Was it love or obsession? American Murder’s Chris Watts killed his wife Shanann Watts and their two daughters to be with his mistress Nichol Kessinger.
The Netflix documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door has brought the spotlight back on the tragedy that shocked the US in 2018.
Before American Murder was released on Sept. 30, the Watts murders barely made the news outside the US. Since then, it’s all that followers of true crime have been talking about.
What’s extraordinary about the documentary is that unlike other shows, there is no narrator, there is no reenactment.
All the footages were taken from Shanann Watts’ social media accounts, Chris Watts’ phone, text messages to friends, police bodycams, police interviews and media reports, and a neighbor’s CCTV.
Stitched together, we see how a family with two lovely daughters and a three-car-garage home in Frederick, Colorado can go from perfect to unspeakable violence in a matter of weeks.
It’s hyper-realistic in its rawness—including the emotions filmed on a phone cam that were never meant to be seen by anyone but Chris Watts and his girlfriend Nichol Kessinger.
In these clips from their two-day secret vacation to the Great Sand Dunes, a national park in southern Colorado, we are introduced to the mistress that Watts wanted a new life with. (Watts’ wife Shanann and their two daughters—Bella, 4, and Celeste or “CeCe,” 3—were on vacation in North Carolina at the time.)
We see pictures of Watts and Kessinger kissing. We see Watts’ video of Kessinger sandboarding and him saying, “So damn sexy.” And she recording one for him, blowing kisses to the camera and breathlessly saying, “I’m having a wonderful time. You mean a lot to me. And I’m glad that you’re having blast.”
They took tons of pictures on their July 28 vacation. According to police reports, they used Kessinger’s vehicle to drive to the Sand Dunes and her yellow tent to pitch on campgrounds.
The photos and videos were hidden in a Secret Calculator app on Watts’ phone. They included photos of Kessinger wearing a bikini in a bathroom taken by Watts, who’s reflected in the mirror. And other photos where she is in various states of undress.
If you saw only the pictures without knowing the background of the story, you would have thought they were an ordinary happy couple.
Before boarding his flight, Chris Watts hid pictures of his secret vacation with Nichol Kessinger in an app on his phone. Then he texted his wife Shanann, ‘Love you Boo.’
But then again, that’s how Watts’ pictures with his family looked like too—living the American family dream. Just weeks later, he would strangle Shanann, and smother his two daughters and dump their lifeless bodies in oil tankers.
On July 31, Watts boarded an early morning Southwest flight from Denver to Raleigh, North Carolina to join his family. He went straight from Kessinger’s house where he spent the night to the airport.
At Denver airport before the flight, he transferred 41 images from his camping trip with Kessinger into the Secret Calculator app.
Half an hour later, he texted Shanann, “On the plane. Love you Boo.”
Police interviews and whereabouts
A geologist, Kessinger first met Watts in June 2018 and began a sexual relationship with him weeks after. They were colleagues at Anadarko Petroleum and she was working as a site engineer.
She lost her job after their affair became public. She said it would take years for her to find another job.
Kessinger told the police on Aug. 16 that Watts told her he was in the process of divorcing his wife and did not mention Shanann was 15 weeks pregnant.
“I thought what we had….it was very comfortable for me. I enjoyed it. I think he did very much as well,” Kessinger said.
“I know why he lied to me. He lied to me because if I’d have known that he had a child on the way, I would have never wasted my time with him in the first place. None of this would’ve even occurred.”
She denied involvement in the killings. “You know, it wasn’t fair to his family for him to have an affair. It wasn’t fair to me to have him lie to me and make me think that everything is going to plan and still to this day I don’t even know what’s a lie and what’s not,” she told investigators.
She revealed that she and Watts had said “I love you” to each other but that Watts “definitely felt the urge to say it to me a lot more than I did to him because it was all just very new to me and it was like, take your time with this and you don’t need to rush that, you know.”
Before going to the police, Kessinger deleted all traces of Watts on her phone. But investigators discovered from her web history that only days before the murders, on Aug. 4, she was searching for wedding dresses online for two hours.
People reported that on July 24, Kessinger googled “Man I’m having affair with says he will leave his wife”; on Aug. 8 she googled topics such as “marrying your mistress.”
Another mystery people are talking about is Kessinger’s “disappearance.” No one has seen or heard from her since her last media interview in 2018.
On Dec. 17, 2018, Radar Online reported that Kessinger was placed in witness protection. “‘She has received several threats, public shaming and could be considered one of the “most hated women” in America,’ a source close to the investigation told Radar. ‘She plans to start fresh with a new name, new town and ultimately a new identity.’”
True crime experts have weighed in, saying it seems unlikely because while she was a witness in the trial, Watts confessed to the murders to avoid the death penalty.
But the backlash against Kessinger back in 2018 was so strong—imagine an entire country hating you!—that they might have considered the threats against her and provided her with a new identity.
Watts was sentenced to five life terms without the possibility of parole, which he is serving at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. In his prison cell are pictures of Shanann, Bella and CeCe.
On. Feb. 18 2019, Watts was again interviewed by the Frederick Police Department and the FBI for five hours.
He said, “If I never met (Kessinger) would I have ever thought our relationship was bad? Probably not. I never thought I would have strayed away from (Shanann).”
He said Kessinger knew the real situation between him and Shanann as soon as he showed her pictures of his family on his phone. But that “she was trying to save face” by denying she knew the real situation with his family.
He said he wanted to apologize to Kessinger. “I just hope there’s normalcy for her since she’s on the outside. I’m hoping it could get that way at some point.”