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Exclusive: I rang Rae Carruth’s doorbell in Pennsylvania. Here’s what happened next.

BY SCOTT FOWLER

In November, I went searching for Rae Carruth.

The former Carolina Panthers wide receiver has been out of prison since Oct. 22. He was released after serving nearly 19 years in North Carolina prisons in connection with the murder of Cherica Adams, his pregnant girlfriend, and the permanent disabling of their son, Chancellor Lee Adams, in 1999.

Carruth was known to be living in Pennsylvania. State officials had confirmed that, although they were careful not to say where exactly he resided.

But I found out. And so I flew to Pennsylvania, rented a car and parked in Carruth’s driveway. I walked seven steps to his porch.

And then I rang his doorbell.

My heart was beating fast. I had devoted much of the past year to help produce a multimedia project for the Charlotte Observer called “Carruth” — a video documentary, an extensive print series and a seven-part serialized podcast.

But I hadn’t spoken face-to-face with the Panthers’ former first-round draft choice for more than 20 years. Carruth had turned down more than a dozen of my interview requests while he was in prison.

A look inside one of Charlotte’s most notorious murders. In 1999, NFL rising star Rae Carruth conspired and executed a plot to have his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams murdered.

If he was home — and there were no cars parked in the driveway besides my rented Buick — there was no telling what sort of reception I would get.

The sound of the doorbell riled up two small dogs inside the house. They ran to the glass storm door, saw me and began barking furiously.

Then a silhouette appeared inside, and the dogs were suddenly quiet.

It was Rae Carruth.

‘I had a feeling’

Carruth had a squirt bottle of cleaner in his right hand and a sponge in the left. His head was freshly shaven. His goatee was beginning to go gray. He was more muscular than I remembered.

He wore a white T-shirt, red gym shorts, Air Jordans - and a quizzical look.

I gave him my best non-threatening smile. He opened the door and stepped outside.

Carruth mug 2018
Rae Carruth, set for release from prison on Oct. 22, is 44 years old. File photo DPS website

While he was in prison, Carruth had written me one letter, and we also spoke on the phone once in early 2018. But my appearance was very much out of the blue, so I re-introduced myself.

Then Carruth did something I didn’t expect.

He laughed.

“I had a feeling you might pop up sometime,” he said.

He first asked me not to tell anyone exactly where he lived, and I agreed.

I apologized for surprising him at his door. I explained that I didn’t have his phone number. There were still many things I wanted to ask him before we published this story and the accompanying epilogue to the “Carruth” podcast — now available anywhere you can download podcasts — about all that had happened since his release.

Carruth was silent for a few moments. Then he motioned to me.

“Come on in,” he said.

Never forget

For the next half hour, Carruth and I sat at his kitchen table and talked.

He didn’t allow me to record that conversation. But Carruth ultimately did decide to grant me his first interview since his prison release. It was one of the most unusual interviews I have ever done in 24 years at the Observer, a multi-part conversation that progressed in fits and starts over the next several weeks.

In a 41-minute phone call several days after we talked at his kitchen table, we went over everything I remembered he said that afternoon and Carruth explained a few of his ideas more fully.

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The dates on Rae Carruth’s bracelet signify the days he was incarcerated in North Carolina prisons. He wears the bracelet every day to remind himself how fortunate he is to be getting a second chance in life. Courtesy of Rae Carruth

Then, to clarify some of his points and to answer several of my follow-up questions, Carruth sent me two emails that totaled 1,100 words. And then Carruth sent me more than a dozen text messages over the next couple of weeks as our dialogue continued, including two photos of a black rubber bracelet he now wears every day on his wrist.

One side of the bracelet reads “Dec. 15, 1999 – Oct. 22, 2018” – the dates of Carruth’s incarceration.

On the other side, it reads: “Never Forget.”

This bracelet was given to Carruth by his mother, Theodry, who he said also wears a copy of it. It turned out that when I visited, Carruth said he had been scrubbing the bathtub in preparation for a visit by his mother later that day.

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Rae Carruth said his mother Theodry gave him this bracelet and that she wears a copy of it as well. Courtesy of Rae Carruth

What does the bracelet signify to him?

“It simply reminds me not to take my freedom for granted,” Carruth wrote in a text, “to make the most of the second chance that I have been given. And that no matter how bad things get for me out here, it will never be as bad (as) those 18 years and 11 months.”

No talk of 1999

Carruth and I talked a lot about his future — whether he might be allowed to visit Chancellor Lee one day in Charlotte, the bowling and softball leagues he would one day like to join and why there were 10 boxes of different kinds of Cheerios stacked up neatly on his kitchen table.

He was far less forthcoming about his past. Carruth mostly refused to talk about the events of 1999, when Cherica Adams was shot four times in a drive-by ambush on a south Charlotte road. She managed to call 911 and save her unborn son’s life. Chancellor Lee, now 19 years old, was born with cerebral palsy and permanent brain damage because of the traumatic circumstances of his birth.

Cherica Adams died four weeks after being shot. Instead of turning himself in — he was out on bail but was supposed to report to the police if Cherica or Chancellor Lee Adams died — Carruth climbed into a car trunk and fled to Tennessee with a female friend. They were headed to California, where Carruth grew up.

