Chapter 7: Forgiveness
Chancellor Lee Adams can do a lot of things he was never supposed to do.
Once, Chancellor Lee couldn’t walk – and doctors said maybe he never would. Then he could barely walk, with someone holding both his hands and guiding him.
Now, the son of Cherica Adams and Rae Carruth is almost 19 years old.
Gradually, he has progressed to walking either with the aid of a walker or with gentle, one-handed help from his grandmother, Saundra Adams. His steps are slow, deliberate and sometimes flat, which has the side effect of making them noisy.
Concentrating on his physical therapy inside a room at Child & Family Development in south Charlotte, as he has done at least once every week for the past 13 years, Chancellor Lee shows just how far he has come.
Amy Sturkey, his longtime physical therapist, works with the young man she calls “Lee,” as she has done since he was 5 years old.
Sturkey used to have Chancellor Lee hold onto the front bars of a treadmill. She would set the treadmill speed at 0.3 miles per hour. That’s slower than the slowest setting on a standard treadmill at your local gym, which is 0.5.
Chancellor Lee eventually graduates from the treadmill. On this day, he is practicing his heel-toe walking.
Inside the physical therapy room, Chancellor Lee takes one particularly loud step.
Sturkey smiles and says: “You can hear Lee coming.”
After Chancellor Lee nearly died in 1999 on the night of his traumatic birth — when his mother Cherica Adams was shot four times in a drive-by shooting — it’s a joy for Saundra Adams to see him walk at all.
The young man suffers from irreparable brain damage and cerebral palsy because of the lack of blood and oxygen caused by that shooting.
The occasional slap of one of Chancellor Lee’s footsteps sounds like music to his grandmother.
“We can take the stamping and the marching,” she said. “It’s a wonderful sound to me. I love to hear him coming.”
Something else is coming, too.
Rae Carruth, Chancellor Lee’s father, has spent nearly 19 years in prison for conspiring to have his mother killed. Carruth is scheduled for release on Oct. 22.
Saundra Adams has long said she forgives Carruth for what he did. But she has never forgotten. And as the time draws closer, she wonders if Carruth really understands the hurt he has caused her family.
Two years ago, she was adamant she and her grandson would be at the prison gates, waiting for Carruth. She has some things to say to Carruth, she told me then, when he walks out of Sampson Correctional Institution, about 190 miles east of Charlotte in Clinton.
That’s still the case, but she’s no longer certain that meeting will happen.
“I am still feeling forgiving,” Adams said in July. “And I want still for him to meet his son. But I do want him to … see and feel the effects of what he did. Because that’s what I’ve been looking at every day since Nov. 16, 1999.
“And seeing the grief, seeing the hurt, the disappointment, seeing my dreams just slashed. I want him to see that too.”
Help for a house
Jon Embree spent 17 years at the University of Colorado, as a player, assistant coach and head coach. He’s part of the group that founded Buffs 4 Life, a nonprofit conceived in 2005 and committed to helping former Colorado athletes in their time of need.
In 2012, he saw an HBO “Real Sports” piece on Saundra and Chancellor Lee Adams.
Nearly 20 years earlier, Embree was a Colorado assistant coach when he met a speedy teenager from Sacramento named Rae Carruth, who showed up in Boulder, Colo., with a briefcase and started taking notes about his recruiting visit.
Carruth and Embree had grown close over the next few years as the wide receiver rose to All-American status, and they talked occasionally when Carruth reached the NFL as the Panthers’ first-round pick in 1997.
Then Carruth was arrested, convicted and sent to prison for conspiring to murder Cherica Adams.
The HBO episode left Embree unsure about what to do. Saundra and Chancellor have no connection to Colorado — except for the fact that Carruth, a former star for the Buffaloes, has influenced their lives so negatively.
At first, Embree didn’t do anything. But the situation nagged him. He felt deeply moved to help the Adamses.
Embree reached out to the family and ultimately decided to fly Saundra and Chancellor Lee to Colorado for Buffs 4 Life’s charity golf tournament in 2013.
“When everybody met her and Lee,” Embree said, “they just fell in love.”
Since that day, Buffs 4 Life has raised more than $160,000 for the Adamses, to help with medical and living expenses, with a number of the larger donations coming from the Charlotte area.
The organization raised enough money that, in 2017, Saundra and Chancellor Lee were able to afford a new house in Charlotte, built specifically to accommodate Chancellor Lee’s disabilities.
