The Aaron Hernandez case makes me think of Rae Carruth. And thinking of Rae Carruth opens the memory box. I covered the whole case, beginning to end, and parts of it still don't seem real.
You probably know the basics. One night in November 1999, a woman named Cherica Adams was shot four times in her car on a dark stretch of road in south Charlotte. Her boyfriend was Carruth, a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers. On a 911 call, and again at the hospital, she said Carruth set her up. She said he stopped his car in front of hers so someone in another car could pull beside and shoot her. She went into a coma soon after. She was pregnant, and doctors delivered a premature baby boy. Adams died four weeks later.
Carruth ran. Police found him in the trunk of a car outside a hotel in Tennessee. It was a huge story at the Charlotte Observer, where I was a local columnist. Carruth went on trial a year later, just before Thanksgiving 2000. The trial lasted two months. I was there for every moment.
What I remember first is the elevators. Charlotte has a new courthouse now, but the one back then had just two elevators, and the stairs were reserved for emergencies. So everybody rode together -- prosecutors and defense attorneys, family members from both sides, reporters and the people they were reporting on. Some of those rides, it felt like nobody breathed. The courtroom was small, and so was the hallway outside. Everybody was on top of one another.
I remember the parade of beautiful women. Rae's old girlfriends, or current girlfriends, or women he charmed one way or another. They were named Candace and Fonda and Monique and Dawnyle and Starlita. Every one was stunning. It was like a casting call for a music video. Peter Richmond, who was writing for GQ back then, kept asking me who they were. I didn't know. Our other reporters didn't know. I'm not sure his family knew. It reminded me again of the raw sexual power that a great athlete can have -- even one charged with putting out a hit on his pregnant girlfriend.
One ex, a girl named Amber, testified against Carruth, saying he got her pregnant and threatened to kill her if she didn't have an abortion. Her mother then showed up and testified for Carruth. As she took the stand, the mother looked at him and whispered: "I love you."
The mother was gorgeous, too.
I remember the testimony about how the players lived like little boys with money. They spent hours playing video games. They stayed up late and went to Waffle House. You could see so clearly how, if you were a pro athlete, you never had to grow up. Girls were everywhere. But raising a child was an adult responsibility. Carruth got Cherica pregnant. He didn't want the child. She did.
I remember Van Brett Watkins, the shooter. Around town they called him New York. He had threatened a woman with a meat cleaver, and in jail he set a fellow inmate on fire. When he testified, a deputy sat between him and the judge. He cursed Carruth from the stand. He stood up once when he wasn't supposed to and freaked out the whole courtroom. He said this to Carruth's lawyer, David Rudolf: "I didn't need a gun, OK? For me to kill somebody, I don't need a gun. Can't you look and see? I'm 286 pounds. OK? I would rip you like a rag doll, OK?"
At the next break, Rudolf walked over to a few of us. He was trembling, but not with fear. "Wasn't that GREAT?" he said. He looked like a great director who got exactly the performance he wanted.
Van Brett Watkins wrote me from prison a couple of years later, trying to explain himself. His cursive was perfect.
I remember Watkins dumped the shell casings in a storm drain next to a Chick-fil-A. I remember the movie Carruth took Cherica to see that night: "The Bone Collector."
I remember the storm. The day of the verdict, a huge rainstorm pounded the streets outside. We watched it through the back windows until the deputies quietly took their places around the courtroom. We knew it was time. The jury had been hung, but the judge had sent them back in, and now they came out of the jury room. Three or four of them were weeping. Carruth looked at them. Not a one looked back. They found him guilty of conspiracy to commit murder.
His family and friends cried, but he did not. He sat there with the same blank face he wore for the entire trial.
Carruth got 18 to 24 years. With good behavior, he could get out in 2018.
The son he tried to kill, Chancellor Lee Adams, is 13. Cherica lost so much blood when she was shot that his brain was deprived of oxygen, there in the womb. He was born with cerebral palsy. Saundra Adams, Cherica's mother, raises him. I spent a day with them a few years ago, out at Cherica's grave.
All this comes back to me, in pieces or in whole, every time I read about a young man murdering his girlfriend, or a baby put in danger. It happens other times, too. I have friends down in that part of Charlotte. Every so often I drive down Rea Road -- pronounced the same as Rae -- and I get to that little hollow between two hills where Carruth stopped his car, and Cherica stopped behind him, and the third car pulled up beside.
I remember how Michael Kennedy, the driver, said he looked in the rear-view mirror as they drove away from what they had done. He saw Cherica's brake lights come on. He knew she was still alive. And he knew that they were doomed.
The one thing I think about the most happened at the end of court one day. I usually sat at the end of one of the benches, next to the aisle where the deputies walked Carruth back to his cell. My picture was in the paper every day. I wasn't sure if he knew who I was, but I knew his family did. This one time, as the deputies led him out, he looked down and said something to me and smiled. He spoke so low and soft that I couldn't tell what he said. No one else could tell, either. It's my "Lost In Translation" moment.
I'll always wonder if it was a joke, or a threat, or just an idle comment. I don't know if it matters. It floats around with all those other pieces, stuck in my memory. Rae Carruth will always be a part of my life.
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