Carruth exits courtroom
Former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth exits the courtroom after Judge Charles Lamm sentenced him to at least 18 years and 11 months in 2001 for conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams. JEFF SINER Pool photo for the Associated Press

The Panthers dissociated themselves with Carruth immediately after he was captured in the trunk. He went on trial for murder in 2000 and was sentenced in early 2001 — acquitted of first-degree murder but found guilty of three lesser charges, including conspiring to murder Cherica Adams. Carruth did not testify at his trial, which was nationally televised.

Carruth told me it would “do no good” to rehash the events that led to Cherica Adams’ death. Carruth has never admitted to hiring hitman Van Brett Watkins to kill Cherica Adams and their unborn son, although Watkins still maintained in our prison interview earlier this year that’s exactly what happened.

In his legal defense nearly two decades ago, Carruth’s lead attorney David Rudolf tried to prove that the shooting was the result of a “drug deal gone bad” between Watkins and Carruth. The jury didn’t buy it. Carruth unsuccessfully appealed the verdict multiple times, although Rudolf said in an August interview with the Observer that Carruth no longer disagreed with the verdict.

Said Rudolf: “I think in some strange way the jury sort of figured it out... and sort of compromised to a place that… even Rae can accept, ‘OK, I get it. I’m responsible for this situation so I needed to pay a price.’”

Chancellor Lee Adams was all smiles during the Panthers pregame after players take pictures and offer him gifts. Chancellor is the son of Rae Carruth, a former Panther who plotted to murder Chancellor's mother while she was pregnant with him.

‘Never in a million years’

Carruth has only seen Chancellor Lee Adams twice in his life, and not at all over the past 18 years. He told me he would “never in a million years” try to separate Chancellor Lee and his grandmother Saundra, and that he has long given up on an idea he once had to become Chancellor Lee’s guardian at some point in the future. He told me in one of those emails soon after our November conversation that he planned to wait until Saundra Adams was ready for him to visit.

“My only desire is for true forgiveness and a genuine opportunity to be a part of my son’s life,” Carruth wrote in an email. “And out (of) respect for Ms. Adams and her feelings towards me, I have no plans of ever trying to force my way in. I’m going to be patient and give her the space she rightfully deserves. When the time is right, I believe that Ms. Adams will eventually extend an invitation for me to have contact with my son — and I will eagerly accept.”

After I visited Carruth, I told Saundra Adams about what he said. She long ago forgave Carruth and the other three men who went to prison for conspiring to murder her daughter. But she has gone back and forth over the years about whether she and Chancellor Lee should ever see Carruth again and remains undecided.

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Saundra Adams (left) has raised her grandson Chancellor Lee Adams, now 19 years old, from birth. She likes to say that Chancellor Lee is not disabled, but “abled differently.” Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“Give us time,” Saundra Adams said. “I’m not saying I never want him to see Chancellor, or meet Chancellor.”

Adams also said she is in no hurry to set up that sort of meeting and finds some comfort that Carruth lives hundreds of miles away.

“Really, I want him to just go ahead and live his life peacefully,” she said, “and we’re going to live our lives peacefully.”

She added that Carruth should concentrate on reconciling with his older son for now. That son is 24 years old. His mother was Carruth’s high school girlfriend. Carruth said he speaks to his older son every day by phone or Facetime and hopes to visit him soon.

David Tepper greets Chancellor Lee and Saundra Adams

The Cheerios boxes

Rae Carruth wears 89
As a Carolina receiver, Rae Carruth cared about perception, right down to his jersey number. He tried four other numbers before settling on 89. On Cherica Adams’ 911 call, she would identify Carruth in part by the number 89. Christopher A. Record Observer file photo

At his home, Carruth told me he weighs 202 pounds, which is only two pounds more than his playing weight was for the Panthers. He said he worked out six days a week for two hours a day while in prison and that he still has “never taken a drink or done drugs or alcohol.”

In prison, Carruth became a Muslim, and a pescatarian. He said he hasn’t been recognized much in Pennsylvania, where he lives with a friend, but that is partly because he doesn’t get out of the house a lot. He has a job, but he is employed by family, he said, and can work from home on his laptop.

Carruth didn’t have a driver’s license when I visited. His original one had long since expired, and so he was having to start over and was studying for his learner’s permit.

A few days later, he texted me a photo of himself standing outside in a driving Pennsylvania snow. He was grinning broadly, wearing a heavy coat and pointing to the learner’s permit he had just earned.

As for those 10 boxes of Cheerios on his table, stacked in two neat rows of five: While in prison, Carruth saw a TV commercial that featured a father and a son talking about their favorite kinds of Cheerios. They had a whole cabinet full to choose from in the ad.

This made Carruth want to try every sort of Cheerios brand that he could once he got out of prison. The commercial also brought home to him something he said he thought about often in prison.

“I guess it resonated with me,” Carruth wrote in an email about the commercial, “because it was the kind of moment I’m sure every man would love to have with his child. When I saw the commercial, for me it was a poignant reminder of what I was missing out on with my own children; the closeness, the moments and memories.”

Chancellor Lee smile
For Chancellor Lee Adams, 19, every task is a challenge, and an opportunity for achievement. And his smile is a constant reminder of his positive attitude. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Carruth said he wasn’t sure if he would stay in Pennsylvania long-term. He mentioned the possibility of living in a foreign country starting sometime in 2019 if he was recognized too often in America.

And Carruth also asked me a question himself in one of his emails.

He wrote: “Do you think that it’s possible for a generally good person to get him/herself involved in a situation as heart-wrenchingly horrible as the one I was in, or is it your belief that such a person could only be cut from the worst of molds?”