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Texas law falls short in protecting Natalia Cox, Austin college student killed in her apartment

Natalia Cox, 21, was murdered in March by a man investigators say threatened her at her apartment just one week earlier.

AUSTIN, Texas — The parents of a 21-year-old Austin college student are fighting for change after their daughter, Natalia Cox, was murdered by a man that investigators say she’d met only 10 days prior.

Her parents, Lester and LaKeshia, are suing the apartment complex where Cox lived, claiming she warned them about the threat she was facing. Her parents think her murder could have been prevented.

“She was such an inspiration,” Lester Cox said.

Cox, a star student, passionate cheerleader and aspiring plastic surgeon, was set to graduate from Huston-Tillotson University in the Spring.

Credit: Natalia Cox's family

“She was the kind of that balance that kind of held everyone together,” LaKeshia Cox said.

Cox’s promising young life was cut short in March.

“We were obviously in shock and in disbelief,” Lester Cox said.

Police arrested 24-year-old Henry Watson for her murder, a man that investigators claim she’d been on two dates with during the days leading up to her killing.

Credit: Austin Police Department
Henry Keith Watson Jr., 24

Natalia threatened, then killed days later

According to court documents, Watson showed up outside Cox’s apartment in northwest Austin on March 24, three days after the pair met.

Cox wouldn’t let him in and told investigators that during a FaceTime video call, Watson held a gun in front of the camera and told her to “open the door or he was going to shoot it open,” according to an arrest affidavit.

Austin police officers responded the night of March 24, but the KVUE Defenders learned the case was not assigned to a detective for six days, on March 30.

RELATED: Suspect arrested in connection to murder of Huston-Tillotson student Natalia Cox

In an email to the KVUE Defenders, APD Detective Theresa Jester said Watson was never arrested for the offense of terroristic threat from the incident and the case wasn’t referred to prosecutors. Officers on scene provided Cox with a police report number.

Since the incident did not involve a physical assault, the case wasn’t coded by APD as dating or family violence, which meant Cox was not provided a “pink pamphlet” – a compilation of useful resources, phone numbers about restraining orders, court advocates, women’s shelters, legal services and information given to victims of domestic abuse, Jester wrote in the email.

Then, before dawn on March 31, seven days after Watson threatened Cox, APD responded to multiple 911 calls regarding shots fired at the Colonial Grand at Canyon Pointe apartment complex.

They found Cox dead inside.

Read the full Natalia Cox murder affidavit here.

“This wasn't necessarily domestic violence that happened over a long period of time. It happened very quickly,” LaKeshia Cox said.

Once Watson was in custody, detectives connected him to another Austin murder of 23-year-old Garrett Gamond-Hill. Court records show it happened on March 25, approximately 13 hours after he showed up at Cox’s apartment and threatened her.

“Fired cartridges located at both the scene of the murder of Garrett and Natalia matched in caliber, make and model,” APD Det. Jason Ayers wrote in an arrest affidavit.

Read the Garrett Gamond-Hill murder affidavit here.

In July, Watson was found incompetent to stand trial for Cox’s murder. A judge ordered he undergo up to 120 days of inpatient treatment at a mental health facility or residential care facility for further evaluation, according to court documents. Jail records show that he is still being held at the Travis County Correctional Complex.

Her family sues the apartment owners 

Cox’s family is now suing the company that owns Colonial Grand at Canyon Pointe, alleging that Cox and her roommate asked to move out following Watson’s threat.

The lawsuit claims they were told to pay a new application fee, an administrative fee, a new security deposit, and two months of rent – but they couldn’t afford it. The suit also claims the complex management was negligent for not letting them move without penalties.

“She said, ‘I need to get out of my lease. I'm not safe here. He knows where I live. He threatened my life. I need to urgently relocate,’” said Bianca Moroles, who represents the Cox family. “They failed to take that threat seriously and it ultimately resulted in her tragic death.”

RELATED: Family of student murdered at home sues apartment complex for not helping her relocate

The KVUE Defenders reached out to the Colonial Grand at Canyon Pointe. An apartment staffer referred us to company lawyers, who didn’t respond at the time this story was published.

Read the lawsuit against the apartment complex here.

In a response filed to the lawsuit, the company denied the allegations.

What Texas law says about the incident

The KVUE Defenders found existing state law, Section 92.016 of the Texas Property Code, which allows domestic violence victims to break a lease without penalties by showing documentation like an emergency protective order.

While Cox had a police report number, which Moroles claims was shared with apartment complex management, she did not have an emergency protective order.

In the four business days that Cox had between Watson’s alleged threat then murder, it would have been “extremely difficult” to get the emergency protective order approved by a judge during a time when the court system was already backlogged due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a prosecutor familiar with the process.

“Unfortunately, the system just wasn't fully working for her,” said State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, who represents northwest Austin.

Goodwin said Cox’s situation highlights the need for a stronger law to protect victims and said Texas should permit extreme risk protective orders.

“If somebody comes to your door and threatens you with a gun, you can go before a judge and have the judge say that the gun needs to be removed from that person who's been a threat,” Rep. Goodwin said. “I do think that we can do better when there's a situation where someone's life is at imminent risk.”

Texas state lawmakers don’t convene again for another regular legislative session until early 2023.

Domestic violence advocacy group, The SAFE Alliance, hopes that Cox’s murder can spark a shift much sooner.

“I believe that if the apartment complex had known that they could reach out to SAFE, they would have probably taken very different steps,” said Dr. Jacqueline Smith-Francis, SAFE’s Corporate Philanthropic Specialist. “Can we get to a point in our society … where we trust people who say that they're being abused and we believe them, right? And then we set up systems and steps by which we can actually support them, even if we do not have the quote unquote legal documentation.”

Remembering Natalia and searching for strength

In May, Cox’s alma mater paid tribute to the late alumna, presenting her family with an honorary degree.

“We knew what a special child she was,” Lester Cox said.

RELATED: Huston-Tillotson University remembers senior killed in Austin apartment shooting

Cox’s professor, Amanda Masino, had her in five different classes during her time at Huston-Tillotson.

“She is just one of those people who wants to contribute, and she wanted to make the world better,” Masino said. “She found so many ways to do it through her classes, through her extracurriculars, through the work she did outside of campus.”

Following her death, Masino said friends and classmates remembered how considerate, caring and kind Cox was – described as the “go-to friend” who was “incredibly generous.”

“I feel that a lot more could have been done should have been done to address her situation. She had warning. You know that this did not come completely out of nowhere,” Masino said.

Lester and LaKeshia are now trying to find a new way to navigate life without their bright light, while still remembering Cox’s impact.

“You think about power as strength. Yes, power is strength, but it's strength in love and strength in enduring and fighting for what you believe, and so that's for me – my baby represented strength,” LaKeshia Cox said.

They hope that strength leads to a safer Texas.

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