A bizarre story of a murder that followed an open marriage — and involved an ancient death ritual and a person named “Hamster” — is a cut and dried case of domestic violence, according to a news release from solicitor David Wagner of South Carolina’s 10th Judicial Circuit.
Lee Mikeal Cawthon, of Westminster, S.C., married his victim, Rebecca Cawthon, when she was 17 years old, after divorcing his first wife, the release said. It said the Cawthons, who had an open marriage, spent most of their time together, even working together to ensure they were never apart for long.
Eventually, Rebecca sought more independence. She found a new job, and the couple had invited their first male partner, whom she and Lee “shared,” into the marriage.
On Easter Sunday 2017, the Cawthons and the male partner were drinking when Lee assaulted his wife after an argument, the release said. She told the doctors at Oconee Memorial Hospital in South Carolina that she had fallen down the stairs. Following her release, she sent photos of her injuries to her friends and sought comfort in the male partner.
The next day, Rebecca returned to the home she shared with her husband to collect her things and to tell Lee that she wanted a divorce.
Lee then shot Rebecca multiple times, “enraged at the thought of losing her,” according to the release.
After he ensured that Rebecca was dead, he placed coins on her eyes “for the boatman,” a nod to a death ritual from Greek mythology. According to Greek myth, the souls of those who died moved to the underworld, ruled over by Hades. Charon, the ferryman of Hades, carried the newly deceased across the river Styx, which divided the world of the living and dead. Coins were placed on the dead person’s eyes or in the mouth to pay Charon. Without this payment for Charon, their souls were doomed to wander the river shore and torment the living as ghosts.
Lee cleaned the crime scene and drove 38 miles from Oconee County, S.C., to Clayton, Ga., using Rebecca’s phone to text her family to deceive them into thinking that she was still alive.
On returning home, he put Rebecca’s body in a 55-gallon oil drum and put it in a grease pit under a tractor on their property, according to investigators.
Lee then traveled to Oklahoma to visit a person named “Hamster” whom the Cawthons had met playing the online role-playing game World of Warcraft.
In between the date of the murder — April 17, 2017, and May 3, 2017 — the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office had already started to investigate Rebecca’s disappearance. On May 3, Lee went to the sheriff’s office to confess to the murder. He directed investigators to Rebecca’s decomposed body and the murder weapon inside his vehicle.
On Monday, Lee was sentenced to 40 years in prison, plus five years for possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.
While the story involves many bizarre elements, the signs of domestic violence are clear.
Lee was 24 when he married 17-year-old Rebecca 16 years ago. A large age gap, in this case of seven years, can give the older partner more power in a relationship. The couple was known to take jobs that ensured they would be working together. This is a tactic abusers often use to keep close tabs on their partner. Ultimately, it appears Lee killed his wife because he was afraid of losing her when she attempted to wrest free of his control.
“We need to thank the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office for their outstanding work in this case,” Wagner said in the news release. “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.”
If you are a victim of domestic abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TYY 1-800-787-3224. Computer use can be monitored and is impossible to clear completely. You are encouraged if you are afraid your internet usage might be monitored to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Otherwise, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website for more information.
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