KUSA — Chris Watts, his voice shaky and breaking at times, uttered the word “guilty” over and over Tuesday afternoon in a hushed courtroom – admitting he murdered his pregnant wife and the couple’s two young daughters, then dumped their bodies in an oil field.
In a plea agreement negotiated in the past few weeks, Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke agreed that he would not seek the death penalty.
A sentencing hearing was scheduled Nov. 19, but there will be no suspense – Watts, 33, will spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance of parole for murdering his wife Shanann, 34, and ending her pregnancy, and for killing his two daughters, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3.
It was a shocking development in a shocking case that began Aug. 13 when a friend reported that Shanann Watts and the kids were missing. Chris Watts initially told police that he’d left for work while his wife and daughters were sleeping.
The following day, he spoke with 9NEWS, calling the disappearance of his family “earth-shattering” and making a plea for their return. On Aug. 15, he was taken into custody, and the next day investigators found Shanann Watts’ body buried in a shallow grave and the remains of the two girls in nearby oil tanks in rural Weld County.
Tuesday afternoon, he shuffled into a third-floor courtroom, a sheriff’s deputy on either side of him and a protective vest covering the orange jail Scrubs, and took a seat with his lawyer. Sixty people were packed into every available seat in the gallery, Shanann Watts’ parents and brother in the front row, behind the prosecutors.
“It’s pretty obvious that this case draws a lot of emotions with people,” Judge Kopcow said, admonishing those in the room to act appropriately.
A moment later, after being briefed on the plea agreement by prosecutors, Kopcow asked Chris Watts if he was prepared to accept the deal.
“Yes sir,” Watts responded.
For the next 10 minutes, the judge questioned Watts, who never rose from the defense table. And then he uttered “guilty” to nine different felonies:
- Three counts of first-degree murder after deliberation for the slayings of Shanann, 34, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3.
- Two counts of first-degree murder where the victim was under age 12 and the killer was in a position of trust for the deaths of Bella and Celeste.
- A single count of unlawful termination of a pregnancy for Shanann’s unborn child, a boy the couple had planned to name Nico.
Three counts of tampering with a deceased human body for burying Shanann’s remains in a shallow grave and dumping the corpses of the girls into oil storage tanks.
The agreement calls for Judge Kopcow to sentence Watts to a minimum of three consecutive life terms without parole plus an additional 16 to 48 years.
Afterward, Rourke, the district attorney, said that defense attorneys approached him with a potential deal several weeks ago. Before agreeing to it, he flew to North Carolina to meet with Shanann Watts’ parents, Frank and Sandra Rzucek, and brother, Frank Rzucek Jr.
The key question was whether to give up the opportunity to seek the death penalty.
“We discussed all of the possible consequences, delays, penalties, timeframes, and I hope I say this accurately – I know they'll correct me if I'm wrong – but they were very strongly in favor of a resolution in this case short of the death penalty,” Rourke said.
Then he expressed frustration with the current state of capital punishment in Colorado, where one person has been put to death in the past 52 years and where Gov. John Hickenlooper delayed indefinitely the execution of the man who killed four people and wounded a fifth at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese’s. And he shared those frustrations with Shanann Watts’ family before agreeing to the plea deal, he said.
“We explained to them the extraordinary delays that currently exist in the state of Colorado as a result of, in part, the actions of our current governor,” Rourke said. “We discussed the fact that an individual by the name of Nathan Dunlap was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996 and is still alive today.”
The guilty pleas put a lie to Chris Watts’ claim that he killed his pregnant wife in “a rage” after he realized that she had strangled their two daughters – a shocking assertion outlined in court documents.
Almost immediately, Rourke made it clear he didn’t believe Watts, charging the man with multiple felony counts alleging that he was the one who killed his wife of nearly six years.
Shanann Watts had returned from a business trip early on Aug. 13, dropped off by a friend just before 2 a.m. at her home in the 2800 block of Saratoga Trail. Shanann Watts, who was 15 weeks pregnant and not feeling well on the business trip, and the two girls were reported missing about 12 hours later when that same friend became concerned and went to the family’s home.
The friend discovered that Shanann Watts’ car was parked in the garage and could not get past a latch on the front door, so she called Chris Watts and asked him to come home, fearing Shanann had suffered some kind of medical issue, according to the affidavit.
She also called police.
The first officer at the scene found all the doors and windows were locked. After Chris Watts arrived, he let the officer into the home.
According to the affidavit, Chris Watts told the officer his wife had come home around 2 a.m., he’d awakened later “and began talking to Shanann about marital separation and informed her he wanted to initiate the separation,” the affidavit said.
“Chris stated it was a civil conversation and they were not arguing but were emotional,” the affidavit said.
Two days later – as the search for clues dominated the news cycle – that story crumbled.
A neighbor said Halloween in the Watts' neighborhood was quieter this year.
"I kept waiting and waiting and waiting and no one showed up," said Ken Brown, who lives up the street from the Watts' home.
"I think it did have an effect," he added.
Contact 9NEWS reporter Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-871-1862.