Detective hangs up gun to become deputy coroner

Old habits die hard.

As David Ott prepared for his first day of work Tuesday morning, years of muscle memory took hold.

"Every day I've strapped on a weapon, so I got up and got ready for work," he said. "I reached for that gun and had to put it back."

For the first time in 20 years, Ott went to work Tuesday, not as a law enforcement officer, but as Beaufort County's new deputy coroner.

Ott, 51, retired Friday after 14 years with the Beaufort police force, capping a 25-year career in law enforcement that ended that day in the driveway of his Beaufort home.

"The agreement was that my period of employment ended when I got home," he said. "I drove my patrol car to my house, got into my driveway, got on the radio, told dispatch that I was 10-7, 10-42, which meant my tour of duty was over. I told the dispatcher to put in my officer's notes -- 'retired.' " The patrol car was later returned to the police department.

A Beaufort native and a 1977 graduate of Battery Creek High School, Ott got into law enforcement at the urging of his cousin, who was an officer near Macon, Ga.

After working for departments in Jeffersonville, Ga., and Gray, Ga., Ott returned to the Lowcountry in 1986 when Beaufort County Sheriff Morgan McCutchen hired him. Promoted to detective in his first year, Ott worked for the county for nine years under three sheriffs -- McCutchen, D.J. Lucas and Carl McCleod.

Ott started with the Beaufort police force in 1995. He worked as an investigator for nearly a decade and retired in 2005 -- for about two weeks. Ott said the state retirement system requires government employees to take a leave of up to two weeks to collect retirement benefits.

"I didn't pack up my desk or anything, and signed back up for another three years," he said. "I just took a couple weeks off. It was a longer vacation than I had after retiring this time."

Plans to retire were deferred another year because he had two high-profile cases pending: the rape and murder of 78-year-old Jeanne Welden in her home in May 2006 and the kidnapping, robbery and rape of a Tennessee couple just weeks later.

Timothy Wick, Welden's killer, pleaded guilty in April 2008 and was sentenced to life in prison. A jury found Alfonzo Howard of St. Helena Island guilty of attacking the couple and was sentenced in February to six life sentences without parole. Howard's codefendant, Lorenzo Hicks, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Police Chief Matt Clancy shared an office with Ott during his years as an investigator with the city.

"He was a leader and always got involved with what we were doing," Clancy said,"not just in a professional setting. Whenever we would have picnics or cookouts, he always volunteered and was heavily involved with the department. He had so much experience and was always willing to teach people and share that experience with others."

Coroner Ed Allen said Ott's experience set him apart from other applicants for deputy coroner, a position Allen held under former coroner Curt Copeland.

"Given his experience in law enforcement, he will enhance our ability to preserve crime scenes," Allen said. "Like many officers in our area, he's worked with our office before and, given his experience, he has the ability to approach crime scenes from a different perspective."

Allen said Ott will be dispatched to crime scenes to assist police officers and investigators.

Ott said he wouldn't have had the success he's had without the support of Kitty, his wife of 27 years, and their two daughters, Melanie, 24, and Stephanie, 19.

"Not only have they always had my back, but they've understood that they live in a 'glass house,' " he said. "When you're in a law enforcement family, sometimes you get a little more scrutiny than other families would. They've always understood that."

Ott said he looks forward to continuing to interact with his former colleagues, but is prepared to shift his focus from police work to his new duties.

"I'll have that the rest of my life," he said of his police instincts. "If an investigator or officer comes up to me on a scene and asks me for my professional opinion, I'll be happy to give it to them, but I'm really there to assist them in whatever they need."