American Murder: The Family Next Door


The smiling faces of the brutally murdered.

(2020) True Crime Documentary (NetflixShanann Watts, Chris Watts, Sandi Rzucek, Frank Rzucek, Celeste Watts, Bella Watts, Mark Jamieson, Ronnie Watts, Cindy Watts, Frankie Rzucek, Nickole Atkinson, Nichol Kessinger, Michael Rourke, Luke Epple, Jim Benemann, Marcelo Kopcow, Tom Mustin, Theresa Marchetta, Karen Leigh. Directed by Jenny Popplewell

 

The Watts family of Frederick, Colorado seemed to be as normal as they come. Chris Watts worked for an oil company; his wife Shanann – 15 weeks pregnant – worked for a marketing company. She had arrived home from a business trip early at nearly 2am on August 13, 2018, dropped off by her friend and colleague Nickole Atkinson. Later that day, when Shanann missed an OB-GYN appointment and after Nickole texted her friend without getting a response, Atkinson called Chris to let her know she was worried about Shanann.

At the Watts residence, it turned out that Shanann and both of their daughters – four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste – were all missing. The police were called. Chris addressed the media and pleaded for the safe return of his family, but as the investigation continued, the picture of a perfect family began to unravel and it turns out that the couple was having intimacy issues, despite the fact that Shanann was pregnant.

Eventually, the truth came out and it would send shock waves throughout the community that the family lived in, but also through the families of both Chris and Shanann. Those who have any sort of interest in true crime can guess where the investigation led.

British filmmaker Popplewell takes a unique spin on the events of a case that was fairly well-known at the tail end of 2018 (he would be convicted in November of that year, a mere four months after the crimes were committed which is lightning fast by judicial standards). Rather than using tried-and-true true crime tropes like dramatic recreations, talking-head interviews with the family and friends of those involved as well as the investigators, and expert testimony, she tells the story entirely through social media posts by the victim, text messages from the victim to her husband and to Atkinson, and police surveillance footage of both the polygraph, the confession as well as body-cam footage of the initial response to the victim’s home.

I give Popplewell full marks on this unique spin on the true crime documentary. You won’t see another film quite like it, and you get a bit of a sense of who the victim was as well as her husband. This serves to give the story an immediacy that sometimes lacks from other true crime documentaries, but it also lacks the emotional impact. We see things from a distance; for the most part, the family was depicted as happy and normal but when the computer was turned off, reality was a different story. For those who routinely watch true crime shows like Dateline: NBC and 48 Hours, this will feel familiar; it will also feel like you know what happened even before the police get their confession, even if you aren’t familiar with the details of the case as Da Queen was not, yet she accurately predicted who the killer would be, basically from the moment that they were reported missing.

Fredrick is the kind of suburban neighborhood that is movie-perfect; manicured lawns and beautiful homes, kids playing in the streets, everybody knows everybody else. Spielberg couldn’t have painted a more comforting picture, but yet a brutal crime took place here nevertheless which should give the viewer pause. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique presentation of a true crime documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really very surprising for even casual followers of true crime.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime was also depicted in a 20/20 episode as well as on episodes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. The murder was also the subject of Lifetime movie Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer which the family of Shanann Watts was not consulted about and spoke out against
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Any number of shows on the Discovery ID channel.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Herb Alpert Is…

Astor Dinnesdale


            Astor Dinnesdale sat primly at his dining room table, eating his frozen dinner that he had microwaved.  He sipped slowly from a glass of chardonnay, a California vintage that had been on sale at the grocery store. His cloth napkin was folded precisely in his lap. He chewed his food without a single wasted motion. He wore a pair of pleated grey dress slacks, the pleat sharp and definitive. His work shirt was free of even the suggestion of a wrinkle and white as snow. The red bow tie made him look a little scholarly.

            He was slight of frame and small of stature. When he shook hands, his grip was not terribly firm and his hands were soft and scrubbed. There were whispers in town that he was a *gasp* homosexual as he had no wife, no girlfriend and was clearly in middle age.

