Does the new Chris Watts movie explain his terrible crimes?
The new Netflix documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door gives viewers first-hand footage of the Chris Watts murders and authorities’ investigation into the case. Bereft of the traditional interviews & expert testimony, the Netflix documentary uses social media posts, text messages, dashcam, and security camera footage from the actual case to tell the story.
However, without the traditional context that most documentaries give, this 90 minute look at the footage can be lost to viewers who are new to the case. While people who’ve followed the story since 2018 will love the unedited look into the true crime footage, let’s look at how followable it is for newbies.
In 2018, a small town in Colorado was rocked by a tragedy. Shannan Watts and her two children, Bella & Celeste, went missing. Watts was supposed to go to a doctor’s appointment, as she was fifteen weeks pregnant with her son, Nico. A friend of hers texted her several times and eventually called the police to do a welfare check.
Three days later, police would have their suspect. Sadly, it was the man who Shannan Watts loved & trusted the most: her husband, Chris Watts. Watts murdered his wife & children in a fit of rage, disposing of their bodies in a shallow grave and an oil drum. Chris Watts would plead guilty & receive a life sentence without parole.
There are two types of footage prevalent in American Murder: The Family Next Door. Social media footage from before the murders and dashcam/security camera footage from Colorado detectives investigating the murders.
The social media footage leads up to the murders, showing how Shannan Watts cultivated the image of a perfect family. The footage is interspersed with distraught texts to friends about her husband, Chris Watts, becoming increasingly cold.
The dashcam footage is from police body cams, including the welfare check. The footage follows Chris Watts, highlighting his glib behavior for someone who just lost his entire family. From the get-go, a neighbor who knew Chris Watts for years was suspicious, telling an officer that Watts usually didn’t act that way.
Some more explanation
The Chris Watts dashcam footage is where things get hairy. If you just watched the documentary, you may have lost the context of the investigation. It’s clear from Chris Watt’s demeanor in the footage how police could have considered him a suspect, but the details aren’t delved into about how police got him from his house to the interrogation room.
Dr. Todd Grande, a licensed counselor, has his own YouTube channel covering mental health topics, including several videos on Chris Watts. Dr. Grande claimed the way the Netflix movie shows Chris Watts’s polygraph test makes the test look more legitimate than it actually is.
It’s common knowledge that polygraph or lie-detector tests are so faulty that they are inadmissible in court. If that’s the case, why did police still use this method to figure Watts out? The answer: they were already sure it was him. The polygraph was just a tool to get him to confess. Just from watching the video, would someone have guessed that?
Out-deceiving a deceiver
Officials were already circling around Chris Watts thanks to his suspicious behavior after his wife & children “disappeared”. They even brought his father in to provoke a confession. The polygraph was merely a ploy to try and catch Watts in his lies. As Dr. Grande puts it, Colorado authorities used the polygraph to “out-deceive a deceiver”.
Dr. Grande’s not alone in his assessment that Chris Watts was untruthful & suspicious from the start. In an interview with Nancy Grace, talk show host Dr. Phil noted that Chris Watts “made some really dumb mistakes” early on – including talking about his kids in the past tense before anyone knew they were dead.
From just the footage though, viewers would certainly guess Chris Watts was lying. It was apparent from Watts’s interrogation that he changed his story. Some aspects made no sense. If your spouse killed your children like Chris Watts said Shannan did, would you throw your children’s bodies in an oil drum? Even if you were panicked? We don’t think so.
What about the debt?
A big reason Chris Watts may have been driven to murder was the amount of debt he & his family were swimming in. They filed for bankruptcy in 2015 and owed several bills, including medical & student loan debts. Their neighborhood association summoned them for unpaid fees.
Instead, the movie focuses footage on Chris Watts’s affair with Nichol Kessinger & Shannan Watts’s strained relationship with her in-laws as possible motives for the deed. However, statistics show that “family annihilators” like Chris Watts are often motivated by economic hardship.