On Nov. 16, 1999, the son of former Carolina Panther Rae Carruth was supposed to die.
Instead, Chancellor Lee Adams is about to turn 18 years old.
Chancellor Lee will reach this landmark as a gentle young man. He has lived his entire life in Charlotte protected and emboldened by a loving grandmother, Saundra Adams, who has raised him from birth.
The party she has planned for her grandson is not a traditional 18th birthday party, but Chancellor Lee Adams is not your typical 18-year-old.
He smiles more, for one thing. He also has cerebral palsy and permanent brain damage owing to the trauma of an emergency birth that deprived him of blood and oxygen.
A gunman shot his mother four times on the night of Chancellor Lee’s birth. The bullets caused the eventual death of Cherica Adams – Saundra Adams’ only biological child. Chancellor Lee seems untroubled by the dark circumstances that brought him into the world 10 weeks prematurely, however. He has known no other life other than the one that orbits around the beloved grandmother he calls “G-Mom.”
For his party, Chancellor Lee plans to go to a pumpkin patch in the Charlotte area, accompanied by a couple of his friends from his therapeutic horse-riding class.
He will take a hayride. He will pet the animals in the petting zoo. He will eat the first piece of birthday cake, which will feature his favorite strawberry mousse filling as well as a picture of a horse.
“Chancellor will be in the starring role,” Saundra Adams says, beaming. “And he deserves that. You only get to be 18 once.”
We are sitting together in Charlotte’s Freedom Park along with Chancellor Lee. It is early November. The leaves are turning from green to gold. Chancellor Lee used his walker – pausing to carefully navigate a 2-inch divot in the asphalt – to make it to the bench where he now sits.
Saundra and Chancellor Lee look happy. It has been a good year. This is in part because the extreme generosity of strangers and friends – shepherded by an NFL assistant coach in San Francisco who once was close to Carruth – that has allowed the Adamses to buy a brand new home in Charlotte.
The day Carruth is released
Saundra Adams says she cannot believe that her grandson is 18. Having covered both Carruth’s draft day as the Carolina Panthers’ first-round pick in 1997 and his horrifying trial less than four years later, I have a hard time believing it, too. I congratulate Chancellor Lee for his upcoming birthday.
“Thank you,” he says, smiling hugely.
“The time has flown by,” Adams says. “It really feels like it was just a couple of years ago that we were bringing him home from the hospital.”
“Yeah!” Chancellor Lee agrees.
“Yeah” is his favorite word to say in a conversation, closely followed by “thank you.” Chancellor Lee generally talks in one- or two-word sentences. In most of those sentences, he either affirms what you just asked him or shows extreme politeness.
Is he looking forward to his birthday party?
And what day is his birthday?
“No-vem-ber 16th,” Chancellor Lee says, pronouncing each syllable slowly.
His father will not be there for this party, just like he has not been there for any of Chancellor Lee’s first 17 birthday parties.
Carruth remains in a North Carolina prison for his role in masterminding the conspiracy to murder Cherica Adams, his on-and-off girlfriend, in 1999. She was pregnant with Chancellor Lee at the time, and Carruth did not want to pay child support.
But it is technically possible that Carruth could attend his son’s 19th birthday party next year.
The former Panther is scheduled to be released from prison on Oct. 22, 2018.
Would Chancellor Lee like to meet his father on the day he is released?
“Yeah!” he says.
“He knows about it,” Saundra Adams adds. “We’ve talked about it a lot.”
And, with a little more than 11 months to go before Carruth’s expected release, that remains the Adams’ plan. They want to meet Carruth at the prison gates when he finally becomes a free man.
A visit to the jail
It is early October 2017, and Saundra and Chancellor Lee Adams are inside a jail themselves. This is not the one where Rae Carruth is incarcerated, however. Carruth is imprisoned in Clinton, N.C., 170 miles east of Charlotte.
Carruth once made roughly $40,000 per game with the Panthers. For much of his prison sentence, he has worked as a barber, cutting the hair of other inmates for a dollar a day.
Saundra and Chancellor Lee have instead come to the Mecklenburg County Jail in uptown Charlotte on this day, at the invitation of the jail’s correctional staff. They are the guest speakers in an “Anger Management” class.
The Adamses do have some history with this place. Carruth was held at the jail before his sentencing. He also had a brief, heavily supervised visit with his son inside this very jail when Chancellor Lee was a year old.
Saundra Adams was there that day, too. This was in 2000, before Carruth was convicted and sentenced to nearly 19 years in prison. Adams says that once Carruth realized the visit could not be photographed or filmed by the media that he wasn’t much interested anymore in seeing his son, and ended the visit after about 10 minutes.
