Jurors hear about two prior fatal shootings involving man convicted of killing Myrtle Beach police officer

The smell of fresh blood still haunts two people who witnessed Myrtle Beach police Officer Joe McGarry being shot in the face while on duty 12 years ago, they testified Friday.

But their reasons are separately connected to convicted murderer Luzenski Cottrell, who is being retired in the slaying.

On Friday, jurors began hearing testimony and saw evidence in the penalty phase of the retrial.

In April 2005, Cottrell was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the community police officer’s killing. Cottrell appealed the decision and in January 2008 the S.C. Supreme Court overturned his conviction and death sentence. Justice Costa Pleicones stated that the court erred in not giving jurors the option to convict Cottrell of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

On Wednesday, jurors again convicted Cottrell of murder and now must decide whether to sentence him to life in prison or death.

To sentence the Myrtle Beach man to death, 15th Circuit Chief Deputy Solicitor Scott Hixson, said jurors must find that McGarry was an on-duty police officer on Dec. 29, 2002 when he was killed outside Dunkin’ Donuts on Kings Highway; Cottrell has been previously convicted of murder; and that his act of murdering McGarry it created a hazard to the public in that parking lot.

Cottrell’s attorney, Teresa Norris, told jurors they won’t argue with the jury’s conviction of Cottrell, but he doesn’t deserve a death sentence.

“There’s no question he is a murderer. He’s a murderer of Joe McGarry, but there is more to that,” Norris said. “Officer McGarry was a wonderful man. He did a great service to this community. But that doesn’t go into the equation of does [Cottrell] deserve death.”

Mike Guthinger, McGarry’s friend and fellow officer, emotionally testified that witnessing the 28-year-old’s death still disturbs him.

“I think about it every day. I can’t get the pictures of Joe lying there out of my mind. My job that night was to bring him home that night, I didn’t do it,” Guthinger said and noted he still can taste blood from when he performed CPR on McGarry, who was shot in the face.

The 15-year police veteran testified Friday that he and McGarry went to the late night hangout for coffee to discuss McGarry’s recently proposal to his girlfriend on Christmas that year. McGarry had asked Guthinger to be a part of the future wedding and was excited about it.

“He had this ring for months and he was waiting for the right time to [propose],” Guthinger testified. “He was like ‘dude we’re going to wear dress uniforms. I don’t have a date yet, but you’re going to wear that hat and gloves.’”

At McGarry’s suggestion, the Myrtle Beach Police Department had recently adopted a service hat and white gloves as part of their dress uniform standards, Guthinger said.

“That hat and white gloves, the first time I wore it was at Joe’s funeral. I was like well here’s your hat Joe,” Guthinger said, which made several people in the crowd and a couple jurors to wipe tears from their eyes.

The men were hired at the same time, went through the police academy together and were close friends outside of work, testified Guthinger, whose employee number is one number behind McGarry’s. Both came from the northeast, wanted to be police officers as a child and helped each other from time to time.

“I still wake up in the middle of the night with dry mouth,” Guthinger said. “I second guess what I could’ve done differently. . . . If I had a problem he was the one I’d go to, unfortunately he’s not here.”

Diane Lawson Serio also witnessed McGarry being shot in the face by Cottrell that night, but it was not the first time she’d seen the 36-year-old kill a man.

It is the blood of Richard Hartman that still haunts Serio, she testified Friday.

The North Carolina native was 18 when she met Fred Halcomb and became his girlfriend and a driver in Halcomb’s and Cottrell’s drug ring, which included runs to Texas and New York, Serio said.

On Nov. 23, 2002, she, Halcomb, Cottrell and another man drove to the then dirt portion of River Oaks Drive for a drug deal with Hartman, who ran an escort service and Cottrell had served as his body guard following a recent robbery.

Serio testified that Cottrell took a folded sweatshirt wrapped in a plastic baggie that was supposed to be the drugs and got into a pickup truck with Hartman, which was parked next to their vehicle.

Soon after, Hartman sped away, and Serio said Halcomb followed after the truck in his car. Serio said she saw two flashes from a gun inside the truck before it crashed into some trees. Cottrell then climbed over Hartman in the driver’s seat and returned to Halcomb’s car covered in blood.

“The smell of it. The blood everything. It’s awful. I’ll never forget it,” Serio said.

The group drove away, washed the outside of the car, and Serio and another man were told to clean the blood from inside the car when they returned to a Socastee house. But she testified they couldn’t clean the blood from the stained seatbelts, so they cut them out and burned them along with Cottrell’s blood soiled clothing.

Days later, Serio testified she witnessed Cottrell shoot from a car’s sunroof at a vehicle that was chasing them north on U.S. 17 Bypass near the airport after a robbery during a drug deal.

The victim of that drug deal, Brett Smalls, who was recently shot during a convenience store robbery on S.C. 544, testified Friday that Cottrell and his friends tried to burn his house down over the sour drug deal.

“Both of them had guns, but I knew Black [Cottrell] always had two guns on his person at all times,” Smalls said.

Cottrell, Myrtle Beach resident Jonathan “Jon Jon” Love and another man went to Smalls house and tried to burn it down to kill Smalls while he slept, Serio testified.

But the asbestos siding was fire resistant and fire officials said the blaze was extinguished before the home sustained much damage. Gasoline was found to have been poured on the heating and cooling unit, a nearby vehicle and the side of the house, officials testified.

The failure of the fire upset Cottrell and the men, Serio said. So, the men decided to kill Love because “he didn’t do it [the fire] right,” she testified.

Later in November, Serio said she went with Halcomb and met Cottrell and Love in a secluded field in Marion County where Love was “digging a grave.” She said Halcomb gave Cottrell a .357-caliber revolver and she returned to the car.

The gun was seized from the car that Cottrell was arrested in the night of McGarry’s death, SLED experts testified.

While waiting in the car, Serio said she heard gunshots and a then a few hours later Halcomb and Cottrell return dirty, but without Love.

Hours later after the group returned to a beachfront house they were renting in Cherry Grove, Serio said Cottrell rolled on the floor laughing about the way Love’s body reacted when he was killed in the 5-foot deep hole that became his grave.

“He said ‘you should’ve seen it when I shot him. It was a mushroom cloud above his head,’” Serio said quoting Cottrell.

Halcomb and Cottrell were each convicted on Sept. 1, 2005, for Love’s death and are each serving sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Serio drew a map for investigators to find Love’s body, she testified. For her cooperation and testimony, Serio has not faced any serious charges for her involvement in the murders or drug ring.

Love’s body was exhumed on May 8, 2003, and Allan Bennett, a forensic pathology expert, said the autopsy, which was performed the next day, showed Love was shot in the forehead, back and right arm.

Hartman’s autopsy showed he had two contact wounds, which meant the gun was pressed into his skin when it was fired, said Bennett, who was working at the Medical University of South Carolina when he performed the two autopsies at separate times.

Hartman’s autopsy was done on Nov. 24, 2004, and showed a contact gunshot wound to the back of his head and a separate contact wound to his right cheek, Bennett testified. Hartman also suffered gunshot wounds to his left shoulder and a bullet grazed his right shoulder.

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