Chapter 4: The manhunt


On the morning of Dec. 15, 1999, FBI agent Mark Post was deep into his morning routine — oatmeal, coffee and making sure his three boys were up and getting ready for school.

There was nothing special on his work agenda — just another Wednesday. Another bunch of paperwork. Another eight hours supervising the four agents who worked for him in the FBI’s satellite office in Jackson, Tenn.

Post had the television on for background noise. He walked by it, suit coat in hand, just as Theodry Carruth, the mother of Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth, was being interviewed about her son’s disappearance. She said her son was scared, but not dangerous.

Carruth was on the run and police in North Carolina were looking for him. He knew he was supposed to have turned himself in as a condition of his bail, but he didn’t.

Authorities planned to charge Carruth with first-degree murder in the death of Cherica Adams when they found him.

Post noted how emotional Theodry Carruth was, and wondered to himself where her son was headed.

Post didn’t know it, but Carruth wasn’t far away. He was crammed into the trunk of a friend’s 1997 gray Toyota Camry, with $3,900 in cash, mostly in twenties, stashed in a woman’s purse.

Inside the trunk, Carruth also had several energy bars, a cell phone and two empty 20-ounce sport drink bottles for when he needed to urinate. He was headed west on Interstate 40 toward California, by way of Jackson, Tenn.

And he was about to meet Mark Post.

Mark Post, an FBI agent from Jackson, Tenn., testifies at the murder trial of Rae Carruth. Post still vividly remembers the day he and his fellow FBI agents were called in to look for Carruth. JEFF SINER Pool photo for the Associated Press

‘He’s not going to vanish’

Cherica Adams died at 12:43 p.m. on Dec. 14, 1999, after she was removed earlier that day from life support. The four gunshot wounds she sustained a month before were ultimately too much to overcome.

Of the four men arrested in connection with the shooting of Adams, who was nearly eight months pregnant with Carruth’s baby at the time, only Carruth posted bail. He was arrested on Thanksgiving Day. But after spending 11 nights in jail, he put up a $3 million bond on Dec. 6 and walked out.

The bond had two key stipulations: Carruth couldn’t leave Mecklenburg County and he must turn himself in to police if Cherica Adams or her baby, Chancellor Lee Adams, died.

When Charlotte police sergeant Tom Athey heard Cherica Adams had died, he sent officers looking for Carruth.

“And we go back to try to lock him up,” Athey said. “But, of course, he’s gone. …

“People say, ‘Well, why didn’t you watch him?’ I say we’ve got a hundred thousand things going on in the city. We don’t have the resources to sit and watch one guy because of who he is.

“He’s not going to vanish from the face of the Earth.’”

And yet, he had.

‘Rae panicked, pure and simple’

Carruth had no shortage of women who wanted to be near him. In addition to the women he’d been dating, often at least two at a time according to court testimony, he had a number of female friends.

One of those was Wendy Cole, a Charlotte hair salon owner in her late 20s. When Carruth was out of town, she sometimes fed his dog and retrieved his mail. She also knew Carruth’s mother and some members of his family.

Carruth, who is from Sacramento, knew Cole was planning to go to California to attend cosmetology school. In the hours after Adams’ death he begged Cole to take him across the country with her.

According to court testimony, an FBI report and Observer interviews, here’s how the 30 hours unfolded after Adams died:

Eventually, Cole agreed to hide Carruth in her trunk as she drove.

“Rae panicked, pure and simple,” said David Rudolf, Carruth’s lead attorney during his murder trial. Rudolf was was authorized by Carruth to speak for him for this project. “It’s another example, I guess, of his flight reflex kicking in. … I don’t think he had a plan.”

In 1999, Wendy Cole was a Charlotte hair salon owner in her late 20s who was a friend of Rae Carruth’s. She sometimes fed Carruth’s dog and retrieved his mail when Carruth was out of town for road games with the Carolina Panthers. She also knew Carruth’s mother. JEFF SINER

Around 10 p.m. on Dec. 14, 1999, as police scoured Charlotte looking for him, Carruth climbed into the trunk of Cole’s Camry and they left for California.

The trunk had been packed hurriedly — no suitcases, just clothes strewn around.

Cole drove through the night, occasionally talking to Carruth on her cell phone. He wore baggy black jeans, a T-shirt and a gray-and-black leather jacket.

