Chapter 1: Rae and Cherica
911 operator: 911 Baker. Do you need police, fire or Medic?
Cherica Adams: Police! I’ve been shot. I’ve been shot!
It was 12:31 a.m. on Nov. 16, 1999, when Cherica Adams — pregnant, near death and moaning in pain from four gunshot wounds — made the 911 call that saved a life.
One of the most notorious crimes in Charlotte history was committed that night — a murder conspiracy that sent former Carolina Panther Rae Carruth to prison for nearly 19 years. But those four shots were only the beginning.
Just days from Carruth’s Oct. 22 release from prison, this is that story told as it never has been. The passage of time allowed for dozens of the people involved — family, friends, investigators, attorneys, jurors and the killer himself — to speak more freely than ever.
This is a murder mystery. A love story. A tale of betrayal, forgiveness and a miracle named Chancellor Lee.
It started with the 911 call.
911 Medic: OK, can you tell what part of your body you’re shot on?
Cherica Adams: My back. My neck.
911 Medic: OK, how did this happen?
Carruth was 25 years old and a Panthers wide receiver — the team’s No. 1 draft choice in 1997 — on the day he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
On the day he is scheduled to be freed from prison, he will be 44.
Carruth and I have been acquaintances since the late 1990s. I covered Carruth’s football career with the Panthers from 1997-99 and attended parts of his murder trial.
I’ve written several stories about the aftermath of Carruth’s crime and the people he left behind when he went to prison. Each time I planned to write something about him I would send Carruth a letter first, requesting an interview.
In February, for the first time, he wrote back.
Once an aspiring screenwriter and an English major at the University of Colorado, Carruth began his letter from prison like this: “In every great piece of literature, there’s always a protagonist and an antagonist. ... The latter applies to me — and that’s something that will never change. ...
“There’s absolutely nothing that I could ever say or do to right my wrongs … to no longer be ‘the bad guy.’ ”
Carruth is not the bad guy to everyone, however. Some people will be very happy to see him walk out of prison.
Some of them still maintain Carruth was innocent and the jury’s 2001 verdict was incorrect.
“Absolutely I do not think he’s guilty, and I think it’s a miscarriage of justice,” said Monique Young, a close friend of Carruth’s since 1997 who testified as a character witness at his trial. “It just hurts my heart that he’s had to deal with this for so long.”
David Rudolf was Carruth’s lead defense attorney in his nationally televised trial and would later become even more well-known as one of the stars of the true-crime documentary “The Staircase.” Rudolf visited Carruth in prison in August. At that time, the former Panther authorized the lawyer to speak with me on his behalf.
Rudolf disclosed new details in our interview about the night of the shooting and Carruth’s feelings now about the jury’s verdict. “I don’t know that he was innocent in the sense that he never did anything wrong,” Rudolf said of Carruth. “But he hadn’t hired these people to kill Cherica Adams. And there was never any thought that he was going to say he did that, because it just wasn’t true.”
Others will be very unhappy to see Carruth leave prison — including the police officers who arrested him, the friends and family of Cherica Adams, and a jury member who said Carruth’s sentence wasn’t nearly harsh enough.
And then there’s the man who fired those five shots, with four of them hitting Cherica Adams.
The hitman told me in a three-hour jailhouse interview that he blames Carruth for ruining his life. When I asked him what he thought about Carruth being released from prison, he paused for a few seconds.
“I’m trying to figure out a way to kill him,” the hitman said of Carruth.
What really happened on that dark road in Charlotte just after midnight nearly 19 years ago?
What led jurors to a verdict that managed to disappoint almost everyone?
And what has happened to the people caught up in this drama?
Those were among the questions I wanted to answer. It would take a year of digging to do so.
For most of the past 19 years, those who didn’t know Cherica Adams thought of her only as a victim — a courageous young woman who made a desperate emergency call, trying to save the life of her unborn child and as well as her own.
She was driving back to her house that night after going to a movie with the baby’s father, her on-and-off boyfriend, Rae Carruth.
But Adams was far more than a voice on an old cassette tape that rests deep in a dented box stashed in a courthouse basement in Charlotte.