That was the last time the father and the son laid eyes on each other.
Now, Saundra and Chancellor Lee have been invited to speak to these inmates – some of whom were in elementary school when Charlotte’s most infamous trial was being nationally televised every day. She has spoken at different prisons in both Carolinas about a half-dozen times now.
There are 25 men in front of Saundra and Chancellor Lee, all of them sitting in brown plastic chairs. Most are scheduled to be released in the next 3-6 months. They all wear orange jumpsuits much like the one Carruth wore when he was housed there.
Saundra Adams starts her talk by telling the men that she believes in hope and forgiveness. She says that she also believes a man should not be defined only by the worst act he has ever committed. She plans to get into the reasons she long ago forgave Carruth and her conspirators later.
She launches into her story, going back to the days in 1999 that changed her family forever.
“We normally go through life thinking, ‘That would never happen to me, because I’m a good person,’” Adams begins. “And then all of a sudden, something horrific happens. With the case of my daughter, she was dating NFL player Rae Carruth. We thought it was a good match. But after being in the relationship for awhile, it got really tumultuous.”
‘He could just flip on a dime’
“It was almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” she continues, speaking of Carruth. “He could be really, really nice sometimes – and he could just flip on a dime and change up. It made her live in fear.”
Adams has told herself she will not cry while telling the story. Sometimes she does. Sometimes she doesn’t. But today she wants to be strong in front of the inmates.
She talks briefly about the case prosecutors built to explain why Carruth ordered a hitman to kill her daughter in 1999.
“I can’t speak on what actually drove Rae to conjure up such a devastating and dire plan to actually have her killed,” Adams says. “It came out basically he didn’t want to pay child support. He already had a child (a son, also named Rae, whose mother was getting several thousand dollars in child support from Carruth already). ... He had told that child’s mother: ‘Be careful when you come to Charlotte to watch me play football because something could happen to you.’ ... We learned through the process that he got someone else pregnant and got them to have an abortion. Well, Cherica would not do that. So the plan progressed – from having her pushed down the steps to lose the child – to full-blown murder.”
The prisoners are leaning forward. The only sound in the room is the voice of Saundra Adams, punctuated occasionally by Lee whispering, “Yeah.”
She pauses, collecting herself for the part of the story that is hardest to get through no matter how many times she tells it.
The Colorado connection
Jon Embree now works as an assistant coach for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, but he coached Carruth in college at Colorado in the mid-1990s. A former star player for Colorado himself, Embree was an assistant coach at the time for the Buffaloes and later became Colorado’s head coach.
Embree stayed in touch with Carruth then, just like he still stays in touch with many of his players. Once Carruth moved to Charlotte after the Panthers picked him in the first round of the 1997 NFL draft, they talked occasionally.
Embree was shocked by Carruth’s arrest and subsequent conviction for conspiracy to commit murder. The Carruth he knew at Colorado had written poetry, befriended children and didn’t smoke or drink.
A wide receiver with sizzling speed, Carruth had grown up in a poor neighborhood in California. He was a two-time prom king at his high school in the Sacramento area. He had never seemed to get trouble at Colorado.
When the Panthers drafted him at No. 27 in 1997 – Carruth dropped several spots lower than expected on his draft day – Carruth’s mother told The Observer at the time that she was glad he would play for the Panthers even though she still lived in California.
Theodry Carruth said then: “I had told Rae: ‘I want you to go to Carolina, because you can find a nice Southern girl who can be your wife.’”
‘We can all be good people’
In 1999, Carruth had jumped bail and fled North Carolina when Cherica Adams had died. She held on for nearly a month after being shot four times, but in the end the grievous injuries proved to be too much. Carruth was soon discovered in Tennessee, hiding in the trunk of a car that had been driven by another female friend. (Carruth’s mother, fearful that he might get shot if he remained a fugitive, had tipped the police off as to where he was.) There was $3,900 in cash, a little food and two bottles of Carruth’s urine also in that trunk, where he had been hiding for hours.
The Panthers, who already had taken steps to dissociate themselves from Carruth and his actions, cut ties for good with their former No. 1 draft pick then.
Embree left this complicated situation alone for a dozen years, until he saw an HBO “Real Sports” piece on Saundra and Chancellor Lee Adams. By then Embree had already helped to spearhead the formation of a non-profit organization called “Buffs 4 Life,” which helped former Colorado athletes through various life and financial crises after they left school.
Technically, Saundra and Chancellor Lee had no connection to Colorado whatsoever. But Embree felt moved to help the family. After all, it was a former Colorado athlete who had impacted their life so negatively and dramatically.
