First-Degree Tragedy Rae Carruth was a gifted but unassuming wide receiver for the Panthers. Now he stands accused of ordering the murder of his pregnant girlfriend--a horrific crime that, like Carruth himself, remains shrouded in mystery

December 27, 1999

He wanted to be a screenwriter when his football days were over,
yet nothing Rae Carruth could have dreamed up for Hollywood
could have matched this: A first-round NFL draft choice, accused
of murder and on the lam, making a cell-phone call to his bail
bondsman from inside the trunk of a female friend's Toyota Camry
in a motel parking lot. Yet that was where the 25-year-old
Carruth, a genial and well-liked wide receiver for the Carolina
Panthers, found himself on the evening of Dec. 15. When FBI
agents popped the trunk, Carruth, fearing he might be shot,
raised his hands and surrendered, perhaps never to see freedom
again.

To the shock of those close to him, Carruth became the first
active NFL player ever charged with first-degree murder.
Prosecutors say he arranged to have his 6 1/2-months-pregnant
girlfriend, 24-year-old Cherica Adams, killed in a Nov. 16
drive-by shooting on a quiet street in Charlotte. Of the many
questions swirling around the case--How did Carruth know the
three men in the car from which Adams was allegedly gunned down?
What motive could he have had?--none was as difficult to answer
as the simplest: Who is Rae Carruth?

To start with, he's not Rae Carruth. Legally he's Rae Lamar
Wiggins, his surname coming from the biological father who
didn't raise him. Yet, while growing up in a hardscrabble
section of Sacramento, he always went by the last name his
mother, Theodry, took on when she married Rae's stepfather. When
that marriage broke up, Theodry was left to raise Rae alone. She
forged an extraordinarily close bond with him.

Rae loved rugged sports--at age seven he drew pictures of
himself as an NFL player--but he also had a soft side,
especially around women. As he grew into a teen, eventually
earning a football scholarship to Colorado, he proved deft at
winning the affection and trust of women, sometimes dating
several of them simultaneously without the others' knowing.
While a sophomore in college he fathered a son, Raelondo, with a
girlfriend in Sacramento and was later ordered to pay $3,500 a
month in child support.

Carruth valued his privacy. When Colorado teammate Rashaan
Salaam won the Heisman in 1995, Carruth told a friend he would
never want that much media attention. As a senior he refused to
grant interviews, even to acquaintances who worked for the
school paper. "He was always somewhat mysterious and reserved,
almost as if he was sitting back watching everything around him
unfold while he took notes in his head," says a college friend,
Elizabeth Newman, who's now a reporter for SI.

Shortly before the 1997 draft, thieves broke into Theodry's
house and burned it down. Though the fire shook him up and
affected his performance at the NFL combine, Rae attempted to
hide it from NFL teams, afraid that they would think he was
involved with gangs in Sacramento. After joining Carolina as the
No. 27 pick--he received a four-year, $3.7 million contract--he
had a brilliant first season, leading NFL rookies with 44
catches and 545 receiving yards, but remaining somewhat of a
puzzlement. He wore five jersey numbers in three seasons. When
he was arrested, none of his teammates claimed to know him very
well, though all described him as friendly.

Carruth's career took a downturn after his first year. He missed
virtually all of 1998 with a broken right foot. He had caught 14
passes in five games this season when he was sidelined with a
sprained right ankle suffered in a 31-29 win over the San
Francisco 49ers on Oct. 17.

That injury coincided with a change in his attitude toward
Adams's pregnancy, according to her mother, Saundra. After
initially asking Cherica to consider an abortion, Saundra said
last week, Carruth became "excited about the baby, seemingly."
For several months, she said, Carruth attended prenatal-care
visits with Cherica, but he stopped going after he was hurt. "He
seemed to be more pressured after his injury," Saundra said,
"more pressured about money and how much the baby was going to
cost him."