Cherica Adams: I was following my baby’s daddy, Rae Carruth, the football player.
911 Medic: So you think he did it?
Cherica Adams: He slowed down. And a car pulled up beside me.
911 Medic: And then shot at you?
Cherica Adams: Yes.
Sonya Melton met Adams when they were college freshmen at Winston-Salem State in the fall of 1993. Melton said she noticed right away how Adams turned heads everywhere she went.
It wasn’t just Adams’ beauty, Melton said — it was something more.
“Do you know when people walk into a room and they have a presence and you know that they have it?” Melton asked.
That, she said, was Cherica Adams.
Melton said Adams was also quite sure of something else, even as a college freshman.
“She knew everybody was going to know who she is,” Melton said. “She knew that people were going to know her name.”
‘I’ve got to try to hold her in’
Cherica Adams: They passed the street!
911 Medic: OK. Hang on.
Cherica Adams: Oh, I’m bleeding.
911 Medic: All right, they’re on their way back to you, ma’am. They did drive past you. But they’re on their way back.
Cherica Adams: I’m bleeding!
Saundra Adams grew up in Kings Mountain, about 30 miles west of Charlotte.
She met Jeff Moonie, Cherica’s father, when they both drove school buses in the 1970s. The two dated casually and didn’t stay together long, Adams said.
Cherica would be raised primarily by three people — Saundra’s parents, Jack and Virginia Adams, until about age 8, and then Saundra for the majority of her life.
Saundra was 17 years old and a senior in high school when Cherica was born. The name was an invention of her mother inspired in part by the singing duo Sonny and Cher.
“She was almost about to be named after the vacuum cleaner Eureka, because I thought that’s got a nice little sound to it,” Adams said. “And I thought, ‘No, I don’t want her to be associated with dirt and cleaning and stuff.’ So I said since I love Cher so much, I want her to be tall and lean and long flowing black hair. ...
“I’m going to name her Cher. But Cher just wasn’t enough. So I decided, ‘Well, I’ll put the two together.’ .... So it was Cherica.”
Cherica was almost born in the car. Saundra’s father was a farmer, and he figured that the first signs of labor were only the beginning of a very long process.
Jack Adams owned a light blue Chevrolet Impala — the family called it “the good car” — and had long ago decided he’d be the one driving his daughter to the hospital.
Recounted Saundra Adams: “He was not going to leave his tractor in the field and not put up his equipment. So he took his time doing all of that. And meanwhile I’m at home and I’m like I really got to go! We need to get there.
“The hospital was a good 10-15 miles away. We stop at all the red lights. I’m in the backseat: ‘The baby is coming!’ And you know I’m scared because I’m like: ‘We (are) in the good car. I cannot have this baby in the good car.’
“So I was holding Cherica in so much so that when we got to the hospital, they didn’t even have time to call the doctor.
“And she had a spot in the crown of her head where I had been holding her in so much that hair would never grow in that one little thumb spot.”
‘Is that you blowing the horn?’
Cherica Adams was in a rush on the night of the Chancellor Lee’s birth, too, for a much different reason.
But she undoubtedly felt some of the same things that her own mother had.
And an absolute determination that, whatever happened, protecting her baby must come first.
Despite being shot four times, she managed to give her location and most of Carruth’s home address and license-plate number in her 911 call.
She also was able to drive a couple of hundred yards into a nearby neighborhood, where she started blaring her horn to signal for help.
911 Medic: OK. Is that you blowing the horn?
Cherica Adams: Yes.
911 Medic: OK. Is anyone coming out?
Cherica Adams: No.
911 Medic: There any other cars around? (No response). OK. How you doing?
Cherica Adams: I don’t know.
Confident and gregarious
Cherica Adams always had a knack for speaking up, and for making people feel better about themselves. Her confidence was infectious, even as a teenager.
In the early 1990s, one of Cherica’s closest friends was Kim Lark. Not long after Cherica graduated from West Charlotte High in 1993, Lark was scared to call a young man she has just seen for the first time after months apart.
Adams persuaded her friend for hours until she made the call.
“I married that gentleman based on her pushing me to go ahead and not be afraid,” Lark said. “I can pretty much thank Cherica for my marriage.”
