Men shared same heart, wife, death

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 Mr. 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 Fool's Day, almost exactly 13 years since another man's suicide gave Mr. Graham a second chance at life.

That man was Terry Cottle. When he ended his life, Mr. Graham got his heart.

But it was not just an organ that connected Mr. Graham and the 33-year-old donor.

Nearly a decade after the transplant, Mr. Graham married Mr. Cottle's widow. And now Mr. Graham had made her a widow again.

IN 1988, Mr. Cottle was living with his wife and their two young daughters in Jasper County, S.C. Mr. 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 Mr. Cottle's wife sometime later, saying, "I just want you to know that your husband is seeing my wife."

Mr. Cottle filed for divorce. Nine days after it was granted, in May 1989, he and Cheryl were married.

At first, things seemed wonderful. Mr. Cottle adopted Cheryl's two sons, Christopher and Timmy. A daughter, Jessica, was born. Mr. Cottle worked while his new wife studied for her nursing degree.

Mr. Cottle 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.

Mr. Cottle talked frequently with his ex-wife, having her call him at the exterminating company where he worked so his wife wouldn't find out.

In late 1994, Mr. Cottle had moved out of the trailer and in with his sister, Tammy Erickson. But before long, Cheryl started coming around, cooking dinner for the family and spending the night in Mr. Cottle's room.

Ms. Erickson was pregnant with her second child and needed Mr. Cottle's room for a nursery.

He moved back with Cheryl, but three weeks later, on March 15, the couple got into a huge argument. Cheryl told Mr. Cottle that she couldn't stay married to a man who made less money than she did.

By morning, they had agreed that Mr. Cottle should leave.

As he prepared to depart, Mr. Cottle went into the bathroom. There was a gunshot.

Initially, Cheryl told sheriff's investigators she heard 10-year-old Christopher shouting that Mr. Cottle had shot himself. She said she ran into the bathroom and found him on the floor with the revolver still in his hand.

In a second version attached to a coroner's report, Cheryl said she was eating oatmeal when one of her boys yelled, "Mom, Dad has a gun!" She said she ran toward the bathroom "and saw Terry standing up and looking at her" with the gun in his hand.

The .22-caliber slug entered Mr. 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 Mr. Cottle 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 South Carolina barrier island.

The Air Force veteran was an avid hunter and fisherman, what buddy Bill Carson called a "man's man."

He was also the consummate family man. He and Elaine, his wife of more than three decades, had two children, Gray and Michelle.

But in 1994, Mr. Graham contracted a virus that damaged his heart muscle. His name went on transplant lists.

Around 5 p.m. on March 20, Mr. Graham learned that a heart had become available.

Within six months of the transplant, Mr. Graham was well enough to go on a fishing trip with Mr. Carson to Alaska.

Friends noticed some subtle changes -- a new craving for beer, a taste for hot dogs, which happened to be one of Mr. Cottle's favorite foods.

In November 1996, Mr. Graham asked the South Carolina Organ Procurement Agency to forward a letter to the donor's family. He wanted to thank Mr. Cottle's wife in person.

After the exchange of another letter and some photographs, Cheryl called Mr. Graham. In January 1997, he and his wife met her for dinner in Charleston.

"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. Elaine and Mr. Graham attended the wedding.

Cheryl bore Mr. Watkins a son in January 1999. Around that same time, Elaine learned that her husband's relationship with the younger woman was more than fatherly.

Both couples separated, and shortly after a judge declared the Grahams' 38-year marriage over, in October 2001, Cheryl and Mr. Graham moved into a mobile home in Lyons, Ga.

The domestic bliss did not last long.

In May 2002, Cheryl left -- and Mr. 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 Mr. 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. The couple separated. By the time the divorce was final in August 2004, Mr. Johnson says, Cheryl was already wearing Mr. Graham's ring.

They married Dec. 8, 2004, in Gatlinburg, Tenn. He started a landscaping company and let Cheryl's two oldest sons work for him.

Right up to his death, Mr. Graham was making plans for the future. He'd invited friends down to fish and was talking about the upcoming golf tournament.

On March 20, the anniversary of his transplant, Mr. Graham left a playful message on his old pastor's answering machine: "Do you remember where you were 13 years ago on this day?" When the Rev. Keller called back, Mr. Graham said he and his heart were doing great.

That week, Mr. Carson went down to Lyons to fish for bream and bass with his old buddy. Mr. Graham didn't complain about his marriage -- that wasn't like him. But something just wasn't right.

A few days later, Mr. Graham's loaned heart would stop beating for good.

IN LATE APRIL, shortly after Mr. Graham's death, Cheryl visited Tomme Hilton, an old friend. She complained that Mr. Graham "didn't leave me a dime."

Apparently, Mr. Graham had blown through his retirement funds and run up large debts -- about triple his assets.

Cheryl did not respond to repeated requests seeking comment. But those who know her say she did not act like a grieving widow.

Although the Toombs County coroner ruled Mr. Graham's death a suicide in late May, the GBI still hasn't closed the case.


Cheryl Sweat had five different husbands. Investigators have interviewed all three of her surviving exes. Two of them had gun stories:

- 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.

- In December of 2003, husband No. 4, John B. Johnson Jr., said one evening Cheryl began talking about suicide. When she failed to return from a bathroom trip, Mr. Johnson went to investigate and says he found her clutching his .22-caliber revolver. As they wrestled over the weapon, Mr. 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.

-- Associated Press