Mecklenburg County prosecutors and the defense attorney for Mark Cox, the man who police say confessed to the January 2012 murder of Danielle Watson and her unborn child, came to an agreement on a plea deal last week that will see Cox spend the rest of his life in prison but avoid a trial and potential death penalty.
Cox was arrested more than a year ago after Watson, 25, was found murdered near The Flying Biscuit Café at Stonecrest, where both she and Cox had worked for about a month. Police say Cox, then 22, stabbed Watson, the restaurant’s night manager, following an argument after work.
Watson’s mother, Denise, and fiancé, Keith Smith, were joined by a number of friends and family and the co-owner of The Flying Biscuit to watch Cox, bound in wrist and ankle chains, plead guilty with the help of his attorneys Thursday, Jan. 24, to two charges of murder in exchange for two consecutive life sentences without the chance of parole. He also pled guilty to charges of robbery with a dangerous weapon. Prosecutors announced last year they planned to seek the death penalty if the case went to trial.
Prosecutors recited the details of the case again on Thursday, starting with Watson’s attempt to reach her fiancé moments before her death on Jan. 13, 2012, and ending with Cox’s arrest and confession a few days later in the Fayetteville area.
According to the police investigation, Cox and Watson, his supervisor, had argued on the evening of her death after Cox became frustrated with Watson’s instructions. Cox lingered in the kitchen after clocking out until two other employees had left for the night, until only he and Watson remained. The two then resumed their argument, at which point Watson tried to call home. Cox, who said he thought she was calling police, grabbed a knife from the kitchen and stabbed Watson multiple times. Prosecutors on Thursday said Watson was seven to eight weeks pregnant at the time, but the restaurant staff was unaware of her pregnancy.
Authorities said Cox then took Watson’s body to the nearby Chick-fil-A, which was under construction at the time, and tried to dispose of her body in a trash receptacle. Unable to do so, he left the body hidden behind the receptacle and went home to the apartment across the street he shared with his sister and mother. There, he changed out of his bloody work uniform, left it bagged in his sister’s closet and went back to the restaurant where he tried to clean all the blood off the floor and work surfaces. He also stole $1,690 in deposits and $1,000 from a cash box, later telling police he hoped to make it appear Watson had robbed the restaurant and fled with the evening’s cash. He intended on driving her car into a river along with any other evidence.
Cox’s sister, Chelsea, was home when he returned a second time. He confessed to her what he had done before trying to return to the restaurant one more time to finish cleaning. But when he thought he triggered the restaurant’s alarm, Cox left in Watson’s car, went to buy marijuana, then drove to the Raleigh area where authorities say he spent much of the stolen money on alcohol, drugs, hotel rooms and a new cellphone. He had already turned off his and Watson’s phone so they couldn’t be traced to his location.
The next morning, Jan. 14, police arrived to the restaurant after a manager called about a possible robbery. Police found blood in the kitchen, and a sanitation worker discovered Watson’s body. Police then made their way to Cox’s apartment, where they found more blood and his sister.
Police, who found out information about Cox’s whereabouts was from his sister, arrived in Fayetteville a few days later. Cox was arrested without struggle on Jan. 15, 2012, and interrogated in Fayetteville before returning to Charlotte. Police say they found blood on money in the Fayetteville home, as well as in Watson’s car, which was found at the scene.
Cox sat quietly while the prosecutor read through details of the murder on Thursday, not making any statement on his own behalf other than to answer Judge Robert Bell’s questions. Later, Watson’s mother and fiancé, who had discussed the plea deal prior to Thursday with prosecutors, gave statements.
“It will forever torture me that he lives,” said Smith, referring to Cox repeatedly as a “coward.”
“I will never have any memories of the child Danielle and I were supposed to bring into this world,” Smith added, saying he still struggles with the pain of never getting a chance to throw ball with his son or have a daughter to protect. “I find it hard to believe there is any humanity left in him, but I hope he feels that pain.”
Denise Watson spoke about how proud she was of her daughter, and how she wasn’t there “to keep her safe” on the night of her murder.
“You may have taken her life here on earth,” she said to Cox, “but her spirit will live on.”