In 1995, Adams made a different kind of call. She decided college wasn’t for her.
Adams dropped out of Winston-Salem State and went to work. The young woman who loved butterflies decided she could fly on her own.
For the next several years, Adams mostly worked in real estate. She often staffed model homes in subdivisions, giving prospective buyers a tour. Already, she was thinking about a family.
She confided in her friend Valarie Brooks that she wanted to have numerous children and already had two names picked out.
“I remember one of our many deep conversations,” Brooks said. “She always told me: ‘Whenever I have a son I’m going to name him Chancellor, and when I have a daughter I’m going to name her Chase.’ ”
By 1999, to make extra money on the side, Cherica took a second job in Charlotte as an exotic dancer.
“It’s not what you send your baby to college to be — a dancer,” Saundra Adams said. “But she was making so much money and the good thing is the men were not allowed to touch the girls. So it was not a hookup place for prostitution or anything like that.”
Even in the strip club, though, familiar themes emerged. Adams befriended one dancer who was having trouble taking care of her child.
“Cherica brought this girl and her son into her home to live,” Saundra Adams said. “This girl ended up turning her life around because Cherica kept feeding her positive things.
“She encouraged the girl, and I still keep in contact with her. She’s been completely clear of drugs for probably 10 years now and her son is grown and she still tells me of the inspiration that Cherica was to her.
“So it wasn’t all bad.”
That job, though, indirectly led Cherica Adams to Rae Carruth — and to Rea Road in 1999.
911 Medic: Did you see the person that shot you?
Cherica Adams: I’m eight months pregnant.
911 Medic: How old are you?
Cherica Adams: 24.
911 Medic: 24… Is this your first baby?
Cherica Adams: Yes sir.
Carruth’s early life
While Cherica Adams was growing up in Kings Mountain, Rae Carruth was becoming a well-known athlete in Sacramento, Calif., one of two children raised primarily by his mother, Theodry, and his stepfather, Samuel Carruth.
His biological father’s name was Charles Wiggins, and Carruth’s given name on his birth certificate was RaeLamar Theotis Wiggins. But Carruth took his stepfather’s surname early on and stayed with the name Rae Carruth even after the couple divorced when he was 14, in 1988.
The Oak Park area in Sacramento where Carruth mostly grew up was plagued by crime and drug abuse. Carruth, though, never got in trouble with the police. He didn’t smoke, drink or use drugs.
“Oak Park has devoured probably far too many promising young lives — temptations of the streets, drugs, and no way to get out,” said Joe Davidson, a sportswriter for the Sacramento Bee since 1988 who covered Carruth in high school. “But there are success stories.”
Kevin Johnson, who grew up in Oak Park, became an NBA all-star and then returned to Sacramento to become the city’s mayor, was one of those.
“And for a long time, Rae Carruth was a success story out of Oak Park,” Davidson said.
Carruth eventually earned a full football scholarship to the University of Colorado. Davidson said he saw Carruth play a half-dozen times in high school, and that Carruth’s speed, even as a high school sophomore, was remarkable.
Carruth also was popular enough in high school to be named prom king — twice.
Dave Hoskins, a Sacramento sports legend now in his 52nd year of coaching high school football, served as Carruth’s head coach for three years at Valley High. “I’ve never coached a kid that’s as fast as he is,” Hoskins said of Carruth.
A typical game for Carruth at that time, Davidson said, went like this: “He’d have 150 yards rushing, probably 80-100 yards receiving … a couple of big punt returns or kickoff returns.”
Davidson also said he interviewed Carruth several times in high school.
“Very quiet,” Davidson said. “Very reserved. Didn’t seem to trust people. Was guarded.”
Carruth also was very close to his grandmother, Hoskins said.
“In fact, he lived with her periodically,” Hoskins said. “I guess he was kind of in conflict with his mom at certain times.”
But it was Theodry Carruth, Rae’s mother, who helped push him academically when he was in danger of not having the grades to play college football.
“The mom worked at Costco,” Hoskins said. “And she had Rae collecting carts out in the heat. I remember her telling him, ‘You know Rae, if you don’t take care of your grades, this is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.’
