The murders of Bella and Celeste Watts and their mother, Shan’ann Watts, were not quick and they were far from painless, Colorado prosecutors revealed Monday at the sentencing for their killer, family patriarch Chris Watts.
Authorities for the first time confirmed the causes of death of Chris’ three victims: his wife, 34-year-old Shan’ann (who was 15 weeks pregnant with their son, Nico), and daughters Bella, 4, and 3-year-old Celeste.
Addressing the court at Chris’ Monday morning sentencing hearing for the murders, Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said the killings were violent almost beyond comprehension.
“There are no words to adequately describe the unimaginable tragedy that brings us before this court today,” he told the judge.
“I’m not even going to try to express the horror, the pain or the suffering the defendant has caused to these families and to this community and to all who were part of this investigation,” Rourke continued.
Since Shan’ann and her girls were first reported missing in August, he said, “The questions that have screamed out to anyone who will listen since Aug. 13 of 2018 are: Why and how?”
For the first time, after months of secrecy, prosecutors confirmed their basic understanding of Chris’ motive for murder — and they detailed the unbearable intimacy of how he chose to kill his wife and children.
Shan’ann, Rourke told the court, was strangled by Chris’ bare hands — “he slowly took her life.” Not vengefully, not in a rage after watching Shan’ann attack daughter Celeste, as Chris had claimed to authorities.
Rourke said Shan’ann’s body bore no signs of a violent struggle. On her neck were only the bruises left behind by her husband’s fingers.
“We know that our experts tell us that it takes two to four minutes to strangle someone to death manually with their own hands,” Rourke said. “The horror that she felt as the man that she loved wrapped his hands around her throat and choked the life out of her must have been unimaginable.”
Daughters Bella and Celeste were smothered, Rourke said. Celeste, like her mother, showed no external injuries. But Bella fought for her life.
Rourke said her body showed that she bit her tongue as she was killed.
“She fought back for her life as her father smothered her,” he said.
He told the judge: “Imagine the horror in Bella’s mind as her father took her last breaths away.”
Rourke said the murders were committed early on Aug. 13, not long after Shan’ann returned from a weekend work trip in Arizona. He said that, according to Chris, the Watts had had an “emotional conversation” about the state of their marriage before Chris murdered Shan’ann, Bella and Celeste.
Rourke did not elaborate on where in the family home the murders were committed. Other than raising the specter of Shan’ann being asleep or unconscious when she was strangled, he did not provide other details of the crime.
After his wife and kids were dead, Chris loaded their bodies into his truck and hid them on a remote oil work site where they were found days later.
Chris’ motive was simple, Rourke said: “He had a desire for a fresh start, to begin a new relationship with a new love.” (Chris was having an affair with a co-worker at the time, police have said.)
Even with that knowledge, however, Rourke said at Monday’s sentencing that the triple murder was impossible for others to fully process.
“Why did this have to happen? How could a seemingly normal husband and father annihilate his entire family — for what?” he said. “These are the questions that only one individual in this courtroom or on this planet knows the answers to. I fully expect we will not receive the answers to these questions today nor will we at any point in the future.”
Rourke continued, “I don’t expect that he [Chris] will ever tell the truth about what truly happened or why. Even if he did, there’s no rational way that any human being could find those answers except those responsible to such horrific questions.
“The best we can do is piece together some kind of understanding from the evidence that is available to us. The evidence tells us this: The defendant coldly and deliberately ended four lives, not in a fit of rage, not by way of accident, but in a calculated and sickening manner.”
After Rourke’s statement and statements from Shan’ann’s family and Chris’ parents, the judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. (Chris surprisingly pleaded guilty to the murders earlier this month, in a deal to avoid the death penalty.)
Through his attorney, Chris said on Monday that he was “sincerely sorry.” But he declined to speak himself.
Shan’ann’s family, however, had much to say about him.
Said her brother, Frankie Rzucek: “What kind of person slaughters the people they love the most?”
This article first appeared on PEOPLE.