By Dan Berstein
Rae Carruth’s release from the Sampson Correctional Institution on Monday elicits jarring memories of the killing that shook the city of Charlotte, N.C., almost 20 years ago.
On Nov. 16, 1999, Carruth’s pregnant ex-girlfriend, Cherica Adams, was critically injured in a drive-by shooting in Charlotte. Carruth, then a Carolina Panthers player, was found to have hired the gunman, part of a calculated and sinister plan to ensure Adams would not give birth to the child.
Carruth fled after Adams died in the hospital about a month later. He was tracked down by the FBI and arrested from the trunk of a car in a Best Western hotel parking lot in Tennessee. During the high-profile and nationally televised trial, Carruth was found guilty on three counts, including conspiracy to commit murder. He was found not guilty of first-degree murder, a verdict that ultimately spared his life.
Now, he’ll be set free, having served the minimum sentence of 18 years, 11 months on good behavior.
The rest of the world has moved on, and Chancellor Lee Adams, Carruth’s son who was supposed to die, survives as a fun-loving teenager living with cerebral palsy and permanent brain damage. But the saga, which occurred four years after the end of the polarizing O.J. Simpson murder trial and a decade before Aaron Hernandez’s killings, made certain Carruth would be remembered as one of the NFL’s most infamous criminals.
Who was Rae Carruth before the killing of Cherica Adams?
The Panthers drafted Carruth in the first round of the 1997 NFL Draft out of the University of Colorado. He was named to the All-Rookie team in his first year in the league, but his career numbers (36.5 yards per game, 4 touchdowns) were mediocre. He was injured for most of the 1998 season.
Carruth became a father in college with a different woman, but he was not present for that son’s birth, and he rarely saw the child in the ensuing years. He paid $3,000 a month in child support to the mother, Michelle Wright — a detail that proved critical for the prosecution establishing motive as they built a case against Carruth.
Off the field, the Sacramento, Calif., native was reportedly reserved, preferring not to hang out with teammates very often. He spent time with a questionable crowd that included two men — Michael Kennedy and Stanley Abraham — who were present when Cherica Adams was shot.
What was Rae Carruth’s relationship with Cherica Adams?
Carruth and Adams met at a pool party in June 1998. They hit it off right away, and that same day, Adams took Carruth to meet her father, Jeff Moonie.
Carruth and Adams hung out off-and-on before reconnecting at a club Adams worked at in November 1998. They saw each other more regularly after that meeting, and by April 1999, Adams was pregnant.
Why did Rae Carruth want Cherica Adams dead?
Carruth, who was already a father with another woman, asked Adams to get an abortion. She wanted to have the baby.
This allegedly upset Carruth so much that he offered $6,000 to hitman Van Brett Watkins to kill Adams.
Who was hitman Van Brett Watkins?
Watkins, who pulled the trigger and shot Adams, became one of the central figures of the trial because of his sinister presence. Watkins claims he killed four people before Adams, and he had previously been convicted for gun possession, assault and threatening to kill various people.
In the 1980s, Watkins set a fellow inmate on fire for talking about his family, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Watkins was a hostile witness in the Carruth trial. Even today, he says he wants Carruth dead for involving him in the Adams murder.
Where was Rae Carruth during the shooting?
Carruth took Adams on a movie date to see “The Bone Collector” before leading her to a secluded area for Watkins to shoot her.
By design, Carruth and Adams drove in separate cars after the movie, with Carruth in front. At a dip in the road, Carruth pulled over and Adams drove to the side behind him. Watkins pulled up in a third car next to Adams, boxing her in before firing into her vehicle.
Carruth sped away from the scene.
As Adams fought for her life, Carruth played video games at the home of Panthers teammate Hannibal Navies. This was revealed during court proceedings.
Where did the incident take place?
The shooting occurred on Rea Road in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Did Cherica Adams die at the scene?
No. Adams actually survived for nearly a month, though she spent her final 28 days in a coma.
After being left for dead on the side of the road, she managed to call 911 and get help. She gave birth via an emergency Caesarean section at the hospital and became conscious enough to write notes to her mother, Saundra Adams, and police. Both the 911 call and notes became crucial pieces of evidence in the eventual trial, as they implicated Carruth’s role in the shooting.
While doctors initially expected Cherica Adams to recover, she fell into a coma and never woke up again. On Dec. 14, 1999, her mother decided to take her off life support.
Did Rae Carruth’s son survive?
Yes. But Chancellor Lee Adams was deprived of oxygen for an extended period of time and suffered severe brain damage. He was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which stemmed from the oxygen deprivation. Saundra Adams, Cherica’s mother, has served as his primary caretaker.
Through physical therapy, Chancellor Lee Adams learned to walk with the aid of a walker. He will celebrate his 19th birthday next month.
How did police catch Rae Carruth during the manhunt?
Law enforcement arrested Carruth after piecing together what had happened with help from Watkins (the hitman) and Kennedy (the driver), but Carruth got out of prison on a $3 million bond with the condition that he not leave the Charlotte area until his trial and that he surrender to police if Cherica Adams died.
When Adams died Dec. 14, requiring Carruth to turn himself in, he instead convinced his friend Wendy Cole to drive him away from Charlotte in the trunk of her car. They made it all the way to a Best Western in Wildersville, Tenn., before an anonymous tip alerted the FBI to Carruth’s whereabouts.
The Panthers officially released Carruth when FBI agents arrested him from Cole’s trunk.
What happened to Watkins and the other men charged in the killing?
Watkins, the hitman, took a plea deal for second-degree murder in exchange for testimony against Carruth. He’ll be in prison until at least 2046. While in jail, he told a Charlotte Observer reporter that he had previously committed four murders in other cities but didn’t disclose specifics.
Kennedy served almost 11 years in prison. He obtained a gun for Watkins (the hitman) and drove the car used in the drive-shooting. Notably, he testified against Carruth in court despite not having a plea deal. He was released in 2011.
Abraham, another former friend of Carruth, was a passenger in the drive-by car. He served less than two years and was released in 2001.
What was the verdict in Rae Carruth’s case?
Carruth was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, using an instrument with intent to destroy an unborn child and discharging a firearm into occupied property. The jury found him not guilty of first-degree murder, sparing him the possibility of the death penalty and paving the way to his 2018 release.
It was a controversial decision because the jury foreman later acknowledged the jury would have convicted Carruth on second-degree murder charges, which hadn’t been brought against the NFL wide receiver in the case and therefore couldn’t be used. The lack of a first-degree murder conviction was viewed as a compromise.
How did the Rae Carruth trial play out in the media?
It was a major national story, and the trial was televised for a national cable audience. Not only was Carruth an NFL player, but he faced the death penalty if convicted for first-degree murder, which further raised the stakes.
Even Panthers players reportedly watched the trial.
The most dramatic moments of the trial were when the prosecution played Cherica Adams’ 911 call as part of its opening statement, and when Watkins took the stand and threatened to rip defense attorney David Rudolf “like a rag doll.”
What has Rae Carruth said since his conviction?
Carruth penned two public letters in 2018, one of which accused Cherica Adams’ mother, Saundra Adams, for telling lies about him. He also downplayed his personal relationship with Cherica Adams and requested guardianship of Chancellor Lee Adams upon his release from prison.
In the second letter, Carruth said he’s no longer seeking guardianship of his son.
How old is Rae Carruth now?