“That helped Rae make a decision to go to college.”
Davidson said Carruth would eventually get annoyed with the Sacramento Bee for naming another player as its Player of the Year after Carruth’s senior football season in 1991. Carruth later turned down interview requests from the newspaper because of that.
“He was upset about it,” Davidson said. “He took things personally.”
‘You’re my favorite player’
By the early 1990s, Carruth was a national-level recruit. Jon Embree, an assistant coach at Colorado, remembered Carruth’s recruiting visit.
Said Embree: “Rae came up and he had a suit and a briefcase. And I remember thinking that’s odd. Because when guys come on their recruiting trips, they want to have fun. But to him it was a business trip.”
Carruth carried a notepad and wrote down the answers to questions he prepared in advance about the academic facilities and the weight room.
“It really was impressive,” Embree said. “It made you want to get him even more.”
Unlike many big-time football players, Carruth wasn’t particularly big. Even in the NFL, Carruth will only be listed at a modest 5-foot-11 and 194 pounds. But he was incredibly fast.
Carruth thrived at Colorado, becoming an all-conference wide receiver and gaining some All-American notice. And he showed an affinity for kids.
Embree recalled a random meeting Carruth had with a child after a game. “This kid came up to him,” Embree said, “so they had a little autograph session or something. So he’s signing, and the kid goes: ‘You’re my favorite player.’ And he goes on about it was his birthday and how excited he was that he got to meet Rae.
“And Rae found out the kid had a party the next weekend. And he showed up — with a present for the kid.”
Much like in Sacramento, Carruth stayed out of trouble at Colorado. “I don’t ever recall him even coming up on the ‘didn’t go to class’ list,” Embree said. Carruth always had a plan.
“Being at every party wasn’t part of the plan,” Embree said, “because that didn’t help him for his goal.”
And still years away from meeting Cherica Adams, Carruth told an interviewer in Colorado something that echoed what Adams told friends in North Carolina.
“No matter what I do,” Carruth said, “I’ve decided I want to be famous.”
‘I’m not doing it’
The Carolina Panthers drafted Carruth, who had been projected to be a top-15 pick, with the 27th pick of the 1997 NFL draft. His mother told him living in Charlotte will help him meet a “nice Southern girl” to marry.
The Panthers chose safety Mike Minter in the second round, and the two most prominent young men in Carolina’s rookie class got to know each other fairly well early in their careers, occasionally making runs together to buy fried food at Church’s Chicken.
The other Panthers were immediately impressed by Carruth’s talent.
“Fast?! Man,” Minter said of Carruth. “He was a track guy. I felt he was a track guy playing football.”
Steve Beuerlein, the quarterback for the majority of the time Carruth played for Carolina, said of Carruth: “He had some really unique abilities. Talent-wise, I think the draft choice was validated.”
Carruth beat out a couple of veteran Carolina players to earn a starting role as a rookie. He made the NFL’s all-rookie team in 1997, catching 44 passes for 545 yards and four touchdowns.
The Panthers were excited about his future, hoping to pair him with another young wide receiver, Muhsin “Moose” Muhammad, as their primary pass catchers for years to come.
“This guy was producing,” Minter said of Carruth. “And so you had Moose on one side and he was more physical. And now you got this speed guy on the other side? I mean — that’s the dream of an NFL offensive coordinator, right?”
In the locker room, Carruth was quiet. He played in some teammates’ video-game tournaments, but he didn’t have a wide circle of players he hung out with regularly.
Hoskins, his high school coach, said Carruth told him once “that when he would go out with the players, they would make fun of him because he was the only one that wouldn’t drink.”
Said Beuerlein: “He didn’t have a lot of really close friends on the team. He wasn’t a negative influence on anybody. But he was kind of a loner and did his own thing.”
That 1997 season was the NFL highlight for Carruth. Injuries short-circuited his next two seasons, and he never scored another NFL touchdown.
By 1999, Carruth’s future in the league looked tenuous. And, Minter said, Carruth was also creating a more negative impression with teammates.