Embree began helping in 2012 and has never really stopped. He has stayed in touch with the family and sees them at least 1-2 times per year. “Buffs 4 Life” has become the way that people can donate money to Saundra and Chancellor Lee and still receive a tax deduction, and hundreds of people have helped them along the way.
“I think that says a lot, especially in these times,” Embree says in a phone interview. “With some of the bad things going on out there, this kind of re-affirms your humanity. We can all be good people if we choose to be.”
Embree said a number of the larger donations have come from the Charlotte area.
“That outpouring from the city of Charlotte has really touched Saundra,” Embree says. “And that’s a testament to Charlotte, because obviously this was a tragic deal. Saundra is always happy anyway – she’s always smiling and the glass is always half full with her. But knowing that she doesn’t have to go through this alone? That’s been big.”
At this time last year, Embree and his charity were hoping to raise enough money to renovate or build a handicapped-friendly addition to the “Purple Palace” – that’s what Saundra and Chancellor Lee always called their home because of its purple color (Lee’s favorite).
‘Pay the whole house off’
But “Buffs 4 Life” raised more money than expected for the Adams family – about $150,000 so far. Meanwhile, Saundra also found out that building an addition onto her current home wasn’t cost-efficient because of all the building codes and retro-fitting that would be involved.
“So I asked them if it would be OK for me to look for someplace new,” says Adams, who at age 59 has devoted most of her life to caring for her special-needs grandson since she was 42. “They thought that would be a great idea. I wandered all around Charlotte and ended up finding a nice new home that had two bedrooms downstairs. That was our goal – so Lee’s bedroom could be downstairs. We moved into our new house in April, and we love it.”
They kept the “Purple Palace,” which Adams now rents to her god-daughter.
Embree continues to talk with the family. He would like to facilitate the first meeting between his former player and Saundra and Chancellor Lee, although the coach has not had any contact with Carruth since he went to prison. But he remains hopeful on that front, as well as on his new fundraising goal for the Adams.
“Hopefully we can raise enough that we can pay the whole house off,” Embree says. “We’re just going to keep plugging away.”
The 911 call
The crime that permanently etched itself into Charlotte’s darkest corner began on the night of Nov. 15, 1999. Carruth and Cherica Adams were reconciling, she thought, after several volatile months – at the very least he had asked her out on a date.
She was 30 weeks pregnant with his child, whose name “Chancellor” she had already chosen because of a soap-opera character she liked.
They planned to go see “The Bone Collector,” a fictional movie about the search for a serial killer. She carried her cell phone with her. Not everyone owned one the time, and she liked the phone in part because Carruth had provided it to her.
They drove in separate cars to the movie. Afterward, Rae Carruth told Cherica to follow him. They were on Rea Road in southeast Charlotte when Carruth pulled over and stopped his car. Cherica did the same.
It was then that a third car – carrying Van Brett Watkins, the hitman, in the backseat – pulled up beside Cherica’s BMW shortly after midnight. Watkins shot five times into the car before his driver sped away. Four of the bullets hit Cherica.
The shots were supposed to kill both Cherica, who was 24 at the time, and her unborn child. But she was strong. With the cell phone Carruth had once given her as a present, she called “911.”
What followed was a haunting 12-minute “911” call that did more than anything else to put Carruth behind bars. Between moans of pain, Adams described the crime as best she could and implicated Carruth. A portion of the call went like this.
Cherica: “I was following my baby’s daddy, Rae Carruth, the football player.”
Dispatcher: “So you think he did it?”
Cherica: “He slowed down and a car pulled up beside me.”
Dispatcher: “And then shot at you?”
Dispatcher: “... And then, where’d he go?”
Cherica: “He just left. I think he did it. I don’t know what to think.”
Carruth’s defense lawyer in his trial argued that Watkins decided to try to kill Cherica Adams on his own. Watkins did so because he was upset that Carruth wouldn’t finance him in a drug deal he wanted to make, the defense said.
Carruth did not testify at his own trial and has never acknowledged any role in the crime. In the only interview he has done since the shooting, in 2001, he told CNN/SI that he was completely innocent. Carruth said that Watkins – who implicated him in court as the plot’s mastermind – had acted on his own.
Saundra Adams calls this theory “delusional.” But she also has good reason to believe Carruth has stuck to it over the years. She told me recently about a letter she has not mentioned in other interviews we have had – a letter that Carruth had mailed her “four or five years ago” from prison.
Adams says the contents of that letter were nothing new, however. She says: “He was still in denial about his participation. ... He thinks that he was wrongly incarcerated.”
