Chapter 2: The Hitman speaks
Van Brett Watkins walks slowly into the visitation room, using a cane.
He wears a brown jumpsuit, standard issue for inmates at maximum-security Central Prison in Raleigh. He sits behind double-paned glass embedded with metal bars. A small grate at the bottom allows conversation if you speak loudly, which Watkins will do for the next three hours.
“I don’t get many visitors,” he begins. “Mostly because I don’t want any.”
There are two competing accounts of the night Cherica Adams was shot in 1999. This is the man at the heart of both of them.
No one disputes that Watkins fired five shots, four of them striking Adams, that night.
Watkins was a hitman — and a prolific one, he said. Former Carolina Panther Rae Carruth hired him to kill the woman carrying Carruth’s baby and her unborn child, too, according to Watkins.
But Adams was not the first person Watkins killed, the hitman said, revealing that information for the first time.
The essence of Watkins’ story about the Cherica Adams shooting hasn’t changed from the one he told during Carruth’s trial in 2000, but Watkins sprinkled in new information and details in our interview.
Not everyone buys Watkins’ story, however.
David Rudolf, Carruth’s defense attorney and later the man who would become one of the stars of the Netflix true-crime documentary “The Staircase,” still believes Watkins shot Adams on his own.
In an August interview, Rudolf offered new details, too, shared with him by Carruth earlier that month when Rudolf visited the former Carolina Panther in prison.
Rudolf was authorized by Carruth during that visit to speak to the Observer for this story. The attorney said Carruth was at the scene of the shooting that night, in his Ford Expedition directly in front of Cherica Adams, just before the drive-by shooting began.
When Watkins pulled alongside Adams’ BMW, with his .38 special loaded and the window rolled down, Carruth fled, Rudolf said, because he thought Watkins was coming after him.
“He was scared, and he took off,” Rudolf said. “And he’s not particularly proud of that. It’s not sort of a heroic thing to do — big football player, you know, running.
“But that’s what he did.”
So was Carruth a killer? Or simply a coward?
‘I want him dead’
Watkins is 58 now. Like Carruth, he’s become a practicing Muslim in prison. Unlike Carruth, he’s nowhere near being a free man. Carruth is scheduled for release on Oct. 22.
Watkins won’t get out until at least 2046, when he will be 85.
Watkins remains furious at Carruth, whom he claims hounded him for months into a crime that has haunted him since.
“I won’t forgive Rae Carruth,” Watkins said. “I want him dead.”
When he goes to bed in his cell each night, Watkins said, he relives his entire life — thinking about his childhood in New York, to where he went wrong, to the paradise he hopes will be awaiting him after death.
Watkins said he used to do anything for money, but once it was mostly good things. For instance, while growing up in Brooklyn, he shoveled snow from every driveway on his block, whether anybody paid him or not, he said.
Watkins was raised mostly by his mother. His father died in a car accident when Watkins was 6, he said.
As a child, he was often defiant.
“My mother says don’t touch the stove. I touched it,” Watkins said. “My mother says, ‘Don’t take that damn barbecue fork and stick it in there with the long prongs into the light socket. You going to short out the apartment, the house, and get shocked.’ I do it anyway.”
Watkins dropped out of school in ninth grade, seduced by the easy money he could make selling marijuana to college kids.
But he wasn’t always the person he became, he said.
“I was a Cub Scout,” Watkins said. “And I had a little pin that I had to turn every time I did a good deed. So I started off good in life. I wasn’t born like this.”
Bach and Beethoven
In April 1999, Cherica Adams found out she was pregnant, her mother, Saundra Adams, said. Cherica took about 10 home-pregnancy tests before she and Carruth went to a doctor to make sure.
Carruth, the baby’s father, already had one son he barely saw according to the baby’s mother, Michelle Wright. That child lived in California, and Carruth paid his mother $3,000 a month in child support.
He and Adams were not an exclusive couple. Carruth considered their relationship casual and based mostly on sex.
“When it came to carnal indulgences — we were kindred spirits,” Carruth later wrote in a 2018 letter to WBTV.
Sometime after the doctor visit, Carruth asked Adams if she was sure the child was really his.
And he wanted to know if she would consider an abortion.
Later, Adams recounted her first conversation with Carruth about her pregnancy to her friend Valarie Brooks.
