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A STAR PUPIL
Christopher Lee Watts was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on May 16, 1985, the second child of Ronnie and Cindy Watts. His sister, Jamie, was six and a half years older and helped raise him. Ronnie worked as a parts manager for a Ford dealership, while Cindy was a secretary and notary.
From an early age, Chris idolized his father, who was quiet and reserved.
“Ronnie and Chris were so close,” said Cindy. “They did everything together.”
Chris loved sports, and his father would take him to basketball games in the winter and football and baseball games in the summer.
They also shared a love of NASCAR and went to more than two hundred races together, including the Daytona 500. Ronnie also taught his son car mechanics, which Chris discovered a natural talent for.
Unlike his gregarious older sister, Jamie, who took after her mother, Chris was shy and withdrawn like his dad. When he started school, he was an average student but shone at sports, winning many trophies, which his parents still proudly display in their living room. His father would always come to watch him compete in school sports, cheering him on from the sidelines.
Chris was also close to his maternal grandmother, Gertrude Schottner McLeod. She would quiz him on state capitals while they waited outside Pine Forest Middle School to pick up Jamie.
“He knew all the capitals of the United States and was learning the capitals of Europe,” said Cindy. “It was just something they did to pass the time.”
* * *
At fourteen, Chris followed his parents and sister to Pine Forest High School, where he became even more withdrawn. He kept to himself and was uncomfortable around his schoolmates, who largely ignored him.
“He didn’t go out with friends,” said his sister, Jamie. “I was more of a social butterfly, and he was quiet and interested in mechanics and cars. He was just a focused person.”
Chris enrolled in the Automotive Technology class taught by Joe Duty and soon became one of his star pupils. Duty was something of a mentor to Chris, believing he was destined for great things.
“It’s hard to find a more perfect kid,” said Duty. “He was in the top ten percent of students I ever had. He was very quiet [and] introverted, but he was always completely polite and courteous.”
The gangly, tall teenager with braces and a bowl cut impressed his teacher with his encyclopedic knowledge of NASCAR stats and trivia. He was obsessed with the sport and would spend hours in his bedroom reading about it.
“He had a photographic memory,” recalled Duty, “and he could recite anything you wanted to know about NASCAR from memory … right off the top of his head. And I was very impressed with that.”
Duty was also struck by how isolated Chris was and never saw him speak to a girl, let alone have a girlfriend. Ironically, many girls at the school had crushes on the handsome teenager, who was too “awkward and shy” to do anything about it.
“That was one thing I always wondered about,” Duty recalled. “Many times I would look at him and think, ‘What’s going on in his head?’ It was like the wheels were spinning but he was by himself.”
One girl Chris did become close to in high school was Brandi Smith, who remembers him being “smart and gentle.”
She said, “Most of our conversations that I recall were about music and things like that. I was a bit of an outcast and he kinda just seemed to understand me.”
Lance Alfonso played football with Chris and remembers him being almost too easygoing.
“I’ve never seen him get angry at anybody,” he recalled. “[He] wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
In the 2002 Pine Forest High School yearbook, Chris appears in a group shot of Academy of Applied Technology students. He is also in a Patriot’s Day photo spread, taken on the first anniversary of the World Trade Center 9/11 attacks.
On another yearbook page entitled “Life in the Fast Lane,” Chris was asked whether American cars were better than foreign ones.
“American sports cars,” says Chris, “because Fords are made in America.”
Joe Duty remembers Chris driving a Ford Mustang his father had bought him and helped him fix up.
Unlike his older sister, Chris never rebelled as a teenager or caused any trouble. But as he grew up, Jamie often wondered if something was wrong with Chris, as he was so obsessive and controlled.
“I really thought he was autistic,” said Jamie, “like he was on the spectrum. He had to get things in order … from the way he would eat to the way he had to say his prayers at night. It was his mannerisms. It was hard to hold a conversation with him unless we were talking about cars.”