            His hair was thin and reddish blonde graying at the temples and he wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses that he always referred to as “spectacles.” He was odd that way, using unwieldy words where simple ones might do. Instead of going for a walk, he would “take a constitutional.” When women walked by with their baby strollers, he referred to them as “perambulators.” Most of the people who lived in his small Massachusetts town of Milton with him thought him an odd duck. Would that they knew what his after-dinner plans were.

            He owned a small bookstore that he had inherited from his father, the late Roger Dinnesdale who had been far more effeminate than his son who was downright butch compared to the old man. In a town mostly made up of blue collar workers whose life depended on the cable factory that manufactured cables of all varieties from steel to fiber optic. The town relied on that factory and most of the people who lived there were employed either directly or indirectly by it.

            For the most part, the men of the town went to one of two bars after work – Shanahan’s, as Irish as a Dubliner drinking a Guinness in a field of shamrocks, and Bulldog, which catered to the Poles. Those who didn’t fall into either category tended to drink at home. Astor, as far as anyone could tell, didn’t drink at all. However, one of the oddest things about the man was that he was also an executioner.

            The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a non-capital punishment state; Astor had to drive or fly to states that allowed it. He was given a per diem for this and put up in a hotel room overnight for his trouble. Most States (other than Texas) do not employ professional executioners and Astor is one of the few who knows how to operate the lethal injection process. The people of Milton found it amusing that Astor, perhaps the most non-violent man in Massachusetts, was responsible for the deaths of so many hardened criminals, but he had a way of calming prisoners down before strapping them on the gurney for their last few moments of life. He was also an efficient and methodical technician; not one execution had been botched on his watch ever.

            Some said that he needed the money but the truth was the Dinnesdale family had a tradition of working in that field; Dinnesdales in France and England had been headsmen as far back as records showed. Many wondered at how the prissy Astor coped with the realities of taking life.

            The truth as that Astor reveled in it. He put up with his co-workers in the various penitentiaries he plied his trade in referring to him as “Din” or “Dinny,” both of which he abhorred. He liked the power of life and death; he loved watching the fear in the eyes of his victims turn to acceptance as the light faded away. He particularly loved it when he got to execute women. That would get Astor’s wood right hard.

            You see, Astor’s mom was shall we say none too picky about whom she slept with. She had a marriage with Roger in name only; it was likely that Roger never consummated his marriage. Whoever Astor’s biological daddy was, well, it could have been one of any number of guys. As was previously mentioned, Astor’s mom wasn’t very picky. However, strangely enough Astor wound up resembling Roger not only in demeanor – Roger more or less raised him after Mommy got bored with her life in Milton and skedaddled for the bright lights and big city that was Providence – but also physically somewhat. Astor had the same spare frame as Roger and the same somewhat soft flesh.

            The resemblance ended there though. Facially, the two were nothing alike. Roger had brown hair where Astor’s was reddish blonde. Roger had green eyes, Astor’s were blue. Roger had a prominent nose whereas Astor’s nose was hardly there at all. Most telling, Roger had an almost triangular face while Astor’s was oval.

            One other thing that Astor possessed which Roger didn’t have was desire for women. His mother, the raging whore that she was, left Astor with all sorts of mommy issues. Whereas Roger was more or less asexual, having neither girlfriend nor boyfriend after mommy dearest shuffled off, Astor was very interested in girls.

            The trouble was, girls wanted nothing to do with Astor. Astor wasn’t much of a physical specimen and that’s the kind of guys the young ladies of Milton were interested in. What most of the women of his local town didn’t realize was that Astor was much stronger and more rugged than they realized. He had a weight set in his basement that he worked out with regularly.

            As Astor figured out that he wanted more from girls than they were willing to give, he also knew that if he wanted to take what he wanted he’d have to be much stronger than they, so he bulked up just enough to be able to hide his strength which he did effectively.