By 8:35 a.m., after driving just over 500 miles, Cole was exhausted. She checked into Room 149 of a Best Western hotel along I-40, in Wildersville, Tenn., about 25 miles east of Jackson.

She needed to rest awhile — and also to figure out how long she was willing to be Carruth’s chauffeur and accomplice.

Carruth stayed in the trunk.

An unlikely tipster

Although she cared about Carruth and his family, Cole was reluctant to continue harboring a fugitive. When she got inside the hotel room, she called Carruth’s mother, Theodry Carruth, and told her where they were.

His mother — who refused interview requests for this story — was worried that her son would be shot and killed if he had to be tracked for days by police. Also on his trail: the bail bondsmen who would be on the hook for the $3 million if Carruth was never located.

Darrell Price, then a Charlotte-Mecklenburg homicide detective, stayed in touch with the bail bondsmen throughout the search.

“They were working every bit as hard as we were on trying to locate Rae,” Price said.

At mid-afternoon on Dec. 15, Theodry Carruth called the bail bondsmen and told them where her son was. They also spoke to Cole, who gave them more details.

But Carruth was 500 miles from Charlotte. As much as they would have liked to, the bail bondsmen couldn’t just go pick him up. By the time they got there he might be gone again.

Bondsman Ronnie DeLapp, who would publicly identify Theodry Carruth as the tipster in an Observer interview the next day, called Charlotte police and told them Carruth was in Tennessee.

Price and Athey asked their bosses if they could requisition a helicopter and go pick up Carruth themselves, but the bosses notified the Charlotte FBI office instead.

Someone in the Charlotte office called Post, in the Jackson, Tenn., FBI office. Suddenly, Post’s day got a lot more interesting.

Theodry Carruth, mother of Rae Carruth, was the unlikely tipster who told authorities where to find her son when he fled the state following the death of Cherica Adams. TODD SUMLIN THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

‘My God, he is here’

The Charlotte office had an arrest warrant for Carruth, for “unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.”

Post was told that Carruth was likely staying at the Best Western in Wildersville, Tenn., an area better known as Parker’s Crossroads, the site of a Civil War battle.

The Charlotte FBI agent also told Post about Cole and the gray Camry. Post gathered his agents to tell them they were about to go try to catch a famous fugitive. One of them printed a picture of Carruth off the internet.

Five FBI agents spread themselves out into three cars. No sirens. No warning.

As they drove up I-40, they saw a section of the hotel facing the interstate. Post spotted a gray Camry, backed into a spot.

“That’s them!” he thought to himself. “They backed in to hide the license plate!”

The three-car convoy sped into the parking lot, and Post ordered two agents to watch the car and make sure no one left Room 149 — but not to approach it just yet.

Post’s adrenaline had kicked in, and his heart was beating fast.

He thought to himself: “My God, he is here.”

A cat-and-mouse game

Room 149 of the Best Western hotel in Wildersville, Tenn., in a photo taken this summer. Rae Carruth was hiding in a room in the truck of a Toyota Camry in 1999, fleeing Charlotte after Cherica Adams died. Jeff Siner

Post had been told that Cole was an innocent bystander, and he didn’t want to go directly to the door and knock. With no way to know whether Carruth had a weapon, Post figured it was better to get her out of harm’s way.

Telling the woman at the front desk he was with the FBI, he enlisted her help.

He asked her to call Room 149 and tell Cole there was a mechanical issue, and that she needed to come to the office to get a key to change rooms.

The ruse worked. Cole answered the phone, agreed to change rooms and walked about 100 yards through the parking lot and around the corner to pick up a new key.

Instead, she found Post, who identified himself and told her he was looking for Carruth.

The FBI, he said, had information that suggested Carruth is with Cole.

Post asked Cole if Carruth was in the room. No, she said.

He asked if agents could search the room, and she agreed. They headed back to Room 149.

Agents glanced inside the Camry to make sure Carruth wasn’t crouched on the floorboard, then searched the room.

No Rae Carruth.

But something seemed weird to Post. Cole wasn’t denying Carruth was at the hotel. She wasn’t trying to send them away. But she wasn’t being specific, either.

It felt like a game of cat-and-mouse.

Post asked if Carruth was with her. No, she answered.

“Where’s he at?” he asked.

She responded: “Well, I’m not sure, but he’s around here.”