In Minter’s view, Carruth purposely botched a chance to add punt-returning duties to his list of responsibilities under new Panthers head coach George Seifert in 1999.
“(Seifert) wanted to make Rae a punt returner,” Minter said, “because he saw the explosive ability of Rae. And Rae wasn’t about that, right? Because Rae didn’t like the physical part of the game, OK? Most receivers don’t.
“Seifert’s like: ‘You’re doing it!’ And he’s like: ‘I’m not doing it.’ And so he put him back there and (Carruth) wouldn’t even try to catch the ball. The ball would fall down, or he’d bobble and drop it. But we knew he was doing it on purpose.
“You’ve got to be a little crazy as a punt returner. And he was a thinker — too smart to say I want to go back there and return punts.”
Trying to look good
Carruth also cared about how he was perceived. That becomes obvious in the longest conversation we had when he played for the Panthers.
I was writing a story about why NFL players wear certain jersey numbers, and Carruth had given the subject a lot of thought.
In a league in which most players are simply assigned a number as a rookie and learn to love it, by 1999 Carruth was working on his fifth jersey number in three years. He’d decided that unless one of his numbers was a 1, he looked fat.
He also didn’t want to wear a number associated with a previously well-known Panthers player. He tried and discarded 86, 83, 18 and 84 before he settled on the number 89 — which didn’t have a 1 in it after all.
He wanted to make 89 famous all on his own.
Off the field, Carruth was well-known for something else.
Handsome, polite and flirtatious, at times during his Panthers career he juggled dating two or three women at a time.
“When they tell his story,” said Young, Carruth’s longtime friend, “they portray all the women in his life as if he was some big player, running through women and whatnot. But he just has that type of personality that attracted cool people.
“It wasn’t a lot of just female friends. He had a lot of guy friends too.”
Carruth put his charm to use early in his Carolina career when he served as one of the guest speakers in a “Football 101” class that the Panthers — like other teams in the NFL back then — held occasionally to mansplain football to female fans.
One of the women who attended that class was a local doctor and Panthers fan named Docia Hickey. She described Carruth’s demeanor that night as harmless and funny.
“He was a nice, pleasant young man who would cut up with the women and seemed to be having a good time,” Hickey said. “He just was very personable — talked to everyone, answered the questions, joked around.”
In November 1999, though, Hickey would re-enter this story in a very different role.
Another child already
As a first-round draft pick, Carruth signed a four-year, $3.7 million contract with the Panthers in 1997. He got $1.3 million of that in a lump-sum signing bonus and was scheduled to be paid about $37,500 per game during each of his first four NFL seasons.
Carruth was rich compared to most men in their early 20s. But he also had financial responsibilities.
In August 1994, while a sophomore at Colorado, Carruth became the father of a son with his high-school sweetheart, Michelle Wright, with whom he had reconnected on a trip home.
Carruth wanted the baby to be named after him, and that happened. But Carruth was not present for the birth, staying at football camp at Colorado instead. Wright retained full custody, and Carruth rarely saw his son.
Wright later took Carruth to court, seeking child support. Lawyers noted the salary Carruth earned as a Panther and the two sides eventually agreed on $3,000 a month.
Carruth, meanwhile, fathered a baby with another woman, but persuaded her to have an abortion, according to later court testimony from the woman.
His money flowed out in other directions, too. Carruth was lavish with a number of his relatives, once organizing a Mother’s Day gospel concert at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and flying a number of relatives in from California to watch it.
He lost money in an investment scheme. He borrowed $210,350 to buy a house in Charlotte.
He kept two cars, a white Ford Expedition and a red Mercedes, and enjoyed buying expensive tire rims for them.
And on the field, he kept getting hurt. He was injured for almost the entire 1998 season.
Since most NFL contracts are not guaranteed except for the signing bonus, Carruth’s long-term future in the league was uncertain.
‘Lust was the tie’
In the midst of this unsettled period, Carruth met Cherica Adams at a Charlotte pool party also attended by a number of other pro athletes, in June 1998.
They hit it off that day well enough that Adams took Carruth to meet her father, Jeff Moonie.