His bedroom is now downstairs, just like his grandmother’s. There is a chairlift he can ride up the stairs if he needs to get to the second floor.
The Adamses go to Colorado every summer for the charity golf tournament and Embree said he has made a “lifetime commitment” to help Saundra and Chancellor Lee.
“I just wish people could meet them,” Embree said. “I know I’m a better person for the times I’ve been able to talk with her.”
Now an assistant coach with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, Embree remains in awe of Saundra Adams.
“She’s flourishing and shining and doing an incredible job with circumstances that you can’t even begin to wrap your head around,” Embree said, “as far as her daughter being murdered and having a grandchild that’s born disabled.
“People (were) saying don’t even try to do anything with him, he’s never going to walk, he’s never going to talk, all these things that he’s never going to do. And she didn’t blink. And she never quit on him. ...
“And I’ve never once heard her say, ‘Why me?’ ”
Panthers keep their distance
Embree’s efforts stand in contrast to the Carolina Panthers, who drafted Carruth and brought him to Charlotte in 1997.
Carruth’s former team has long dissociated itself from Carruth. The Panthers released Carruth in 1999 when he fled the state in a car trunk following Cherica Adams’ death.
Saundra Adams sees Buffs 4 Life as a godsend in her family’s life. But her emotions are mixed when it comes to the Panthers.
Although she and Chancellor Lee remain big fans of the team, her contact over the years with anyone from the organization has ranged from rare to non-existent.
She says she never wanted anything monetarily from the Panthers — just a little more empathy from the team that brought Carruth to Charlotte.
The Panthers decided not to comment for this story, team spokesman Steven Drummond said.
“There are really no hard feelings between me and the Panthers,” Adams said. “I think they did what they should have done from a business perspective. I think with them cutting him from the team as quickly as they did, it let them send a clear message that they were not associated with that — that this is not the Panthers that committed the crime. This is Rae Carruth — he’s on his own.”
‘I don’t think he’s bitter’
About seven hours after she was shot, Cherica Adams communicated with her family and police for the final time.
She was on morphine and other drugs because of her wounds. The tube down her throat helped her breathe but didn’t allow her to speak. But she was able to write notes, and answered some questions from her mother and detectives.
In those notes, she implicated Rae Carruth in the shooting.
Since his sentencing in 2001, Carruth and his lawyers have appealed his sentence repeatedly.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals did find error in Judge Charles Lamm’s decision to allow Adams’ handwritten notes to be admitted into evidence. However, the appeals court ruled, a preponderance of other evidence that tied Carruth to the shooting rendered the error of allowing the handwritten notes “harmless.”
The Carruth conviction was upheld then and at every other turn.
Carruth’s lead defense attorney in the trial, David Rudolf, visited Carruth in prison in August. He has Carruth’s authorization to speak for him.
Rudolf said that, after many years, Carruth came to find peace with the jury’s verdict. But Carruth still disputes that he hired Van Brett Watkins to kill Cherica Adams, saying Watkins shot her as violent retribution for Carruth changing his mind about lending Watkins money in a drug deal.
Still, Rudolf said, Carruth also understands that he was “morally responsible” for bringing Watkins into Cherica Adams’ life.
“He sort of thinks it sort of came out probably where it should have, in that he was responsible for putting Cherica in that place,” said Rudolf, sitting in a conference room decorated with a painting of the Carruth trial.
“You know, it wouldn’t have been just for him to be convicted of first-degree murder or put on death row. But the fact that he ended up in prison for some significant period of time? I don’t think he’s bitter about that. …
“He blames himself for where he ended up. And I think that’s significant. I think for someone to have that level of self-awareness and take responsibility like that is impressive.”
Carruth has mostly been a model inmate in North Carolina, committing four infractions in 19 years in prison. The last one came in 2004, for fighting.
Watkins, the triggerman in Adams’ murder, has committed 53 infractions and has repeatedly been cited for fighting, misusing medication and threatening to harm prison staff.
Carruth, a licensed barber, spends much of his time cutting other inmates’ hair for $1 a day, plus tips. He used to make about $37,500 per game with the Panthers. It’s possible he will make his living as a barber after prison.
Custody of Chancellor Lee
Carruth has embraced the Muslim faith while in prison. When he called me in March, the recorded name given by the caller ID system was Rahim, not Rae.
The phone call came after Carruth had written two letters — one to Charlotte TV station WBTV and one to The Observer.
That first letter, in particular, makes Saundra Adams angry enough to reconsider whether Carruth should be part of Chancellor Lee’s life at all.
