(CBS4) – Nearly four years after Chris Watts brutally murdered his pregnant wife and two young daughters, Shanann Watts’s parents tell CBS4 they continue to be relentlessly targeted by conspiracy theorists on popular websites like YouTube. Frank and Sandy Rzucek, and their son Franky, tell CBS4 they have been physically, emotionally and financially exhausted by unfounded claims by conspiracy theorists who believe they played roles in their family’s murders in Colorado.
Frank Rzucek (credit: CBS)
“We’ve been still very sad and upset,” said Frank Rzucek, Shanann Watts’s father. “It is terrible what we have to go through with social medias threatening us.”
In an exclusive interview with CBS4’s Dillon Thomas, Rzucek said the online attacks from around the globe have not slowed pace since Chris Watts originally told investigators that his wife killed Bella and Celeste Watts, causing him to snap and kill Shanann.
Chris Watts (credit: Weld County/CBS)
However, Chris Watts has repetitively confessed to killing his entire family since reaching a plea agreement in November of 2018. Chris confessed on the record to murdering his wife in their Frederick home before killing his two daughters at a remote oil drilling location in Weld County. Watts, with tears in his eyes, went into extreme detail with investigators about how he murdered his family, resulting in multiple life sentences in prison.
However, with no evidence or backing from any law enforcement agencies in Colorado, conspiracy theorists online have launched virtual attacks on Shanann and the Rzuceks, dishing out baseless alternative motives to the tragic murders.
In hundreds of hours of videos on YouTube alone, several vloggers have made up storylines suggesting the Rzucek’s played an active role in the murders of their daughter and three grandchildren. Many of the vloggers have been described as “infatuated” with the murders, selling subscriptions and even writing books about their opinions on the crimes.
“It is a nightmare every day. It doesn’t go away,” Rzucek said. “You can’t live.”
Bella, Celeste and Shanann Watts (credit: CBS)
The Rzuceks say they, and other victims associated with the crimes of 2018 have been slandered and defamed by conspiracy theorists.
“We’ve had threats on our lives,” Rzucek said.
Some YouTube users, and their subscribers, have even suggested that the Rzucek family ordered the murders of their loved ones in hope of collecting insurance money. Others suggested the family helped Watts in his actions in hope of gaining either fame or fortune.
“We would die for our family to be back right now,” Rzucek said with tears in his eyes. “To hear these people continue to put us in the limelight and accuse us of doing this, and being part of it, is ridiculous. They do it for views. They do it for money. And, YouTube is gaining off of their views and money.”
Law enforcement agencies throughout Colorado that were involved in the 2018 investigation have been made aware of the false claims, and have declined to further investigate the theories citing a closed investigation and confession from Watts.
The Rzuceks said they have reached out to YouTube on multiple occasions asking for the technology giant, and it’s parent company Google, to remove the videos which target their family. The family has even made contact with some congressional leaders, asking for YouTube to meet with both parties. Rzucek said YouTube has declined to meet with them or take down the content which they have reported.
“(We have been) reporting these things and telling them that this is going to take someone to go and commit suicide for this to stop,” Rzucek said.
CBS4 reached out to YouTube in late April seeking an interview on the accusations made by the Rzucek family, and to address what the company has done to address conspiracy theories targeted at the victims of a violent crime.
A spokesperson for YouTube declined to interview or issue a statement on any questions until their staff had time to review examples of videos of concern that were provided by the Rzuceks. In the weeks to follow CBS4 sent multiple follow-up requests for interviews and statements which were acknowledged by YouTube. As of the publishing of this article YouTube has not issued a formal response. This article will be updated if and when a comment is received.
However, according to Colorado State University’s David Wolfgang, YouTube could be operating within their legal rights by allowing possibly-slanderous content on their platform.
Wolfgang, an expert in Communications Law for CSU’s Department of Journalism and Technical Communication, said websites like YouTube are largely protected by Section 230, a federal law created in the 1990s to protect online companies.
“Defamation, in the U.S., is a civil wrong. So, we don’t punish it as a crime. Therefore, YouTube gets protection under Section 230,” Wolfgang said.
Section 230 was created, in-part, to shield online companies from legal liability associated with content from a third-party user. The law was developed and implemented years before platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and more were even created. Wolfgang said those who drafted the law likely didn’t anticipate the magnitude of the power big-tech would soon obtain.
“If (conspiracy theorists) were engaging in threats against somebody’s life, or if they were doing something criminal, then YouTube would have to step in. But, until then they can kind of pretend like it didn’t happen, put their fingers in their ears and turn a blind eye,” Wolfgang said.
