Chapter 3: Life and Death
Saundra Adams sits in bed, finishing a fried bologna sandwich on wheat bread. It is a little after 1 a.m. on Nov. 16, 1999.
Her house smells of bologna, but also of onions and vanilla. While frying onions for her sandwich, some sizzling butter had popped out of the pan, burning the back of her hand.
Her mother always told her to put vanilla on a burn, so she had grabbed some from the pantry and applied a little.
She wishes her daughter could join in the late-night snack. Both Saundra and Cherica Adams love fried bologna, although for Cherica it’s a guilty pleasure she doesn’t advertise.
Cherica Adams also has long teased her mother about the “vanilla always heals a burn” theory, passed down through generations. So the vanilla on her hand makes Saundra Adams laugh. She thinks if her daughter was here she would smell the vanilla and say, “What are you getting ready to do? Make a pie?”
The phone rings. And Adams’ mood changes quickly when the caller identifies himself as a staff member at an uptown Charlotte hospital.
Certain she knows what the call is about, Adams stands up in anger.
Her insurance hasn’t finished paying the bill from when she fell and broke her ankle, and the hospital had been calling about it.
They must be calling about wanting money again, she thinks — and after midnight!
Then the man asks, “Do you have a daughter — Cherica Adams?”
Saundra, still upset, answers: “Yes I do!”
The man talks calmly but urgently, telling Adams her daughter is at the hospital and has been shot.
“Oh no, don’t play with me!” Adams replies. “She was on a date. She was at the movies. She’s not at no hospital.”
Saundra is told to come to the hospital immediately and that Cherica is headed into surgery for an emergency Caesarean section to deliver her baby.
Saundra Adams falls to her knees, wailing.
“God — just please don’t let my baby die!” she screams.
A traumatic birth
Cherica Adams had been ambushed in a drive-by shooting. Her unborn baby was being deprived of oxygen. Grievously wounded after being shot four times, she drove her black BMW off Rea Road to a nearby neighborhood, where she ran her car into the front yard and nearly into the front door of a man named Farrell Blalock.
Blalock was awake, reading from the book of Nehemiah in the Bible. He heard the gunshots, and Adams honking her horn, and called 911.
Adams called 911, too, starting a 12-minute call that was completed at 12:44 a.m. She hung up when the police opened her driver’s side door — which had four bullet holes in the window — and found her bleeding inside.
Soon, an ambulance arrived.
With the neighborhood awash in blue and red lights, Adams was moved into an ambulance and transported to Carolinas Medical Center and a waiting trauma team.
The boy who would be named Chancellor Lee Adams was born at 1:42 a.m., less than 80 minutes after his mother was shot.
Rushed into the neonatal intensive care unit and placed on a ventilator, 10 weeks premature, he was in such respiratory distress that his skin looked blue.
Weighing 3 pounds and 11 ounces, he was, at least for the time being, alive. That in itself was a miracle.
But doctors still feared the worst.
Docia Hickey, a neonatologist and Panthers fan who once met Rae Carruth when he was a guest speaker at one of the team’s “Football 101” events, would be one of Chancellor Lee’s primary doctors in the hospital.
“Her blood pressure was down,” Hickey said of Cherica Adams’ condition when she first entered the hospital. “You can compensate for awhile. The placenta compensates. But when it gets to a certain point, the placenta does not get enough blood flow. Therefore when that happens, the baby doesn’t get oxygen, because that’s how the baby gets nutrition and oxygen to all the organs. …
“The one you worry about the most is the brain.”
On Chancellor Lee Adams’ birth certificate, his mother’s full name — Cherica Luvenia Adams — was listed.
The space for “father” was left blank.
Rae Carruth would later take a DNA test to ensure the baby was his. But Hickey said that she and several nurses who saw the baby in his first few days had no doubt.
From the very beginning, Chancellor Lee’s facial features looked uncannily like Rae Carruth’s.
‘I’ve got to call Rae!’
After the phone call from the hospital, the next hour or so was a blur for Saundra Adams.
She made several phone calls, including one to Cherica’s father. She somehow drove to the hospital, where she was told she could not see her daughter or grandson yet.
In the hospital waiting room, she first thought about calling Carruth.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God! I’ve got to call Rae, because I bet he doesn’t know what’s happened!’” she said.
Assuming her daughter had been a victim of a random drive-by shooting once she left Carruth’s house, she called Carruth repeatedly.