‘Forgiveness is for me’
Chancellor Lee Adams was born on Nov. 16, 1999, at 1:42 a.m. None of the five bullets Watkins fired into the car hit him directly. But Cherica Adams was bleeding badly from multiple wounds, and her blood was his blood. When he was born by emergency Caesarean section, his skin was nearly blue. He was near death.
Doctors saved Chancellor Lee that night, but the loss of blood and oxygen caused his permanent brain damage.
Chancellor Lee will never be able to live on his own. For years, he has been working on buttoning his own shirts correctly and navigating stairs in physical therapy. He still struggles with everyday tasks such as using a spoon or opening a door, going through it and closing it behind him. But there are many things he can do that doctors never thought he would be able to accomplish – like talking to everyone he meets and walking with assistance.
Chancellor Lee bears an uncanny facial resemblance to his father. But he inherited his dimple and his fun-loving nature from his mother, according to Saundra. He has heard stories about his mother forever. They have a small area in their new home dedicated to her memory, just as they did in the “Purple Palace.” They visit her grave in Charlotte occasionally to change the flowers, but not too often, because they believe she does not reside in that soil, and instead watches over them peacefully from heaven.
‘I thank Rae Carruth’
Saundra Adams will occasionally say “I thank Rae Carruth” – something that sound rather shocking given their shared history. What does she mean by that?
Says Adams: “I thank Rae – for the genetics. And (Chancellor) is rather handsome and I thank his dad for that too. ... I think he’s a great combination of his mom and dad. And clearly she was determined, she had willpower, so I like to think that he took the best of both of them to make him who he is.”
For years, Adams has said she has already forgiven Carruth and the other three men involved in the conspiracy for what they did. Of the four co-conspirators, only Watkins and Carruth are still incarcerated (Watkins has a projected release date of 2040). All but Carruth, who is now 43 years old, have apologized to her and Chancellor Lee.
She says people should not believe she is totally pure of heart for forgiving them, for there is also a selfish component to the act.
“Forgiveness is for me,” she says. “It’s so I can love unconditionally. And I think my grandson deserves unconditional love, because that’s what he gives. It’s total, unconditional love. If I did not forgive Rae, it would block that flow. So many times parents hold animosity toward one of the other parents and they take it out subconsciously on the children. I never wanted that to happen.”
Sobbing over Sugar Smacks
That’s not to say Saundra Adams didn’t want Carruth to go to prison. She did. She worked hard with prosecutors to help make that happen. And although he will not be incarcerated for the rest of his life, she says: “Rae did get a death sentence as far as it was the death of his NFL career. The lifestyle that he was leading – helping his family to come up higher financially – that was over. Their family lost. Our family lost.”
Despite her sunny disposition, she has had her own dark moments over the past 18 years.
“My first big meltdown, I was walking in the grocery store,” she says. “And I thought I was doing OK. But I got on the cereal aisle. And I looked up and there was Cherica’s favorite cereal.”
Boxes of Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks were stacked in neat rows. Saundra reached out for one – even though she doesn’t like sugary cereals herself. Tears streamed down her face. She pulled the box to her chest.
“I was just standing there, holding onto that box of cereal, hugging that box of cereal, and crying,” Adams remembers. “And the people in the store were you like ‘You all right, Ma’am?’ And I said, ‘But this is my baby’s favorite cereal!’”
She had to call a friend before she could calm down and stop hugging the cereal. She ended up buying the Sugar Smacks, feeling like she needed to because of the tear stains.
Panthers contact? Minimal
Where have the Panthers been during this 18-year saga? Mostly absent. They dissociated themselves from Carruth quickly, releasing him because of a “morals clause” in his contract not long after the shooting.
Saundra and Chancellor Lee Adams remain Panthers fans and have attended a few games over the years. Before one game in 2009, Chancellor Lee Adams danced with a group of disabled youngsters on the field. He received a football from the Panthers’ Brad Hoover that day. He has met a few other Panthers players over the years, sometimes wears a Panthers hat and cheers for the team.
There has never been any official contact with the team, however, Saundra Adams says, nor have the Panthers ever contributed monetarily to Chancellor Lee’s care.
“It’s been nothing,” Adams says. “But I don’t hold them responsible for doing anything, either, because they cut ties with him immediately. ... What happened certainly wasn’t the Panthers’ fault.”
The Panthers, through spokesman Steven Drummond, said Monday that the team would have no comment for this story on any aspect of the Carruth case or the Adams family.
