when asked whether he knew what had happened to his wife and children. He failed the polygraph, and hours later, Watts confessed to the murders, all of which is shown in the Netflix documentary.
Watts had in fact strangled his pregnant wife, who was 34-years-old at the time of her death, in bed in the early morning of August 13 after a tense conversation about them separating. After an unsuccessful attempt to smother his two small daughters at home, Netflix’s documentary tells how he brought them along, alive, in the car with their mother’s dead body while he drove to the oil storage facility he worked at. After he buried Shanann in a shallow grave, he smothered and shoved the bodies of Bella and Celeste through a small opening in a huge oil tank.
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In November of 2018, Watts was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. He was also sentenced to 48 years for the unlawful termination of pregnancy and 36 for three charges of tampering with a deceased body, both of which run consecutively with his life sentences. His guilty plea spared him the death penalty.
Chris Watts is currently imprisoned at Dodge Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Waupun, Wisconsin. According to People, he is aware of Netflix’s new documentary, although unable to watch it himself, and ashamed.
Lauren Kranc is an editorial assistant at Esquire, where she covers pop culture and television, with entirely too narrow of an expertise on Netflix dating shows.
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