Only two things are infinite: evil and human stupidity.
Beyond the Headlines: The Watts Family Tragedy (2020): 5 out of 10: Coverage of the horrific murder of a pregnant Shanann Cathryn Rzucek and her daughters four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste in Frederick Colorado by her husband (and the girls father) Christopher Lee Watts.
The Good: Beyond the Headlines: The Watts Family Tragedy is a serviceable documentary in a surprisingly crowded field. (Everyone seems to have covered this case.) The victim Shanann lived on Facebook selling a product called Thrive for the multi-level marketing company Le-Vel. As a result, there is a lot of clear and compelling video footage of her and her daughters.
In addition, the investigating officers had body cameras and all the police interviews were filmed as well. We can see Chris Watts’ body language as the evidence comes to light, and it is fascinating.
Everything from the police drone footage of the site where Chris hid the bodies to Shanann announcing her third pregnancy to a somewhat disinterested husband are featured. So we don’t have the issue of the same footage being recycled over and over again like I found in Deadly Deception: The Mark Hacking Story.
One thing that Beyond the Headlines shares with Deadly Deception is a really stupid husband. (To quote the comedian Jim Gaffigan. “This guy is just sloppy. It is like he is trying to get caught”.) So instead of Mark Hacking buying a new mattress before calling the police to declare his wife missing, we have Chris Watts burying his wife in a shallow grave at his own work site and leaving one of his bedsheets just flapping in the high desert.
And another thing, there is nothing police find more suspicious than a man missing his spouse and deciding to clean the house. Yeah, it’s three in the morning. My wife is missing and presumed dead and I just said to myself, you know what those baseboards could use a good bleaching.
Chris Watt is possibly one of the stupidest criminals I have ever seen. I mean, he might as well have been wearing a t-shirt that says I killed my wife and children. Ask me how? So people going into this looking for a mystery are in for a disappointment. Chris acts so suspiciously early on with darting eyes and body language he wouldn’t pass muster as a Scooby-Doo villain.
In the end, there is no mystery, and I was curious what the true crime podcasts and YouTubers could even talk about at such length. Who ate the last donut in my house has more twists and turns than this mystery. (It was me BTW). The Staircase or Making a Murder this is not.
The Bad: Speaking of donuts, Beyond the Headlines does have some serious holes in it. The most glaring is the fact that the family was facing bankruptcy and foreclosure due to severe overspending and money mismanagement. (From all accounts on the wife’s part). I have the feeling they left this out because it muddies the waters a smidge and may come across as victim blaming.
But in reality, it adds a ton to the killer’s motive and the possibility of him snapping. He was trapped and saw this as a way out. It also leads a lot more credence to the prosecution’s assertion (most likely correct) that this was not a crime of passion, but premeditated. A claim that is otherwise unbelievable, as his motivation, as presented here, is a shallow affair with a co-worker. And his plan was so stupid, incompetent, and cruel it is hard to believe any “planning” went into it beforehand.
These details are important. This was a family annihilator murder and financial difficulties are the second most commonly cited motive in studies of such cases. Since Shannan’s job was to present a very successful couple on YouTube, they lived well above thier means. They had just declared bankruptcy two years prior and were three months behind on thier mortgage. He had a decent blue-collar job with Anadarko Petroleum and was a good provider. But he could not support a 400k house, a leased Lexus, a private school for the kids and the best of everything. He would have struggled at twice his salary.
Shannan controlled all the finances and the good ship had hit an iceberg. His escape to the life of a single man with a hot new girlfriend living in an apartment mut have looked appealing. Now there is a large gap between dreaming of an escape and murdering your family. So let us not think for a minute Chris was anything but a monster. But monsters, unless they are completely insane, need motives. Motives are not excuses.
Beyond the Headlines in an attempt to create a more black and white narrative, ends up creating a confusing one.
The Ugly: One thing the doc adds is a jailhouse interview with the killer where he gives details of his crime. Which makes it a lot more horrifying than it appeared at first glance. He drove his daughters to his work site in his company truck next to thier dead mother and killed one of his daughters in front of the other and stuffed thier bodies in oil tanks.
These are recent details the earlier coverage simply did not have access to. It makes an already horrific crime even more so.
The end of the video has a piece about how the remaining family was harassed online and how hateful things are being said about the victim. Shanann was a bubbly MLM saleswoman who lived on Facebook, so I can imagine where the trolls came from. But like most trolls, they should not be fed. I am afraid the family’s attempt to appeal to the decency of people that would attack a murdered woman anonymously is misguided at best.
Speaking of a misguided family the documentary also glosses over Chris’s family particularly his mother who refused to go to thier wedding, hated her daughter-in-law, tried to feed pistachio ice cream to a granddaughter with a nut allergy and claims to still believe Chris’s cockamamie story that he broke up with his wife and in a rage she strangled her children. A claim he has since obviously recanted. The apple didn’t fall that far from those apron strings.
In Conclusion: Ironically the biggest problem Beyond the Headlines has is that it does not go beyond the headlines. I highly recommend the podcast (also on YouTube) Portrait of a Family Annihilator: The Watts Family Murders from True Crime Brewery. Many of the details I have above are courtesy of retired doctors Jill and Dick who really know their stuff and do the research.
Beyond the Headlines: The Watts Family Tragedy drops the ball in the end. The video footage is excellent, and the presentation is good. It just leaves too many important details off the table and, as a result, we are given a sanitised and somewhat confusing series of motives for a horrific crime. The lack of three dimensions in the portrayal of Shanann ironically makes the impact less tragic. Humans have flaws. It is okay to show them even under such circumstances. It makes them more human, which makes us more inclined to put ourselves in thier shoes.