Transplant tragedy. 2 men, 2 suicides, 1 heart, 1 widow
On an overcast spring morning in southeast Georgia, Sonny Graham drank some coffee and headed out the door for another day in the family landscaping business and to take his 9-year-old stepson to the dentist. But Graham made a detour to the backyard shed that he'd built.
There, the 69-year-old picked up the 12-gauge Remington shotgun he'd taken on so many quail- and dove-hunting trips, pointed the muzzle at the right side of his throat and pulled the trigger.
It was April Fools Day, almost exactly 13 years since another man's suicide gave Graham a second chance at life.
That man was Terry Cottle. When he ended his life, Graham got his heart.
But it was not just an organ that connected Graham and the 33-year-old donor. Nearly a decade after the transplant, Graham married Cottle's young widow.
And now Graham had made her a widow again.
As word of his death spread, the Internet lit up with the story of the heart that had been twice silenced by suicide — and the woman who'd lost the same heart twice. Reporters and bloggers waxed on about "cellular memory" and whether the organ somehow held a "suicide gene."
Nonsense, thought Cottle's sister. The brain is where the conscience resides, where love and loss are felt; the heart is just a pump.
As far as she was concerned, Graham's death was less about her brother's heart than about Cheryl — the woman with whom both men had chosen to share it.
In 1988, Terry Cottle was living with his wife and their two young daughters in one of the subsidized apartment buildings they managed in Jasper County, S.C. Cottle's boss had a daughter — a petite beauty with auburn hair and hazel eyes.
Cheryl Sweat had recently had her three-year marriage annulled on grounds that her husband was married to someone else. It was he who called Cottle's wife sometime later, saying, "I just want you to know that your husband is seeing my wife."
Terry Cottle filed for divorce. Nine days after it was granted, in May 1989, he and Cheryl were married.
At first, things seemed wonderful. Terry adopted Cheryl's two sons, Christopher and Timmy. A daughter, Jessica, was born. Cottle worked while his new wife studied for her nursing degree.
In late 1994, the couple graduated from a single-wide trailer to a new double-wide in Moncks Corner, S.C.
Terry had dropped out of high school but earned an equivalency diploma. He got a real estate license and, at 33, became a certified emergency medical technician.
But it never seemed to be enough.
On March 15, 1995, the couple got into a huge argument. Cheryl told Terry that she couldn't stay married to a man who made less money than she did. At some point, her son Timmy recalls, she took off her wedding ring and threw it over the fence.
By morning, they had agreed that Cottle should leave.
As he prepared to depart, Cottle went into the bathroom. There was a gunshot.
The .22-caliber slug entered Cottle's skull just behind the right ear. There was no exit wound.
On March 20, after four days in the trauma unit at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, Cheryl agreed to take Terry off life support and donate his organs.
About 60 miles to the southwest, 57-year-old Sonny Graham got the call he had been waiting more than a year for.
Remus T. "Sonny" Graham was a big man on Hilton Head.
As longtime manager of the central plant for Hargray Communications, Hilton Head's telephone service provider, he knew just about everyone on the barrier island. His Brunswick stew was a staple at community events. The local high school football field was named in his honor.
A native of Lyons, Ga., the redheaded Air Force veteran was an avid hunter and fisherman — what buddy Bill Carson called a "man's man."
He and Elaine, his wife of more than three decades, had two children, Gray and Michelle.
But in 1994, Graham contracted a virus that damaged his heart muscle. His name went on two transplant lists.
Around 5 p.m. on March 20, Graham learned that a heart had become available. Cottle's, it turned out, was close to a perfect match.
Within six months of the transplant, Graham was well enough to go on a fishing trip with Carson to Alaska. He joked that having a 33-year-old's heart had done wonders for his libido.
In November 1996, Graham asked the South Carolina Organ Procurement Agency to forward a letter to the donor's family. His children said it was a bad idea, but he wanted to thank Cottle's wife in person.
In January 1997, he and his wife met Cheryl Cottle for dinner at a restaurant in Charleston. Graham couldn't keep his eyes off the 30-year-old widow.
"I fell in love with Cheryl the first time we met," he would later confess in a letter.
The feeling was apparently not mutual — at least, not at first.
That April, Cheryl married husband No. 3, George Watkins. Sonny Graham gave away the bride.
