Captured in Flight
After Cherica Adams, 24, was rushed to the hospital, doctors performed an emergency cesarean section to deliver a son 10 weeks prematurely. She was never again able to talk to police. Nine days later police arrested the father of the baby, wide receiver Rae Carruth, 26, of the National Football League's Carolina Panthers. He and three other men were charged with conspiring to commit murder. Carruth denied any guilt, but when Adams died Dec. 14, he jumped bail. After a day on the run he was found by FBI agents as he hid in the trunk of a car outside a Tennessee motel. A beautiful young woman lay dead. A promising football career was apparently over. Even in the world of professional sports, where players' off-field troubles have been widely publicized, the case was as stunning as it was tragic.
Perhaps most shocked were those who knew Carruth as a soft-spoken young man who wrote poetry and said he wanted to be a teacher. "I've never seen him be angry or violent," says Amber Turner, 22, Carruth's girlfriend from the fall of 1996, when they met while he was at the University of Colorado, until December 1997. "He never raised a hand at me—or even his voice."
Growing up in the rough-and-tumble Oak Park section of Sacramento—where he was born in 1974, the son of social worker Theodry Carruth, 45, and a man with whom she had split up by the time Rae was 6 months old—Carruth had been known as a quiet boy with a penchant for occasional pranks. "If anything bothered him, he would keep it so locked up inside that we thought it would be eating him up," says high school friend Errol Mercado Sr., 26. But he excelled on the football field, eventually earning a scholarship to Colorado, where he broke the school record for touchdown receptions.
It wasn't all smooth sailing. After he had a freshman year fling with Michelle Wright, a woman back in Sacramento, she gave birth to a son, Rae, now 5. Though he saw the boy infrequently, Carruth seemed to love children, fawning over the kids of people he knew back in Sacramento. "He'd sit on the floor and wrestle with them and play," says Lisa Valos, 32, a family friend.
At Colorado he began dating Amber Turner, and when Carruth was drafted by the Panthers in 1997, landing a $3.7 million four-year contract, she moved with him to Charlotte, where he excelled on the field and kept a low profile elsewhere. "Because his teammates were all married, we didn't meet many friends," says Turner. "We were just normal people staying at home."
But they broke up after his rookie season, and Turner moved back to Colorado. Carruth's career suffered a setback in 1998, when he missed all but two games of the season with a broken right foot. Sometime after that he met Cherica Adams, a beautiful young Charlotte resident who had worked as a model and a real estate saleswoman. Friends told the Charlotte Observer that Adams traveled frequently and knew many professional athletes. One recalled going with Adams to last year's NBA All-Star game in New York City, where Shaquille O'Neal stopped to say hello. For three months in 1997, Adams sold clothing at a boutique in an upscale topless club and later worked as a topless dancer at the Diamond Club in south Charlotte. "She was not Rae's girlfriend," insists Theodry Carruth. "She was an acquaintance." But Amber Turner, who still speaks frequently to Carruth, is troubled by a telephone call she received from him on Nov. 14. "He mentioned to me that he had got this stripper girl pregnant," says Turner, who assumed Carruth was joking, as he often did. "I feel bad that maybe I didn't listen."
The next night, Carruth left a Charlotte movie theater with Adams. James Exum, a lawyer for one of the three suspects charged with Carruth, told the Charlotte Observer that Carruth, driving his Ford Expedition in front of Adams's car, was on his cell phone to one of three men in a vehicle that pulled up next to Adams. At about 12:30 a.m. shots allegedly fired from that car struck Adams. "I didn't count them, but I knew there were four, five or six shots," says Farrell Blalock, who heard them from his two-story colonial home in a comfortable southeast Charlotte neighborhood. Though he saw bullet holes in her car window, Blalock says Adams was alert and he saw no blood. "I thought surely she was going to make it," he says. Sadly she did not, but her baby, after suffering seizures, survived and is living with Adams's mother, Saundra, 42, who named him Chancellor Lee Adams. On Dec. 6, Carruth, William Edward Watkins, 44, a car detailer who had apparently done work for Carruth, Michael Kennedy, 24, and Stanley Abraham Jr., 19, were indicted on charges of attempted murder. Freed on $3 million bond before Adams's death, Carruth agreed to report to the judge in case she or the baby died. But when Adams did so on Dec. 14, he dropped out of sight.
On the run with beautician Wendy Cole, a family friend, he made frequent calls to his mother, who, realizing a police pursuit might end violently, eventually alerted authorities. At a motel in Wildersville, Tenn., FBI agents tracked down Cole, who led them to Carruth, who had been huddled in the trunk of her car for some 20 hours. "I saved my son's life," says Theodry Carruth.
With the suspect in custody—and facing a possible death penalty for murder—the question remains: What motive would a man with such a promising future have for committing such a crime? One possibility: money. Carruth was already paying $3,500 a month to the mother of his child in California, and now, after suffering a severe ankle sprain early in the 1999 season—his second serious injury in two seasons—Carruth may have worried that his lucrative career might be in jeopardy.
Now, released by the Panthers and suspended indefinitely by the NFL, he faces a new set of concerns. "He has asked, 'Mama, how am I going to pay these attorneys?' " says his mother, who is managing his defense team. Just before Christmas she visited him at Charlotte's Mecklenburg County Jail. "It was hard to look at him through the glass," says Theodry Carruth. "If they look in your face and see that something is bothering you, they lose hope. So he saw nothing but hope in my face."
Don Sider and Michaele Ballard in Charlotte, Vickie Bane in Denver, Ron Arias and Emily Bazar in Sacramento and Beverly Keel in Memphis
On Newsstands Now
- Brad's Devotion: The Inside Story
- Oklahoma Tornado: Heroic Rescues
- Michael Douglas on Catherine's Health
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine