Earlier this week, 33-year-old Christopher Watts was charged with the murder of his pregnant wife, Shanann, and his two young daughters, Celeste and Bella.
The charges came shortly after Watts told local media and law enforcement in Frederick, Colorado that he wanted nothing more than the safe return of his missing wife and kids. His on-camera pleas were cold and stilted, the kind of performance that screamed amateur hour in a world where true crime has convinced all of us that we’re professional body language experts. And it didn’t take long for those detective instincts to prove right. True crime has prepared us for a grim fact: the husband almost always did it.
Watts caved and led investigators to the sites of their bodies; Shanann was buried in a shallow field and the girls were submerged in oil tanks.
According to an affidavit released August 20, Watts maintains that he strangled Shanann in a rage after she killed their daughters first. He claims that after telling Shanann he wanted a separation, he went into another room and spotted the baby monitor, showing Shanann strangling their three-year-old, while their four-year-old was already “sprawled out on her bed and blue.” He claims that in retaliation, he strangled her.
The district attorney wasn’t convinced by Watts’s story. He is currently facing three counts of first-degree murder, three counts of tampering with a deceased human body, and one count of unlawful termination of pregnancy.
Close family friends are shocked. They, with the help of the media, gushed over what a good-looking, seemingly happy family the Watts appeared to be. It’s a claim that has been backed up by the family’s saccharine home videos—as if a curated collection of contextless, captured moments could ever show the full picture.
Every aspect of this story is dark: videos of Shanann declaring her love for a man who would later kill her; the two girls whose lives were callously cut short; Shanann’s father sobbing in the courthouse, face red as he tries to hold it together.
The murder of Shanann Watts is grim, it’s stomach churning, and it’s heartbreaking. But it’s far from an anomaly.
A 2017 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control showed that out of 100,000 women killed in the United States, over half were killed by an intimate partner, usually current or former husbands and boyfriends; 15 percent of them were pregnant. And according to the Washington Post, CDC research in 2005 revealed that “among injury-related deaths, only car accidents were a more common cause of death for pregnant women.”
Shanann’s pregnancy didn’t inherently put her at a greater risk of homicide at the hand of her husband, but it did make her more vulnerable. But research conducted by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence shows that a majority of women who experienced violence during pregnancy have been abused before:
Pregnant abused women tend to report experiencing more severe violence compared to non-pregnant abused women [...] In addition, pregnant violence survivors often experience multiple violent incidents during pregnancy [...] Moreover, some (but not all) women violated both before and during pregnancy experience increases in the severity or frequency of violence during pregnancy.
It’s unclear whether Shanann was physically abused. In fact, abuse speculation is nowhere to be found in the current media narrative. It’s very likely that Shannan’s story doesn’t perfectly reflect statistics; few ever do. But maybe that’s partially why her case is receiving so much coverage despite the fact that black and Native American women die at the hands of their partners at a significantly higher rate.
Where Shanann’s story does fit is in the media’s sordid coverage of murdered pregnant white women. The arrest could be gaining traction because there are parallels to Laci Peterson, a pregnant woman who was murdered in 2002. Peterson was murdered by her unfaithful, financially unstable husband who initially reported her missing. The case dominated cable news for over two years and the fascination lingers.
And so does the pointless shock. In a world where violence against women is common, this shock feels tepid.