She had two numbers, a cell phone and a beeper, and continually called both, with no answer.
“And I was leaving messages,” she said. “By this time, some hours had passed and he still hadn’t called me back.”
Later, in court testimony, it was revealed that Carruth was at the home of Panthers teammate Hannibal Navies not long after Cherica’s shooting.
He was playing video games.
Another phone call
In early March 2018, I spoke with Carruth by telephone for 20 minutes.
He called from prison at my request — the first time he had done so despite my repeated attempts to contact him over the years. He paid for call the himself, declining my offer to call collect.
I asked him a number of questions about Cherica Adams’ shooting and his impending release from prison.
The conversation wasn’t heated and Carruth didn’t hang up. But he was firmly against discussing anything that happened in 1999, or afterward at his murder trial. In fact, he said he wanted to say nothing more at all publicly and referred me several times to the letter he’d sent me a few days earlier.
In that letter, among other things, Carruth said he had come to the realization that he would always be “the bad guy” in any story told about Cherica and Chancellor Lee Adams. Carruth hasn’t responded to my letters since, nor to my requests to interview him. He did, however, authorize the man who defended him in trial, attorney David Rudolf, to talk to me.
Rudolf said Carruth told him in August that Carruth was directly in front of Cherica Adams’ car in his Ford Expedition in the moments just before the shooting started. Then, Rudolf said, Carruth said he fled because the NFL player thought triggerman Van Brett Watkins was going to try to kill him. This “fleeing the scene” detail that Carruth disclosed was a piece of information that the attorney had never heard before, Rudolf said.
Rudolf said Carruth was consumed by both guilt and panic in the several hours following the shooting, which he and Carruth have always blame on a botched drug deal. Rudolf said that might have accounted for Carruth’s delay of several hours in going to the hospital.
“Partly,” Rudolf said of Carruth, “if you feel sort of morally responsible for having set these wheels in motion, if you will, you’re going to feel guilty going to the hospital. There’s the mother and the father. …
“It’s one thing if he hadn’t seen (Cherica Adams) that night. … But here he is, he’s had this argument with Van Brett Watkins, he backed out of this (drug) deal — in that way he causes this all to go down.
“He fled. And now he’s got to show up at the hospital? It’s a difficult moment.”
‘You did it. You did it!’
Carruth arrived at the hospital before dawn on Nov. 16, several hours after Cherica Adams was shot.
“During that time before he came,” Saundra Adams said, “I remember they came out and told me they had to revive Chancellor, and that he had severe damage to his brain because of the lack of oxygen and blood.”
Not long after that awful news, Carruth showed up.
Navies, who had been at the movies with Carruth and Cherica, was with Carruth. So was Navies’ date and another woman. (Navies didn’t respond to multiple interview requests for this story).
“Finally he comes in — with an entourage,” Adams said. “And Rae — he actually came with another woman to the hospital. … I’ll never forget the scene where they’re sitting over there and she’s sitting in the chair and Rae’s sitting in between her legs.
“And she’s massaging Rae’s shoulders because he’s so tense.”
The woman, Candace Smith, and Carruth had dated, although she later testified in court against him.
Saundra Adams said that Carruth didn’t act much like she thought a man should act when the woman who was having his baby has just been shot.
For one thing, the Panthers player didn’t ask how the baby and Cherica were doing.
Saundra marched over — “like a madwoman,” she said — and angrily confronted Carruth.
“I don’t know exactly the words I used,” Adams said. “But I let him know that I know you knew what happened to her. ... And you did it. You did it!”
Jeff Moonie, Cherica’s father, came over to calm things down. Saundra Adams walked away, took a deep breath, then tried again.
“I remember going back up,” she said, “and going, ‘Well, do you even care what happened to her? You even want to see your son? I mean, you haven’t said anything about your son.’ ”
‘Might be the last time’
At that point, Carruth said he would like to see Chancellor Lee, and Saundra led him to neonatal intensive care.
“Chancellor is hooked up to all these tubes and in the incubator and everything,” Saundra said. “And so the nurse was telling us we couldn’t take him out, but we could stick our finger in to touch him.... So I was rubbing on him and touching him.”
Saundra asked Carruth if he wanted to touch his son. Carruth replied that he didn’t — he just wanted to get a picture of him.
“And he said, ‘Because this might be the last time I get to see him,’ ” she said. “And that just solidified it for me. I’m like, ‘You did it… Why else would you say you wouldn’t see him again, if you didn’t do it?’ ”
Saundra Adams even considered taking a swing at Carruth.
