Exclusive: Ex-Panther Rae Carruth offers new details in pregnant girlfriend’s murder, attorney says

Rae Carruth, right, was represented by attorney David Rudolf, left, during his murder trial,...
Rae Carruth, right, was represented by attorney David Rudolf, left, during his murder trial, which ended in January 2001(Jeff Siner | Charlotte Observer)
Updated: Sep. 6, 2018 at 10:57 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (The Charlotte Observer) - After 19 years, former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth has offered new details about the night his pregnant girlfriend was shot, according to David Rudolf, who was Carruth’s primary defense attorney during his murder trial.

Carruth now says, according to Rudolf, that he fled the scene because he thought he was in danger himself just before Cherica Adams — driving behind Carruth in a separate car on Nov. 16, 1999 — was shot four times in Charlotte.

In an exclusive interview with The Charlotte Observer, Rudolf said he visited Carruth at a North Carolina prison in August and Carruth authorized the attorney to provide additional details about the night of the shooting.

Charlotte defense attorney David Rudolf who represented former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth during his murder trial discloses new information Car

Rudolf was Carruth’s lead defense attorney in the three-month murder trial that ended in January 2001. He has remained in occasional touch with Carruth, who was the Panthers’ first-round draft pick in 1997.

During that August visit, Rudolf said, Carruth told him a detail that the former NFL player has never offered publicly before — that Carruth actually was there moments before the shooting of Adams in 1999. Carruth then “took off,” Rudolf said.

Carruth, who has refused multiple interview requests from the Observer, is scheduled to be released from prison on Oct. 22 after serving almost 19 years for conspiracy to commit murder. Jurors believed he had masterminded a conspiracy to kill Adams and her unborn child to avoid paying child support. But the same jury acquitted him of first-degree murder.

Carruth did not testify during the trial, and the questions of what he saw that night and exactly where he was at the time of the shooting have always gone publicly unanswered.

“He was scared, and he took off,” Rudolf said of Carruth’s actions on the night of Adams’ shooting. “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.”

Saundra Adams, Cherica’s mother, said in response to Carruth’s new version of the story Tuesday night: “I don’t believe that. I think it’s another excuse not to be accountable. But none of it is bringing Cherica back.”

‘I think he did it’

On Nov. 16, 1999, at about 12:25 a.m., Cherica Adams was following Carruth in a separate car on Rea Road in south Charlotte after they had gone on a movie date. A third car, driven by a friend of Carruth’s named Michael Kennedy, trailed both Carruth and Adams. Then the third car pulled alongside Adams, and a man named Van Brett Watkins shot Adams four times in a drive-by shooting before speeding away.

Watkins contended in the trial that Carruth hired him as a hitman because the Panther did not want to pay child support for his unborn baby.

Cherica Adams
Cherica Adams(Courtesy of Saundra Adams)

Adams and Carruth had an on-and-off relationship. She was 30 weeks pregnant at the time with his baby. She called 911 that night after the shooting and was able to save the life of Chancellor Lee Adams, by guiding rescuers to her bullet-riddled car. The baby was born by emergency Caesarean section about 75 minutes after her call.

Adams also implicated Carruth in the 911 call, saying of Carruth: “He was in the car in front of me and he slowed down and somebody pulled up beside me and did this.”

Asked the 911 medic: “And then where’d he go?”

“He just left,” Adams said. “I think he did it. I don’t know what to think.”

Cherica Adams died four weeks after the shooting, of multiple organ failures stemming from gunshot wounds. Her child is now 18 years old. Chancellor Lee Adams, who has cerebral palsy owing to the traumatic circumstances of his birth, has been raised in Charlotte by his maternal grandmother, Saundra Adams.

Rudolf, who no longer actively serves as Carruth’s lawyer, said Carruth told him in August that he was afraid he was going to get shot himself that night because Watkins was angry with the NFL player for backing out of loaning him some money for a large-scale marijuana deal.