* * *
On March 18, 2003, Joe Duty brought seventeen-year-old Chris Watts and another student to Winston-Salem, to compete in a North Carolina Statewide Automotive Competition. They had spent months training for the prestigious competition.
The Fayetteville Observer had featured Chris in a story headlined “Auto Tech Students Compete for Garage Glory.”
“When Pine Forest High School senior Chris Watts … lifts the hood of a Toyota Matrix next week,” read the article, “[he] will find an assortment of problems. Their teacher, Joe Duty, can only stand on the sidelines and watch. If he gives any help, the team will be disqualified.”
Alongside the article was a photograph of Chris working on a car engine, and he was also interviewed.
“When I was a kid, I watched car shows and went to races,” he told the reporter, adding that his dream car would be a ’69 Boss 429 Mustang.
“It’s not just a paper test,” Duty said. “They get to compete. They have to perform. It tells you whether you can do the job.”
But unfortunately, at the competition the Pine Forest team placed a disappointing third out of the four teams competing.
At the end of May 2003, Chris Watts graduated from Pine Forest High School. The yearbook has a color picture of him wearing a tuxedo and black bow tie, an enigmatic knowing look in his eyes. A female admirer had to invite him to the prom, as he was too shy to ask.
Before graduation, Joe Duty gave his star pupil a pep talk. Chris had just been awarded a $1,000 scholarship to the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, North Carolina, and his auto teacher was convinced that he would go far.
“He had everything going for him,” said Duty. “I told him, ‘Chris, if ever I had a student who was going to be tremendously successful, it’s you.’ I was sure that one day I was going to read about him [being] a crew chief of a NASCAR team.”
* * *
In the summer of 2003, eighteen-year-old Chris Watts left home for the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, North Carolina. Lying 120 miles west of Fayetteville, the Charlotte suburb was his first taste of city life.
“We paid his rent until he got on his feet,” said his mother, “because he had to go to school five days a week. We would help him out with his groceries, pay his car insurance and all of this stuff.”
To supplement his income, Chris found a part-time job at a Ford dealership in Mooresville, renting an apartment with another NASCAR student named Richard Hodges.
“He was straight as an arrow,” recalled Hodges. “He was very dedicated to his work … and wasn’t the kind of guy that went out and partied.”
While most of his classmates were out every night drinking, Chris studied in his bedroom. He dreamed of a career in NASCAR and devoted himself to achieving it.
“He was pretty reserved,” said Hodges, “and not the kind of guy who’s just going to walk up and introduce himself and try and make friends.”
* * *
Around the same time that Chris left home, his sister, Jamie, got married and also moved out. Now studying and working a part-time job, Chris rarely came home. Ronnie, who had once been so close to his son, seemed to fall apart.
“I never came back,” Chris later explained, “and I think that hit [my dad] pretty hard. He was used to me being around. He’s my hero. He’s my best friend.”
To feel better, Ronnie Watts secretly began snorting cocaine and became addicted. He was soon spending so much money getting high that Cindy thought he was having an affair.
“At first I thought, ‘Okay, maybe something’s wrong,’” said Cindy. “‘Do you have another family or something, because we’re supposed to have money in the bank.’”
Finally Ronnie confessed he was hooked on cocaine because he was so depressed after Chris had left.
“It shocked me … because I trust him,” said Cindy. “I put Ronnie on a pedestal because I thought he does no wrong. And I realized that with Chris leaving, maybe this was an outlet and he couldn’t cope. Ronnie doesn’t tell you how he feels.”
Finally Cindy told her children what was going on at an emotional family meeting.
“You could see it in his face and eyes,” said Chris. “He was losing a lot of weight. His nose was bleeding all the time.”
Chris staged an intervention and Ronnie agreed to give cocaine up.
“He just quit,” said Cindy. “He stopped right there and then.”
