Brandi Fox remembers Donnie Watson’s family staring at her from the first few rows in the Durham courtroom.
“They look at you like they want you to fry,” Fox said. “I could see the hate in their eyes.”
Two years after 74-year-old Donald “Donnie” Watson was found beaten to death in his home, Fox was charged with murdering the father of nine, a retired firefighter and a small-business owner who was known to carry cash and hand out $100 bills to those in need.
Fox knew what the family was thinking that day in court. She also knew she didn’t do it, she said.
On Oct. 10, the charges against Fox, 45, were dismissed, an action unnoticed by most since the 2012 killing faded from headlines.
But that didn’t answer the questions or ease the trauma for two families linked in the case.
Fox’s attorney, Allyn Sharp, questions whether prosecutors should ever have charged Fox. The case is built on two acquaintances of Fox who said she told them she shot Watson in the head, Sharp said. The medical examiner’s report says Watson was beaten to death. The autopsy didn’t show any bullet wounds.
“Brandi was in the Durham County jail from June 2015 to January 2017,” Sharp said. “During her time in custody, she gained 100 pounds and became estranged from her children, who felt that she had abandoned them.”
Meanwhile, Watson’s family, some of whom were investigated in the case, is left divided, depressed and doubting they will ever learn what happened to him.
“It hurts me not knowing,” said Watson’s daughter, Donna-Kim Callahan, 55.
Luke Bumm, the assistant district attorney on the case, said he couldn’t comment on the ongoing investigation.
Donnie Watson worked for the Durham Fire Department for more than 22 years before retiring as a captain in 1992. Before his retirement, he started Biggs & Watson Wrecker Service with his brother-in-law. Donnie Watson, who also raced cars at Orange County Speedway, later became the sole owner.
An employee went to Watson’s Regis Avenue home on July 9, 2012, after Watson didn’t show up at work. A trail of blood ran through the hallway into the spare bedroom, where Watson lay.
A crystal candlestick on the floor is believed to be the weapon, according to the medical examiner’s report.
Watson’s skull was fractured and there were bruises and scrapes on his face, neck, arms and legs, the report states.
Wayne Watson, one of Donnie’s 10 siblings, said his brother carried a wallet fat with cash and was free with his money.
“He was a hefty guy who presented a tough, outspoken, invincible exterior to the world, but was a marshmallow on the inside,” said Wayne Watson, 83, of Durham.
Donnie Watson once gave money to a waitress who needed a deposit to move into a better neighborhood. Another time he overheard a little girl in a restaurant talking about wanting some shoes and slapped the money on their table.
One time a family was traveling to visit a sick relative when their transmission went out on Interstate 85. When they called for a tow truck, Donnie Watson loaned them his car. When they returned it, he had replaced their transmission for free.
“Upon his death, letters poured in about favors and sometimes large sums of money he had rendered to help others,” Wayne Watson said. “He never failed to buy groceries for someone or slip a $100 bill to a needy looking child.”
Time and prayer have only dulled his family’s loss, Wayne Watson said.
“The shock and the horror of how he must have suffered will haunt me forever,” he said.
Wayne Watson, a retired Durham police officer, had concerns from the beginning.
“It was one of the worst forensic investigations that I have ever seen in my years of police work,” said Watson, who was a police officer for 25 years before he retired from the department in 1985 and went into private security. “I feel like police never got on the right trail to look for whoever killed my brother.”
People who came to clean the house after the police cleared the scene found four bullet holes in the wall that police didn’t find, Wayne Watson said.
There was no way a woman did the crime alone, he said.
“The way his head was beaten, one woman couldn’t have taken advantage of him,” Wayne Watson said.
With no sign of forced entry, Wayne Watson believes his brother probably knew whoever killed him.
Donnie Watson’s friends raised more than $17,000 to provide a reward for information leading to a conviction about the murder. The reward remains active.
Callahan, Donnie Watson’s daughter, said her father’s murder devastated and divided the family.
“About three years I couldn’t get out of bed,” Callahan said. “I miss him every day.”
At one point, Callahan said she and her ex-boyfriend were suspects.
Callahan believes Fox was involved and that “detectives have done a great job so far.” The District Attorney’s Office told her they are waiting for more DNA tests, she said.
Fox walked into the cafeteria at the women’s prison in Raleigh when another came up and said she had just seen her on the news.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?” Fox said. “She said, ‘You have been charged with first-degree murder.”
Fox was serving a nearly three-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2013 to possession and distributing methamphetamine.
“I could not believe this was happening to me,” Fox said. “I know that I am not perfect, and I have done some things in my life, but I have never hurt anybody or killed anybody.”
About a week before, detectives had come to the prison to interview her. Fox didn’t recognize Donnie Watson’s name when detectives mentioned it, she said. Fox’s sister had dated Donnie’s son, Rocky. But that was the only connection she knew. Wayne Watson said the two broke up about a week before the killing.
Fox spent about five months in solitary confinement after she was charged.
Fox, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, started abusing drugs when she was a teen, she said.
In 1991, she was convicted of common law robbery and cocaine possession and spent about eight months in prison.