            Astor was also plenty intelligent enough; he knew that if he was going to be successful he would have to find prey much further afield than town so he would tell people he was going on execution business when in reality he was going hunting. He would pick towns at random, He stayed away from cities because he knew the rules for successful hunting there were completely different than in small towns.

            The first one he’d chosen was a woman named Jenny Marx. She lived in a small New Hampshire town called Weare and worked at the local pizzeria as a waitress. He didn’t know her name at the time and had stumbled on her quite fortuitously as her car had overheated. She was walking down the side of the road to a local 24 hour gas station when he’d managed to convince her to get in his car (he didn’t look a threat) and then chloroformed her, driving her to a secluded spot by a quarry.

            The moon was full that night and as she breathed, drugged into unconsciousness, she was beautiful, her lips parted and her blonde hair askew over her face (her ponytail had come undone in the struggle). She wore a short black skirt, dark leggings, a blouse with the pizzeria’s name over her heart and a pair of black flat shoes.

            He moved her into the back seat and gently unbuttoned her blouse. He rubbed the silky material of her bra, never having touched a woman’s undergarment before. He was surprised when her nipple perked up. He wanted to see so he took the bra off and she woke up then. She fought hard; up until then he hadn’t been sure if he was going to rape her or not. He just wanted to see her naked but she was having none of it. She was hitting him and scratching and biting and finally he put his hands around her neck and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed and soon she stopped fighting and the look of rage was replaced by fear.

            She was co-operative after that. He had sex for the first time in his life with the woman with the “Jenny” nametag. He liked it a lot. He liked putting his thing in her mouth too – he’d seen that in a pornographic picture he’d seen online. He made her touch herself and he liked the sound she made when she climaxed. Then he kissed her and threatened to hurt her if she didn’t kiss him back and he liked it most of all when she did as she was told.

            But he didn’t know what to do with her now. If he let her go, she might tell someone about what happened. He might get caught. He might go to jail. So Astor put his thing in her again and as he raped her he put his hands around her throat and squeezed harder than he ever had. At first she struggled wildly and that made the sex even more enjoyable for him; she was moving much more vigorously than she had before. He watched the light leave her eyes and it was only after she died that he ejaculated, and he should have been more careful but he did so inside her.

            He’d read several forensic handbooks that a former criminal justice student at the University had brought for resale and realized that if she was discovered they’d have his DNA. He couldn’t have that; the feeling of power and sex was so appealing he knew he must do it again. He knew what he had to do.

            There was a place only a few locals in Milton knew about where the factory (and a few other factories for a fee) dumped all their toxic materials. They did it illegally into a pond which was now mostly acid and all sorts of other corrosives. The pond wasn’t connected to the system that supplied the town it’s water so for the most part it was safe there but nobody was allowed in there because it was dangerously toxic.

            That suited Astor just fine. He stuffed Jenny Marx’s body in the trunk of his car and drove her back to Milton. It was nearly four in the morning when he arrived at the toxic pond. The fence that surrounded the pond was partially up against Astor’s property and he simply cut the fence there and carried Jenny’s corpse to the toxic pond and threw it in. He watched the corrosives start to do their work almost immediately as her dead flesh began to bubble and slide off her skull. Any DNA he deposited in her would never be recovered now.

            He trotted back home and got undressed for bed, but he was too wound up to go to sleep. He masturbated furiously several times, seeing the dead girl’s face in front of him. He wished he’d taken pictures. The next day he bought himself a little digital camera and batteries for it, as well as a sim card and bided his time. He read about the disappearance of Jenny Marx and when he saw her picture in the papers he knew that he was responsible for that. He was famous even if nobody knew who he was.

            After that he went out regularly although not often. He tried to space out his hunting trips erratically, trying to avoid patterns in order to keep from being noticed. He found the Internet useful in helping him stalk victims. He drove all over the Northeast and into the Southeast and Midwest, garnering an impressive list of victims over the years; Katherine Madden in Hyattsville, Maryland; Tasha Martinez in Holden, Massachusetts; Sandy Pritchard in Marengo, Ohio; Marilyn Kane in Willimantic, Maine.