Carruth’s family – especially his other grandmother – were somewhat involved in Chancellor’s life for the first decade of his life. But since Carruth’s last courtroom appeal was denied in 2011, Adams says, she has not heard from anyone in Carruth’s immediate family.
Theodry Carruth now goes by Theodry Swift, and she has always believed her son and said publicly that Rae Carruth could never have been involved in a murder conspiracy. She told me via email in 2016 that she would like to be involved once more in her grandson Chancellor Lee’s life. But she has not reached out to Saundra Adams since then, according to Adams, who says she would at least be willing to talk.
Swift also told me by email in 2016 that she did not want to answer questions about Carruth. “I don’t think anything I could possibly share would change public opinion of my son,” she wrote. Swift reiterated last week that she did not want to be interviewed.
As for Carruth himself, his real name is now actually listed as “Rae Wiggins” by the N.C. prison system, and “Rae Carruth” is considered his alias. I have requested an interview with him numerous times over the years. As he has in the past, Carruth declined my latest request through N.C. correctional officials this month.
Get bitter or get better
After her talk at the Mecklenburg County Jail ends in early October, Saundra Adams asks if the inmates have any questions. She has cried only once, when describing notes her daughter wrote while in the hospital about the crime.
Several men raise their hands. One wants to compliment Saundra and Chancellor Lee for their courage. One wants to tell her about his own “special-needs” brother. And one wants to ask again about the concept of forgiveness.
Even some of these men – who all need forgiveness in their own lives – have a hard time believing that Adams could truly forgive the man who a jury convicted of orchestrating the murder of her daughter and nearly killing the only grandchild she will ever have as well.
Adams takes a deep breath and answers by talking about all four men who were convicted in the crime.
“I refused to let them put me in a prison,” Adams says. “I felt like I had already been dealt a life sentence. On one hospital floor, my daughter was fighting for her life, and on another floor the only grandchild that I would ever have is fighting for his life. So I thought I’ve got a choice, I could be bitter or I could get better. And so I decided to get better.”
She also says that her forgiveness does not imply trust, especially in Carruth’s case. “Forgiveness is freely given,” she says, “but trust definitely has to be earned. So we’re not at the stage where I trust him at all.”
She continues: “Rae is not remorseful. He has not asked for forgiveness. He still contends that he was never at that scene. And that’s on him. He’ll have to answer for that.
“But as for Chancellor and me, we’re going to live our lives for love, and forgiveness, and we’re going to move forward. And we’re going to tell our story everywhere that I can, so that people will know that you can make these choices. You don’t have to live with hatred in your heart.
“Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we’re going to be buddy-buddies. Forgiveness to me means that I am no longer going to hold you hostage to that act you committed. Because no matter how much time he serves in jail, it’s not bringing Cherica back. So when he gets out, my prayer is that he will change his life and move on to do something positive and productive.”
The ‘miracle boy’
At Freedom Park in early November, four weeks after that talk at the prison concluded with several of the prisoners giving her a standing ovation, Saundra Adams explains how Chancellor Lee is already doing positive things with his own life. He is in 11th grade at his school, where he will likely attend until he is 21. He always makes the honor roll.
His “G-Mom” tells everyone her grandson is in the “Smile Ministry,” because his toothy grin makes strangers smile back at him every day. She calls him her “miracle boy.”
“The neurologist told me all of the ‘nevers,’” Adams says. “He’s never going to walk. He’s never going to talk. He won’t be able to sit up or ever feed himself. He will never live a normal life.
“Because of my strong faith, I heard what they were saying. But I said: ‘I know there’s a miracle worker, and he is going to be my miracle boy.’”
The miracle boy is on the verge of becoming an 18-year-old man now. Saundra Adams says she plans to write Carruth again in early 2018 to establish a rapport so that their planned visit to the prison on the day of Carruth’s release doesn’t come as a surprise.
Says Adams: “My intention is only positive. ... My intention is not that he will see Chancellor and come out with this great confession: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry I did this.’ Because I don’t expect that. I don’t expect that he will ever acknowledge his part in my daughter’s death.
“And I’m not looking for that. I don’t need that for forgiveness. I don’t need that for us to carry on our lives. I simply want him to see his son and see what a fine young man he has grown into. … And that he is not just surviving, but that he is indeed thriving.”
“Yeah!” Chancellor Lee says, looking at his grandmom. “Yeah!”
About this story
Charlotte Observer sports columnist Scott Fowler and photographer Jeff Siner have been chronicling the lives of the Adams family and the aftermath of former Carolina Panther wide receiver Rae Carruth’s murder conspiracy for the past several years. The first two parts of their series can be found online at CharlotteObserver.com.