CHARLOTTE — Danielle Watson’s murder changed the way Charlotte police dispatch calls, and marked the first time prosecutors in North Carolina sought an indictment for the murder of an unborn baby.
On Thursday, the man accused of the killings, Mark Anthony Cox, agreed to spend the rest of his life in prison rather than risk being sentenced to death for the January 2012 murders of the Flying Biscuit Café manager and her unborn child.
Prosecutors had announced last May that they would seek the death penalty against Cox, a 23-year-old convicted felon who committed the slayings at the south Charlotte restaurant just two months after getting out of prison.
But Cox pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, murder of an unborn child, robbery with a dangerous weapon and felony larceny.
He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for each of the murders.
Keith Smith, Watson’s fiancé, kept calling Cox “a coward” as he spoke to the judge before the sentencing.
“This coward has committed the ultimate trespass,” he said.
Smith pointed out that the Bible says to forgive. “But I promise you this, it’ll never be in your lifetime,” he said.
Denise Watson called the killings of her 25-year-old daughter and unborn baby “heinous acts by this evil monster.”
But she told Superior Court Judge Bob Bell that her daughter’s spirit will live on.
“Mark Cox destroyed our family…,” she said. “The destruction Mark Cox created in minutes will live on forever for us.”
“We hope Mark Cox will never see the light of day.”
Cox, dressed in an orange jail uniform, didn’t speak to the family of the victims.
Danielle Watson was a manager at the Flying Biscuit off Rea Road in the StoneCrest at Piper Glen shopping center in south Charlotte. Cox, who had just gotten out of prison in November 2011, worked there.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s 911 system came under criticism after the killings. Watson’s body was found behind a Dumpster about six hours after her boyfriend called police saying he thought a robbery was taking place at the Flying Biscuit Café.
When Smith called 911, the dispatcher typed in the wrong address. The dispatcher was placed on administrative leave. The responding officer searched a business park near the erroneous address but not the Flying Biscuit Cafe, about four miles away.
CMPD changed its policy to require 911 dispatchers to confirm addresses.
“Confirming addresses with emergency 911 callers continues to be a critical component of our call-taking process,” Capt. Mike Campagna, who oversees CMPD’s Communications Unit, said Thursday. “We as an organization are always reviewing our procedures to determine if there are ways we can improve public safety.”
The Flying Biscuit also came under fire for hiring Cox. The owner of the restaurant has said a background check was not done on Cox but that Cox admitted his previous conviction during the interview process. He said Cox had been hired on a “trial basis.”
The owner, Will Bigham, couldn’t be reached Thursday. The restaurant last week donated a day’s profits to the American Cancer Society in Watson’s honor. Bigham said in a statement issued then that the restaurant is committed to honoring Watson’s memory. The statement said that the restaurant covered all funeral expenses and had donated thousands to the Danielle Watson Memorial Fund and to the Cancer Society on her behalf.
A heated argument
Mecklenburg Assistant District Attorney Jay Ashendorf told the judge that Cox and Watson had gotten into a heated argument before the deadly attack. Here’s what the prosecutor said happened:
Cox saw Watson pick up her phone and start dialing. He thought she was calling police and became enraged. He then grabbed a knife and stabbed Watson multiple times.
Cox took Watson’s phone, keys and purse and then drove away in her 1997 Chevrolet Cavalier. He returned to the restaurant and cleaned the kitchen, using bleach, a mop and a scrub brush. Cox neglected to clean several drops of blood from various surfaces in the kitchen, Ashendorf said.
Cox took Watson’s body and left it behind a nearby Dumpster. He then returned to the restaurant and went to the safe. He found cash deposits from the week totaling $1,690 and about $1,000 in the daily cash box.
He returned to the restaurant again – this time to make sure he had thoroughly cleaned the kitchen. “He wanted everyone to think that Danielle had stolen the money and disappeared,” Ashendorf said.
Ashendorf said that during the next two days, Cox went on a spending spree with the stolen money, buying merchandise, food, alcohol and hotel rooms for himself and his friends.
Watson was stabbed more than a dozen times. The autopsy found her cause of death to be stab wounds to the neck and chest.
The Butler High School grad was engaged and had learned only weeks before her death that she was pregnant. Her autopsy confirmed she was seven to eight weeks pregnant.
Cox was charged with the murders of both Watson and her unborn baby. Under a state law that went into effect in December 2011, anyone accused of killing a pregnant woman could face two murder charges: one for the woman, the other for her fetus.
After Watson’s killing, police searched the apartment where Cox lived with his sister and mother.
As they arrived at the apartment, investigators say they saw “a blood trail leading to the residence as well as blood on the front door,” according to a search warrant. Police also saw what appeared to be blood throughout the apartment.
A large butcher knife was on the kitchen counter in a mug filled with an unknown liquid.
Cox told his sister he had stabbed Watson multiple times during an argument inside the cafe, the search warrant says.
Cox’s sister told police her brother’s work uniform was soaked in blood and stuffed in a plastic bag, according to the warrant. She also informed police her brother had told her he “had taken the victim’s vehicle and was planning on dumping the bloody clothes and vehicle in a river.”
Police captured Cox at an acquaintance’s home in Fayetteville. They found Watson’s car a block or two away.
During Thursday’s hearing, Ashendorf told the judge that blood was found inside Watson’s car.
Inside the trunk of the car, police found a bag of bloody clothes, Watson’s missing shoe (the other one was on her foot when her body was found) and the murder weapon – a yellow Povinelli knife with a 9 1/2-inch blade and a 5-inch handle.
‘We’re just glad it’s over’
Outside the courthouse after Cox’s sentencing, Denise Watson told reporters: “We’re just glad it’s over.”
Then Watson spoke about Cox. “He’s not really a human being to me,” she said. “He took our daughter….Justice has been served. He got what he deserves.”
Ashendorf told reporters that getting the life sentences for Cox avoids a decade or longer of appeals had the killer been put on trial and sentenced to death.
“I think everybody is happy with the outcome. The family is. The DA’s office is,” the prosecutor said. “It lets the family start the healing process.”
Ashendorf said Cox will never get out of prison. “He’ll never see the light of day,” the prosecutor said. “He’ll never have another opportunity to hurt anyone outside the prison walls.”