In 1999, they tried to kill Chancellor Lee Adams before he was born.
They conspired to commit murder – to shoot and kill his mother. That way the unborn baby’s life would end, too, and his father wouldn’t have to pay any child support. It was a horrific crime that altered Chancellor’s life forever and exposed us all to the dark side of professional sports.
And yet here is the son of former Carolina Panthers first-round draft pick Rae Carruth. He is smiling, holding on to his grandmother’s arm and walking slowly toward the horse named “Raider” that he rides every week.
Chancellor turned 16 Monday. He already had his “Sweet 16” party. He got to have a magician and his favorite dessert – yellow cake, with strawberry mousse in the middle and whipped cream icing.
“Chancellor is not just surviving,” says his grandmother, Saundra Adams. “He is thriving.”
The boy they could not kill goes to high school in Charlotte now. Chancellor is 5-foot-4, about 7 inches shorter than his father. The two bear a stunning facial resemblance. But Chancellor has a dimple in his chin just like his mom and he also inherited her peaceful nature, Saundra Adams says.
Carruth – still in prison for hiring the hit man who killed Chancellor’s mother, Cherica Adams – is 41 years old. He works as a prison barber and makes a dollar a day.
As a fleet wide receiver for the Panthers from 1997 to 1999, Carruth used to make almost $40,000 per game.
Carruth is scheduled to get out of jail on Oct. 22, 2018. It may surprise you that Saundra Adams hopes Rae will be a part of his son’s life after that, although Rae and Chancellor haven’t seen each other in 15 years.
Chancellor has special needs. Owing to his traumatic birth, he has cerebral palsy. Loss of blood and oxygen the night of his birth caused permanent brain damage. When he was born, he looked blue.
But the boy who wasn’t supposed to talk can communicate a little with people who don’t know him and a lot with people who do. The boy who wasn’t supposed to walk mostly uses a walker to get around now instead of a wheelchair, and he navigates steps without help.
“He’s able to feed himself some,” Adams says. “He’s able to dress himself with minimal assistance. And the biggest thing is he’s able to walk.”
Beside him, every step of the way, has been Adams. She has devoted the past 16 years mostly to taking care of her grandson, ever since she took him home from the hospital on New Year’s Eve 1999 – less than three weeks after Cherica Adams died in the hospital.
It is just the two of them now, living together in a home in Charlotte that is filled with pictures of Cherica, whom Chancellor calls “Mommy Angel.”
“I’ve never treated Chancellor like he’s disabled,” says Saundra Adams. “I treat him like he’s ‘abled’ differently.”
The 911 call
In January 2001, a Charlotte jury sentenced Rae Carruth to at least 18 years and 11 months in prison for his role in conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend. The triggerman, Van Brett Watkins, was sentenced to at least 40 years in prison. In court, Watkins implicated Carruth as the plot’s mastermind. The two other men involved in the plot have served their jail time and been released.
Three of the four men sentenced for the crime have apologized publicly to Adams. Carruth never did.
The murder case remains one of the most notorious in Charlotte history. The Panthers had already become very popular in Charlotte but were playing only their fifth season when Cherica Adams was murdered. In 1997, they drafted Carruth to become one of their future stars.
But by 1999, Carruth had developed a reputation for being an injury-prone brooder in the locker room. He tried out five different uniform numbers. Although he was slim, he told me once in an interview he was convinced that he looked fat unless his number contained a “1.”
Cherica Adams’ mellifluous first name was created by her mother. “Cherica” was a combination of the entertainer “Cher” and a purposeful misspelling of the last two syllables of the brand name of Saundra Adams’ vacuum cleaner – Eureka.
A West Charlotte High School graduate, Cherica worked at a mortgage company and enjoyed socializing. She had an off-and-on relationship with Carruth for months after meeting him at a pool party in Charlotte.
When Cherica got pregnant, Saundra Adams says, Carruth wanted her to have an abortion. She refused.