* * *
In 2006, Chris graduated from the NASCAR Institute with honors. He found a full-time job at the Mooresville Ford dealership as a service technician, making good money. But the twenty-year-old still dreamed of a career in NASCAR, sending off a stream of job applications. He only got one interview, which went nowhere, and his dreams of joining a NASCAR race team were shattered.
Over the next few years Chris worked at the far-less-glamorous Ford dealership, buying himself a hot-rod Mustang and saving for the future. It was a big disappointment for him although he never complained and bottled up his frustrations.
“He was making good money,” said his mother. “He bought a toolbox and started buying tools. He enjoyed it and was doing well.”
He also found his first steady girlfriend, who was on the rebound after a messy divorce. But he never once brought her home to meet his family and it soon ended badly.
“I was helping her get through her divorce,” Chris later explained. “And then she went off with someone else. I’m like, ‘Oh, nice to know.’”
Then his cousin Nicole Canady suggested he send a Facebook friend request to her work colleague Shanann Rzucek, who was coming out of a bad marriage. He plucked up his courage and did so, but it would be months before he got a reply.
Shanann Cathryn Rzucek was named after Sha Na Na, the popular sixties rock-and-roll doo-wop group who played Woodstock. She was born on January 10, 1984, in Passaic, New Jersey, to Frank and Sandi Rzucek. Almost two years later her brother, Frankie, arrived to complete the family.
Shanann always stood out with her vibrant personality and intelligence. But she was a sickly child who constantly needed medical attention.
“When she was a baby,” explained her father, “we took her to all kinds of doctors because she always had migraines. Brain surgeons … to find out why she was having these problems. She took those real strong pills and used to get shots for it.”
When Shanann was still little, Frank moved the family to Clifton, New Jersey, where she attended Number 11 Elementary School in the Lakeview section. Growing up, she and her young brother formed a strong bond.
“[We were] pretty close,” said Frankie. “She would tell me things she wouldn’t tell [our] parents.”
Shanann was insecure and often bullied at school, so Frankie became her protector, getting into numerous fights on her behalf.
“They’d poke her on the school bus,” said Frankie. “I’m like, ‘Leave her the hell alone!’”
Years later Shanann would describe her miserable time at school: “I had people who picked on me and said mean things. I wasn’t the popular kid in the group.”
* * *
Around 1999, Frank Rzucek moved the family to Aberdeen, North Carolina, where job prospects were better. He started his own home-improvement business, and Sandi worked in a hair salon, dreaming of opening her own one day.
At fourteen, Shanann began her freshman year at Pinecrest High School, in Southern Pines. Founded in 1969 as a progressive school, Pinecrest boasted team teaching, closed-circuit-television instruction, and a fully equipped media center. It specialized in arts and drama, and the school’s Pinecrest Players competed in regional theater competitions every fall with original productions.
Soon after enrolling at Pinecrest, Shanann Rzucek joined Matt Francis’s theater class. The charismatic twenty-five-year-old drama teacher instilled his passion for drama in his students. His class would change Shanann’s life, giving her confidence and a new set of friends.
“Shanann was a very insecure young lady who didn’t have a lot of friends when I met her,” Francis remembered. “She did not have a good self-image of herself, but she was brave enough to sign up for beginning acting.”
The ninth-grade theater class had almost forty pupils, and the shy teenager soon had to prove herself in a group situation.
“Right away Shanann realized we were about ensemble,” explained Francis. “She was with a group of people that were much more outgoing than she was. But she also realized that they cared about her … so I think she started to really thrive.”
Shanann soon became close with Colby Cruse and Claire Littlejohn, who were also in the theater class.
“We became friends all throughout high school,” said Colby. “She was one of the sweetest girls you could ever encounter. She got involved with the acting, and she also did some of the tech crew and stuff like that.”
Shanann started with improvisation and acting, but Francis soon realized that her real talent lay behind the scenes, organizing the props and stage scenery. Over the many hours they spent working together on various productions, Shanann and her drama teacher became close.
