Watts Family Killings Update and Why Colorado Crimes So Often Go National

Watts Family Killings Update and Why Colorado Crimes So Often Go National
Family photo via
The arrest of Frederick's Chris Watts for the murder of his pregnant wife, Shanann Watts, and their two daughters, three-year-old Celeste and four-year-old Bella, is one of the biggest stories in the country, with major cable channels regularly taking a break from their coverage of President Donald Trump's latest tweets to go over the facts of the case known to date in forensic detail.

And thanks to Chris's shocking claim in the just-released arrest affidavit (read it here, along with charging documents in the case) that Shanann is the person who actually killed the girls, that's unlikely to change anytime soon. The accusations announced against Chris on August 20 include five counts of first-degree murder, one count of unlawful termination of pregnancy in the first degree, and three counts of tampering with a human body. In court yesterday, August 21, he waived his right to a preliminary hearing, guaranteeing that he'll remained jailed without bond for the foreseeable future.

The Watts family slayings are only the latest Colorado crimes to grip the national imagination — and like many of the others that came before it, including the 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School and the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, it involves people who resided in a wonderful place and seemed to have ideal lives when their world was shattered by horror.

The Chris Watts affidavit presents the events of August 13 and the days that followed in the sort of prose that's chilling in its neutrality.

click to enlarge A memorial placed on the lawn of the Watts family home after the news broke. - NEWSCHANNEL5.COM SCREEN CAPTURE
A memorial placed on the lawn of the Watts family home after the news broke. screen capture
At around 1:40 p.m. on the 13th, the report begins, a Frederick police officer was dispatched to the Watts family home at 2825 Saratoga Trail after a friend of Shanann's, Nicole Utoft, expressed concern about the woman, who was fifteen weeks pregnant and hadn't been feeling well after returning from a business trip to Arizona.

Specifically, Utoft was alarmed that Shanann wasn't answering phone calls or text messages and had missed a doctor's appointment earlier that morning. Moreover, Utoft's attempt to enter the Saratoga Trail residence via the front door was prevented by a latch that wouldn't open more than a few inches.

At first the officer couldn't gain entry, but he was able to reach Chris, who came over within minutes and let him inside. However, Shanann and the kids weren't there.

In conversation with the officer, the document notes, Chris said that earlier that morning, he and Shanann had talked about "marital separation," with him informing her that "he wanted to initiate" the split. Still, he insisted that their conversation was "civil... . They were not arguing but were emotional."

click to enlarge Shanann Watts with daughters Celeste and Bella. - FAMILY PHOTO VIA CNN
Shanann Watts with daughters Celeste and Bella.
Family photo via CNN
Over the next couple of days, the tale told by Chris — who had made public appearances calling for his family's safe return in the interim — started to shift, in part because an investigation had turned up evidence that he "was actively involved in an affair with a co-worker, which he denied in previous interviews."

Following nearly three lines blotted out in the version of the document released to the public, the narrative picks up with Chris promising to tell the truth of what happened if he was allowed to chat with his father. Once that conversation was completed, he told investigators that after informing Shanann that he wanted a separation, he walked out of their bedroom — but upon his return, he saw in a baby monitor on her nightstand an image of Bella "'sprawled' out on her bed and blue, and Shanann actively strangling Celeste," the affidavit recounts.

At that point, Chris said he "went into a rage and ultimately strangled Shanann to death" before loading all three bodies onto the back seat of his work truck and heading to an area near two oil tanks. He revealed that he buried Shanann near the tanks and dumped the girls inside them. Their remains were subsequently recovered.

As is clear from the charges pressed against Chris by the Weld County District Attorney's Office, detectives aren't buying the assertion that Shanann actually killed her daughters — and this view was reinforced during the following press conference, held on August 20:

Nonetheless, Chris's claims provide the media with yet another element with which to enthrall cable-news watchers from coast to coast.

Illustrating such reports are the many Watts family photos that have surfaced in recent days, all of them depicting the quartet as a sort of all-American ideal that contrasts starkly with the brutality of the crime.

click to enlarge JonBenét Ramsey on the cover of the National Enquirer last month, nearly 22 years after her death. - MICHAEL ROBERTS
JonBenét Ramsey on the cover of the National Enquirer last month, nearly 22 years after her death.
Michael Roberts
Such juxtapositions are one reason the JonBenét Ramsey case continues to be so iconic. Those photos and videos of a child strutting her stuff at beauty pageants become downright disturbing in the context of her slaying, as TV producers and tabloid editors have understood for decades.

Just last month, for example, the front cover of the National Enquirer was dominated by a charming portrait of the doomed little girl alongside a screaming headline that reads: "Cops Find JonBenét's Killer!"

As you can see, a banner atop it claims, "Case Closed," but that certainly wasn't true — nor has it been for nearly 22 years.

The way Colorado is viewed by people who don't live here also plays a significant part in local incidents becoming national obsessions.

click to enlarge The alleged scoop. - MICHAEL ROBERTS
The alleged scoop.
Michael Roberts
The title of author Lawrence Schiller's book about the JonBenét case — Perfect Murder, Perfect Town — underscores the idea that Colorado (exemplified in this instance by Boulder) is a bucolic wonderland filled with spectacular scenery and gorgeous people whose lives are like travel brochures made real.

It's the kind of place where nothing bad should ever happen — and when it does, the impact is amplified to a shattering degree.

The same phenomenon came into play with Columbine (well-off, apparently trouble-free teens in a lovely suburb go homicidal) and the Aurora theater shooting (genius from a good family suddenly turns the seemingly safest of neighborhood settings into a nightmare) — and it's a big reason why they both remain so well known.

There have been plenty of school shootings since the late 1990s, many of them more lethal than the one that happened here — yet Columbine is still seen as the exemplar of these gruesome episodes. And while mass killings take place with disturbing frequency, the one at the Aurora Century 16 continues to stand out even as others fade from the memories of all but those most directly impacted.

click to enlarge Chris Watts's booking photo. - WELD COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
Chris Watts's booking photo.
Weld County Sheriff's Office
Plenty of more personal offenses in Colorado have been followed closely by the nationally media, too, especially in the age of true-crime TV.

Think about the disappearance of Denver's Kelsie Schelling, who, like Shanann Watts, was pregnant when she vanished in 2013, as emphasized in a broadcast on ABC's 20/20, among other national outlets. Or the matter of Harold Henthorn, convicted of shoving his second wife off a cliff and suspected of killing his first spouse in a manner meant to look like an accident — details shared by CBS's 48 Hours and other network and cable purveyors.

Even more attention is being given to the Watts case, thanks to the way that snapshots of Celeste and Bella with innocently gleeful smiles on their face ratchets up the heartbreak — so much so that even Donald Trump must take a back seat every once in a while.

Click to read the Chris Watts arrest affidavit and charging documents.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts