Warning: The following contains scenes of graphic violence that may not be suitable for all readers.
In this post we will look at three of the several reasons Dewey Brannon was considered a “person of interest” when his wife of 16 years, Sherry Brannon, and his four-year-old and seven-year-old daughters were brutally murdered in Manatee County Florida in 1999. In essence, he was not the first nor the last family man who might have been capable of committing such a heinous crime.
In 1970, Green Beret surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald, husband of Colette and father of 2-year-old Kimberly and 5-year-old Kristin, murdered his family without any apparent motive. His wife and two small daughters had been stabbed numerous times and beaten with a club in their Fort Bragg North Carolina home. He told detectives at the scene that hippies had entered his house in the early morning hours, attacked him where he slept on the livingroom sofa, then went to the bedrooms and slaughtered his wife and daughters. MacDonald had been stabbed, but not to a life-threatening extent, possibly a feat rendered possible through his experience as a practicing surgeon. The entire country, including the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, was aware of the murders.
By all outward appearances, the MacDonalds had been a happily married couple with two daughter they both adored. Colette was a pretty, vivacious woman and an attentive mother. Jeff and Colette had married when they were young and she became pregnant with Bella. She was five months pregnant with their third child when she died.
A best-selling non-fiction book, Fatal Vision, was written by Joe McGinnis about MacDonald’s murder trial. While McGinnis–whom MacDonald allowed to participate as part of his defense team– initially thought the latter was innocent, he later came to believe that he had actually killed his family. MacDonald was convicted in 2009 after two trials and years out on bail during which he bought a luxury boat and a pricy condo and dated enthusiastically. Much later, in 2012, documentarian Errol Morris published another book, A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, in which he argued that MacDonald never got a fair trial and was probably innocent. MacDonald denies committing the crimes. Unless new evidence is produced, he has exhausted his appeals and is now awaiting execution which, in California, may be a very long time in coming.
Three years after the Brannon homicides, on Christmas Eve 2002, Laci Peterson went missing from her Modesto California home. She was pregnant with her first child, a boy she and her husband Scott planned to name Connor. A vigorous investigation turned up no direct evidence that a crime had been committed and while Scott cooperated with the search, he gradually became accustomed to a new life, one that included Amber Frey, the woman who had become his lover before Laci’s disappearance. She did not live in the same town as the Petersons and did not initially know about Laci’s disappearance. Scott had told Amber when they first met that he was a widower.
The morning of the murder, Scott told detectives, he left his wife who was cooking in preparation for Christmas and went fishing alone in his motor boat in San Francisco Bay. Four months later, the decomposed bodies of Laci and Connor washed up on the shore of the bay near the area where Scott claimed to have been fishing. In April 2003 despite his protestations of innocence, Peterson was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to death. As is automatic in California in death sentence cases, Peterson’s case is being appealed. He awaits the results in San Quentin prison. His affair with Amber Frey did not survive the ordeal.
By November 2018, sixteen years after the Peterson murders, Chris and Shanann Watts were the parents of two girls, 3-year old Celeste, nicknamed CeCe, and 4-year-old Bella, and Shanann was 15 weeks pregnant for their third child, a boy whom Chris anticipated eagerly. Shanann had a lively social media presence, blogging and sending messages to her friends and general readers on a daily basis. She was usually upbeat and believed she had the perfect husband: affectionate, involved with his daughters’ care, considerate of her, generous, and a great lover. She spoke openly of her feelings about Chris to him and to her large circle of friends and family.
To spend time with the girls, she worked from home for Le Vel, the proprietors of a health and lifestyle program called “Thrive,” a multilevel sales enterprise to which Shanann was totally devoted and from which she earned about $80,000 a year. Chris worked for an oil company as a technician near their home in Frederick Colorado.
In the summer of 2018, the Watts’s agreed that Shanann would take the girls to North Carolina for an extended visit with both sets of grandparents and her brother, Frankie, who had not yet met his nieces. She left in June and during the five weeks of her absence, Shanann observed a marked cooling of Chris’s affections. Unusual for him, he frequently did not pick up his cell phone when she called and when he returned her calls he was brief. She emailed and called him repeatedly, asking what was wrong and how she might adjust her behavior to regain their intimacy. She could not understand what could have changed between them so quickly. Chris was evasive or placated her with vague promises that he was just overworked and would “fix things.”
In August, on the sixth week of the trip, Chris flew to North Carolina to join his family; they all flew back together to Colorado at the end of the week. During their North Carolina visit he had agreed to Shanann’s request that they spend a solitary weekend together at an Aspen resort to begin repairing their relationship. She made plans for them to do so two weeks later.
While Chris had repeatedly denied his wife’s accusations that he was seeing another woman, that was not true. For the past two months, most intensely during the period his family visited North Carolina, he had been involved in a passionate affair with Nicol Kessenger, his pretty, dark-haired, sexy co-worker. They took day trips to the desert and race track, shared a romantic dinner at a local restaurant, made love in her apartment, and exchanged nude and semi-nude photos through a hidden program on their cell phones. Nicole later told detectives that she believed Chris and Shanann had an unhappy marriage and were in the final stages of divorce. She searched the internet for wedding gowns and researched the public’s reaction to Amber Frey, Scott Peterson’s one-time mistress. She checked Shanann’s Facebook page where she saw pictures of the Watts family and Shanann’s very obvious pregnancy.
The weekend before Chris and Shanann were scheduled to take their brief trip to Aspen, Shanann attended a weekend business conference in Las Vegas with her fellow Thrive sales and marketing peers. Her returning flight on Sunday arrived late, and she was driven home about 1:45 a.m. on Monday August 13th by her friend and business travel companion, Nickole Atkinson. It was the last time Nickole saw her friend alive.
