On Tuesday, November 6th — less than three months after his arrest on first-degree murder charges — Christopher Watts, 33, suddenly agreed to plead guilty to killing his pregnant wife, Shan’ann Watts, 34, and the couple’s two daughters, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3. Members of both of the defendant and the victims’ families were in the Colorado courtroom as Watts, wearing a bulletproof vest, pleaded guilty to nine criminal counts — including murder, the unlawful termination of a pregnancy and tampering with a dead body — as part of a deal with prosecutors to avoid a possible death penalty sentence, according to Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke. Watts will be sentenced on November 19th, and is facing three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, per his plea agreement.
“He deserves a life sentence for each and every act on top of one another,” Rourke said at a press conference after the hearing. “It was important that each of those beautiful human beings be reflected in the ultimate sentence that will be imposed.”
Shan’ann Watts was 15 weeks pregnant when she and her two young daughters disappeared on August 13th, the same day she returned to the family’s home after a weekend business trip. Chris Watts appeared on the local news and begged for their safe return.
“Shan’ann, Bella, Celeste, if you’re out there, just come back,” Watts said in the televised interview, but his calm, wooden demeanor raised suspicions almost immediately.
According to the arrest affidavit, detectives focused on Watts as their primary suspect after he was caught lying about having an affair with a coworker. On August 15th, under police questioning, Watts alleged he would “tell the truth” about what happened to his wife and children. According to Watts’ initial statement to police, in the early morning hours of August 13th, he told Shan’ann he wanted to separate, and a short time later, he saw her in their daughters’ bedroom via a baby monitor, strangling one child while the other looked “blue.” Watts claimed he strangled Shan’ann “in a rage,” and then later that morning, he disposed of all three bodies on an oil site owned by his employer. On August 16th, after Watts provided police with the locations, Shan’ann’s body was recovered from a shallow grave a short distance away from two oil drums containing the bodies of Bella and Celeste.
Authorities never believed his story that Shan’ann killed their daughters, and Rourke told reporters that he’s not sure authorities will ever get a fully truthful story from Watts himself. However, Rourke noted, in accepting a plea agreement, Watts was essentially admitting his initial explanation was a “flat out lie.”
“What I can tell you most affirmatively today, by what happened in the courtroom, is the spotlight that he tried to shine on Shan’ann falsely … has been corrected,” Rourke said during Tuesday’s news conference. “The spotlight shines directly where it belongs: on him.”
Rourke told the media that Watts’s attorneys approached prosecutors about striking a plea deal a few weeks ago, and that his office only agreed to take the death penalty off the table after flying to North Carolina to discuss the options with Shan’anns family. Rourke said he explained to them that Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper had refused to carry out any executions while in office, and that regardless, death penalty cases often see “extraordinary delays.” (Hickenlooper won’t be Governor for much longer — thanks to the state’s term limits, he wasn’t eligible for reelection, and will be replaced in January by Jared Polis, who has said he would seek to repeal the death penalty. Polis declared victory just hours after Watts took the plea deal. )
Ultimately, Shan’ann’s family decided they wanted a quicker resolution in the case, and a plea deal would allow them to avoid a long, traumatic trial and eliminate Watts’s opportunity to appeal.
“Sandy [Rzucek, Shan’ann’s mother] said it very, very poignantly to me. She said, ‘He made the choice to take those lives,” Rourke said. “I do not want to be in a position of making the choice to take his. And so that’s about as firmly as she could have said it to me, and that was very compelling to all of us as we were talking about how to proceed on this case.”
In September, prosecutors filed a motion to seal the autopsy reports for the victims, prompting some observers of the case to wonder if this was an indication that the case against Watts wasn’t so solid, but according to Rourke, his office was merely concerned that their release could taint potential witnesses and make it difficult to seat an impartial jury. The local Greeley Tribune newspaper contested the motion, arguing autopsy reports are public records maintained by the coroner’s office, and that doing so should be at the behest of County Coroner Carl Blesch — who indicated he agreed with Rourke – but not without a hearing that is held separately from any criminal proceedings.
Rourke declined to answer questions about specifics of the crime, saying he would do so after Watts is sentenced. He did say that investigators do have a “partial motive” for the murders and that autopsies for the victims “could” be unsealed as well.