“He connected with her on a mentor level,” recalled Claire Littlejohn, “whereas I was more of a friendly classmate.”
After school, Shanann was often in Francis’s office, opening up about her “horrible” home life. She told him that her parents were going through a bitter divorce, although they never were divorced and are still together after thirty-eight years of marriage.
“[She told me] she didn’t get a lot of attention from her dad that I know she wanted,” recalled Francis. “I think there was a lot of hurt and frustration in the divorce. I mean it was pretty fresh.”
Colby Cruse also knew about Shanann’s problems at home: “She did overcome some challenges in her life. There were some struggles. I don’t want to say that she didn’t really have a good father figure, and Frank did the best he could. She spent a lot of time at my house. I’ll put it to you that way.”
During high school, Shanann had a tight group of friends that played softball together and socialized outside school.
“She was the mother hen of the group,” said Colby. “The responsible one.”
But Shanann was often absent from school with various medical problems, which she was secretive about.
* * *
By her sophomore year Shanann had become a key part of the theater class. The Pinecrest Players were now working on Little Shop of Horrors, and Shanann ran everything backstage.
“She was a rock for me,” said Matt Francis. “She became a stage manager and a production person and was always there to help with the tech crew, but she’d also work amazingly with the actors. She loved that role.”
Shanann viewed the theater group as a safe haven, often working late painting the sets. She made regular runs to Back Yard Burgers to feed her crew, and everyone would sit around to eat.
“We had so many stupid moments,” recalled Francis. “I remember laughing a lot with them in the middle of chaos.”
One time Colby Cruse spilled water over her white slacks and was embarrassed. So Shanann took the initiative to break that awkward moment.
“Shanann put water on her crotch,” said Francis, “and then everyone else in the class spilled drinks over themselves, so Colby didn’t have to feel singled out. It was pretty awesome.”
In her junior year, Shanann stage-managed a production of Godspell, as well as helping with the Pinecrest High School yearbook and volunteering for many clubs.
Over the summer vacation, Shanann found a part-time job at Vito’s Pizzeria in Pinehurst, where she became close friends with Morgan Lankford, who was two years ahead of her in high school.
“We were hostesses,” Morgan recalled. “We answered the phones and to-go orders and cut pizzas.”
Morgan had seen Shanann in school, where she seemed shy and withdrawn. But at Vito’s she opened up and they started socializing.
“We went midnight bowling,” recalled Morgan. “She spent the night with me a few times … and we would talk and get our nails done together.”
Shanann was now spending so much time in Matt Francis’s office pouring out her problems at home that the school principal intervened, sending her to a more qualified guidance counselor. But she kept going to Francis, whom she viewed as her confidant.
“She just trusted me,” he explained, “and could tell that I really did care. She didn’t trust the guidance counselors, so I just listened a lot.”
* * *
In 2002, the Pinecrest Players won a state award for an original play called Maximum Capacity. Soon afterward Matt Francis left Pinecrest High School to get married. Eighteen-year-old Shanann wrote him a heartfelt letter saying she would never forget him. “You have been like a father figure to me,” she told him, “even more than my own father.”
* * *
In her senior year, Shanann started dating a fellow Pinecrest High School student named Leonard King. It was a whirlwind romance.
They were already engaged and planning their future when Shanann graduated.
For her graduation message she quoted Muhammad Ali: “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.”
* * *
Soon after graduation Shanann married Leonard King. Some of her friends worried that she was too young and needed to see more of life before settling down.
“She was adamant about starting her life and having a family,” said Cruse. “They got married so quickly and she was young and very ambitious.”
Shanann started college while her new husband joined the army, as a means to go to law school. They also each took out large life insurance policies through USAA.
But Shanann soon dropped out of college, getting a job selling pagers and cell phones. Within a couple of years the marriage had gone bad.
“I never completed college,” said Shanann many years later. “I started into a bad relationship [and] quit college to take care of him so he can go to [law school].”
