The boy Rae Carruth couldn’t kill is now a young man graduating from NC high school

Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 11:39 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Charlotte Observer) - Every high school graduation is a small miracle.

This one, though, feels more miraculous than most. The boy Rae Carruth once tried to kill has become a young man about to graduate from a Charlotte high school.

Chancellor Lee Adams has already tried on his cap and gown to make sure it fits. He has an orange-and-blue shirt and tie to wear underneath the gown and match his school’s colors. He plans to walk across the stage with the other Vance High graduates at 5:30 p.m. June 5 at Charlotte’s Bojangles’ Coliseum, not with the aid of the walker he uses less and less, but instead standing tall and holding onto the arm of his favorite high-school teacher.

“Yeah!” Chancellor Lee said, as we sat together Monday at a picnic table at Freedom Park.

Chancellor Lee is 21 years old. He has permanent brain damage and cerebral palsy owing to the chaotic circumstances of his birth in 1999, when his pregnant mother, Cherica Adams, was shot four times in Charlotte by a hitman hired by Carruth, the former Carolina Panther.

Cherica Adams would eventually die from her injuries that night — her murder trial was nationally televised 20 years ago. But she saved her unborn son’s life with a haunting 12-minute “911” call she made from her car after the drive-by shooting on Nov. 16, 1999.

Former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth exits the Sampson Correctional Institution...
Former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth exits the Sampson Correctional Institution in Clinton NC in October 2018. Carruth served almost 19 years in connection with the death of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams.(Jeff Siner | Charlotte Observer | Jeff Siner | Charlotte Observer)

Carruth was a wide receiver from Sacramento who starred collegiately at Colorado and was the first-round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers in 1997. He was convicted by a North Carolina jury in 2001 of conspiring to murder Adams, his on-and-off girlfriend at the time of the ambush.

After serving nearly 19 years in N.C. prisons, Carruth was released in October 2018. Upon his release, he moved to Pennsylvania to live with a friend. I tracked down his address a few weeks later, rang his doorbell and eventually obtained the only interview he has given since his release.

Carruth, now 47, was unable to be reached for this story.

Since he became a free man, Carruth once sent his son several thousand dollars through the court system (he owes the Adamses millions in damages). But he has had no face-to-face contact with his son since Chancellor Lee was a baby. Saundra Adams, Cherica’s mother and the woman who has raised Chancellor Lee from birth, doesn’t think Carruth knows that her grandson is about to graduate from high school.

“I’m hoping that someone will tell him about this great milestone that Chancellor is reaching,” said Adams, who long ago forgave Carruth and his three co-conspirators in the murder-for-hire plot. “And as always, I’m still open — maybe we can have some communication.”

Carruth has never admitted that he orchestrated Cherica Adams’ murder. He wrote to me in an email in 2018: “Do you think it’s possible for a generally good person to get him/herself involved in a situation as heart-wrenchingly horrible as the one I was in, or is it your belief that such a person could only be cut from the worst of molds?”


As for Chancellor Lee’s mother, Saundra Adams is absolutely sure that Cherica Adams knows about the upcoming graduation.

Cherica Adams, who died at age 24, always loved butterflies. Even now, when Saundra sees one, she believes it is a sign Cherica is watching over Saundra and Chancellor Lee from heaven.

So Cherica would appreciate the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis her only child has made — from a premature baby who wasn’t ever supposed to walk, talk or live very long to a loving young man with a diploma and a smile that lights up a city.

Saundra Adams was texting with one of Cherica’s best friends the other day. Recounted Saundra: “I said, ‘I know Cherica is in heaven, smiling.’ And she said, ‘Girl, you know that’s an understatement! She is doing more than smiling! She’s singing, dancing, cutting cartwheels — she’s got all the angels together rooting for him. She’s saying: ‘That’s my boy right there!’”

Like all Vance students, Chancellor Lee will be allowed four guests at graduation. Although neither of his parents will be there, Saundra’s older brother will attend, along with his wife. A cousin who Saundra has designated to be Chancellor Lee’s future guardian, when and if that is necessary, will also be there.

And of course, as always, there will be Saundra, Chancellor Lee’s beloved “G-Mom.”

In case you are also attending the Vance graduation, be advised: Saundra said she doesn’t plan on holding her applause until every graduate walks across the stage. She’s waited 21 years to be able to clap and yell and figures that’s long enough.

“He’s really worked hard,” Saundra said of Chancellor Lee. “He’s been on the A/B honor roll a lot. I’m just so proud, so I may be a little loud.”


Chancellor Lee has actually spent the past six school years at Vance — four in the Exceptional Children’s high school program, then two more in a transitional program aimed at teaching life skills. Although he will always need a live-in caregiver and usually speaks only a word or two at a time, Chancellor Lee has learned how to order his own food at a restaurant and understands the concept behind a credit card.

Every day, for years, he and the other young men and women in the EC program at Vance recited a class motto. As I sat with Chancellor Lee and Saundra at that picnic table, they decided to say it together. While his grandmother’s pronunciation was clearer, Chancellor Lee had obviously memorized all eight lines.

I am somebody

I can reach my goals

I show respect

And I use self-control.

I have dreams

I choose to lead

Nothing can stop me

I will succeed!

Saundra Adams, left, claps for her grandson Chancellor Lee Adams, right, as a small group of...
Saundra Adams, left, claps for her grandson Chancellor Lee Adams, right, as a small group of passerby joins in at Freedom Park Monday. Chancellor Lee will be graduating from Vance High School.(Jeff Siner | Charlotte Observer | Jeff Siner | Charlotte Observer)

Chancellor Lee will be part of the last graduating class at Vance; the school is changing its name to Julius L. Chambers High School.

Zebulon Vance, the school’s original namesake, was a Confederate soldier and later a senator and a governor of North Carolina in the 1800s. Vance owned slaves and, once the Civil War ended, attempted to keep Black citizens from voting.

Chambers, a civil-rights icon, did landmark legal work that led to the desegregation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in the 1970s.

“It is significant that Chancellor is part of the last class from Vance,” Saundra Adams said. “And to me, it just goes along with our theme. Our story has been a story of transformation from the very beginning. You can take something that seems to be so bad and to have so many negative connotations, and you can end up making good of it.”


What will Chancellor Lee and Saundra do next?

They’re not quite sure. They have long talked about starting a business called “Lee’s Lids,” which would sell caps and hats online. Saundra has done some motivational speaking about the power of forgiveness and may do more of that.

At Freedom Park, Chancellor Lee’s appearance in cap and gown for our interview caused a stir. Of the 10 random people that walked by our out-of-the-way spot, at least five recognized him immediately. They wanted photos or fist-bumps. Several broke out into spontaneous applause when they saw him walking by a small grove of river birch trees.

One man stopped fishing in the park’s pond to come over and tell Chancellor Lee, “You’re a blessing to this community, son. A real blessing.”

“Thank you,” Chancellor Lee said.

When the last photo had been taken, it was time to go. I walked with the Adamses back to their parking space, carrying Chancellor Lee’s walker because he was feeling strong enough not to use it.

As they took the final few steps to the car, a monarch butterfly lit on the ground in front of them.

“Hey, Cherica!” Saundra Adams said.

I looked around, startled, then realized Saundra was speaking to the butterfly.

The butterfly flexed its wings a few times as the Adamses approached. As they slowly passed by, it stayed put.

Chancellor Lee smiled toward the butterfly. His grandmom opened the car door for him, folded up the walker and put it in the trunk. The butterfly remained.

“We love you, too, Cherica,” Saundra said.

Then they drove away, and the butterfly flew off.

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