“She said she was really, really disappointed in Rae’s reaction to her pregnancy,” Brooks said. “She said, ‘I don’t understand why. I thought maybe he would be happy.’ ”
Brooks saw Carruth and Adams together once at a cookout Adams hosted.
“What I picked (up) on him was that of course he was a playboy,” Brooks said. “I thought he was a nice-looking guy, but I didn’t think he was nice-looking on the inside. He was very stiff. You could tell by his body language that he didn’t want to be there.”
Adams, though, was undeterred. She planned to have Carruth’s baby and raise the child as a single mother, with the help of her many family members and friends in the Charlotte area.
Cherica Adams had already had one abortion, and that difficult experience made her decide to never have another, Saundra Adams said.
Cherica and Saundra Adams went shopping for the baby several times. Cherica was entranced by one purchase in particular — a kit she could place on her stomach to play music for the baby.
She decided her child needed to listen to jazz, as well as Bach and Beethoven.
There was a microphone included, too, to talk to the child. Adams began to regularly read to the baby, concentrating on Bible stories.
A secret revealed
In Charlotte in 1999, everyone called Watkins “New York.” He often used aliases, particularly when trouble loomed.
He worked as the head of security for a strip club owned by a friend. He also worked as a bodyguard. At 6-foot-3 and 286 pounds, Watkins had a tendency to solve problems with violence.
Once, while imprisoned in New York in the 1980s, Watkins heard that another inmate was talking about Watkins’ mother, grandmother and sister and calling them names.
“So the next morning,” he said, “I set him on fire.”
Watkins said he used to be in both the “construction and destruction” business. He did some occasional construction jobs, and he also was willing to consider destroying just about anything if the paycheck was good enough.
Watkins also harbored a secret.
He claimed in our interview he’d killed four people before shooting Cherica Adams.
All of them were paid “hits,” he said, contracted by different women. Some of the women had been abused by the men they wanted dead. Some were just tired of the men they wanted killed.
“The first four were men,” Watkins said of his contracted murders, “and I got away with it. They died right there on the spot.”
Watkins otherwise refused my requests, that day and later by letter, to provide details except for the locations of his alleged previous murders — two in New York, one in Miami and one in Atlanta.
He also repeatedly has said he has no intention of helping police solve those cold cases, particularly since the women who hired him would then likely go to prison, too.
A ‘wannabe bad guy’
Carruth was aware of Watkins’ reputation as a killer, Watkins said. He believes that was what originally drew Carruth to him.
The two first met by chance, at a strip club in 1999. Watkins was working security and watching the door. Carruth was a customer watching the stage.
“I didn’t pay no attention to him,” Watkins said of that first meeting. “At the strip club, I’m more or less watching for any danger. … I’m constantly insecure. I’m constantly looking out for the stickup man or — since I’m on the run for murder — for police.”
As for Carruth, Watkins said with a shrug: “I met him. I wasn’t impressed. He was a little guy.”
Watkins needed money, though, and Carruth had it. Through a mutual friend, Watkins was invited to Carruth’s house to give him an estimate about building a fence.
Watkins never ended up building that fence. But by June 1999, Watkins had started to occasionally wash and detail Carruth’s two cars, a red Mercedes and a white Ford Expedition.
At 38, he already had a long rap sheet that included five felonies. Watkins had served time in various New York prisons for crimes such as gun possession, assault and threatening to kill various people.
“I was so bad back then,” Watkins said, “I didn’t give a damn, OK?”
A questionable circle
Carruth was considered a loner by some of his Carolina teammates, but he had a circle of acquaintances outside the team that most of the Panthers didn’t know about. Watkins was one.
Michael Kennedy was another.
In February 1999, Carruth and Kennedy met at a car accessory shop in Charlotte. Kennedy complimented Carruth on his fancy tire rims, and that conversation started a friendship.
Kennedy was a drug dealer, later admitting under oath in 1999 that he made most of his money by dealing crack cocaine.
Having a friend who was a Carolina Panthers player gave Kennedy elevated status.
“You see this guy that you see as a celebrity,” said James Exum, a Charlotte attorney who would represent Kennedy at Carruth’s trial. “And he’s friendly with you and it makes you feel like you’re a bigger person — which isn’t necessarily true, but that was a feeling that I think Michael had.”