On Nov. 16, 1999, Carruth and Cherica went on a date but drove in separate cars to see a movie about a serial killer called “The Bone Collector.”
After the movie, she was following his car on Rea Road in southeast Charlotte when Carruth suddenly came to a halt. She stopped behind him.
Another car pulled up alongside her. Watkins shot five times into the BMW that Cherica was driving. Four of the bullets hit Cherica in the drive-by shooting.
None of the bullets hit Chancellor, but her blood was his blood. As blood poured from her wounds, he began to suffocate.
Somehow, Cherica found her phone and found the strength to make a haunting, gasping call to 911. She described the shooting, enabled Chancellor’s rescue by describing where she was and implicated Carruth. The recording was later played in court.
Part of her conversation with the 911 dispatcher 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.”
The power of forgiveness
Chancellor was born later that night, 10 weeks early, by emergency Caesarean section. Carruth was arrested on Thanksgiving Day. He would later panic and try to jump bail after Cherica died. But the FBI found him 500 miles away, hiding in the trunk of a woman’s car at a Best Western motel in Tennessee. The trunk also contained $3,900 in cash and two bottles full of Carruth’s urine.
The ensuing trial was broadcast live nationally on Court TV. Carruth – whose real name is Rae Wiggins – is now imprisoned in Columbia, N.C., in the state’s eastern corner. He unsuccessfully appealed his sentence numerous times.
Carruth has never publicly admitted any involvement in the crime. He did not testify at his trial, and he declined to be interviewed for this story.
In his only interview since the shooting, in 2001 with CNN/SI, Carruth proclaimed his innocence and said Watkins acted on his own. Neither Carruth nor any member of his family has been in contact with Chancellor or his grandmother for many years, according to Saundra Adams.
“They are all missing out on the wonderful person that is Chancellor Lee Adams,” Saundra Adams says.
The last time Saundra Adams, 57, tried to send a picture of Chancellor Lee to Carruth’s mother, Theodry, was several years ago. Theodry Carruth had at one time wanted much more access to her grandson and had gone through the court system to attempt to get it. But the letter and picture came back marked “return to sender.”
Even though Cherica was her only child, Saundra Adams long ago forgave Rae Carruth. She says she had to, for Chancellor’s sake.
“The main reason I want Rae and Chancellor to one day have a relationship is because (Chancellor) is his son,” Adams says. “And that’s why I chose early on that I would forgive Rae. Because I don’t feel like I can offer unconditional love to Chancellor if I don’t forgive Rae. That’s his father. It’s a part of him. Chancellor wouldn’t be who he is without Rae. I want them to bond, or at least to meet again.
“Right now, Rae is still in denial about his part in Cherica’s murder. Not that Chancellor would change that. But if anybody were to ever touch Rae’s heart, to make him want to be truthful, I think it would be Chancellor.”
A Panthers fan
Chancellor once performed in a group dance on the field at Bank of America Stadium just before a Panthers game. No one in the media knew at the time that the son of Rae Carruth was out there on the same field where his father once played, but it is just one of several connections he has to the team.
Chancellor wore a Panthers hat to our interview at Misty Meadows Farm, where he does his therapeutic riding. His grandmother says to call him “Lee,” his middle name, because that’s what everyone calls him except her. It is easier for him to both say and spell “Lee.”
“Hi,” he says, reaching out to shake my hand.
“Hi, Lee,” I say. “Nice hat. Are you a Panthers fan?”
“Yeah!” he says.
“Oh, he watches the Panthers,” Saundra Adams says. “He knows they are having a very good season.”
Saundra Adams and Chancellor got a private tour of Bank of America Stadium a few years ago. They saw the Panthers’ locker room, including the space Carruth used to occupy. They met star wide receiver Steve Smith when he was still with the team. “He was so kind and patient with us,” Saundra Adams says. Chancellor loved it all.
Chancellor also loves baked chicken, green beans and animated movies. He has a collection of DVDs. He loves to take all the movies out of their cases, mix them up in his room and then match them all up again. He loves jazz and once attended a Kenny G concert with his grandmother.
