Inside The Confusing, Obsessive World Of Amateur True Crime Facebook Sleuths
Chris Watts confessed to murdering his wife and his two young daughters. So why are there Facebook groups dedicated to finding out the "truth" of the case?
On a recent Wednesday evening, Cristina F. was stressed about a murder confession.
Chris Watts, a Colorado man in prison for killing his wife and two young daughters had spoken to investigators in February, and now some five hours of that audio were to be released to the public. As one of the administrators for a Facebook discussion group dedicated to the case (Refinery29 is not publishing the name of the group in order to protect the members’ privacy), it would be Cristina's job to post everything coming the next morning from the Colorado Open Records Information Act so that the more than 5,000 members of the group could parse it all in as close to real time as possible.
"It's two audio files of five hours total, two images of Chris Watts, one CBR report, and a letter from the Department of Public Safety is being released," she told Refinery29. "So, we're going to stream the audio files live in the group. Once I download it, we are going to all listen to it at the same time. So, that way it cuts out the time of me having to upload it to a server.”
But it wasn't just the burden of dealing with the logistics of how to disseminate the information dump that had her on edge. Cristina was also concerned about what Watts might reveal and how it would affect her understanding of a case she'd been following and dissecting for months.
"When the confession comes out tomorrow, some questions will be answered but there will still be a question of this man, the father that we see — because everyone says how great he was and you can't find one person to say anything bad about him ever, " says Cristina, pausing for a moment. "My [current] husband's an amazing father and he reminds me of [Watts]. So, it's like, you want him to be innocent. You kind of need him to be innocent because if he isn't, it's like my husband could just one day snap and kill me and my kids."
The amateur sleuth is a ubiquitous trope in our true crime-obsessed society. Empowered by the unprecedented access to information granted by the internet and our current state of constant connectivity, today’s web sleuth has plenty of material to obsess over: surveillance footage from any number of private and public cameras, Facebook posts and Instagram stories, online access to court records, and cell phone pings. Sometimes these groups prove useful to law enforcement, exploring cold cases that overwhelmed police departments don’t have time to devote resources. Sometimes they take on an insidious life of their own, one that focuses on the grisly with cruel scrutiny.
And then there are groups that function as a kind of clearing house for information — a place where true-crime obsessives can come together and talk amateur psychology and forensics in an effort to make sense of senseless crimes. The Chris Watts Facebook group that Cristina runs has splintered into different pages as more details of the case have emerged. Her focus has little to do with solving the crime or empathizing with the victims, but rather understanding the granular specifics of the motives behind it. They aim for absolute objectivity.
Cristina, a mother and seasonal worker in Maine, had been spending over eight hours a day on the Chris Watts Facebook group for months. Her friends don’t really get her fascination with the case, and her husband stopped talking to her about the crime when Watts pled guilty and was sentenced in January. He couldn’t understand why she’d devote so much of her time to understanding the motivations of a confessed killer — especially considering her history.
We all want to believe we have some control over our lives, especially when it comes to crimes such as murder, rape, and assault.
Silvia M. Dutchevici, MA, LCSW
Cristina, who says she’s been obsessed with true crime her whole life, has firsthand knowledge of a mysterious death in a way most other members of the Facebook group don’t: In 2006, her then-husband smothered their infant daughter to death. It was ruled an accident, but Cristina has her doubts about what really happened that night.
Shortly before the little girl’s death, Cristina had woken in the middle of the night and realized her husband and baby were not in the room with her. She ran into the darkened living room where she found them both on the couch — the baby was swaddled, face down, and he was using her as a pillow. In a panic, Cristina grabbed the little girl, who was breathing and seemed fine. She told her husband that under no circumstances was he to touch the child again at night.
Two weeks later, she once again woke in the middle of the night, this time to the sounds of her older daughter crying. Once again, she found her husband on the couch with the baby. This time, she wasn’t breathing. First responders came, but it was too late.
“He said that he was sleeping with her but I knew he wasn’t sleeping. He was awake. His voice was awake. Everything about the house was awake,” says Cristina. “But he told the police that he had just fallen asleep with her. He was snuggling with her and then he woke up that way. It was my word against his. So they really just chalked it up to accidental co-sleeping.”
Cristina argues that the situation with her daughter has enabled her to discuss crime with true objectivity. In the Facebook group, she’s found a group of like-minded people. She’s careful to note that her board is not a “fan site” — she’s not one of those women sending Chris Watts love letters and nude photos. Rather, her goal is to weigh all the evidence at hand (the Watts family were prolific users of social media and left behind a huge digital footprint) and try to determine why and how a man could snap and kill his pregnant wife and young daughters.
Silvia M. Dutchevici, MA, LCSW, psychotherapist and president and founder of the Critical Therapy Center, explained to Refinery29 that many of the amateur Facebook sleuths are likely trying to find a sense of control in a world where there is none. "We all want to believe we have some control over our lives, especially when it comes to crimes such as murder, rape, and assault,” she says via email. “We want to believe that we can protect ourselves from such atrocities and that the world is a safe place. Subconsciously, if we have been attacked at some point in our lives, we might align ourselves with the aggressor because it feels safer. It is a way to disavow or ward off our own vulnerability and fragility."
I'm always aware. I'm aware that this is possible. I'm aware that people are capable of this. If I understood the ‘how,’ that protects my family.