Post instructed an agent to rent the adjoining room — Room 150 — which had an inside door that connected it to Cole’s room.

Through the open door, agents kept watch as Cole sat on the bed in Room 149, studying a book about cosmetology.

They were waiting for something to happen, but nothing did.

Finally, Post walked into Room 149 and sat on the bed next to Cole.

“Wendy, we’re not going anywhere,” he said. “You know where he is, don’t you?”

Cole said nothing, but glanced at her car keys. Post didn’t get the hint.

“Where is he, Wendy?” he asked again.

Once more, she looked at the keys.

And this time, Post understood.

“He’s in the trunk, isn’t he?” the FBI agent asked.

Cole paused and closed her book. “I don’t want you to hurt him,” Cole said.

“We’re not going to hurt him,” Post replied.

“And,” Cole said, “I don’t want you to tell him I told you.”

carruth camry diagram used by prosecution in court (1).jpg
The courtroom diagram of Rae Carruth in the trunk of a Toyota Camry is part of the evidence stored in the case file. FBI agent Mark Post had the diagram made to show the Carruth’s position in the trunk when he was captured. Jeff Siner

Is suicide an option?

The motel was one story, with every room door opening directly into the parking lot.

Carruth was only two steps from the doorway of Room 149, curled into a fetal position inside the trunk.

It was about 6:45 p.m. and already dark, except for the hotel’s lights. Agents had been at the hotel, looking for Carruth, for a little more than an hour.

Post wanted Carruth out of that trunk without anyone getting hurt. He worried about his fellow agents, but also about the former Panther and his potential state of mind. Post was worried that if Carruth had a weapon he would commit suicide.

Post had asked Cole if Carruth had any weapons, but never got a definitive answer.

The FBI agent asked Cole to step outside the room with him and tell Carruth they knew he was in the trunk, and that no one needed to get hurt.

Cole did, then stepped to the side.

In the meantime, Post positioned one agent on either side of the Camry, with both of their guns drawn and pointed at the trunk.

A third agent was down on his side below the trunk, one shoulder on the sidewalk. He reached up with the key, ready to open the trunk.

Post addressed Carruth in a loud voice.

“Rae, this is Mark Post,” he said. “I’m with the FBI and I have agents surrounding the car. I want you to cooperate with me and do what I say. Do you have any weapons?”

“No,” Carruth said.

“We’re going to pop the trunk up,” Post said. “And as soon as we pop the trunk just enough for your hands to come out, that’s the first thing I want to see is those hands come out.

“Do you understand me?”

“Yes sir,” Carruth said.

“OK, let’s do it,” Post told the agent on the ground.

The agent popped the trunk. By the time there was a 2-inch opening, both of Carruth’s hands shot out. It happened so quickly it startled Post.

Mark Post in summer 2018, standing outside rooms 149 and 150 at a Best Western hotel, where he and other FBI agents questioned Rae Carruth’s friend, Wendy Cole, in 1999. Eventually Cole told them Carruth was in the trunk of her car

Panic or cowardice?

Carruth had some trouble standing because he had been in the trunk for 21 hours — and because his pants were around his knees.

He had boxer shorts on, so the agents pulled up Carruth’s pants and handcuffed him.

In the trunk, they saw two bottles full of urine and several energy bar wrappers.

As Carruth moved his legs back and forth, trying to get the blood flow going again, Post had an unpleasant thought.

What if Carruth runs?

For a second, Carruth had a chance to do so. No FBI agent was going to catch a 24-year-old football player who can run a 4.3-second 40-yard dash.

And Carruth was a runner by nature — given to choosing flight over fight.

If Carruth ran, the FBI agents’ two immediate choices were both bad: Try to run him down, or shoot a fugitive they had in custody only 10 seconds before.

But Carruth was done with running. His last few hours as a free man — spent in a dark, confined space much smaller than a prison cell — had ended.

He cooperated with the agents as they placed him in a car to return to the FBI office in Jackson.

Once there, the FBI questioned Carruth, allowed him to call his mother, and found him a Bible when he asked for one. Post sent someone out for food and ended up buying Carruth a chicken sandwich, fries and a drink.

Post described Carruth, once captured, as subdued and meek.

“No cockiness whatsoever,” Post said.

