Police Chief Burns says Macon officer found dead had enlarged heart

Macon police remember training director Mark Cotton, found dead at academy

lfabian@macon.comJanuary 14, 2013 

Macon police officers who served with Lt. Mark Cotton lowered the U.S. flag to half-staff in his memory Monday morning.

Cotton, 49, was found dead Sunday evening near the back door of the Chief Ben T. Watkins Training Academy on Jackson Street, where he served as director.

An autopsy revealed that though the SWAT commander was in “peak physical condition,” he had an enlarged heart “that resulted in a (cardiac) event,” Police Chief Mike Burns said Monday afternoon.

Burns said Cotton would be “sorely be missed,” adding that he was “loved by the members of this department” and was a “very devoted father” to his 8-year-old daughter Celia.

“He always set the standards higher for himself than anybody else that he had to train,” the chief said. “He took joy in ... being better physically fit than the younger officers.”

Burns said funeral services will be private.

Police Lt. David Freeland said Cotton “was really dedicated. ... Everything he did was just breathing the police department and the SWAT team.”

In his more than 27 years on the force, Cotton also served on the bike patrol in downtown Macon.

Rob Dittman, an EMT with The Medical Center of Central Georgia, volunteers as a tactical medic with the SWAT team and had known Cotton since 1993.

On training days, Cotton would run 10 miles before work and still hit the road with recruits, Dittman said.

Although Cotton was warm and friendly personally, Dittman said the commander could be tough on the SWAT team when necessary.

“There’s an old saying among warriors, ‘The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat,’ and he epitomized that,” Dittman said.

Cotton, who graduated from Auburn University, was shot in the leg at the end of a 43-hour hostage standoff in southwest Macon in July 1998.

A man distraught about the collapse of his marriage holed up at a house on Greenwood Terrace with his 21-month-old son. When police burst in to end the crisis, Cotton was first through the door.

Cotton begged the man to drop his .38-caliber pistol, but instead the man opened fire. A bullet hit Cotton in the thigh. Police shot and killed the gunman.

“He always had that calling to protect people, to set things right,” Cara Cotton, the officer’s former wife, said. “He walked the walk. He knew how to teach (police work) because he lived it.”

She said he told their little girl a tale to help her understand what he did for a living. He told her about wolves, sheep and sheep dogs.

“The sheep are victims, the innocent people. The wolves are the bad guys. And the sheep dogs are the police that protect the sheep and go after the wolves,” Cara Cotton said. “And he told her from a very early age that she was a sheep dog puppy.”

Celia had her own desk in her father’s office. Sometimes he even let her call out instructions on the firing-range loudspeaker.

When two police officers bearing news of Cotton’s death showed up at her house Sunday night, Celia’s first question to them was, “Who’s gonna run the SWAT team now?”

The flag was flying at half-staff Monday morning at the E-911 Center on First Street, where operators took a call from the training academy about Cotton’s death at about 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones said Cotton’s body was found between two buildings on the property.

Cotton’s colleagues say it was not unusual for him to work out at the gym in the training center, which is behind the fire department headquarters on First Street.

While others were eating pizza, Cotton would pull out his healthy sandwich, crackers, banana and maybe a pack of M&Ms, Dittman said.

“At his age, he was probably in the best shape,” he said.

Dittman had a smile on his face as he recalled seeing his friend years ago on an undercover assignment.

Cotton’s formerly close-cropped hair was much longer.

“There he was in a ponytail and wire-rimmed glasses,” Dittman said. “He wasn’t fooling anybody.”

Although Cotton could have a rough and gruff exterior at times, he was always there when Dittman personally needed him.

“There are too many incidents to cover the amount of times he’s been there and obviously took care of us all,” he said. “He was our SWAT daddy. We all love him.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. Staff writer Joe Kovac Jr. contributed to this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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