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Chris Watts with wife Shanann and daughters Celeste and Bella.
Chris Watts with wife Shanann and daughters Celeste and Bella.
Family photo via Sky News

How the Chris Watts Lawsuit Treats Confessed Killer Like O.J. Simpson

Frederick's Chris Watts became infamous nationwide thanks to sweeping coverage of his arrest and subsequent conviction for killing his pregnant wife, Shanann Watts, and their two daughters, three-year-old Celeste and four-year-old Bella.

But a civil suit filed by Shanann's parents, Sandra and Frank Rzucek, and brother, Frank Jr., on behalf of her estate seeks to ensure that his name recognition doesn't turn into cash. The document is accessible below, and its language echoes that of a complaint that the family of another murder victim aimed at arguably the most notorious alleged American killer of the past century.

"It has a lot of similarities to the suit Ron Goldman's family brought against O.J. Simpson," notes Tom Grant, a partner in Greeley's Grant & Hoffman Law Firm, which represents the Rzuceks. "That's its intent — to make sure Chris Watts is never able to profit from his evil acts."

Goldman, as you'll recall, was a restaurant worker and friend of Nicole Simpson, wife of the onetime football and film star — and after the pair were brutally slain in Brentwood, California, circa 1994, the case became an obsession whose lure remains strong decades later. The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a 2016 limited series on the FX network, was an Emmy-winning smash; the ESPN Films documentary O.J.: Made in America earned an Oscar in 2017; and a film called Nicole & O.J. is slated for theatrical release in March 2019.

A memorial placed on the lawn of the Watts family home after the news broke.
A memorial placed on the lawn of the Watts family home after the news broke.
newschannel5.com screen capture

O.J. hasn't received a dime for these offerings or a multiplicity of others (including his 2007 book If I Did It) thanks to Ron's loved ones, and particularly his father, Fred Goldman, who spearheaded a wrongful death lawsuit after Simpson's 1995 criminal acquittal. In 1997, a civil jury ordered Simpson to pay $33.7 million for killing Nicole and Ron — a judgment that was bumped up to $57 million in 2015 because of renewed interest in the slayings and was valued at just under $70 million as of late last year.

Of course, Simpson was a celebrity before the homicides, putting him on a different level from those who became known only after committing despicable offenses. But on the other hand, there are many more platforms for true-crime stories these days — not just publishing companies, movie studios, television networks and cable channels, which have multiplied in a major way since the 1990s, but also streaming enterprises such as Netflix, home of the Making a Murderer series, and podcast services. Serial, among the most popular podcasts ever, is now in its third season and has inspired content providers across the country to rip tales from headlines whether they're new or not. Look no further than October's Carruth, which told how former University of Colorado Boulder footballer Rae Carruth became a killer in 1999.

Given this trend, it's no surprise that media types have been beating a path to the Rzuceks' door. "They're inundated," Grant confirms. "I don't know if there will come a time where they're moved to discuss this with any outlet. But right now, they've largely tried to ignore it."

The lawsuit, meanwhile, seeks to apply strict rules to Watts for any projects that may materialize. According to Grant, "It wouldn't prevent him from talking to the media. It would simply prevent him from deriving profits from any kind of media presentation — not just books or movies, but anything else, too."

Shanann Watts with daughters Celeste and Bella.
Shanann Watts with daughters Celeste and Bella.
Family photo via CNN

There are other elements to the lawsuit, too. The suit references funeral and burial expenses, as well as the pain and suffering of the plaintiffs based on the loss of Shanann, Celeste, Bella and Nico, the name given to her unborn child, and would disallow any benefits for Watts from the sale of the home in Frederick where the murders took place.

In the meantime, the reports about Watts, who was sentenced last month to five life sentences, three of which will run consecutively, keep coming, particularly in the wake of previously unreleased material authorities have made public over recent days. Witness a prominent November 29 post in People about how he FaceTimed his mistress after the murders.

This continuing barrage "is clearly painful for the family," Grant acknowledges. "But in my conversations with them, they're not really asking for anything from Chris. They don't expect an apology. They don't expect an explanation, because there's no explanation that could be offered that would give them comfort. And they're not about bashing him or saying horrible things about him and his family. Instead, they want to shine a light on Shanann, who was a great mom and a very loving individual who had an incredible amount of drive and worked very hard at her goals."

Grant finds it "remarkable that they don't openly harbor hate toward him or say anything bad about him. In fact, when someone in my office asked them about Chris, they said, 'We pray for him.'"

Still, they would see Watts making money by selling his story as crossing a line — and, Grant says, "We obviously hope this case will really shut down those opportunities."

Click to read Sandra Rzucek, et al., v. Christopher Lee Watts.

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