000228 ATLANTA, Atlanta Police Dept. Officer Pat Cocciolone (cq) breaks down in tears as she recounts the events of Oct. 12, 1997 when she and fellow officer Rick Sowa (cq) were allegedly shot by Gregory Lawler at a Buckhead apartment. (Kimberly Smith/staff)

Riveting testimony: Officer recounts fatal night

The following story appeared in Feb. 29, 2000 editions of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Never think that cops don’t cry.

Tears rolled down their cheeks Monday when the officer they call “Coach” told a jury, haltingly but unsparingly, the details of the night she was crippled and Officer Rick Sowa was killed.

By the time Pat Cocciolone struggled to her feet in the witness box and pointed her finger at the man accused of putting a bullet through her brain, there was scarcely a dry eye in Fulton Superior Courtroom 4D.

Even jurors were weeping.

“It was absolutely gut-wrenching, ” said Officer LeAnne Minter, one of Sowa’s classmates in Atlanta Police Academy Class 156.

The small courtroom was packed Monday with relatives of the victims and with Atlanta officers, who had to attend in plain clothes. They all came to hear the testimony of Cocciolone, the final state’s witness in the death penalty trial of Gregory Lawler.

Many had not seen her during her long, grim fight to recover from the night more than two years ago when officers rushing to a Morosgo Way apartment found her lying on the grass, brain matter in her hair and her intestines riddled with bone and bullet fragments.

Only Cocciolone could know the details of everything that happened the night of Oct. 12, 1997, in front of Lawler’s apartment. Why hadn’t she and Sowa reported over their radios that they were taking Lawler’s drunken girlfriend back to his apartment? What exactly happened at his front door?

Many officers thought those memories were blown away by the armor-piercing bullet that raked the left side of Cocciolone’s head, leaving her unable to understand words or speak them, unable to read or write.

They underestimated her. Her brother said the will to testify was the force that drove her to learn to live again, to teach other parts of her brain to take over the functions of the part that was destroyed, and to “get that man off the street.”

She remembered it all.

“I was sleeping one night at the hospital, ” she said. “My eyes opened. I was looking outside, at the dark. I saw it all happening, right in my eyes. I got really upset.”

Unable to express herself, she had to live with those memories for weeks, until her therapists gave her drawing materials. “I didn’t know how to speak or anything. I decided I would make a picture of what happened.”

When she limped to the stand and settled herself in the chair, prosecutor Al Dixon asked her name.

There was a long silence as she tried to get her mouth around the words. Her dark eyes began to look fearful. Finally, painfully, she said “P … F … Cocciolone. I have a hard time saying my name.”

“Why is that?” Dixon asked.

“Because I got hurt pretty bad. There are a lot of things I can’t do anymore.”

She recounted answering her 28-year-old partner’s call to join him behind a pawn shop on Piedmont Road, where he found Lawler and his girlfriend, Donna Rodgers, after being dispatched to investigate a report of a man hitting a woman.

She said Lawler ran away when he saw the officers. They decided to take Rodgers home, she said.

And for the first time, there was confirmation the intermittent radio problems Atlanta police experienced that day had an effect on the incident. “I told them on this thing, ” Cocciolone said, turning her head and pointing to her shoulder where her radio microphone would be, “that we were going to another place.”

That call never got through.

At the apartment, she said, they took Rodgers to her door and knocked, and Lawler answered. “He used his left hand to try to pull the lady in and he was yelling something.”

“Did you hear what he was yelling?”

“I don’t know what he was saying, because then I felt like this just didn’t feel right.”

“Like an instinct?”

“Yes, thank you. I didn’t know how to say that word.”

At that point, Cocciolone said, she radioed for backup, but got no response. “I said, ‘This thing’ ” —- pointing to her shoulder again —- ” ‘isn’t working right.’ “

In the meantime, she said, Sowa was trying to make certain they were not taking Rodgers back into a violent situation.

“I knew this wasn’t good, ” Coach said. “I said, ‘John, let’s go, ’ ” referring to Sowa by his first name.

“He didn’t hear me at first, and he was getting more and more upset. I said, “JOHN. LET’S GO.’ And he turned and looked right in my eyes, and I saw that man come out with a big gun and he started shooting, and he got me first.”

Sobbing now, Cocciolone described how, with her hip shattered and right hand useless, she fell to the ground. “I heard the man running toward John and shooting at the same time.”

After a break, Cocciolone came down from the stand and instructed Dixon how to lie on the floor in the position she was in. Then the 41-year-old officer began walking toward the prosecutor, her arms bent as if cradling a rifle, and said that as she lay in the grass, “He came up like this, shooting at me.”

“Do you see him in the courtroom today?”

“He’s sitting right there, ” she said, pointing at Lawler.

Dixon asked her why they took Rodgers to the apartment.

“John and I were trying to make sure she was OK, trying to help her, to get someone to take care of her so she wouldn’t have to go to jail.”

“Officer Cocciolone, is that your job?”

“Yes sir, ” she said.

When she left the stand, the officers who watched her testimony were still wiping their eyes. “She was full-fledged police, ” said Sgt. Cindy Brown, a Zone 6 officer. “She still is.”

In the hall outside, Cocciolone was surrounded by friends and admirers, many of whom never knew her but were inspired by her fight for recovery. In the past year, she said, she has learned to drive again, gotten her license and now drives herself to her weekly appointments with her speech therapist and her neuropsychologist.

“She was an articulate woman, ” said Officer Michael Sequerth, another member of Sowa’s academy class. “It’s hard to imagine what a struggle she had to get to this point.”

Her brother, John Cocciolone of Detroit, said, “She’s been chomping at the bit for this day. It’s closure for all of us.”

“The most vivid thing she remembers, ” he said, “is trying to get John to leave there.”

Defense Attorney Michael Hauptman declined to cross-examine Cocciolone, and she stayed in the courtroom. The state rested, and Cocciolone listened to the rambling testimony of Lawler, who took the stand against his attorney’s advice.

He insisted he didn’t hate police, but “had a healthy fear of them.” He claimed when Sowa stopped him and Rodgers behind the pawn shop “he drew up his fist at me and told me to shut up, that he could arrest me for whatever he wanted.” Then, he said in a precise, cultured voice, Cocciolone “came up and stood in front of me in a combat stance. I looked her in the eye and it looked like she was about to strike me.”

At the apartment, he said, “I was charged or rushed by a policeman yelling something about me being a scumbag… . I was very frightened. It was a situation out of control.”

“Did you fear for your life?” Hauptman asked.

“Yes, I did.”

Lawler said he grabbed his rifle after Sowa knocked him down and Lawler “fired where he was.”

Lawler, 47, said Cocciolone and Sowa went down near his door, and he could not account for Sowa being found dead on the sidewalk, or for the .223-caliber casings found near the fallen officers.

“How do you feel about what happened?” Hauptman asked.

“I feel very bad. I died, too.”

The case is expected to go to the jury today after final statements.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.