After her release, she moved down to the coast to get her life together. She went to cosmetology school and had three children. After a fall she was prescribed pain pills, which spiraled into a relapse that culminated with her selling and manufacturing methamphetamine in Durham.
‘Like I didn’t matter’
She returned to prison in 2013.
This time, she got sober and started taking her medication. After the first six months, she contacted her mother. She started hearing from her kids.
“We were really excited about me getting out,” Fox said.
When she was charged with murder in June 2014, it all fell apart.
She was embarrassed, she said. She felt guilty that her family had to deal with the gossip. And she wanted to kill herself.
“It really made me feel like I was nothing,” she said. “Like I didn’t matter anymore.”
Fox’s mother, Cheryl Leary, had just come back from the beach when a relative told her about Fox’s charges.
“I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and my heart started beating,” Leary said. “I felt like I was going to die. My chest started hurting.”
An ambulance took her to the hospital. They said she’d had a panic attack.
She knew her daughter didn’t kill anyone, Leary said. When Fox was little, she played with frogs.
“She would bring them in the palm of her hand and say, ‘Mama this frog’s leg is broken, we have to fix it.’”
In court filings, Sharp argued Fox was indicted after conversations between police investigators and Deborah Ann Collins, the state’s primary witness.
Collins wrote letters to Detective Anne Cristaldi claiming Fox had confessed while they served time together.
In her letters “Ms. Collins repeatedly asks Detective Cristaldi to, in exchange for her testimony in this case, help her out with her Wake County charges, which were pending at the time,” the filing states.
Collins’ charges included felony possession of cocaine and being a habitual felon.
In an audio interview Jan. 31, 2014, Cristaldi tells Collins she can’t make any promises but that Wake prosecutors are willing to work with her, Sharp’s filing states.
“I’m telling you, I’ll testify” Collins said, and then asks, “I’ve got your word that you won’t do this and just not help me, right?
Cristaldi responds, “absolutely.”
In that same conversation, Collins asked for nine months probation for her sentence.
On July 30, 2014, Collins pleaded guilty to felony possession of cocaine and received 12 months probation. The habitual felon indictment was dismissed pursuant to a plea. She was released on Sept. 11, 2014.
The assistant district attorney on the case, Trisha Jacobs, no longer works for the Wake County DA’s office and didn’t respond to messages at her private office.
Bumm, the Durham assistant district attorney, said he didn’t request a deal, but doesn’t know if police spoke with the Wake DA’s office.
“I think the deal she got was based more on the facts of her particular charges, and the fact that her case had fallen through some cracks in Wake County,” Bumm said.
Collins provided a list of other people Cristaldi might want to speak with about Fox’s case, including Jonna Graves.
Graves also indicated Fox said she had shot Watson in the head, Sharp said.
During conversations with Cristaldi, Graves asked the detective for “insight” on how she could fix what she described as prison officials messing up her serving time, according to Sharp’s court filings. Graves said she was supposed to go home July 28, 2014, but officials said it was Sept. 5. Cristaldi offers to contact Graves’ mother. In subsequent interviews, Cristaldi indicated she called Graves’ mother.
Graves was released Aug. 8, 2014.
Efforts to reach Graves for comment were unsuccessful. She is listed with the N.C. Department of Corrections website as absconded from parole.
Fox said she never talked with either woman about Donnie Watson.
“I have thought about this 50 million times, what did I say?” Fox said.
Sharp has other concerns. No forensic evidence connects Fox to the case, despite numerous DNA tests from the crime scene, she said. Shoe prints and fingerprints found at the scene didn’t match Fox’s.
Sharp said she is concerned the state held Fox because they thought she knew something about who killed Watson.
After Fox finished her drug sentence, she was moved to the Durham County jail in June 2015 to await her murder trial. She turned to food for comfort and gained 100 pounds.
Over time, Fox’s bond dropped from $1 million to $600,000. In January 2017, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson raised the bond to $1 million but unsecured it, meaning no money had to be posted for Fox to get out. The change came during a bond hearing in which Sharp argued a lack of evidence.
Fox, who grew up in Durham, went to her mother’s house in Carteret County outside Beaufort. For the first few months, she stayed in bed watching TV.
“I was scared that this was going to be taken away from me,” Fox said. “It felt safe.”
On Oct. 10, Fox and her mother had gone to Walmart for groceries when Sharp sent her a text message. It said “call me,” and she put a heart in the message.
When Fox called, Sharp asked Fox if she was sitting down.
Bumm dismissed the murder charges.
“While probable cause exists for the charge, at this time the state does not believe the charge can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” the notice of dismissal said.
Fox screamed, she said, and her mother cried for an hour.
“I couldn’t stop,” Leary said. “I had been carrying a knot in my chest ever since I found out. … Whatever I was carrying inside of me just went away.”
For Fox, the dismissal means she can plan for the future.
She’s lost 12 pounds and walks daily. She sees multiple doctors for her mental and physical health issues. She helps her mother care for her grandmother. Her relationships with her children are improving.
“It was like I could breathe again,” Fox said. “I can start my life because it is not going to be taken away from me anymore.”
N&O staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this article.