The images show a playful, affectionate couple.
Except that one of them, Chris Watts, was married and his wife was pregnant with the couple’s third child. Despite this, the woman pictured alongside him, Nichol Kessinger, spent “over two hours” searching Google for wedding dresses just nine days before Watts killed his wife and two daughters, according to newly released investigative documents in the case obtained by PEOPLE.
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The prosecutor said Watts’ desire for a “fresh start” with Kessinger — a co-worker with whom he began a physical relationship in July — led him on Aug. 13 to strangle 34-year-old Shanann Watts, his 15-weeks-pregnant wife of nearly six years, and smother their daughters, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3.
Watts had told Kessinger he was separated and finalizing a mutual divorce after they met at work in late June, Kessinger told The Denver Post, adding, “I believed him.”
Yet the new documents — more than 2,000 pages released by the Weld County, Colorado, District Attorney’s Office after Watts pleaded guilty and was sentenced this month for the murders — offer new context for Kessinger’s statement.
On July 24, Kessinger Google-searched the phrase “Man I’m having affair with says he will leave his wife.”
On Aug. 8 Kessinger searched Google on topics relating to “marrying your mistress.”
And on Aug. 4 at 12:45 a.m., “for over two hours Kessinger searched Google for wedding dresses,” according to her web history analyzed by investigators.
The affair unfolded as Shanann and the girls spent several weeks away from Watts over the summer visiting Shanann’s family in North Carolina — a period during which Shanann continuously reached out to him in hopes of repairing their struggling marriage, the documents show.
After they returned home to Frederick, Colorado, Shanann took a short solo work trip. She returned home again on Aug. 13, when prosecutors say Watts strangled her and smothered the two girls with his bare hands.
Watts initially issued a public appeal for his family’s safe return, but was arrested two days later, on Aug. 15; the next day the bodies were found on the oil field property of his former employer.
As police continued to build the case against Watts, Kessinger wondered if she’d be publicly shamed by her role in the relationship, conducting internet searches about the mistress of another infamous killer, according to the recently released documents.
“Did people hate Amber Frey?” Kessinger typed into an internet search, invoking the name of the woman who was having an affair with Scott Peterson, who murdered his wife, Laci, and their unborn child in 2002.
Kessinger’s internet searches about Frey on Aug. 19 — four days after Watts was arrested — also included queries about a book deal Frey obtained, along with Frey’s net worth, the documents show.
When Kessinger revealed her identity to the media, she said she “barely knew” Watts and that “we had just met.” She said the two were taking it slow and didn’t discuss any long-term plans, and she didn’t realize he was cheating on his wife with her until his many lies were revealed after his family went missing.
The documents show that Kessinger reached out to authorities about the affair before they contacted her, although they also reveal that she acknowledged deleting all of Watts’ information from her phone prior to meeting with police.
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The documents further reveal that authorities who examined Kessinger’s phone found hours’-worth of searches for “Shanann Watts” and, after the murders, a search using the phrase “can cops trace text messages.”
At Watts’ Nov. 6 sentencing, Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said that after he killed his wife and kids, Watts loaded their bodies into his truck and hid them on the remote oil work site where they were found days later.
Watts placed the two girls in oil tanks through a hatch that was only eight inches in diameter, said Rourke. Bella had scratches on her body from being shoved through the hatch and a tuft of her hair had been ripped off, he said. Watts buried Shanann in a shallow grave away from the oil tanks.
At work later that day, Watts acted “completely normally,” said Rourke. “It was a normal work day even while his daughters sank the in the oil and water not far from him.”
Watts’ motive was simple, Rourke said: “He had a desire for a fresh start, to begin a new relationship with a new love.”
Watts was sentenced to multiple life terms in prison for the murders, with no possibility of parole. At his sentencing, Shanann’s father, Frank Rzucek, called him a “heartless monster.”
In pleading guilty, he avoided the death penalty.