2 Suicide Victims Shared Same Heart, Wife

In this photo provided by Michelle Graham Crozier and taken by Kevin Crozier, Sonny Graham, center, is seen with his daughter Michelle Graham Crozier and his son Gray Graham outside the restaurant, The Steeple Chase, in Vidalia, Georgia on August 12, 2006.
AP Photo/Michelle Graham Crozier
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 Fool's 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 doublewide in the town of Moncks Corner, S.C. Around Christmas, Cheryl's widowed mother moved in.

Terry had dropped out of high school but earned an equivalency diploma and worked around his limited prospects. He got a real estate license and, at 33, became a certified emergency medical technician.

But it never seemed to be enough.

Terry talked frequently with his ex-wife, having her call him on the 800-number at the exterminating company where he worked so Cheryl wouldn't find out.

"Talk to me," he said one night in 1995. "I've got a gun to my head."

Within a month of his mother-in-law's arrival, 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 Terry's room.

Erickson was pregnant with her second child and needed Terry's room for a nursery. She told her brother to make a decision. "If you love her and you want to make this work, then you need to go home and be with her," she said.

He did, but three weeks later, on March 15, 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.

Initially, Cheryl told sheriff's investigators she heard 10-year-old Christopher shouting that 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.

"She said that she yelled something like, `Terry, wait!', and this was at about the same time as she pushed on the door to try to get into the bathroom and at the same time she heard a shot," the report says.

"Baby, help me, help me. I'm dying," he gasped, as she recalled his words.

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, at the urging of her father-in-law, 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.