Carruth had denied all requests for interviews — from The Charlotte Observer and all other media outlets — since a 2001 interview he did with CNN/SI. In that interview, he said of Cherica Adams’ death: “I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
But in early 2018, Carruth decided the shooting and his role in it were being incorrectly portrayed too often. The former Panther lashed out in a scalding 15-page letter.
Carruth’s letter was technically written to Saundra Adams, but Carruth had it delivered first, via a friend, to WBTV.
Carruth wrote that he had “long accepted my lot as a social pariah,” but said he felt compelled to write to “debunk the lies that Ms. Adams continues to tell about me.”
After downplaying his relationship with Cherica Adams (based on “carnal indulgences,” according to Carruth) and saying he wanted to apologize for the “senseless act that led to the death of your daughter Cherica,” Carruth got to the letter’s controversial core:
Once Saundra Adams dies, he wrote, he wanted to take care of his son, Chancellor Lee.
“I mean, come on Ms. Adams,” Carruth wrote, “the reality is you aren’t going to be around forever.”
Carruth later said in a brief phone interview with WBTV: “I should be raising my son. ... Ms. Adams should not be doing this and I want that responsibility back.”
That ignited a firestorm. Carruth’s public apology to Saundra Adams via WBTV “for the loss of her daughter” and “the impairment of my son” was overshadowed in the outrage over his sudden desire to not only see Chancellor Lee, but to be his primary guardian.
When I reached Saundra Adams by phone to ask for a comment, she was angrier than I have ever heard her.
“I can say definitively he’s not ever going to have custody of Chancellor,” she said. “Chancellor will be raised either by me or, after I’m gone, by someone else who loves him and who knows him. He will never be raised by a stranger — someone he doesn’t know and who tried to kill him.”
Adams says now she doesn’t consider the letter to WBTV an apology.
“I don’t know who was advising him but that letter was all about him,” she says. “I think he said that ‘I could have done a better job of keeping Cherica and Chancellor out of harm’s way.’ That is a true statement. He could have done a better job — he could have not planned (the murder). That would have been the best job.”
‘Please calm down’
Carruth quickly realized how poorly the letter had been received. Soon after, he wrote a second letter, addressed it to me and asked for it to be published on The Observer’s website.
In that second letter, Carruth reversed course. But first he explained why he had wanted a relationship with Chancellor Lee in the first place.
“I understand that everyone believes that I initially tried to shirk the responsibility of raising Chancellor, that I didn’t want him,” Carruth wrote. “But does that really mean that after almost nineteen years of incarceration and plenty of time to think and ponder and be weighed down by real remorse and regret, that I’m supposed to be the same man; that I’m not supposed to want to make amends with Chancellor and try to be the father that I should have been from day one?”
Nevertheless, Carruth wrote, he is giving up on the idea, and he asked everyone to “please calm down.” He vowed not to ever seek guardianship of Chancellor Lee.
“I will no longer be pursuing a relationship with Chancellor and Ms. Adams,” he wrote. “I promise to leave them be, which I now see is in everyone’s best interest. And so we’re clear, this will be the last time that I make any comments concerning this situation.”
‘We’re not missing anything’
Carruth has stayed true to those words. We spoke on the phone for 20 minutes about a week after the second letter, in a conversation Carruth would not allow me to record. Carruth talked about the positives and negatives of Saundra Adams and Chancellor Lee visiting him before his prison release, and asked whether I might help arrange such a visit.
When I asked Saundra, she said she wanted any conversation with Carruth to be in person. Carruth wanted a phone conversation first.
Carruth also claimed during our call that he had sent Adams the required visitation papers. Adams said she never received them.
This back-and-forth continued for months. Adams wrote to Carruth twice, asking for the visitation papers. In her second letter, she said, she was blunt. She told Carruth he would never have a relationship with Chancellor Lee without communicating with her first.
“And I told him that you’re going to be missing out on your son’s life without that,” she said. “And then I did add, ‘but that doesn’t faze you — because you didn’t want him anyway.’ ”
The letter went unanswered initially, which was OK with Adams. “I am not going to keep begging a killer to be part of my grandson’s life,” she said.
But on Oct. 3, 19 days before Carruth’s scheduled release, Adams received the visitation papers she had asked for repeatedly for most of 2018.
That left her with a decision to make.
A letter from Watkins
With Carruth days away from his release, the possibility of the former NFL player seeing his son seems less likely.