Even though Cherica was a successful real estate agent who could
have paid for much of the baby's care, Carruth may have had
reason to feel squeezed. On top of having to make support
payments for Raelondo, he reportedly had lost money in an
alleged pyramid scheme involving car title loans in South
Carolina and is being sued for backing out on the purchase of a
$224,000 house in Charlotte. Investigators theorize that
Carruth, concerned about his NFL future and the prospect of
doubling his support payments, may have panicked.

This much appears irrefutable: If Carruth--an English-education
double major in college who made the academic All-Big 12
team--did mastermind the murder of Adams, he did so with
remarkable clumsiness. Early on Nov. 16, shortly after midnight,
Carruth was driving his white Expedition, followed by Adams, in
her black BMW, in a residential neighborhood in Charlotte,
according to lawyers involved in the case. The two, who began
dating after they met at a party a year ago, had gotten together
that evening. According to the attorneys, Carruth used his cell
phone to call another car, in which three men were riding:
William Watkins, 44, who detailed Carruth's car and did odd jobs
for him, and who, according to a court document, was the
triggerman; Michael Kennedy, 24, an acquaintance of Watkins's
who recently had pleaded guilty in South Carolina to illegal
possession of a 9-millimeter pistol; and 19-year-old Stanley
Abraham Jr., a day laborer whose relationship to the others is
unclear. The attorneys allege that shortly after receiving the
call the car with the three men drew alongside Adams's car, and
Watkins opened fire. Four bullets struck Adams, in the neck, the
chest and the abdomen. She called 911 on her cell phone and gave
an account of the shooting. After nearly a month in the
hospital, she died on Dec. 14. Her baby, a boy named Chancellor
Lee Adams, was delivered by caesarean section hours after the
shooting. He remained in fair condition on Monday at the
Carolina Medical Center.

Carruth, Watkins, Kennedy and Abraham were all arrested for
conspiracy to commit murder, among other charges. Carruth, who
was put on unpaid leave by the Panthers, posted $3 million bond
and was released. When Adams died, the conspiracy charge was
changed to first-degree murder for all four men. An arrest
warrant was issued for Carruth, who didn't turn himself in.
Carolina immediately cut him.

Within 24 hours FBI agents--acting on a tip that originated with
Theodry--tracked their man to a gray Toyota parked outside the
Best Western motel in the small town of Wildersville, Tenn., 426
miles west of Charlotte. Theodry told Carruth's bail bondsman
what kind of car her son was in, who owned it--Wendy Cole, a
Charlotte hairdresser who was a friend of both Rae's and
Theodry's--and where it was located. Theodry's act was motivated
by love; she knew that fugitives often end up dead.

So four men face murder charges and possibly the death penalty.
A baby boy has no mother. The mother, a beautiful young woman
who liked life's sparkly side, was buried last Saturday. The
minister at the funeral service, Robyn Gool, didn't bid goodbye
to Cherica Adams gently. "Some people think life is partying,"
he said in his sermon. "They think that life is clubbing. Some
people think life is sex. Some people think life is popularity.
Some think life is material possession. None of these things is
life. Life is a relationship with God."

The casket was closed. The baby was still in the hospital. The
alleged mastermind, so-called, behind the murder was in jail.
The Panthers still have two games left in their season. For Rae
Carruth, a.k.a. Rae Lamar Wiggins, his season is over. All the
rest of his seasons may be over, too.

COLOR PHOTO: WBTV 3 VIA NEWS AND OBSERVER/AP Nabbed After Adams (opposite) died, Carruth fled to Tennessee, where the FBI found him in the trunk of a car and hauled him in. COLOR PHOTO: HELEN COMER/JACKSON SUN [See caption above] THREE COLOR PHOTOS: AP (3) Accused Prosecutors allege that (from left) Watkins--the supposed triggerman--Abraham and Kennedy worked with Carruth, whose three-year career as an NFL wideout appears to be over. COLOR PHOTO: BRANT SANDERLIN [See caption above]

"He seemed more pressured after the injury," said Saundra, "more
pressured about money and how much the baby would cost him."

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