Kennedy’s best friend was Stanley “Boss” Abraham. The two once lived next door to each other in Charlotte and were nearly inseparable., according to court documents and Jim Gronquist, a Charlotte attorney who represented Abraham.
Kennedy, 23, was like a big brother to the 18-year-old Abraham. Abraham, too, was involved in small-scale drug dealing.
“He was with Michael Kennedy,” Gronquist said. “And that was what Michael Kennedy did.”
So by early 1999, Carruth was keeping questionable company.
“He put himself with people who he should not have put himself with,” Rudolf said of Carruth.
There’s no evidence Cherica Adams ever met either Kennedy or Watkins before the night she was shot. But she had a sense that Carruth is attracted to life’s dark side.
Adams often told Brooks in 1999 that Carruth was a “wannabe bad guy.”
“These are her favorite words about him,” Brooks said. “ ‘He’s a wannabe bad guy.’ But she said, ‘I don’t think he’s really a bad guy.’ ”
Adams also told Brooks that Carruth was smart, and “kind of nerdy” and that she didn’t understand his quest to be a “bad boy.”
“But you know,” Brooks said, “sometimes women like that.”
‘I kill people’
Watkins drove a U-Haul truck everywhere.
He said it was because didn’t have a valid driver’s license in 1999. But he did have a buddy in Atlanta — where he also sometimes stayed and worked — who allowed him to rent a U-Haul off the books for $100 a month.
On June 23, 1999, according to court records, Carruth called Watkins, who’d been washing cars and occasionally doing other odd jobs for the NFL player for about three weeks.
They met in a U-Haul parking lot on North Tryon Street in Charlotte and Carruth asked a question, according to Watkins.
“So he said, ‘How much would it take to beat up a girl and make her abort her baby?’ ” Watkins recounted. “I said, ‘I don’t beat up a girl. I kill people.’
“He said, ‘How much would you charge?’ ”
After considering it a few moments, Watkins said: “OK, give me $3,000 down and $3,000 after.”
As Watkins remembered it, Carruth went to an ATM, took out $300, handed it over and said he would come up with the rest later.
‘A bunch of different scenarios’
Watkins needed a plan.
He stalked Cherica Adams off and on for several months, getting to know her black BMW with the tinted windows. He found out where she lived. He noted where she usually parked her car.
But he was hesitant, he said, in part because he didn’t really like the idea of harming or killing a woman. He also wanted to make sure he got away with whatever crime he committed.
Carruth grew impatient.
“So he gave me a bunch of different scenarios,” Watkins said. “He said, ‘Do it at the Lamaze class when I take her there.’ ”
But Carruth didn’t know exactly where the Lamaze class would be, so Watkins scotched that idea.
Carruth did take Adams to one Lamaze class — and, according to the letter he later wrote to WBTV, didn’t learn Adams’ last name until he was filling out their name tags.
Another of Carruth’s ideas — that he would take Adams to a restaurant, park near a dumpster and have Watkins hide nearby to ambush her — was also dismissed by Watkins, the hitman testified in court.
Carruth went to Spartanburg, S.C., for training camp with the Panthers in the summer of 1999 and, Watkins said, wanted the hitman to kill her then, so Carruth’s alibi would be airtight.
Watkins said in the interview that Carruth sometimes talked in code, calling the unborn baby “the dog.”
Watkins recalled Carruth telling him: “ ’I don’t want the dog to get out. I need the fence.’ And that was code for he don’t want the baby to get out. He needs Cherica killed.”
Finding a hoopty
By Nov. 15, 1999, Cherica Adams was 30 weeks pregnant. Carruth was getting edgy, Watkins said.
According to testimony both Watkins and Kennedy offered in court, Carruth hatched yet another murder plot in only a few hours.
He’d already arranged to take Adams on a date that Monday night — to a 9:45 p.m. showing of a movie called “The Bone Collector,” a film about a serial killer — at Regal Cinemas in south Charlotte.
Adams was coming to Carruth’s house to meet him.
By that time, Adams had mostly given up on the idea that she, Carruth and their baby would become a family. Their relationship remained tumultuous.