Like many other websites and social media companies, YouTube has been accused of creating and implementing algorithms that not only draw in users to false information, but also one that draws users closer into the communities that develop the content.
“YouTube has always profiteered off of the ability to take the most sensationalistic types of video, feed them through an algorithm that promotes those videos, and then feed people into more videos that will only double down on those ideas,” Wolfgang said. “For better or worse, our legal system has it set up so you would have to go after the specific individual who wronged you online, and you can’t really go after the platform that hosted the content.”
That is why the Rzuceks have started to take legal action against some of the YouTube content creators who have allegedly profited off of the murders and conspiracy theories.
“They’re ruining our life. Every day,” Rzucek said. “They don’t care. They don’t care about the real people. They want the almighty dollar.”
Frank’s son, Franky, has started the process of taking legal action against one user in the United Kingdom. He has put in thousands of dollars of his own money to try and stop the false information from being spread on the internet. He has also started a fundraiser to try and cover the costly price of taking legal action in another country.
The Rzuceks have also taken other steps to try and stop some YouTube users in the United States from using their likeness to create more content.
The family is just one of many in the United States that were thrust against their will into tragedies that gained international attention. Other victims of violent crimes, including those who lost loved ones in shootings, have started pushing for congress to make changes that would hold tech companies more accountable for some content uploaded to their websites.
“Somebody has got to start doing something,” Rzucek said.
Rzucek said one of his congressmen in North Carolina has shown interest in trying to address issues around Section 230.
One Colorado congressman’s office told CBS4 they have began developing ideas around ways to better address policies on social media and other big-tech websites. The staff said a proposal could be announced to the public in the coming months.
Some have warned against taking significant action to alter Section 230. Wolfgang pointed out that the law, for most Americans, has worked perfectly fine. However, as he further noted, some are tragically exposed to the faults of the law.
Frank Rzucek has vocalized support of changing the law and holding companies further accountable for enforcing policies that protect victims of violent crimes. He has asked the public to reach out to their elected officials to express their concerns with the issues he has faced.
“These people are out there and just don’t care how we feel. It is a shame that they don’t have any empathy, a heart or nothing. To just go out there and destroy our family is not the thing to do. My daughter did not ask to be murdered. And we didn’t ask for anything to happen either,” Rzucek said. “There should be a law that they should not allow these people to spread hate and harass the families.”
For the first time since the confession and conviction of Chris Watts, the Rzuceks invited CBS4 inside the home their family once loved. The house, which has remained vacant since the murders, sits along Saratoga Trail in Frederick.
The home, now empty of any furniture or belongings, has not been sold. Aside from the dead grass and signs requesting that people stay off property, the house appears to be a typical and beautiful home in a quiet neighborhood.
Tourists interested in the crimes can be seen slowly driving past the home on occasion most days. Curiosity, and conspiracies, have lead several residents in the surrounding homes to move away since 2018.
The home, which is protected by a security system and cameras, appears to be ready for its next owners. Neighbors, new to the community since the crime, told CBS4 they greatly anticipated the day a young family would move in and make the community whole once again.
The future of the home is still caught up in technicalities. On occasion Frank will visit the home, usually to work on upkeep. Neighbors told CBS4 they enjoy seeing him, but look forward to the day he and his family can move on as well.
As he took CBS4’s Dillon Thomas inside the home, he couldn’t help but to reflect on the great memories he shared with his daughter and grandchildren. Frank temporarily lived at the home with the Watts prior to the crimes, and loved getting to see his only grandchildren.
“(I have) a lot of memories. When I walk through that front door I look up at the balcony, and that is where my grand girls would be every day when I came home from work. To this day I look at that balcony. It is very hard,” Watts said as he wiped away tears.
Frank has worked to save many items from the home that remind him of the good times he shared with those he loved. As he shipped away some of the final contents from the property to his home, Frank told CBS4 he would love to live a life away from false information and virtual attacks.
Haunted by conspiracies, and the platforms they thrive on, Frank said he tries his best to not to focus on the trauma, but on memories of life before.
“(I think of) not the bad ones. The good ones. Was I going to see them graduate (and) get married? That was my thing. Now, we have to look back on memories every day of the good times. And we had good times. There were never bad times,” Rzucek said. “You come back to this home, and there are a lot of memories. There are a lot. We will never forget.”
Some conspiracy theorists have even suggested that elected officials and investigators were paid to cover up alternative outcomes to the murder investigations.
Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke told CBS4 he was aware of the accusations that he was paid off during the investigation. When reached by CBS4, Rourke was quick to deny the accusations.
“Frankly, I find such an insinuation preposterous,” Rourke said.