Then in 2006, Shanann became manager of a cell phone store in Fayetteville, North Carolina, owned by Lebanese-born entrepreneur Hisham Bedwan. For the next few years Shanann worked for Bedwan, eventually becoming the bookkeeper for his new company the Dirty South, a custom car fittings and wheels company with stores in Fayetteville and Charlotte. It had a wealthy clientele of rappers, sports players, and car enthusiasts.
She worked long hours managing both stores, which were 130 miles apart, and had the use of a custom-fitted Cadillac Escalade.
Later Leonard King would say that after Shanann started managing the Dirty South she stopped coming home at night, refusing to tell him where she had been. They went to several marriage counseling sessions, but Shanann had little interest in saving the marriage.
In 2007 they divorced and Shanann moved to Charlotte, where she enrolled for a psychology course at Queens University. She would later describe the tough time she had during their breakup: “I went through a real awful divorce, and that relationship took a lot from me. It literally took everything. I had to start … financially all over.”
And finding herself alone as a single divorcée at just twenty-three brought back all her childhood insecurities.
“All the doubts,” said Shanann, “all the fears, everything that I had in me came flooding back into my life. I wasn’t happy.”
* * *
That fall, Shanann decided to build a house and began looking around Charlotte for suitable land.
“My goal was to buy a house … that I could resell one day,” she later explained. “I was tired of paying someone else’s mortgage.”
On November 30, 2009, Shanann King signed a $309,000 mortgage to build a luxurious brick mansion overlooking Lake Wylie, in the swanky Charlotte suburb of Belmont. Over the next few months she supervised the building of 1000 Peninsula Drive.
“I was twenty-five years old when I built my first house,” said Shanann in May 2018. “That was the biggest accomplishment … I have ever done because I did it by myself. I did it by working my tail off.”
The four-thousand-square-foot, twelve-room mansion had four bedrooms and four bathrooms. Set in its own grounds, it had a balcony with sweeping views of the lake, a sunroom, and a custom-made kitchen. Shanann bought top-of-the-line furniture.
Her brother, Frankie, would later estimate she was earning almost half a million dollars a year during this period.
“She was very wealthy,” he said. “She was doing very good [and] she was very business savvy. She was pretty but she could talk the talk and walk the walk.”
* * *
Soon after moving into 1000 Peninsula Drive, Shanann became ill. Her hair started falling out and she lost twenty pounds in a month, going from a size six to a size one.
“I was feeling extremely terrible,” she later recalled, “to the point where I did not want to get out of bed for days.”
She finally “dragged” herself to a doctor, who did a barrage of tests to find out what was wrong, and why her entire life had been dogged by illness.
In May 2010, Shanann was diagnosed with lupus, an incurable autoimmune disease, in which the body’s immune system attacks its own organs and tissues. It is difficult to identify as the signs and symptoms mimic those of other illnesses.
“When they diagnosed me with lupus … I was lost,” said Shanann. “I had no idea what in the world lupus was.”
She immediately googled lupus, reading that there was no cure and it could be fatal.
“I was freaking out. I was overreacting. I had all these things going on in me and I had no idea.”
She then contacted the Lupus Foundation of North Carolina, who provided support and treatment information. And over the next two months she sought second opinions from a host of rheumatologists, who all confirmed she had lupus as well as fibromyalgia.
She was prescribed heavy medication that gave her flu-like symptoms, and her weight ballooned to almost 170 pounds.
“I completely lost it,” she remembered. “I wasn’t feeling good. I was in a dark place. I was really sad, emotional … and I didn’t know where to turn.”
Shanann then quit the Dirty South, telling Hisham Bedwan that she could no longer manage his stores.
“I just said, ‘I’m done,’” she recalled. “‘I can’t do this anymore. You don’t understand what’s going on in my life.’”
Then in late July 2010, when Shanann was at her lowest point, she received a second Facebook message from Chris Watts. This time, she replied.
Copyright © 2020 by John Glatt.