Shanann Watts’ Cause of Death: How Did the Colorado Mother Die?

shanann watts cause of death

Police photos Shanann Watts

Chris Watts was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife Shanann, their unborn child, and their two children, Celeste and Bella, ages 4 and 3. Watts claimed that he snapped and strangled his wife when he found her murdering the girls, but a jury didn’t believe him and convicted him of slaying his entire family.

What was Shanann’s cause of death? That’s contained in her autopsy report. Shanann was strangled and the children were smothered.

Chris Watts is the subject of a new Netflix series called “American Murder: The Family Next Door.” The two girls were found in oil drums. Shanann was found in a shallow grave at an oil site near the drums.

What was the motive? Watts was having an affair with a woman named Nichol Kessinger, and Shanann’s texts show he had grown cold to her. The Netflix show details the deteriorating relationship between Chris and Shanann, who began suspecting her husband was having an affair and felt he was suddenly pulling away from her, a fact she spilled to numerous friends in anguished text messages.

Police reportsPhotos of the Watts family in the police reports.

Here’s what the autopsy says about Shanann’s cause of death:


Shanann Was Wrapped in a Sheet & Buried in a Shallow Grave That Watts Dug With a Shovel

Police reportsThe crime scene.

The autopsy report said that Shanann had a “history of being reported missing and subsequently found unresponsive in obvious state of death in a shallow grave.” The cause of death was “Asphyxiation due to manual strangulation” with “Bruising of the Anterior strap muscles of the neck.”

There was a largely decomposed fetus expelled from the uterus. “Based on the history provided and the autopsy findings, the cause of death is asphyxiation due to manual strangulation by another individual. The manner of death is homicide,” the autopsy report says.

The police reports contain several photos showing the oil drums where the children’s bodies were found.

Police reportsThe oil drums where the bodies were found.

Shanann’s mother Sandra Rzucek told police she suspected “foul play” and suspected Chris, saying he was acting weird and out of the ordinary. She said he was telling people “he has to go to work” and that just doesn’t seem right. She felt that he is going out to “pour oil on the bodies to dispose of them.” Her husband spoke to Chris and he was “not shedding a tear about his missing family.”

GPS from Watts’ work truck led police to the oil well. The ground was visible disturbed. Police saw a bed sheet. While officers were waiting, Christopher confessed to killing Shanann, and getting rid of the bodies of Celeste and Bella.

shanann watts

Police photoShannan’s undergarments

Shanann was wrapped in a sheet. The girls were just in their pajamas; they weren’t wrapped in blankets. Chris Watts advised that blankets and stuffed animals were left by the sheet which was near Shanann’s grave. He dug the grave with a shovel. She was wearing a black or gray t-shirt and blue underwear. He said it took minutes, the police reports say.

The girls were wearing nightgowns, Cece a pink nightgown with birds on it, and Bella’s nightgown had a unicorn or believe on it. The children were in 20 foot tanks with hatches on top.

An odd photo that Watts sent Shanann.

Shanann returned home from a business trip on the early morning hours of August 13, 2019. This was the last time she was seen alive.

Police fileMissing person photos

Autopsy reports for Bella and Celeste say that the necks of the children were swabbed even though they were in a container of oil, water, and associated sludge matter.

The children’s cause of death was given as “asphyxiation due to smothering.” Bella also had “Blunt force trauma. Oil water and sludge debris in the stomach.”

police fileA picture Shanann sent a friend.

“Based on the history provided and the autopsy findings, the cause of death is asphyxiation due to smothering. The toxicology results likely represent decomposition and an artifact of being submerged in an oil tank for several days. The manner of death is homicide,” the autopsy for Bella said. Celeste’s was similar.

Police photoShanann’s grave.

The autopsy noted that recovered items included “oil soaked pink pajama type top with images of hearts and butterflies” and “a pair of oil soaked underwear.”

Celeste and Bella’s bodies were each inside one of the tanks. One body was face down in the south side of the tank.


A Friend of Shanann’s Was First to Sound the Alarm

The scene where the bodies were found.

Nickole Atkinson was first to sound the alarm; she told police she dropped Shannan off and Shannon was 15 weeks pregnant and not feeling well. Shannan wasn’t answering phone calls or text and missed her doctor’s appointment. They went to her house and observed her car in the garage. Nickole called Christopher Watts and requested he come home and check on Shanann. Police came but found no sign of Celeste Watts or Bella Marie Watts.

Nickole called Chris several times and he kept giving different arrival times. Chris came home and gave consent to search and said that he found Shanann’s wedding ring on the night stand. He found her phone between the cushions. Chris said Shanann arrived home from a trip. He was asleep. He woke up at 5 a.m. to get ready for work, and they began talking about separating. He said it was emotional but a civil conversation and they were not arguing. He said they had been talking about separating for a few weeks. He said Shanann said she was going to a friend’s house with their two kids. Chris went to an oil well job site to check out it. He was an operator for Anadarko. That’s all information in police interviews with Shanann’s friends.

Police photoA sheet was found near where Shanann was buried.

Chris’s demeanor was “nonchalant. He asked one time if he should go look for his family…he did not ask again about looking and he did not seem overly concerned,” the police report said.


Chris Told His Father That Shanann Killed the Girls But a Jury Didn’t Buy It

chris watts

Police photoChris Watts

The police reports contain a conversation Chris had with his father. They say:

Chris told his father, “She hurt them. And then I freaked out and hurt her.”

He whispered, “She…she smothered them. They were smothered. She strangled them.”

Police photoLast photo of Shanann Watts.

He said he was downstairs, came back up and they were gone. Chris said: “I freaked out and I did the same thing to f*ckin’ her. Those were my kids.” He claimed he saw Shanann on top of Cece and that “they were blue.” He said he lost it and choked Shanann.

Police reportsA photo of one of the girls.

Bella’s covers were pulled off and she was just lying in bed. Shanann was in there with her on top of her. He ran into Cece’s bedroom and got on top of Shannan. He didn’t know what to do and was shaking. “Both my kids were blue and they were gone. She hurt my kids.”

A letter Shanann wrote Chris.

Chris said, “They’re in a freakin’ oil tank. I didn’t know what else to do. Please God Forgive me for everything.”

However, prosecutors maintained that Watts killed his pregnant wife and the two girls, and a jury sided with them. According to the Denver Channel, Watts received three life prison terms without the possibility of parole.

19th Judicial District Attorney Michael Rourke said that Watts “totally and deliberately ended four lives,” smothering the girls. Bella fought back, according to the prosecutor, Denver Channel reported. “Bella and Celeste were thrown away,” the prosecutor said adding that “investigators found scratch marks on one of the girl’s bodies and tufts of hair on the opening to one of the oil tanks,” the television station reported.

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