Cherica Adams didn’t want to be a single mom. She wanted to be married with children. “But when she realized that was not going to be happening,” Saundra Adams said, “she tried to have the best type of relationship with Rae that she could.”
The movie date, though, excited Cherica.
“That date was going to be the first real date as a couple again,” Saundra Adams said. “And she was ecstatic.”
Before Cherica arrived around 9 p.m., Carruth called both Kennedy and Watkins and invited them to his house.
Kennedy described the call in a tape-recorded statement he gave to Charlotte police two weeks after the shooting.
“Around 7 or 8 (p.m.),” Kennedy said in that tape, “Rae Carruth had called me and he asked me what was I doing. And I was like: ‘Nothing.’ ”
Carruth invited Kennedy over ostensibly to watch New England play the New York Jets on “Monday Night Football” — even though his movie date with Cherica was already planned.
Carruth soon got to the real reason for his call. “He asked me if I had a hoopty, if I had a car that he could get that night,” Kennedy said.
On the tape, the investigator asked: What is a hoopty?
“A car that’s not flashy, that doesn’t stand out,” Kennedy explained.
Kennedy was renting a Nissan Maxima at the time. Carruth said that would work.
‘I don’t even know why I’m here’
Kennedy and Abraham drove to Carruth’s house. While Abraham went inside, Kennedy and Carruth huddled outside.
This was the point, Exum said, that Kennedy could and should have extricated himself. But Kennedy didn’t, the lawyer said, in part because he valued being friends with a local celebrity.
(Through Exum, Kennedy refused interview requests for this story.)
“You’re sitting there with somebody and you’re starstruck by that person,” Exum said. “Now to remove yourself from it — which is the smart thing to do — is to lose whatever benefit you think you’re getting. ...
“I think at that point ... you start to rationalize and kind of justify what you’re doing, ‘Well, I’m not shooting anybody. I’m just driving the car.’ ”
Soon, Watkins arrived in his U-Haul, which Carruth quickly made him park elsewhere.
But the hitman didn’t bring a gun. That was on purpose, Watkins said in our interview, because he was still hesitant to do the hit.
Kennedy told Carruth he could solve that problem, though — he had a friend in Charlotte who would sell them one for $100.
At least one other person was also at the house — a man hooking Carruth up with an illegal satellite system.
Saundra Adams recalled what will turn out to be her last conversation with her daughter before the shooting, somewhere around 9:15 p.m.
Said Adams: “She called me on the phone: ‘Mom, I don’t even know why I’m here. I don’t know what this is about. Because he’s got all these people in the house and he’s been down there secretly on the phone, and I think he’s talking to another woman.’ So I’m telling her, ‘Well, you have to go to work tomorrow. So you just tell him you’re not going to the movie.’ ”
At that moment, though, Saundra Adams said, she could hear Carruth saying in the background: “No, no, no, we’re getting ready to go right now.”
Cherica Adams made a snap decision. She went with Carruth to the movie.
“So the wonderful first date,” Saundra Adams said, “turned into a horrific plot for murder.”
Looking for a gun
Driving his rented Maxima, Kennedy told police he left Carruth’s house in search of a gun. Abraham was in the front passenger seat and Watkins sat in back, directly behind Abraham.
Neither of the men in the front seat knew Watkins’ real name, and he was an intimidating figure. Watkins said in our interview that the car was mostly quiet.
After repeated calls, Kennedy was able to track down his friend. Kennedy told police that he took $100 — five crisp $20s that Carruth handed him earlier that night — and gave it to the man. In return, Kennedy told police he received a .38 revolver that could hold five bullets, as well as a box of bullets and a gun lock. Abraham took the gun and passed it back to Watkins.
Watkins decided he didn’t need a whole box of bullets. He said in our interview he loaded the gun with five bullets from the box and told Kennedy to find a storm sewer somewhere.
“I dumped the rest near the Chick-Fil-A at the mall,” Watkins said.
He would later regret that decision.
In the meantime, Carruth and Adams met up with one of Carruth’s Panthers teammates, Hannibal Navies, and Navies’ girlfriend outside the movies, according to later court testimony from Navies.
Navies was one of Carruth’s few close friends on the Panthers. The two played football together at Colorado.
While those four watched the movie, Kennedy, Abraham and Watkins drove around aimlessly for several hours, according to later court testimony from Kennedy and Watkins.