“You know,” she recalled, “I don’t know why I just didn’t turn around and punch him out. … I guess God was with me. And we were able to get back to the waiting area.”
‘She just drew a question mark’
At 7:15 a.m. on Nov. 16, 1999, homicide detective Darrell Price reported to work at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
His sergeant, Tom Athey, briefed Price and the other detectives who would help with the high-profile case.
Athey led the investigation. He assigned a couple of detectives to investigate the crime scene, and he headed to the hospital with Price to try to interview Cherica Adams, her family — and Carruth.
Price got there first and began to talk to Adams’ family. He was with them when doctors come out to give a somber report on both Cherica and Chancellor Lee.
At that point, Price said, the doctors’ prognosis was that Cherica would probably survive — but the baby most likely would not.
About seven hours after giving birth by Caesarean section, Cherica Adams regained consciousness. On and off, for several hours after that, she was able to communicate with family members, hospital employees and police.
Unable to speak because of the tube inserted down her throat, she wrote notes instead.
Adams had holes in her large and small intestines, her stomach and her liver. Her spleen and pancreas were damaged. And she had bled torrentially.
The hospital was barely able to pump blood into Adams fast enough to compensate for what she was losing. She lost 6 liters of blood that day, a doctor would later testify, which was one and a half times what her body would normally hold.
Still, she was conscious.
Saundra showed Cherica a photo of Chancellor Lee, and Cherica squeezed her mother’s hand when she saw it.
And, just as in the 911 call, Adams put Carruth at the scene of the shooting. In one note, she scribbled: “He was driving in front of me and stopped in the road. And a car pulled up beside me, and he blocked the front and never came back.”
She also scrawled a number of notes in response to questions, some asked by a nurse, some by Price. Saundra Adams wasn’t sure at first how sound Cherica’s mind is — after all, she has been given a number of powerful drugs for her pain.
But Cherica always hated to have dry lips. When someone asked if she needed anything, she wrote: Chapstick.
That convinced Saundra to believe everything her daughter wrote.
But Cherica had no idea who had fired the gun at her, which led to an exchange Price still remembers.
“And when I asked the question ‘Do you think Rae had anything to do with it?’ ” Price said, “she just drew a question mark. And after learning the sequence of events, you could see where she might think: ‘He probably did — but I don’t know.’ ”
Cherica had always told Saundra she wanted the baby’s name to be Chancellor Lee Carruth. They bumped heads about that, because Saundra wanted the baby’s last name to be Adams unless Cherica and Carruth were getting married.
But that day in the hospital, Cherica communicated to Saundra that she has changed her mind. She wanted the baby’s name to be Chancellor Lee Adams instead.
After awhile, Cherica Adams got tired. Under doctors’ orders, she received more medication and went back to sleep.
There would soon be another day to ask questions, Price thought.
But Cherica Adams never regained consciousness.
‘Right off the bat’
Athey had arrived at the hospital the morning after the shooting, too. Accompanied by another officer, he found Carruth in the waiting room.
This first contact is a key time in many cases, Athey said — in part because attorneys are usually not involved yet.
The officers asked a few simple questions, and Carruth denied any knowledge of the shooting. Athey had already heard the 911 tape in which Cherica Adams implicated Carruth, but Carruth didn’t know that.
The exchange gave Athey an immediate impression.
“You could tell right off the bat the guy was lying,” Athey said.
Without knowing more about what really happened, though, Athey decided not to confront Carruth. He wanted to get Carruth to the police station instead.
Interview subjects were generally more cooperative, Athey believed, when they were on police turf.
Athey zeroed in on Carruth’s cell phone, and asked if he could take a look. Athey scrolled through the recent numbers and wrote them down. Athey also asked for — and received — consent to tow Carruth’s white Ford Expedition downtown to have it searched.
“He was pretty forthcoming about that,” Athey said of Carruth, “because there was really no … physical evidence tying him to anything in that car.”
The sergeant also asked Carruth if he would come to the police station later for an interview.
But before the day was done, Carruth had hired George Laughrun, a well-known Charlotte defense attorney. Athey didn’t have enough evidence to arrest Carruth, and Laughrun wasn’t going to allow Carruth to be interviewed yet.
The police went to work on the cell phone records.
They subpoenaed records for Carruth’s and Adams’ phones for the past several months and began to track down the names on the other end of those numbers.
Chancellor Lee improves
In the hospital, Saundra Adams frequented the elevator. Her daughter was on one floor and her grandson on another, both fighting for their lives.
The news was improving each day for Chancellor Lee, who was able to breathe without a ventilator after four days. The doctors worried about brain damage, however, because of the critical blood and oxygen denied him in the minutes after his mother was shot.
“Unfortunately the brain is not an organ that can regenerate,” Dr. Hickey said. “The liver can regenerate if part of it is still there. Sometimes the kidneys can. But the brain (cannot).”
Based on her previous experience, Hickey worried Chancellor Lee might also have cerebral palsy. But that diagnosis wouldn’t become clear for awhile, until Chancellor reached the age where he should be walking and talking.
While Chancellor Lee was getting better, his mother was getting worse.
Doctors tried treatments that caused her to retain fluids, and her weight ballooned overnight.
By the next morning, Saundra Adams walked in to see her daughter and thought she was in the wrong room. Fluid retention had left Cherica’s face almost unrecognizably puffy.
Cherica, who was 5-foot-4, weighed about 120 pounds when she was seven months pregnant with Chancellor. Her weight eventually more than doubled in the hospital, reaching 282 pounds after several weeks.
“I didn’t even have anything she could wear,” Saundra said, her voice breaking.
The sergeant’s Rolex
Police checked Carruth’s Ford Expedition for DNA or other evidence, but found nothing.
Athey still hadn’t been able to question Carruth, so he came up with a plan to get the Panthers receiver downtown to the police station.
“So we called him and said, ‘Hey look, brother, we got your car, and we’re kind of done with it,’” Athey said.
Then the sergeant told Carruth he could pick up the car on his own, but he would have to walk through the front door, which was often staked out by TV cameramen.
“Why don’t we do this,” Athey said. “We’ll come out there and get you. We’ll get you through the parking deck (to avoid the media).”
Athey and another officer rode out to pick Carruth up at his home.
With Athey in the front passenger seat, Carruth got in the back.
“This is kind of a little aside to tell you what a jackass he is,” Athey said. “I’ve got my left hand on the armrest ... kind of looking over my shoulder making small talk with him. At that time I used to wear a Rolex watch. And he looks at the watch and he says, ‘Hey, is that a fake Rolex?’ I say ‘No, actually, I bought this.’
“What a dumbass. You’ve just been involved in trying to murder your girlfriend and you want to bust on me for wearing a fake Rolex?”
‘Skips right over that’
At the police station, Athey asked Carruth to wait in an interview room, saying the Expedition wasn’t quite ready to be released.
The sergeant persuaded Carruth to look at his phone records and tell him whose phone numbers he’d dialed.
“The ones that are not causing him any difficulty, he’s naming them off right and left,” Athey said. “So I’m having him use his finger and kind of go through the list. And he gets down to the one that turns out to be Van Brett Watkins, and he goes over it and he just skips right over that, as quick as his finger could move. …
“It was clear to me that number was important, but he didn’t want to touch that number.”
The number led to the switchboard at a budget motel by the Charlotte airport called the Villager Lodge — but not to a specific room.
Carruth took off in his Expedition soon afterward. And the detectives started trying to figure out the Villager Lodge connection.
Carruth’s calls the night of the shooting, detailed in the phone records, led police to Michael Kennedy — the driver and the man who had acquired the gun.
Kennedy came to the police station voluntarily and cooperated. He told most of the story in one interview (but left out how he obtained the gun) and then the rest in another more complete confession — this one with his lawyer present — five days later.
With that, the police had a general idea of who and what they were looking for. But Kennedy didn’t know Watkins’ real name. Still, he gave police a good description.
Pizza delivery, and a clue
Nine days after Cherica Adams was shot, police were staking out the Villager Lodge.
Watkins had gone to New York to hide out for several days after shooting Adams. But then — in what he would later admit was not the smartest move of his criminal career — he returned to Charlotte and checked back into the same motel where he had previously stayed, along with his girlfriend and their son.
A little before 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving, Watkins ordered pizza.
Police were outside the motel, but Watkins thought, correctly, they might not know what room he was in. However, the pizza delivery provided a clue: Someone was awake and hungry in Room 111.
“I just laid there, drinking Hennessy and smoking weed and eating pizza,” Watkins said. “The phone started ringing and I said, ‘That’s them.’ So I didn’t answer it and I switched off the ringer.”
Then there was a knock at the door. Through the peephole, Watkins saw Athey, the detective.