Is that why, in the case of Chris Watts, the prevailing theories on so many of the Facebook pages implicate a woman — either his mistress, Nichol Kessinger, or his wife Shanann herself? Did Nichol’s openness to sexuality awaken something dark in him? Did Shanann’s “domineering” personality somehow cause her husband to snap? Could it be true, as Watts had told investigators in his first confession, that he'd killed his wife only after discovering she'd murdered the girls in a jealous rage over his extramarital affair?
If a commenter on the page takes offense at the notion that the victim might be responsible in some way for her own death, they are quickly put in their place by other members who remind them to be “objective.” In this space, the notion of the internalized societal misogyny that might lead a man to lash out at his wife for being “domineering” isn’t a matter of debate. It’s just a fact of life. It’s a motive, pure and simple.
“Victim-blaming puts the responsibility of the crime or assault (as this happens a lot in rape cases) on the woman and takes on the perspective of the perpetrator,” explains Dutchevici. “For women, victim-blaming is a way to psychologically deny vulnerability in oneself.”
Cristina, who has found herself the target of heated criticism for her attempts to remain "neutral" while discussing Watts, is not averse to psychoanalyzing her relationship to the Chris Watts case. “I'm always aware. I'm aware that this is possible. I'm aware that people are capable of this. If I understood the ‘how,’ that protects my family,” she says.
When the audio of Chris Watts’ second confession was made public, it revealed a largely unrepentant man who detailed for investigators how he had sex with his wife Shanann when she returned from a business trip before strangling her to death just a few hours later in the same bed.
But most troubling to Cristina and many of the other members of the Chris Watts Facebook group was Watts’ admission that he — not his wife, as he had previously suggested — had killed his daughters, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3.
In the audio posted to the Facebook group, Watts described how after strangling Shanann, he'd wrapped her body in a sheet and dragged her down the stairs. His daughter Bella walked in on the scene. "What are you doing with momma?" the 4-year-old asked. Watts then loaded his two daughters and the body into his pickup truck and drovefor 45 minutes to the oil field where he worked. He described the girls in the backseat holding each other. When they arrived, he smothered Celeste with her blanket.
When he returned to his truck, Bella asked him, “Is the same thing gonna happen to me as Cece?” Watts then disposed of his daughters' bodies in two separate oil tanks. He buried Shanann in a shallow grave.
The confession was damning enough to test Cristina's theory that there had to be reason for what had happened, some kind of logical explanation. "He had a 40-minute calm-down time, so I don't care where your brain's at," she says, referring to the brutal slaughter of the girls.
Still, the confession hasn’t provided a definitive answer for all of the members of the Facebook page. Some still insist that Watts was covering for his girlfriend. Others find it unlikely that a woman as willful as Shanann hadn’t fought for her life.
A few days after the confession was released, things were different for Cristina. Still grappling with the new information, she wrote in the group, “Let’s face the facts y’all. I’ve noticed that as I listen to ‘The Confession’ I constantly have lightbulb moments because of all the smaller details. Some are truly irrelevant to the case in general, but have had their legitimacy challenged for over half a year, repeatedly. If you’re here because of your fascination of criminology, [the] confession serves as an answer sheet for all of those educated guesses we have formed along the way.”
The Chris Watts Facebook page was Cristina’s first experience as an administrator and highly engaged member of a true-crime group. She’s always followed crime closely — she actually got involved with the group after following the Mollie Tibbetts murder online — but it was the Chris Watts group where she found a voice among like-minded people who wanted to examine things clinically, even if it meant pursuing a troubling opinion (like that a victim might have had a role in her own death) and, most importantly, even if it meant reevaluating things like “gut instinct.”
Cristina is now a moderator on a different Facebook group she began with some of the people she met while discussing Chris Watts, which focuses on the murder of Kelsey Bereth. It’s another case from Colorado — Patrick Frazee has been charged with killing Kelsey Bereth, his fiancee and the mother of his one-year-old daughter, with the help of an ex-girlfriend.
It seems telling, in a way, that Cristina’s next mystery isn’t really a mystery either. Frazee’s ex-girlfriend, Krystal Lee Kenney, gave a detailed confession to law enforcement in which she admitted that her ex had asked her to kill Bereth on more than one occasion and that she herself had cleaned up the crime scene, disposing of grisly evidence like one of Bereth’s molars knocked out of the young mother’s mouth when Frazee beat her to death with a baseball bat. So what is there to discuss? Some in the group allege that Kenney is the actual killer — motivated by jealousy to get rid of the romantic competition for Frazee’s heart. The catch: These assertions must be backed up with forensic or circumstantial evidence available from public records.
The “truth” that Cristina and other Facebook sleuths are searching for is slippery at best, even with so much information available. But the notion that all murder cases can be shaped into a mystery – and the belief that a mystery can always be solved – is not much different from how society consumes true crime as a whole for entertainment purposes (see our renewed fascination with Ted Bundy and Adnan Syed of Serial – cases that have both evolved within the legal system and the court of public opinion over time). The different mediums — from online sleuths to prestige television — all strive for some kind of objective truth or definitive answer behind unspeakable crimes. But sometimes that answer, that “truth,” will live forever just out of reach, an unknowable thing locked away in the heart of a bad man.