On Oct. 5, I met with Saundra and Chancellor Lee one more time — at Cherica Adams’ final resting place, Sunset Memory Gardens in east Charlotte.
Saundra wore her necklace with the photo of Cherica to the cemetery. She carefully wiped off her daughter’s headstone, which features two of her daughter’s beloved butterflies, etched in bronze, and reads:
Cherica L. Adams
June 30, 1975 - Dec. 14, 1999
The “L” is for Luvenia, Saundra explains, which was the middle name of Saundra’s mother.
“I wanted Cherica and Chancellor to have the same initials so they do – CLA,” Saundra said. “Chancellor Lee Adams and Cherica Luvenia Adams.”
We met primarily because Watkins — who has written me more than a dozen letters from prison since our interview — had sent me a card that he wanted me to read first and then give to the mother of the woman he killed.
He and Saundra Adams have kept in occasional touch for years.
The front of the card reads: “You are a blessing.”
It began: “Peace, Ms. Adams & Chancellor.”
I handed the letter to Saundra Adams.
“He really has nice penmanship,” she said, and started to read while Chancellor Lee sat on a nearby bench. Watkins criticized Carruth through much of the letter, saying at one point of the former NFL player: “Hell is his foreseeable destination.”
Watkins closed the letter with a warning to Adams about Carruth’s impending release.
“A zebra never sheads his strips; nor does a leopard lose his spots,” Watkins wrote in a postscript that had several misspellings. “He’s still unrepentive. That’s a danger to you and Chancellor.”
The photographer for this story, Jeff Siner, has taken pictures of Saundra and Chancellor Lee Adams for many years for the Observer.
Siner rarely utters a word when he is working. And he never has asked Saundra a single question while sitting through hours of our interviews over many years. But now Siner asked Adams his first question.
“Are you afraid?” he asked.
“Rae is a coward,” Adams replied. “So Rae would never come back and do anything but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t send someone.
“So I am a little anxious. And I’m not going to live in fear, but I’m taking a lot of precautions, because he usually gets someone else to do his dirty work. And we’re going to protect Lee.”
I asked her if she was worried because Carruth will be out in the world soon.
“No, not out in the world,” Adams said. “Around us. I think the great Maya Angelou summed it up the best: When people show you who they are, believe them — the first time.”
‘Why should I try?’
In Carruth’s visitation papers and accompanying letter to Adams, she said, he offered two dates to visit him in prison before he’s released — Oct. 8 and Oct. 15.
She decided not to go.
“My whole reasoning for going in the first place is because from the journal entries I have from Cherica and from my perspective from what Cherica thought their relationship was, there was a real relationship,” Adams said. “And I still say I believe Cherica loved Rae. And so if she saw some good in him, I want to dig and dig until I find that good too.”
However, Adams said, she started to change her mind after reading the fiery letter Carruth sent to WBTV in which he repeatedly criticized her and diminished his relationship with Cherica.
“After that letter,” Saundra said, “it’s very clear that she meant absolutely nothing to him. So why should I try to pursue it?”
As for Chancellor Lee, Saundra said he will be fine without seeing Carruth for the first time since he was a baby.
“You know at this point Chancellor doesn’t know (Carruth), he doesn’t remember anything about him personally,” she said. “So there’s no relationship lost.”
Adams pointed out that Carruth has an older son, who is 24 and was born while Carruth was in college. That son has talked with Carruth regularly by phone over the past few years.
“As far as reconciliation, he has his older son to reconcile with,” Adams said, “who remembers him. He can put his efforts there.”
Raising Carruth’s son
Adams reiterated, however, that she has forgiven Carruth.
“The main thing for me, especially in forgiving Rae Carruth, is that I’m raising Rae Carruth’s son,” Adams said. “And I don’t believe that there’s any way that I could hate a part of Chancellor and say I love him unconditionally.”
She said, though, that what Carruth did to her daughter was so horrific and unimaginable that he deserved the harshest punishment.
“He deserves to be dead for what he did to my daughter,” Adams said.
Still, Adams said she doesn’t wish harm on Carruth following his release.
“And I don’t even want to see Rae Carruth go to hell,” she said. “I want him to come to repentance — because Rae is never going to have peace in his life until he tells the truth. …
“And I want to forgive him so that I can move on and enjoy the fruits of my labor and enjoy my life. Because if I’m sitting around in unforgiveness, it’s like me drinking poison and hoping he’s going to die.”
Where Carruth will live once he gets out of prison is in question.