When Shanann did not respond to Atkinson’s texts and calls the next morning, she phoned Chris Watts to express her concern. She had driven to the Watts house and no one answered her knocks and doorbell rings. Chris drove home to meet Nickole immediately and opened the door to an empty house. Shanann’s trip bag and the flip-flops she had been wearing on the flight were abandoned in the front hall. Chris commented that she had been home in bed when he left for work that morning.
Responding to a 911 call, investigators met Chris and Nickole at the Watts front door. Chris gave them permission to search the premises. From his front porch, he subsequently told reporters that he did not know what had happened to his wife and daughters, but he hoped they were safe somewhere and he wanted them to come home. He looked and sounded composed and he smiled slightly as he spoke to the cameras.
In the course of several investigative interviews, Chris continued to deny knowledge of his family’s whereabouts. Investigators were suspicious from the outset that he was involved in their disappearance. He agreed to take a polygraph exam, which he failed. Detectives told him they knew he was withholding something, and finally suggested that he tell the truth to his father, Ronnie Watts.
On August 15th Watts flew to Colorado from his home in North Carolina. He joined Chris in a police interview room where detectives left them alone together, advising Ronnie that their conversation would be recorded. Ronnie held his white-haired head in both hands as he listened to his son’s account. Shanann, Chris said, had choked her daughters until they turned blue while he was downstairs. He heard a disturbance and when he went upstairs, “They were gone,” he said.”They are my kids. I did the same f***ing thing to her.” Answering his father’s question about what he did next, he said he “got rid of” their bodies. Detectives videotaped and recorded the confession.
Investigators were convinced they still did not know the truth of what happened during the night and early morning hours of August 12th and 13th. They held a second interview with Chris and his father to review the details of the confession. Chris finally admitted that Shanann had not hurt the girls, that he had killed all of them. The details he provided were so chilling that one of the primary detectives subsequently developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and left the department on permanent medical disability.
Chris confessed that Shanann initiated a satisfying sexual encounter when she came to bed the early morning she returned from Las Vegas. They slept and he woke her at 5 a.m., wanting to talk about their relationship before he left for work. He no longer loved her, he told his wife, and he wanted a divorce. He recalled that they both cried and Shanann became very distraught. In a peculiar disconnect, he explained that then he put his hands around her neck and strangled her until she was dead, a process that he estimated took between two and four minutes. He clinically reported that her eyes became bloodshot and she lost control of her sphincter muscles.
The nightmare was far from over. He heard a noise near the doorway as he was wrapping his wife’s body in the top bedsheet. His daughters had been awakened by the disturbance. Bella asked what was wrong with her mommy. “She is sick and we have to take her to the hospital,” Chris said. Then, unable to lift her dead weight, he dragged and pushed her down the stairs and outside into the waiting truck he had backed into the entrance of the attached garage. He laid her body on the floor behind the front seat, then lifted each little girl and placed her in her carseat, feet dangling just above their mother’s corpse. He drove to a remote work site, the location of two huge vertical oil storage tanks. He thought the girls dozed in their carseats during the trip and once complained of a bad smell that emanated from Shanann’s body.
Upon arrival he retrieved Shanann’s body from the floor and placed it on the ground next to the truck. Next, he opened the rear door on Cece’s side and pulled her blanket tightly over her head. Despite her muffled cries, he held it there until she was still. Then he lifted her body from the carseat and carried her up the exterior ladder to the top of one tank, removed the 8″ lid, and dropped her into the tank, waiting until he heard a splash.
Then he returned to the truck where Bella sat, having observed the entire sequence of events. As he picked up her blanket and moved toward her, she said “Please Daddy. Don’t do to me what you just did to Cece.” He continued with his plan, holding the blanket over his oldest daughter’s head until she too was dead. He carried her body to the top of the other oil tank, removed the top, and because Bella was slightly larger than her sister, forced her body through the small opening. He told detectives that this splash sounded different, he assumed because there was more oil in one tank than in the other.
Before he left, he moved Shanann’s body a distance from the tanks, dug a shallow grave with a shovel he had brought, and dumped her body in, face down. Detectives subsequently followed the map Chris had drawn of the site and located the three bodies. His unborn son lay under his mother’s body. The baby had either been forcibly removed or post mortem strain on Shanann’s abdomen had torn her open and the premature infant’s body had been expelled. No one will ever know which.
Because he provided an in-depth confession, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty. Scott Peterson is incarcerated for life with no possibility of parole, convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and three accounts of interferring with deceased bodies. He says he has found God and believes his life purpose is to carry that message to others in prison. He seems to think he may have some possibility of eventual reduction in the terms of his sentence.
The MacDonald, Peterson, and Watts murders were clearly horrific. What though, you might wonder, do they have to do with the Brannon homicides? I think they illustrate why skilled detectives always begin their investigations with the people closest to the victims, such as a spouse or lover. No one can responsibly assume that a murderer “looks” or “acts” like one. If that were the case, such murders would be exceedingly rare. Second, detectives cannot assume that men who appear to be loving fathers are not capable of killing their children. Finally, passion can sometimes cause temporary insanity. In at least two of the three cases just described, the perpetrators were involved in passionate extra marital affairs of which their wives were not aware. Divorce seems a safer more civil solution, but some men may value their reputations and their bank accounts more than the lives of their wives and young children.
I am not suggesting that Dewey Brannon played any role in the brutal murder of his wife and two daughters. I am saying, however, that no one can assume that an unlikely candidate is always an innocent one. That’s the position the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office took, and as we retrospectively examine these earlier and later cases, it is entirely understandable why they did.