Lee Mikeal Cawthon will spend the next four decades behind bars after confessing to the murder of his wife, Rebecca. The two reportedly had an open marriage. Prosecutors said 41-year-old Cawthon shot 33-year-old Rebecca several times at their home in Westminster, South Carolina, after she told him she wanted a divorce.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Cawthon Confessed to the Murder and Shared That He Completed an Ancient Death Ritual After Confirming She Was Dead
Lee Mikeal Cawthon shot and killed his wife on April 17th, 2017. Oconee County, South Carolina Solicitor David Wagner shared details of the crime in a news release.
It allegedly stemmed from jealousy over a mutual male friend. Cawthon and Rebecca had engaged in an open marriage, but did not invite another man into the mix until shortly before her murder. On April 16, 2017, Rebecca had reportedly been drinking with this male friend. When she got home, she and Lee had an argument that became physical.
Officials say Lee Cawthon assaulted his wife. Rebecca went to the hospital but told doctors she had fallen down a flight of stairs. Wagner said Rebecca sent pictures of her injuries to friends via text.
She returned to the house the next day to retrieve some belongings. Rebecca told Cawthon she wanted a divorce. He later confessed to becoming violently angry at the idea of her leaving him. He then shot her multiple times. The next thing Cawthon did was place coins on his wife’s eyes “for the boatman.” As the Solicitor explained in the release, the practice refers to “a death ritual from Greek mythology wherein coins are placed on the eyes of the dead to ensure the passage over the River Styx, which divides the living and the dead.”
2. Lee Mikeal Cawthon Dumped Rebecca’s Body in an Oil Drum and Left the State Twice
Cawthon cleaned up the crime scene and traveled to Clayton, Georgia. But he did stay there long, instead turning around to dispose of Rebecca’s body. According to the Solicitor, Cawthon placed his wife’s body into a 55-gallon oil drum, and put the drum in a grease pit under a tractor.
During his travels to Georgia and back, Cawthon sent several text messages to Rebecca’s family members, in an attempt to keep her loved ones from worrying about her. After dumping her body, Cawthon next went to Oklahoma. While there, he visited a friend he had met playing World of Warcraft online, named Hamster.
3. Cawthon Admitted to Killing Rebecca in May 2017 and Directed Investigators to Her Body
Cawthon’s attempts to hide Rebecca’s disappearance did not work. According to WYFF-TV, deputies were called to the Cawthon’s home on April 18th, the day after she was killed. A family member became concerned when Rebecca did not pick up the phone, and asked the sheriff’s office to conduct a welfare check. A missing person’s case was opened.
Then on May 3, 2017, Lee Cawthon walked into the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office and admitted to killing Rebecca. He directed investigators to the oil barrel he had stuffed her body into, which was located in an outbuilding on their property. The murder weapon was also located in Cawthon’s vehicle.
During Cawthon’s sentencing hearing on September 10, 2018, he apologized “I made a terrible mistake and I can’t take it back,” as reported by Fox Carolina. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the murder and another five for Possession of a Weapon during the Commission of a Violent Crime.
Solicitor David Wagner said of the sentencing:
“Rebecca Cawthon was a victim of domestic violence who was attempting to free herself from the situation and start a new life. 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.”
4. The Cawthon’s Engaged in an Open Marriage But Did Not Include Another Man Until Shortly Before the Murder
The Oconee County Solicitor confirmed that Lee Cawthon and wife Rebecca had what he described as an “unconventional open marriage in which they invited one or more sexual partners to join them in their relationship.”
The unconventional nature of their marriage did not outwardly appear to have a negative effect on the marriage, at least until 2017. In October 2016, Rebecca posted on Facebook: “Happy 10 year anniversary to us! I love you! We have had so much fun and so many changes since we began with each other, I don’t know what might happen in the future but I know if I have you, I’ll always be strong enough to stand up to anything.”
The couple reportedly only invited women to share in their sexual activities for the majority of their marriage. Officials said Lee and Rebecca did not involve another man until shortly before the murder. That addition caused strain in the marriage and prompted jealousy on Lee Cawthon’s part.
5. Lee Cawthon Married Rebecca When She Was Just 17 Years Old
Rebecca Murray reportedly met Lee Cawthon as a young child. They were married when she was just 17 years old. He would have been 24 at the time. It was Cawthon’s second marriage.
Prosecutors said the couple were virtually inseparable for much of their marriage. Solicitor Wagner said in his news release that Lee and Rebecca often worked at the same places in order to spend as much time together as possible.
But shortly before the murder, Rebecca had reportedly begun work at a new job, and had been gaining a sense of independence she had not had before. She was 33 when she was killed.