“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,” Rudolf said of Carruth. “Instead, Van Brett Watkins shoots Cherica. And then Rae suddenly finds himself in a situation where he’s been there; he left. And what’s he going to do? And so he sort of panicked.”

Never took the stand

This prison photo shows former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth, who is scheduled to...
This prison photo shows former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth, who is scheduled to be released Oct. 22, 2018, after serving close to 19 years in connection with the death of Cherica Adams in 1999. Carruth has admitted for the first time that he was at the scene of Adams’ shooting -- and then fled in a panic.(Department of Corrections)

Carruth never took the stand in his own defense in his nationally televised trial, which ended in January 2001 with a split verdict. But Rudolf said in 2001 that the football player “wasn’t there” at the site of the shooting.

After the defense rested its case in the trial, Rudolf told reporters outside the courtroom in explaining why Carruth didn’t testify: “Rae wasn’t there, so he can’t say what happened. ... Rae doesn’t have a whole lot to add.”

Rudolf told the Observer recently, however, that Carruth had never really given the attorney a full accounting of his actions on the night of the shooting until their recent visit. The lawyer said that given Carruth’s impending release that he was “curious” as to what happened that night and so he “pressed” Carruth for more detail, which Carruth gave and then authorized Rudolf to share.

Rudolf said he completely believes Carruth’s story now and that he also understood why Carruth had not given him these details before or during the trial.

“I run and she gets shot?” Rudolf said, recounting Carruth’s version of events. “That’s embarrassing. And so I didn’t feel like, ‘Well gee, Rae, why didn’t you tell me that at the time?’ I sort of understand why as — given his ego and who he was and what he was doing — why he wouldn’t want to say that. Now it’s 19 years later. ... So he’s got no reason now to hold that fact back.”

Chancellor Lee Adams (left) has been raised by his grandmother, Saundra Adams (right), and is...
Chancellor Lee Adams (left) has been raised by his grandmother, Saundra Adams (right), and is now 18 years old. Owing to the traumatic circumstances of his birth, Chancellor Lee Adams has cerebral palsy. He was delivered 10 weeks early after his mother, Cherica Adams, was shot four times in 1999. His father is former Carolina Panther Rae Carruth, who was convicted of masterminding the conspiracy to shoot Adams. She would die of her wounds four weeks later.(Jeff Siner | Charlotte Observer)

Rudolf said Carruth still subscribes, however, to what the defense presented as its primary theory during the murder trial — that Watkins was angry at Carruth because the NFL player had backed out of an agreement to finance a drug deal, and that Watkins had shot Adams on his own accord in a fit of rage.

Watkins took a second-degree murder plea in 2000. He is not scheduled to be released from jail until 2046. Kennedy and Stanley Abraham, the third man in the car that pulled alongside Cherica Adams, both served time in prison and have been released.

‘He said he feels responsible’

Rudolf repeatedly said that Carruth, now 44, had authorized the lawyer’s interview with the Observer.

“He’s fine with me talking with you,” said Rudolf, whose own profile has increased dramatically this summer due to his starring role on Netflix in the true-crime documentary “The Staircase.”

Tiffany Trice has known the extended Carruth family for decades, talks regularly to Carruth by phone and has been confirmed by another Carruth family member to also hold Carruth’s power of attorney. Trice was asked Wednesday if Rudolf is still authorized to speak for Carruth.

“That is very accurate,” Trice said, noting that Carruth had also told her of his visit with Rudolf over the summer.

Trice added: “Anything that Dave Rudolf has to say, I’m sure that Rae definitely has discussed with him in detail pretty much everything. ... So his (Rudolf’s) conversation with him (Carruth) — he can definitely explain that to you and give that information to you.”

As for Carruth’s level of guilt in the case given this new information, Rudolf said Carruth accepts culpability in the sense that if he had never originally agreed to finance the drug deal, Adams would not have died.

“He said he feels responsible,” Rudolf said, recounting his recent conversation with Carruth. “Because if he hadn’t agreed to do that, Cherica would still be alive. So in that sense, he is responsible. It’s just ... not a murder case. It’s morally responsible.”