Adams and Moonie had started to bond when she was a teenager, and he lived fairly close to the site of the pool party. Jeff Moonie died in 2005. Saundra Adams said she has thought a number of times since about why her daughter would take a potential boyfriend to meet her father after knowing him only a few hours.
“I don’t know that that was some kind of intuition that she had that this might be a person who’s forever in my life or what,” Saundra Adams said. “I think that was pretty unusual.
“Most of us girls don’t take our guy friends to meet their dads up front, because dads don’t like anybody.”
Carruth and Adams saw each other several other times during the summer of 1998 but then fell out of touch. Both were dating other people. Cherica even moved to Atlanta for a few months to help with her half-brother’s music career before she returned to Charlotte.
Carruth has long downplayed how well he and Cherica Adams knew each other. Early in 2018, he wrote in a letter to Charlotte TV station WBTV: “We were never in a relationship at all. And never was Cherica under the illusion (or delusion) that I was ever going to propose marriage to her. Lust was the tie that bound us, not like or love, and neither one of us was ever guilty of believing anything contrary to this.
“We randomly hooked up a hand full (sic) of times and never made it about anything more than that.”
In that same letter, Carruth said he reconnected with Adams in November of 1998, when he attended a birthday party for a Panthers teammate at a strip club. It happened to be the club where Adams worked.
She wanted a family unit’
That night, Carruth and Adams rekindled their spark.
“We talked, caught up, left the club to grab a bite to eat, and eventually ended up at my place where the first of our five consentual (sic), casual sex encounters began,” he wrote in the letter to WBTV.
Adams continued to work as a stripper for several more months. She and Carruth saw each other on and off, and Carruth gave her a cellphone as a gift.
“All of a sudden she had a cellphone,” Saundra Adams said. “And that, in 1998, was a big deal. ‘You got a cellphone?’ ‘Well, you know, Rae wants to be able to contact me.’ ”
By April 1999, Cherica Adams was pregnant.
She had ended a previous pregnancy by another man with an abortion, Saundra Adams said — a wrenching decision given her family’s deep Christian faith. She was determined to have this baby.
Carruth already had one child he didn’t see. He asked Adams if she would consider an abortion. She refused.
“I believe that (earlier abortion) also fueled her passion for wanting to keep this baby and wanting to have a family,” Saundra Adams said. “To be settled, to marry someone and have a child.”
Cherica Adams told friends she wanted Carruth in her life permanently.
“She really wanted to make it with Rae,” said Brooks, one of Adams’ closest friends. “She wanted a family unit.”
On Mother’s Day 1999, over breakfast at a pancake house in Charlotte, Cherica broke the news that Saundra was going to be a grandmother.
“So that was a really big celebration for us at Mother’s Day,” Saundra Adams said. “She was like, ‘Mom, I’ve got the best gift ever for you!’ ”
‘I don’t know what to think’
Six months later, five shots rang out in the dark Charlotte night. Four of them pierced the driver’s side window and tore into Cherica Adams.
She dialed 911 — using the cellphone Carruth had given her.
911 Medic: Where’s your husband at?
Cherica Adams: I don’t have one.
911 Medic: Or, your boyfriend? The one that you said was with you. Where’s he at?
Cherica Adams: He was in the car in front of me and he slowed down and somebody pulled up beside me and did this.
911 Medic: And then where’d he go?
Cherica Adams: He just left. I think he did it. I don’t know what to think.
911 Medic: OK, all right, what’s his name?
Cherica Adams: Rae Carruth. He plays for the Panthers.
911 Medic (not understanding): OK, what’s his name?
Cherica Adams: Rae Carruth!
911 Medic: Rae Carruth?
Cherica Adams: Number 89.
Carruth didn’t actually fire those shots.
But the man who did — the witness at Carruth’s trial no one has ever forgotten — is still angry.
Behind double-paned glass at a maximum-security prison in Raleigh, Van Brett Watkins remembered one of the early conversations he had with Carruth.
“So he said, ‘How much would it take to beat up a girl and make her abort her baby?’ ” the hitman recounted. “I said, ‘I don’t beat up no girls. I kill people.’ ”
Carruth paused, Watkins said, and then posed another question.
“How much would you charge?”