Chris Watts case: A year after brutal murders, scars linger for loved ones, cops

The Frederick, Colorado, police detective experienced a flashback during a recent vacation to Phoenix, according to The Denver Post. The sight of two little girls walking into a restaurant triggered horrible memories from last August.

The smell of crude oil. The suits of the hazmat crew. And the tiny, oil-slicked bodies of Bella and Celeste Watts, pulled from the oil storage tanks where their father, Christopher Lee Watts, stuffed them after suffocating them with their own blankets.

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Nearby, Watts’ pregnant wife, Shanann Watts, and their unborn son, Nico, lay in a shallow grave. Shanann Watts, who was 15 weeks pregnant, had been strangled.

Baumhover, who is currently on leave for PTSD and may not return to his job, told the Post the memories are relentless.

“It’s like when you’re a kid and you go on the wrong carnival ride and all you want to do is get off,” the detective told the newspaper. “But you can’t. You have no choice until the ride shuts off.”

Tuesday marked a year since Chris Watts killed his 34-year-old wife in their bed and then drove their daughters, ages 4 and 3, to an oil tank battery 60 miles away, where he first killed Celeste, known to her family as Cece, and then Bella, who he told authorities begged for her life.

Their mother’s lifeless body lay at their feet as they rode to their deaths.

Pictured is the Andarko Petroleum oil battery where Chris Watts dumped the bodies of his wife, Shanann, and their two young daughters, Bella and Celeste, the morning of Aug. 13, 2018. Chris Watts is serving multiple life sentences in the murders.
Photo: The Denver Post via Getty Images

>> 'Daddy, no!': Chris Watts' 4-year-old daughter begged for life after mom, sister murdered

Two grieving families

Shanann Watts’ father, Frank Rzucek, spoke to the media last month outside his daughter’s Frederick home, which the Post reported remains empty and is up for public auction next month. According to ABC News, Rzucek said his family has been unable to grieve properly because of online trolls.

“For the past 11 months, piled on top of pain and the grieving of this devastating loss, our family has been subject to horrible, cruel abuse, outright bullying on a daily basis,” Rzucek said. “I don’t want to draw more attention to the viral material that has been posted online, but I will say that our family, including Shanann and her children, our grandchildren, have been ridiculed, demeaned, slandered, mocked in the most vicious ways you can imagine.”

Rzucek said strangers have tried to capitalize on false rumors and lies about his daughter and grandchildren.

“It is cruel. It is heartless,” he said, likening the family’s experiences to the harassment and conspiracy theories that have plagued the families of the children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

“Families like ours should have the right to be safe, the right to mourn in peace,” Rzucek said.

Shanann Watts' father, Frank Rzucek, weeps in a Colorado courtroom Aug. 21, 2019, as Shanann's brother, Frankie Rzucek, comforts him. Chris Watts is serving multiple life sentences in the deaths of Shanann, his wife, and their two daughters.
Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via AP

The Rzuceks have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Watts in Weld County District Court. Because Watts has not responded to the suit, the court found him in default in May, the Post reported.

Watts’ own family has struggled to deal with what he confessed to doing to his wife and children. His mother, Cindy Watts, who in November questioned her son’s plea deal, was recently interviewed for an HLN special, “Killer Dad: Chris Watts Speaks.”

During the interview, Cindy Watts read from a letter her son wrote from prison, in which he claimed he has found God and is a changed man.

“I’m still a Dad! I’m still a son! No matter what,” Chris Watts wrote, according to an excerpt obtained by People magazine. “Now, I can add servant of God to that mix! He has shown me peace, peace, love and forgiveness, and that’s how I live every day.”

Watch Cindy Watts talk about her son and his family in raw footage from 9News in Denver.

In a February prison interview with investigators from the Frederick Police Department, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the FBI, Watts said he has photos of his wife and children in his prison cell and that he reads one of the girls’ favorite books to their pictures each night. An April Change.org petition sought to have prison officials remove the photos from Watts’ cell since they are of his victims.

Prison officials in Wisconsin, where Watts was being held, responded by saying that the photos did not violate prison policy.

“Incarcerated inmates are permitted to possess certain identified items of property, including photographs,” a statement obtained by People read. “Some photographs are not allowed, such as those depicting gang signs, colors or insignias, or photographs that include nudity.”

Shanann Watts' mother, Sandra Rzucek, reads a statement Nov. 19, 2018, in a Colorado courtroom as her son-in-law, Chris Watts, sits in the background. Chris Watts is serving multiple life sentences in the deaths of his wife and their two daughters.
Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via AP

A baffling disappearance

The details of the Watts murders are heartbreaking.

