April 1, 2008
Vidalia, Georgia
Sonny Graham (69) dies from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to his throat

In March of 1995, Terry Cottle (33) and his wife Cheryl argued over finances. Specifically, Cheryl announced she would not be married to a man who earned less than her. The couple agreed to separate, Terry excused himself to the restroom, and Cheryl heard a gunshot. She found her husband had shot himself behind his right ear with a handgun. Terry was taken off life support several days later, and his organs were donated.

Terry and Cheryl Cottle on their wedding day
via Deseret News

Sonny Graham’s heart had become damaged following a virus, and at the age of 57 he was chosen to be the recipient of Terry’s heart. He began to write to Terry’s family in late 1996 to thank them, and he met with Cheryl (28) after the pair corresponded for two months. “I felt like I had known her for years,” Sonny told The Island Packet in 2006. “I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. I just stared.”

Cheryl married her third husband in April of 1997. Sonny gave Cheryl away at the wedding, standing in for her late father, while his wife was in attendance. Soon, the nature of Cheryl and Sonny’s relationship surfaced and they both separated from their respective spouses. In October of 2001, Cheryl moved in with Sonny but left in May of 2002. She met and married her fourth husband, though they separated following abuse allegations from both parties and finalized their divorce in August of 2004. Sonny and Cheryl married in December 2004, despite disapproval from Sonny’s children.

On April 1, 2008, Sonny was found dead in a utility building in his backyard. He had been killed by a single, presumably self-inflicted shotgun wound to his throat. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) investigated and, in September of 2009, ruled Sonny’s death to be suicide. “If you get bogged down with any one thing, it can be restrictive,” explained Todd Lowery, an assistant special agent of the GBI. “You get tunnel vision. You have a look at the totality of the case.”

Sonny Graham with two of his children
via Statesboro Herald

Sonny’s family, especially his daughter and granddaughter, do not believe in the suicide ruling and argued the circumstances surrounding his death are strange. The family has questioned why Sonny would kill himself on a day he had woken up early to plan a party, and why an avid hunter would choose birdshot to kill himself when he had other, more “efficient” weapons and ammunition at hand.

While GBI officials have acknowledge there were “still several unanswered questions” at the time of Graham’s death, they again stated in February 2010 that Graham’s death was a suicide. Authorities noted there were no signs of struggle at the scene, and the clothing worn by Cheryl and her two adult sons had been examined with no evidence of foul play. The GBI also cited blood splatter, dust, and a crescent-shaped mark on the floor which was consistent with someone shooting themself and dropping the weapon on the floor. “I’ve never seen a murderer slam a gun down on the floor,” Lowery stated.

Sources:
“GBI: Heart recipient committed suicide.” The Times and Democrat [Orangeburg, South Carolina]. February 22, 2010
“GBI stands by suicide verdict in heart recipient’s death despite family’s doubts.” The Augusta Chronicle. February 21, 2010. Accessed: April 1, 2021. https://www.augustachronicle.com/article/20100221/NEWS/302219931
“2 Suicide Victims Shared Same Heart, Wife.” CBS News. September 1, 2008. Accessed: April 1, 2021. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/2-suicide-victims-shared-same-heart-wife/
“Transplant tragedy: 2 men, 2 suicides, 1 heart, 1 widow.” Deseret News. August 31, 2008. Accessed: April 1, 2021. https://www.deseret.com/2008/8/31/20272230/transplant-tragedy-2-men-2-suicides-1-heart-1-widow
Breed, Allen G. “Affairs of the Heart.” Lansing State Journal. August 31, 2008
“Heart, wife, suicide link men forever.” The Jackson Sun. April 7, 2008
“Man with suicide victim’s heart takes own life.” NBC News. April 6, 2008. Accessed: April 1, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna23984857
Dudley, Renee. “Recipient of suicide victim’s heart kills self 12 years later.” The Seattle Times. April 6, 2008. Accessed: April 1, 2021. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/health/recipient-of-suicide-victims-heart-kills-self-12-years-later/

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