Kennedy and Watkins were well aware of what was supposed to happen by this point. Abraham didn’t know what was going on, according to Kennedy’s police tape.
“We went to a supermarket,” Watkins said in our interview. “Michael Kennedy went in. Then we drove around some more. Then we went to a gas station. I got a can of beer.”
Watkins drank the beer, but said he wasn’t high.
“When I’m doing a hit,” he said, “I’m clean.”
While Watkins was buying the beer, Kennedy told police that he revealed the plan to Abraham.
“I told Stanley that Rae wanted me to follow him when he leave the movies, and he wanted the guy that was riding with us to shoot the girl that he had pregnant,” Kennedy told police investigators.
“What did Stanley say when you told him that?” a policeman asked.
“He was like, ‘Take me home,’ ” Kennedy said.
Kennedy didn’t, though. He said he was scared and wanted his best friend there for protection.
Kennedy also had a chance to drive off with Abraham and leave Watkins abandoned at the store, but told his lawyer later that he didn’t because he was afraid of what Watkins would eventually do to them both if he did so.
“Watkins is the kind of guy who would scare just about anybody,” said Exum, Kennedy’s lawyer. “So again, once you’re in it … now to remove (yourself) is to perhaps end up dead.”
‘Drowning in her own blood’
Carruth called Kennedy at 11:51 p.m., according to phone records later introduced in court. Kennedy said in his police interview that Carruth told him the movie was over and that he was leaving the theater. Carruth and Cherica Adams then went back to his house together to retrieve her car.
Carruth told Adams he wanted to spend the night at her house instead of his, according to later court testimony, and they began to drive there in separate vehicles. Phone records showed that Adams called her cousin, who was also her roommate, and asked him to straighten up the house.
Carruth called Kennedy again at 12:19 a.m. Kennedy would testify later that Carruth told him to get ready.
Soon, Carruth was driving down Rea Road in his Expedition, Kennedy told the police.
Adams followed Carruth in her BMW. Kennedy followed Adams in the Maxima.
“I had to ... catch up with her,” Kennedy told police. He said the three cars crossed over Highway 51, passing Calvary Church on their left. Then they continued on Rea Road to a section where the road took a small dip, just short of MacAndrew Drive. Then:
“Rae stopped,” Kennedy said, “And Cherica, she stopped behind Rae.”
At that point, Watkins said in our interview that he ordered Kennedy to pull right next to Adams’ car, effectively trapping her. But despite sitting for hours in the Maxima, Watkins said he never checked one key feature — the car windows in the back seat.
“The window didn’t go down all the way,” Watkins said. “I said, ‘Damn, I got to compensate for that.’
“And there’s no light. And…. a black BMW with black tinted windows. So that’s an almost impossible shot. But I was lucky. …
“So I shoot the gun — bam, bam, bam! — and then I listen. Everybody paused. I look at Rae Carruth. … I’m listening for her because the window’s open.
“So I could tell she was dying. And she was gurgling, drowning in her own blood.”
Watkins said he glanced at Carruth’s car after he finished shooting.
Said Watkins: “Rae was looking in the mirror. And he smiles. …
“Rae pulled off once the last shot was done.”
The alternate theory
Rudolf never bought the story Watkins and Kennedy told to police and later in court.
He defended Carruth at trial with the drug-deal-gone-bad theory. In our interview, he added new details from his recent visit to Carruth in prison. Carruth authorized Rudolf to speak to me about the incident.
“I have never believed that he hired Van Brett Watkins or Michael Kennedy to harm Cherica in any way,” Rudolf said of Carruth. “... And indeed, there was no ‘planning’ for this until the very day that it all happened. And that’s just not how a murder-for-hire takes place.
“They even had to go and get a gun that day. The whole thing just didn’t make sense to me.
“What I believe happened, and what Rae clearly has told me from Day 1, is that he agreed to fund a marijuana deal — that Van Brett Watkins brought up a load of marijuana from Atlanta. … Van Brett Watkins was a middleman. … So he got a load of marijuana that was in the trunk of his car.
“He brought it up to Charlotte and Rae was supposed to provide the money for him to pay for that marijuana and he would then sell it and Rae would get some profit.