Cheryl bore Watkins a son in January 1999. Around that same time, Elaine Graham learned that her husband's relationship with the younger woman was more than fatherly.
In a poignant letter, Graham apologized to his wife for being "the S.O.B. you said I was" and destroying "a relation that we had for 40 plus years."
Both couples separated, and shortly after a judge declared the Grahams' 38-year marriage over, in October 2001, Cheryl and Graham moved into a mobile home on land he'd bought in his hometown while he built a house to her specifications.
The domestic bliss did not last long.
In May 2002, Cheryl left — and Graham promptly sued, accusing her of reneging on some loans and refusing to return a diamond ring. She alleged in a counterclaim that when she told Graham their relationship wasn't going to work out, he "became more possessive" and threatened her.
In the midst of the court case, she married again. Husband No. 4, John B. Johnson, Jr., was a corrections officer at the Georgia prison where Cheryl had been working as a contract nurse.
But within a year, that marriage, too, began to crumble. On Thanksgiving 2003, sheriff's deputies were called, and both husband and wife accused the other of domestic abuse.
During a Yuletide reconciliation, Johnson says, a chilling incident occurred. One evening, he says, Cheryl began talking about suicide. When she failed to return from a bathroom trip, Johnson went to investigate and says he found her clutching his .22 caliber revolver.
As they wrestled over the weapon, Johnson says, the children and Cheryl's mother rushed in. He says Cheryl told them that HE had gotten the gun and was threatening to shoot himself.
By the time their divorce was final in August 2004, Johnson says, Cheryl was already wearing Graham's ring.
After Cheryl's two failed marriages between those years and Graham's own divorce, the couple married Dec. 8, 2004.
A few days before their second wedding anniversary, the couple attended an event on Hilton Head to honor the families of organ donors. The Island Packet ran a story under the headline, "A love story unlike any told ..."
"It's true what it says in the Bible," Cheryl told the newspaper. "If you live God's will and give with a happy heart, you will reap the rewards." Graham said Cheryl was the answer to his prayers.
Right up to his death, Graham was making plans for the future. He'd invited friends down to fish and was talking about an upcoming golf tournament.
What no one knew was that Graham had drawn up a will.
Larry Lockley says he went fishing with his uncle the last week of February, and afterward Graham showed him the will and asked if he'd be alternate executor.
"Ain't nothing wrong, is there?" the nephew asked.
"Ain't nothing wrong at all," Graham replied. But, "You never know."
In March, Carson went down to Lyons to fish with his old buddy. But something just wasn't right.
"He just wasn't the happy-go-lucky guy I'd known all my life," says Carson.
A few days later, Graham's loaned heart would stop beating for good.
In late April, shortly after Graham's death, Cheryl visited Tomme Hilton, an old friend. Over drinks, she complained that Graham "didn't leave me a dime."
Apparently, Graham had blown through his retirement funds and run up large debts — about triple his assets — trying, as he once put it, "to keep (Cheryl) in the style she wants to live."
Cheryl Graham did not respond to repeated requests seeking comment. But those who know her say she did not act like a grieving widow.
On her MySpace account — now deactivated — her photo changed from a sweetly smiling portrait to pictures of her on a lake or drinking beer with friends. Her screen name changed, too, from simply "Cheryl" to "PrEttY LAdy," then "BeaUtiFuL MeSs."
Family members monitoring the account noticed that shortly after Graham's death, she posted a man's photo identifying him as her "new boyfriend." A flirtatious message on the man's Web page, from her account, was dated March 26 — six days before Graham's death.
The man confirmed to The Associated Press that agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had interviewed him. He told them he no longer sees Cheryl.
The Toombs County coroner ruled Graham's death a suicide; the Georgia Bureau of Investigation still hasn't closed the case.
Investigators have interviewed all three of Cheryl Graham's surviving exes. Johnson wasn't the only one with a gun story to tell.
During a 2005 dispute over custody of their grandchildren, first husband Isaac "Bo" Carter said Cheryl called his North Carolina home and threatened to "blow my brains out w/her 38 pistol ..." A protective order was granted.
Johnson, husband No. 4, says anyone who gets involved with his ex-wife is in for an emotional roller coaster ride.
"One day she hates you and one day she loves you and the next day she hates you," Johnson told the AP. "I guess I am lucky to be alive."
After 13 borrowed years, it appears Graham no longer felt that way.