Shanann, Bella and Celeste were reported missing Aug. 13 after Nickole Atkinson, Shanann’s best friend and co-worker, could not reach her, Watts’ arrest affidavit says. Atkinson had last seen Shanann around 2 a.m. when she dropped her off following an out-of-town business trip.

Home security footage showing Shanann climbing the steps to the front door and entering the house are the last images of her alive.

Watts initially said he awoke around 4 a.m. that morning and talked to his wife about a separation. Watts said that despite an “emotional conversation,” it did not get confrontational and when he left for work around 5:30 a.m., his wife and daughters were in bed.

He claimed Shanann told him she was taking the girls to a friend’s home later that day for a play date.

When Atkinson went to the Watts home, however, no one would answer the door. Shanann’s vehicle, purse and cellphone were there, as was medication for Cece’s allergies, including an EpiPen. Atkinson called 911 out of fear that Shanann, who had lupus, was suffering a medical emergency.

Atkinson also called Watts, who in turn called another of Shanann’s friends, Cassandra Rosenberg. Rosenberg told the ABC news program “Nightline” that when she told Watts that Atkinson was calling police, Watts said he didn’t want the police involved.

“I said, ‘You’re an idiot and you need to get to the house because something’s wrong,’” Rosenberg said.

In the days that followed, Watts played the part of the worried husband and father, giving a TV news interview outside the family’s home and pleading for their safe return.

In an interview with “Nightline,” Shanann’s parents, Frank and Sandra Rzucek, said they immediately suspected Watts had something to do with the disappearance of their daughter and granddaughters.

“I told the police to find his GPS, because his GPS was gonna tell them where my family is,” Frank Rzucek said.

Watts, who police learned was having an affair, broke down and confessed Aug. 15 to killing his wife. He claimed he strangled Shanann in a rage after she killed their daughters because he asked for a divorce.

Using an aerial map, Watts led investigators to Shanann’s shallow grave at a tank battery belonging to his employer, Andarko Petroleum. Bella and Celeste were found submerged in crude oil inside two tanks 100 feet away from their mother’s grave.

Watts went to work at that location just hours after he got rid of the bodies, co-workers have said.

Watts pleaded guilty to his crimes to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced in November to five life terms, including three to be served consecutively, plus 85 years.

Pictured is the home at 2825 Saratoga Trail in Frederick, Colo., where Chris Watts killed his pregnant wife, Shanann, before driving their daughters, Bella and Celeste, to a rural oil battery and suffocating them. Watts is serving life in prison.
Photo: Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

‘What’s wrong with Mommy?’

It wasn’t until Baumhover and other detectives visited him in February in a Wisconsin prison, where he had been transferred for his own safety, that Watts told the truth about the murders of his wife and daughters.

Editor’s note: The following depiction of the deaths of Shanann, Bella and Celeste Watts is graphic in nature and may be upsetting to some readers.

Watts said he and his wife had sex about 30 minutes after Atkinson dropped her off at home, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation report on the February interview. In his head, Watts said, he felt like Shannan knew about his affair with his co-worker, Nichol Kessinger.

“Having sex with Shanann may have been a ‘trigger point,’ or like you hit the push button on a bomb and it just blows up,” the report states.

Watts told the investigators he and Shanann fell asleep after their sexual encounter, but he woke her up after getting ready for work. When Shanann awoke, she turned over onto her back and Watts said he straddled her to talk.

Shanann, who told him he was possibly hurting their unborn baby, told him she knew there was “someone else” and began crying, Watts said.

He initially denied the affair with Kessinger. Watts said he told Shanann he didn’t think their marriage would work, the report says. When he told her he no longer loved her, Shanann allegedly threatened to keep the children away from him.

“You’re never gonna see the kids again,” Watts quoted his wife as saying. “You’re never gonna see them again. Get off me. Don’t hurt the baby.”

That’s when Watts strangled Shanann, the report says. Watts said she never screamed or fought back.

He believes she may have been praying as he took her life.

Read the chilling details of Chris Watts' February statements to law enforcement below.

Watts mused on whether he already had the seed of murder planted in his mind before that morning.

“Every time I think about it, I’m just like, ‘Did I know I was going to do that before I got on top of her?’” he said.

Watts theorized that noise from Shanann’s death may have woken Bella, who walked into the master bedroom holding a blanket. She asked what was wrong with her mother.

“Mommy don’t feel good,” Watts told the little girl, according to the report.