            He had pictures of all of them in his digital camera; dressed and alive; nude and dead. He could recall them all by name – Cassie Dawson in Danbury, Connecticut; Krystal Lisoh in Whitesboro, New York; Sara Forbes in Manchester, NH; Angel Black in Orchard Park, NY; Bella Fateh in Middlesborough, MA; Carolyn Owens-Castle in Middletown, CT. His victims ranged in age and life status; some were as young as 16; others as old as 54. Some were students; some were mothers. Some were blue collar, some were professionals. All of them died at his hand.

             They died in different ways. He preferred strangling them with his bare hands but he also liked to experiment. Some he smothered, others he pushed their heads underwater until they stopped struggling. He stabbed one and injected an air bubble into another. He gave another the same drugs he injected into convicts. All of them died.

            Some begged and pleaded. Others fought until the very end. Some co-operated and did as he asked like the first one. Those he respected; those got easier deaths. Those that didn’t co-operate….well, he knew how to inflict pain. He raped most of them while they were alive. He raped all of them after they were dead.

            He got pictures of all his victims. Night after night he would relive his triumphs, savoring each moment of the agony, despair and terror of his victims. He replayed the violations in his mind and he supplied embellishments – his victims praising his sexual prowess, swearing that they loved him, promising him years of ecstasy (which some did actually do to be fair) in exchange for their lives. He spared no one.

             Years went by and because there was no discernable pattern, no reason for police to link one crime with the other – in fact, because he disposed of all of the bodies in the toxic pond there was no sense that crimes had been committed at all. However what Astor didn’t plan on was a state mandate that the toxic site be cleaned up. In the pond were discovered several bodies, not yet fully dissolved. Some had usable DNA and were identified.

            Even then Astor might never have been caught except he got sloppy. Following his microwaved meal, he drove down to New Jersey to hunt.  His favorite body disposal site no longer available to him, he chose a deepwater pond and brought a body weighted down by stones, the body of one Kate Foote who was visiting her sister in Ocean City, NJ. He’d raped her and beaten her to death, but the exertion of the struggle had for once left him too tired to rape her corpse. Instead he’d tied the rocks to her body and threw her into the water, turned and walked back to the car. He drove away without looking back.

            If he had, he might have noticed that Kate Foote wasn’t dead. Far from it. Instead, the mother of two was unconscious and raised to wakefulness by the shock of her body being thrown in the cold waters that came with February killings. He had nonchalantly tied the rocks to her but he hadn’t actually tied her up and she was able to free herself and swim back to the surface. She crawled back to the road where a passing motorist found her. She gave police a good description and even had a name; Astor Dinnesdale; Astor had foolishly shown her his business card and boasted about being an executioner.

            Even more foolishly he’d bragged to Kate Foote that he’d murdered more than fifty women. This revelation and the fact that his property abutted the pond where more than 35 bodies had been discovered was enough to warrant his arrest and helped persuade twelve jurors good and true that Astor Dinnesdale was a raping, murdering monster.

            Because his crimes took him over so many state lines, his case was tried in a federal court which was unfortunate for Astor; while Massachusetts didn’t have the death penalty, federal courts had the option of condemning a prison to death. Considering the magnitude and gravity of the crimes, he knew that he wouldn’t escape the fate that he’d seen through on so many different men.

            Years later when Astor was nearly 65 and all his appeals were exhausted, the sentence was finally carried out. Astor could barely walk anymore and his kidneys were failing. His rheumy eyes were filled with tears and he begged for mercy, mercy that he didn’t deserve and wouldn’t receive. As the needles went into his skin and the first drugs hit his veins, his last words were “No you’re doing it wrong. You turn the blue valve first otherwise I’ll be awake and conscious for the….”