Man pleads guilty in wife’s slaying
By Jason Evans
WALHALLA — A Westminster man was sentenced to more than 40 years in prison after pleading guilty to killing his wife and hiding her body in an oil drum for two weeks.
Lee Mikeal Cawthon, 42, appeared before Judge Lawton McIntosh in a courtroom inside the Oconee County Courthouse where he pleaded guilty Monday morning to murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.
Cawthon will receive credit for the 16 months he’s spent in jail since his arrest.
Solicitor David Wagner told the court Cawthon killed Rebecca Cawthon in April 2017.
Before her death, Wagner said, Rebecca Cawthon had been hospitalized after a domestic violence incident that required stitches, and once released, she returned to the couple’s home to “get clothes and things.”
“He thought she was probably leaving him,” Wagner told the court. “He had a handgun.”
Wagner said Cawthon shot Rebecca eight times. Cawthon told investigators he shot her in the stomach first, then again and again “to put her out of her misery,” Wagner said.
“It was a brutal shooting,” Wagner said.
The solicitor said Cawthon then stuffed his wife’s body into an oil drum. During an initial search of the property, Wagner said investigators did not find her body because the oil drum was placed in a grease pit and a tractor was parked over the pit.
The solicitor’s office made no recommendation to the court on the length of Cawthon’s sentences.
Defense attorney Austin McClain used Cawthon’s lack of a prior criminal record to push for the minimum sentence of 30 years.
“I think if there’s any case for a minimum sentence to be imposed, this is the case, your honor,” McClain said.
McClain said Lee Cawthon’s half-brother told him he believed the couple had “a great relationship.”
McClain said the comment was made because during their jobs as long-haul truckers and later liquor store owners, Lee and Rebecca “had never really spent more than 24 hours apart.”
“I don’t know where things went south,” he said.
When Rebecca returned to the home, McClain said Lee Cawthon was on “an emotional high,” believing she was coming back to him.
After Rebecca asked him for a divorce, McClain said Cawthon “snapped in a fit of rage.”
Two weeks after the murder, when Rebecca was still considered a missing person, McClain said Cawthon “walked through the front doors of the sheriff’s office and turned himself in.”
“I certainly think he’s remorseful,” McClain said. “He’s living with the guilt of what he did.”
Wagner said Lee Cawthon had a pending assault and battery charge when he killed his wife and that investigators were “closing in” at the time of his confession.
Oconee County Sheriff Mike Crenshaw spoke to the judge in court before Cawthon’s sentencing, saying his investigators believe Rebecca “was attempting to gain her freedom from domestic violence.”
“This defendant denied her that opportunity,” Crenshaw said. “We’re here today to ask the court to deny this defendant that same opportunity, to have freedom.”
Rebecca’s mother, Lutricia F. Murray, asked McIntosh to hand down the maximum sentences. She said she believes Cawthon, if freed, “will do this to someone else’s life and destroy her family and friends.”
Since her daughter’s murder, Murray has been “stuck in a repeating hell,” she said.
“I endure from moment to moment trying to make some sense of this nightmare,” Murray said.
When she is able to sleep, Murray said she hears Rebecca’s voice calling for her.
A portion of her statement was directed at Cawthon.
“How long did she suffer?” Murray asked. “When did you decide to dispose of her like trash? Why not just let her go?”
She said Lee Cawthon allowed her and her family to believe that he did not know what happened to her during the time she was considered missing, she said.
“All I had was hope,” she said. “There is no amount of money, days in jail or prison that can forgive what she went through and what was done to her.”
During his statement to the court, Cawthon said he first met Rebecca when she was 8 years old. They met again when she was 16, he said.
“We’ve been together ever since, for 17 years,” Cawthon said. “She became my family. My friends were her friends. All my eggs were in one basket with her, and in the heat and the pain of losing all that, I made a terrible mistake.”
In addition to a 40-year murder sentence, McIntosh sentenced Cawthon to five years for the weapons charge, to be served consecutively.
“That will be effectively a life sentence for you, Mr. Cawthon,” he said.
Cawthon and McClain have 10 days to appeal the sentences.
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