“He had to be the youngest person there,” Adams says, “and he hummed along with everything.”
Dr. Docia Hickey, a neonatologist, cared for Chancellor at the hospital when he was a baby and has stayed close to the family ever since.
“Chancellor has done remarkably well,” Hickey says. “He’s a happy young man. And he loves his grandmother as much as his grandmother loves him.”
The smile ministry
The smile is what first strikes most people about Chancellor. It is a full-out, thousand-watt grin.
“He wakes up smiling and he goes to bed smiling,” Adams says. “He’s had that same happy spirit his whole life. I tell him he’s in the smile ministry. I’ve had numerous people in stores come up and tell me: ‘You know, I was in a really funky mood, and this boy just keeps smiling. And I just cannot be mad when he’s smiling like that.’ ”
Chancellor has never known his mother, except through pictures. He has never known his father, although Saundra Adams keeps a few pictures of Rae Carruth around their house, too. His life mostly revolves around “G-mom,” as he calls his grandmother, and all the places she takes him – school, physical therapy, horseback riding and dance.
He doesn’t understand too much about his mother’s death. G-mom uses pictures to tell him stories, though – including this one.
After his birth, Chancellor was immediately taken away by doctors because of all his health issues. Cherica knew he was alive. But on the day after his birth, she lapsed into a coma from which she never awoke. So Chancellor and Cherica only spent a few minutes together, and only once – a few days before she died, in December 1999.
Cherica had gotten worse and worse, Adams says. She was close to dying. They asked if Chancellor – who had gradually been getting better in the neonatal unit, one floor away – could come see her.
Dr. Hickey and a favorite nurse brought Chancellor to Cherica. They wrapped him in a blanket. They laid Chancellor on his comatose mother’s chest for five minutes.
“I will never forget that,” Hickey says. “I will never forget the sadness, and the respectfulness, of everyone in that room.”
Says Adams: “All of Cherica’s monitors were stable. The machines were doing the work of keeping her alive. But when they placed Chancellor on her chest, the monitors shot up. Her heart rate was just going crazy. You knew she felt his presence there. I know that she knew he was well.”
‘He just did a bad thing’
Many people in Saundra Adams’ position would show bitterness. In 1999, she was looking forward to being a grandmother. Instead, she became a single mother, taking care of a special-needs baby, her only biological child murdered. There is no end in sight to the work she does. She believes Chancellor will always live in her home, needing care, and will stay there even after she is gone.
But she has chosen to become a spokesperson for domestic violence and to fill Chancellor’s heart not with vengeance, but with love.
“I just can’t say how great she is,” Hickey says. “That woman has devoted her life to her grandson, and she’s done a wonderful job. She is happy. So many people could be bitter. But she isn’t. She’s a remarkable woman. Saundra Adams is one of my heroes.”
Says Adams: “I choose to cherish what I have left more than mourn what I have lost. Cherica is not gone. I look at Chancellor and I see her.
“I tell Chancellor that his mom was shot, and his Daddy is in jail because of that, because Daddy did a bad thing. He is not a bad person, he just did a bad thing. And so that’s why he has no parents here with him.
“But I don’t want Chancellor ever thinking that any part of him is bad. Because there is nothing that is bad about Chancellor.”
‘Are you happy?’
It is twilight now at the horse farm. An earlier drizzle has let up, and there are a few streaks of pink and purple in the sky. The 83 acres of Misty Meadows look like a landscape painting come to life. Harry Swimmer, who founded Misty Meadows with his wife, looks up fondly at the boy on the horse.
“Are you happy, Lee?” says Swimmer.
“Yeah!” Lee says, smiling even more broadly.
Lee sits up straighter in the saddle and looks forward. He clucks softly at the horse. Raider starts moving again.
And then Chancellor Lee Adams – the boy who was supposed to die 16 years ago – rides off into the sunset.