Watkins opened the door. To Athey, Watkins looked almost like he was expecting the officer.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry to bother you, man,’” Athey recalled. “Something’s come up and we’d really like to talk to you. Would you mind coming down to the police station?
“He says, ‘OK, no problem.’ He don’t ask what it’s about? Can I wait? ….
“He just gets into the car and rides back down to the police station with us.”
Trying to evade detection for outstanding warrants, Watkins told police his name was William Edward Watkins, who was actually Watkins’ deceased older brother. He also used his brother’s birth date.
Van Brett Watkins would incorrectly be identified as William Edward Watkins for weeks in the media.
But by whatever name, that was Watkins’ last moment as a free man.
Watkins said now that the police finding him was God’s way of saying: “I brought you this far in life. I brought Rae Carruth this far in life (and I’m not) going to let you two clowns get away with it.
“You going to jail.”
Meanwhile, police had enough information from Kennedy to consider arresting Carruth.
Several hours later, with other detectives continuing to question Watkins, Athey and another officer drove to Carruth’s house.
They knocked on Carruth’s door at dawn.
“He comes to the door completely naked,” Athey said. “He’s got another girl in there. He’s got no clothes on. … And I think at that point we just tell him he’s under arrest.”
With Carruth now also in custody, officers shared a Thanksgiving meal they were having at the station with Watkins.
After hours of questioning, after hearing a tape of Kennedy’s confession singling him out as the shooter and after eating a good meal, Watkins decided to come clean.
“I think that he could sense that this was going to get turned on him, and him alone,” said Price, the homicide detective. “So he gave it up — and it really blew my mind.
“I’ve interviewed a lot of murder suspects and it’s rare to see someone completely flip like that. But once he started telling the story, because we had worked it for so long, we knew that it was true. Because his story fit everything that we knew.”
‘We wrapped him up’
As the weeks passed, Cherica Adams’ condition steadily worsened. Price went to see her and her family nearly every day, keeping them updated on the investigation.
“She was pretty unrecognizable from the beautiful young woman that she was,” Price said. “They had to elevate her bed so it would help with the drainage of the fluids…. I have one picture of me in the room with her, with her bed probably close to 6 feet off the ground.”
Doctors tried experimental treatments and conventional care. Nothing worked.
After 27 days in a coma, Adams was kept alive only by a life-support system. On Dec. 14, 1999, her family decided it was time to let her go.
“I had so much peace in making the decision to take Cherica off life support because she was existing,” Saundra Adams said. “She was not living. ... For her to be almost like in a vegetative state — that was not life. And I knew — and I know she knew — her son was in good hands.”
Before the life support was unplugged, however, the Adams family asked if Chancellor Lee, still in the hospital and nearly a month old, could be brought into the room to be with his mother.
Dr. Hickey was among the people who brought the baby to his mother’s side.
“The room was full and there were people out in the hall and we came in,” Hickey said, her eyes welling with tears. “And Saundra looks up at me and goes, ‘There’s Dr. Hickey with Chancellor….’
“And we wrapped him up and we laid him on (Cherica’s) chest for awhile.”
Saundra said Cherica’s monitors “went crazy” — proving to her that her unconscious daughter knew Chancellor was there.
Said Adams: “That heart monitor was just all up and down and up and down… And we took her hand, and laid her hand up on Chancellor.”
When they did, Cherica cried a single tear.
‘It gave us all the chills’
Hickey saw something strange later that day.
Cherica Adams died at 12:43 p.m. A few hours later, Chancellor Lee’s condition changed.
“Chancellor had not had what is called an apneic spell the whole damn time since he had been in the unit,” Hickey said, “where you stop breathing and your heart rate drops.
“That night he had an apneic spell — and all of us sort of looked at each other. … It gave us all the chills.”
Hickey believed Chancellor Lee somehow sensed his mother had just died and that the spell, which was brief and caused no lasting harm, was his way of grieving.
Rae Carruth was out on bail on the day Cherica Adams died, having posted a $3 million bond eight days earlier with the help of his family and some local bail bondsmen.
The three men alleged to be his co-conspirators remained in jail, unable to post bond.
Carruth’s bail had several conditions, including Carruth not leaving Mecklenburg County. And Carruth had to turn himself in if Cherica or Chancellor Lee died.
Shortly after Cherica Adams passed away, the police went looking for Carruth, planning to arrest him for first-degree murder.
But Rae Carruth had vanished.