The Panthers react

Carruth was soon to be extradited to North Carolina, and driven to Charlotte by U.S. marshals. The 21 hours he spent in a trunk became a national punchline and the subject of a legendary, profane comic riff by Steve Harvey in a Spike Lee movie.

Saundra Adams, Cherica’s mother, believed the trunk episode was evidence of a character trait.

“My reaction to Rae fleeing to Tennessee with yet another girlfriend, (it) was just another big display of his cowardice,” Adams said. “Because he had been a coward through all of it.

“And I think that may be how he keeps his conscience clear — because he didn’t actually pull the trigger. He paid somebody to do it.”

Carruth was still officially on the Carolina Panthers’ roster until he climbed in that trunk. But the team cut ties when Carruth fled, waiving him. The NFL suspended him indefinitely.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth is escorted to a waiting car in Jackson, Tenn., after being questioned following his arrest by FBI agents on Dec. 15, 1999. Carruth had been a fugitive since being charged with first-degree murder following the death of Cherica Adams. Helen Comer The Jackson Sun

In a prepared statement, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said: “Our decision was based on Rae’s actions over the last 48 hours and is not a statement about the case.”

Head coach George Seifert was asked if Carruth would ever be truly dissociated from the team.

“I don’t know that that’ll ever (happen),” he said. “As we listen to the radio or read the paper, ‘Rae Carruth, the Carolina Panther’ is the way he’s presented. But that’s such a minor issue. Look at all the lives that have been destroyed by this thing. That’s the tragic issue in all of this.”

Cole was eventually allowed to drive on to California. She was originally charged with harboring a fugitive, but that charge was dropped six months later.

Chancellor Lee and Y2K

Pallbearers carry the casket of Cherica Adams to the graveside at Sunset Memory Gardens on Dec. 18, 1999, in east Charlotte. More than 1,000 people attended Adams’ funeral. TODD SUMLIN The Charlotte Observer

Cherica Adams was buried on Dec. 18, 1999.

More than 1,000 people filled the sanctuary of the Victory Christian Center in south Charlotte to pray for her. In his remarks, pastor Robyn Gool talked about how she died.

“We need a higher value of life,” Gool said. “So many people don’t respect life. You can blow away a pregnant woman, something’s wrong with your head.”

Later that day, at Sunset Memory Gardens in Charlotte, Adams’ silver casket was lowered into the ground.

“I need to cry,” her mother whispered.

Mourners release 24 purple balloons, one for each year of Cherica Adams’ life, during her graveside service at Sunset Memory Gardens on Dec. 18, 1999. TODD SUMLIN The Charlotte Observer

Mourners released 24 purple balloons — one for each year Cherica lived. Each carried a photograph of Cherica. One brushed a tree and popped, stranding Cherica’s photo on a high limb.

Just before the funeral, Saundra Adams and Jeff Moonie, Cherica’s parents, released a joint statement to the media. It read in part: “We cannot help but feel glad that in the midst of our unspeakable grief, God has given us Chancellor as a beacon of hope. We look forward to providing him with the love, affection, guidance and nurturing that will help him grow into a man of which his mother will be proud.”

On Dec. 31, Chancellor Lee Adams was released from the hospital, into his grandmother’s care. Saundra was anxious to get him out of the hospital, just in case the hype surrounding the Y2K computer problem was true.

Dr. Docia Hickey came in on her day off to check the 6-week-old baby out of the hospital and make sure his release happened away from the media.

They sneaked Chancellor Lee out the emergency room doors instead of the front entrance, where the TV trucks had routinely parked for weeks to cover the story.

“We didn’t tell the media,” Hickey said, “until he was already home.”

The man at the funeral

Once Chancellor Lee was home, Saundra Adams took on the role of primary caretaker for her disabled grandson.

In the meantime, a seasoned Charlotte prosecutor named Gentry Caudill was also hard at work. Caudill had been one of the 1,000 people at Cherica Adams’ funeral, trying to get an understanding of the young woman before he talked about her at length in the upcoming trial.

Prosecutor Gentry Caudill (left) was the lead attorney for the state of North Carolina in the Rae Carruth murder trial. It would be his last major trial before he became a judge. Jeff Siner

Carruth was the first known active NFL player to be charged with murder, and Caudill would be the lead attorney for the state of North Carolina in the case against Carruth. The trial would be nationally televised almost every weekday for three months.

Caudill had sent eight men to death row.

He wanted to make Rae Carruth No. 9.