He wrapped Shanann’s body face-down in a bedsheet, which was later recovered at the Andarko oil site. As Bella watched Watts drag her mother down the stairs, she began to cry.

“What’s wrong with Mommy?” she asked again.

Watts repeated that Shanann didn’t feel well but told investigators during the interview: “Bella is a smart girl and knew what was going on.”

Watch a “Nightline” segment on the Watts murders below, courtesy of ABC News.

Surveillance footage from outside a neighbor’s home captured Watts backing his truck into the driveway of his home and some of his movements back and forth as he loaded his wife’s body into the vehicle.

“Nightline” obtained police body camera footage that shows an officer, Watts neighbor Nathan Trinastich and Watts watching the footage at Trinastich’s home the day Shanann and the girls were reported missing.

Watts is obviously nervous in the footage.

At one point, he is seen putting his hands on the back of his head. He also sways back and forth nervously.

“He’s not acting right at all,” Trinastich tells the officer quietly after Watts leaves the room.

‘Daddy, no!’

After Watts drove away from the home, Bella and Celeste, each carrying a blanket and Celeste cuddling a stuffed dog, dozed on and off on the ride to the Andarko site, Watts said. They held each other in their sleep and lay in each other’s laps.

At one point during the ride, Bella told him, “Daddy, it smells,” the report says.

The document indicates that as Shanann was being strangled, her bowels evacuated.

Once at the tank battery, Watts removed Shanann’s body from the truck and dragged her over to where he planned to bury her. Both girls asked what he was doing to her, but he said he couldn’t remember what he told them, according to the report.

Back at the truck, Watts said, he grabbed the blue New York Yankees blanket Celeste was holding and put it over her head, the report says. He strangled her in the back seat of the truck as her older sister sat at her side.

“He put his hand over Celeste’s mouth and nose (over the blanket) and his other hand around the front of Celeste’s neck,” the report reads. “Bella was seated right beside Celeste as he strangled her, but Bella didn’t say anything.”

Watts told investigators he wasn’t thinking as he killed his daughter.

“If I was thinking, this wouldn’t have happened,” Watts said. “Or any partial hint of what I feel for those girls and what I feel for my wife, then none of this would have happened. So I wasn’t thinking.”

Once Celeste was dead, he carried her from the truck and over to one of the oil tanks, where he opened the hatch and dropped her inside, feet first, the report says. He closed the hatch and went back to the truck.

Bella asked what happened to her sister, the report says.

“Is the same thing gonna happen to me as Cece?” Bella asked her father.

Watts told the investigators he was not sure if he responded affirmatively or not.

He put the Yankees blanket over Bella’s head.

“Daddy, no!” she cried.

Watts said those were Bella’s last words.

Bella put up a fight for her life. Watts told the investigators he could hear her “grunt” as she tried to breathe, and her head twisted back and forth under the blanket.

Autopsy results on her small body showed she bit through her tongue multiple times as she struggled against her father.

After using the same suffocation technique he had with Celeste, Watts carried Bella to the second oil tank on the site and dropped her inside, according to the document.

“Bella seemed harder to get into the tank than Celeste, but he just had to manipulate her to get her inside,” the report says.

After disposing of his daughters’ bodies, Watts said, he returned to where Shanann lay and began using a rake to clear away some weeds. The rake broke, and he left part of it at the site, where it would later be found by detectives.

He used a shovel to dig Shanann’s grave and bury her, the report says. Though she was not bleeding or cut, Watts noticed her eyes were bloodshot.

Watts said he later got rid of his clothes and the Yankees blanket in a construction dumpster in the Watts’ neighborhood. He did so on his way home from work the day of the slayings.

In Facebook posts Tuesday afternoon, Rosenberg and Atkinson mourned for their friend, for Bella and for Celeste. Rosenberg wrote that she suspected something was terribly wrong even before speaking to Watts that horrible day.

“His voice begging me to not call the cops still rings in my head,” Rosenberg wrote. “I’m so glad we didn’t listen! I wish I could have done more or seen something sooner to save you all in some way.”

Atkinson wrote that the reality of their absence still does not seem real.

“I will never understand why you were all (taken) so soon. I hear you talk to me every day,” Atkinson wrote. “I hear the girls’ laughter as Madison tells me they are playing. You all will always be in our lives and hold a special place in our hearts.”

To Nico, she wrote that she believes he would have been a good mix of Bella’s sweet shyness and Cece’s rambunctiousness.

“Your mommy was so happy and excited that you were a boy,” Atkinson wrote. “I got the wonderful honor of telling your mommy what you were going to be.

“We had so many plans and dreams for you all.”

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