His high school coach from Sacramento, Dave Hoskins, said he was told by one of Carruth’s relatives that Carruth will relocate to Texas. Others believe Carruth will return to his home state of California or perhaps stay in North Carolina.
Still others wonder if Carruth might get married, go by a different last name, or disappear into another country once his parole status ends. Some wonder if he will write a book. Almost all the money would go to Saundra and Chancellor Adams in that case, because she won a $5.8-million civil lawsuit against Carruth and the other three men involved in her daughter’s murder in 2003.
“I’m really hoping he can get out and get a book deal or movie deal or something that will pay Chancellor what he’s due,” Saundra Adams said of Carruth.
It’s possible Carruth still has half his life to live.
But will Carruth be a “social pariah,” to use the term he once did, wherever he goes? Has society forgiven him?
Those close to him — or to this drama — have mixed feelings about his release.
Clark Pennell, the jury foreman, said Carruth has served his sentence and deserves to now be free.
Tom Athey, who led the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department’s day-to-day investigation, said: “I think it’s a travesty. The guy … was death-penalty eligible and it would have been an appropriate sentence for him. Look what he did to his own child. You really just can’t get beyond that.”
Monique Young, a friend of Carruth’s for more than 20 years, worried about the culture shock Carruth will face upon release — selfies, hashtags, social media. And she said the conviction was a miscarriage of justice. “It just hurts my heart that he’s had to deal with this for so long,” she said.
Rudolf, Carruth’s lead defense attorney, said he thinks Carruth has matured immensely and wants to do something positive with the rest of his life.
And Watkins, the triggerman, hates Carruth, and the fact that he’s being released so soon.
“I’m trying to figure out a way to kill him,” Watkins said.
‘Rae Carruth to thank’
For Chancellor Lee, there is G-Mom, and horseback riding and a life to live.
He won’t spend it worrying about the father he has never known.
His grandmother won’t either. She wants to be a strong advocate for victims of domestic violence and a loving caregiver to Chancellor Lee.
“When we get too much focused on what we’ve lost,” Saundra Adams said, “we’re not going to see what we have left. And so today my focus is on what I have left and the joy that it’s brought me. In some ways, as ironic as this may sound, if this hadn’t happened, I would have never stepped into the greatness that God had for me.
“So in a sense, I’m almost grateful that it happened — because it has shown me a part of me that I didn’t know lived in there.
“I am bigger than I thought I was,” she said, crying softly. “I am more faithful than I thought I was. I’m more loving and compassionate than I ever thought I could be. And for that, I really have Rae Carruth to thank.”
Words on a screen
Chancellor Lee Adams, is seated in his occupational therapy class. He often has a few words he leans on in conversation.
“OK,” “Yeah” and “Thank you” have long been staples, because Chancellor Lee is naturally polite and agreeable.
“Why” is also one of his favorites. He likes having things explained to him.
A recent addition to this list: “Wow.”
Lee is told his new therapy goals will start the next week because he has completed all of the old ones.
“Wow,” he says.
He shakily succeeds in cutting a long green piece of Play-Doh with a plastic knife — mimicking what he does in a restaurant with a green bean.
“Wow,” he says.
He has come so far and done so much that doctors said he might never do. Even the most mundane tasks, though, remain both a struggle and a potential accomplishment. But he has his father’s muscular build and his mother’s determination, and sometimes that seems enough.
In a lifetime filled with struggles not of his own making, Chancellor Lee pursues every task with his full effort, and that infectious smile.
The therapists are starting to teach him how to use a computer now. They’ve begun with the basics.
He’s sitting at a desktop computer in the occupational therapy room, looking at the keyboard.
Because of the cerebral palsy and his brain damage, it is difficult for him to find and hit the right keys. But he is determined.
One keystroke at a time, Chancellor Lee sticks with his task. If he makes a mistake, the therapist hits “backspace” so he can try again.
He finds the “M.” He finds the “Y.”
You can draw an arrow from Chancellor Lee to almost everyone in this story.
Rae Carruth wanted him dead. Van Brett Watkins shot him. Cherica Adams saved him. Saundra Adams raised him and loves him.
Chancellor Lee’s father gets out of prison soon. His mother, he believes, is in heaven. He doesn’t understand exactly what happened to him on the night of his birth. So, in a world where he is deeply loved, he continues to create his own identity.
After five minutes and 28 seconds, Chancellor Lee Adams grins hugely when he finds the last letter of his sentence and then hits the period key. He looks on the screen at what he has written.
“My name is Lee Adams.”