Crime & Courts

His wife wanted out of their open marriage, so SC man killed and buried her, prosecutor says

Lee Mikeal Cawthon
Lee Mikeal Cawthon 10th Circuit Solicitor's Office

They had an open marriage that was called “unconventional,” and the couple was described as “virtually inseparable,” by a South Carolina prosecutor.

But when Rebecca Cawthon told her husband, Lee Cawthon, that she wanted a divorce he would not let her go, according to the 10th Circuit Solicitor David Wagner.

Instead, an enraged Cawthon shot his wife multiple times killing her, the solicitor’s office reported. He was convicted of murder Monday.

The prospect of a divorce, much less murder, was a far cry from how Wagner’s office described the Cawthons’ relationship when a 17-year-old Rebecca married Lee Cawthon. The solicitor reported the couple was “virtually inseparable throughout the course of their marriage,” and often got jobs to work together in an effort “to minimize their time apart.”

According to the solicitor’s office, the only thing that the couple allowed to impact their marriage at that point was additional sexual partners. The Cawthons “invited one or more sexual partners to join them in their relationship,” Wagner reported.

That closeness changed before Rebecca’s death, when she started a new job on her own and the couple “invited a male partner into their relationship for the first time,” according to the solicitor’s office.

After going out drinking on Easter in 2017, the couple got into an argument, Wagner said, and Lee Cawthon assaulted his wife. She was treated at an area hospital, where she claimed to have fallen down a flight of stairs.

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The next day, Rebecca returned home for her possessions and to tell Lee Cawthon she wanted to get a divorce, Wagner’s office reported. Lee Cawthon then shot his wife to death.

Wagner said that Lee Cawthon initially put coins on the eyes of his murdered wife “for the boatman.” He then cleaned the “crime scene,” and went to Clayton, Georgia.

Lee Cawthon eventually returned to the Oconee County residence, and put Rebecca’s body “in a 55-gallon oil drum ... stored in a grease pit under a tractor,” the solicitor’s office reported. Wagner also said Lee Cawthon was using his murdered wife’s cellphone to text her relatives to make it appear that she was still alive and “cover up” what had happened.

According to the solicitor’s office, Lee Cawthon left again, this time for Oklahoma, where he visited an online acquaintance named “Hamster,” he had met playing a game called “World of Warcraft.”

Again, he returned to South Carolina, where the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office was investigating Rebecca’s disappearance as a missing person’s case, per Wagner’s office. At this time Lee Cawthon confessed to murdering Rebecca and told investigators where to find her remains, as well as the murder weapon, the solicitor said.

On Monday, Lee Cawthon was sentenced to 40 years in prison for murdering his wife, according to Wagner. Lee Cawthon was also sentenced to a consecutive sentence of 5 years behind bars for the possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.

“Rebecca Cawthon was a victim of domestic violence who was attempting to free herself from the situation and start a new life,” Wagner said in a news release. “Lee Cawthon stole that opportunity from her. Today’s sentence effectively ensures that Lee Cawthon will never have the opportunity to walk as a free man.”

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