“And that was the plan. And Michael Kennedy was a part of that. And on the day that it happened, Van Brett Watkins showed up with the load of marijuana. And Rae backed out….
“And now here’s Van Brett Watkins in Charlotte with a load of marijuana that he hasn’t paid for, that he can’t pay for, and that Rae Carruth is not providing any money for. And they had a huge argument there at Rae’s house (before Carruth’s date with Cherica Adams on Nov. 15, 1999).”
After the argument, Rudolf said, Carruth was worried Watkins would try to kill him.
Rudolf said the NFL player’s calls to Kennedy at 11:51 p.m. and 12:19 a.m. after the movie were not calls to tell Kennedy to get ready, but instead calls to see whether Watkins had calmed down.
“And so at that point, Rae did not want to bring Cherica back to his house,” Rudolf said, because he feared Watkins.
Instead, he said, Carruth decided he would drive to Adams’ house, with Cherica Adams following. And then he saw Kennedy and Watkins roar up beside Adams on Rea Road.
“And what he says — and this is sort of new information I guess — is he panicked,” Rudolf said. “And when he saw Van Brett Watkins pull out and pull up next to Cherica, he took off because he was afraid that Van Brett Watkins was coming to get him.
“Instead, Van Brett Watkins shoots Cherica. And then Rae suddenly finds himself in situation where — he’s been there. He left. And what’s he going to do? I mean he knows these guys. And so he sort of panicked. …
“So that’s the truth as far as I know, and as far as Rae has told me. It makes perfect sense to me.”
Rudolf added that Carruth was adamant that he never stopped his car that night, but may have slowed down briefly to see what was happening before speeding off.
“Nothing to be proud of,” Rudolf concluded. “But it’s also not a hit.”
Waffle House and brake lights
In the moments just after the shooting, Watkins had a chance to climb out of the Maxima and make sure Adams was dead after he emptied his gun into her BMW.
But he didn’t.
“The reason why I didn’t get out of the car to check if she was alive or dead is because these two lames I’m in the car with was scared,” Watkins said in our interview.
Kennedy pulled away in a hurry, making a frantic three-point turn to go back the way they had come. He started to speed away.
“Slow this mother----- down!” Watkins yelled.
Still, Watkins said he had his doubts about whether Kennedy and Abraham would keep quiet.
Watkins claimed Abraham was laughing hysterically, a detail Abraham strongly disputed. In a brief phone interview, Abraham said all he was thinking about at that moment was that he wished he could be anywhere else except inside that car.
Watkins, meanwhile, was thinking to himself he better not leave any witnesses — advice he said he’d once received in a New York prison from a veteran murderer — and that Kennedy and Abraham would undoubtedly be the weak links in the conspiracy.
“I said, ‘Damn, I need to kill these two,’” Watkins said.
But Watkins had already dumped the rest of his bullets down a sewer. So he dismissed the idea of killing the men and told Kennedy to drive him back to his U-Haul truck.
The car was utterly silent.
Watkins told Kennedy to pull over once so he could throw out the gloves he’d used. Kennedy later told police that he remembered the snapping sound when Watkins removed them before also throwing out the gun.
Watkins tried to throw the .38 into a creek, but missed. The gun was found by a passerby months later.
Once he got back to his U-Haul, Watkins stripped off his long-sleeved sweatshirt and discarded it because of the gunpowder residue. He wiped himself down with gasoline he kept inside the U-Haul.
Then, smelling of gasoline and having just repeatedly shot a pregnant woman, Watkins decided to make one more stop before he returned to Room 111 at the Charlotte motel where he was living.
“I get hungry after I hurt somebody, kill somebody, stab somebody,” Watkins said. “I want to go eat. Some people go pray. Some people go do drugs. I said, ‘Damn. I’m going to the Waffle House!’ ”
But Watkins hadn’t finished the job.
And one person in that car knew it.
“I had looked back,” Kennedy said in his police tape, “and I seen, like, her brake lights, like, blink on. So I didn’t think she was dead then.”
She wasn’t. Not yet.
But Kennedy didn’t mention the brake lights. He just kept driving.
And with four bullets inside her, Cherica Adams reached for the cell phone Carruth had once given her and called 911.
She hovered on the edge of dying.
She and her unborn child needed a miracle.