CHARLOTTE, NC (Scott Fowler/The Charlotte Observer) - The boy Rae Carruth wanted dead is working hard.
He sits in the Charlotte office of his occupational therapist, practicing one of the mundane tasks he finds so difficult because of his cerebral palsy and brain damage. On this day, his task is to button a single button on his shirt.
One minute ticks by. Then another. Six months ago, it took the boy 15 minutes to button this one button. He furrows his brow, concentrating.
The boy's mother, Cherica Adams, was murdered in 1999. She was killed because of a murder conspiracy masterminded by Carruth, the first-round draft choice of the Carolina Panthers in 1997. Carruth wanted to kill his on-and-off girlfriend because she was eight months pregnant with his child and he didn't want to pay child support. He hired a hit man to pull the trigger.
The four bullets that struck and ultimately killed Cherica Adams in a south Charlotte drive-by shooting also severely damaged her unborn baby.
That baby is now this boy. He will turn 17 in November – only seven years younger than his mother was when she died. His name is Chancellor Lee Adams. He's wearing a purple shirt because that's his favorite color.
ARCHIVE: Photos from the Rae Carruth trial
Suddenly, Chancellor Lee gets his body to obey him for one sweet second and threads the button perfectly through the button hole.
It has taken him two and a half minutes, with several false starts and the aid of a buttonhook. Still, this is the fastest he has ever done it.
"That was incredible, Lee!" says Abbey Wash, the therapist from Child & Family Development who is guiding this session. "A new record!"
Saundra Adams, Cherica's mother and the lady who has raised her beloved grandson from birth, wipes a single tear from her cheek and breaks into applause.
Chancellor Lee is thrilled by the acclaim. Everyone who ever meets him comes away talking about his ear-to-ear smile. He flashes it now, then raises his arms above his head.
"Yeah, yeah!" the Chancellor Lee shouts. "Oh, yeah!"
Two years away
At a minimum-security prison in Columbia, N.C. – 323 miles east of Charlotte – the boy's father does his own work.
Rae Carruth has been trained as a prison barber. Paid $40,000 per game by the Panthers in the late 1990s, he now cuts the hair of other inmates. He makes one dollar per day.
Carruth, 42, won't be in prison too much longer. He has served about 90 percent of his sentence. His projected release date is two years away – Oct. 22, 2018.
Carruth was convicted in a jury trial in Charlotte in 2001 of conspiracy to commit murder, but acquitted of a first-degree murder charge. He did not testify in his own defense.
He has not seen his son since Chancellor was a year old, at a heavily supervised prison visitation before Carruth was convicted.
It is possible Carruth will be transferred to another N.C. prison – one that specializes in preparing inmates for their return to society – in the next year or so. But no matter where Carruth is on Oct. 22, 2018, Saundra and Chancellor Lee Adams plan to be standing just outside the prison gates when Carruth goes free.
They have some things to tell him, Saundra Adams says.
Jon Embree coaches tight ends for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but before that he spent 17 years at the University of Colorado – first as a standout player, then as an assistant coach and the head coach.
That's where, in the 1990s, he met Carruth.
Embree still remembers the first time he saw Carruth, who had flown in from his California home to Boulder, Colo., for his official recruiting visit.
"Rae carried a briefcase," Embree says. "He had a suit on, too – the whole nine yards. He was all about business. He wanted to know about everything, not just the football aspect, but the academics, social life and all of that."
Embree was close to Carruth, and saw a side of him at Colorado that he has a hard time reconciling with the man who would plot such a heinous crime.
"Rae was tremendous with kids," Embree says. "I remember once a kid asked him for his autograph and told him he was his favorite player. And then the next weekend was the kid's birthday party. Rae showed up at the party – and he brought a present for the kid, too."
Enamored with his speed, the Panthers drafted Carruth with the 27the overall pick in the 1997 NFL draft. Carruth had a good rookie year – scoring all four of his career NFL touchdowns – but tailed off significantly after that, in part because of a foot injury.
Embree kept up with Carruth occasionally, as he did many former Colorado players. He says he was shocked by the shooting in 1999 and Carruth's subsequent arrest. The coach still remembers the shock of hearing about Carruth's capture in Tennessee – Carruth had jumped bail and was found hiding in a car trunk that also contained $3,900 in cash and two bottles of Carruth's urine.
Embree wasn't sure what he could, or should, do. He let it be.
About a dozen years later, though, Embree saw an HBO special that chronicled the lives of Chancellor Lee Adams and his grandmother, as well as Carruth.
The coach felt compelled to reach out to someone. But he didn't contact the former player he still hasn't spoken with since the murder.
Instead, in 2012, Embree called Saundra Adams.
'I think he did it'
Saundra Adams long ago decided to choose happiness over bitterness and to forgive Rae Carruth for his role in her daughter's murder. But the details of Cherica Adams' death remain seared into her mother's memory.
Cherica Adams was Saundra's only child – a striking young woman with a unique name. Saundra made it up by combining the name of the entertainer "Cher" with a purposeful misspelling of the final two syllables of her Eureka vacuum cleaner.
Cherica worked at a mortgage company, but also for a while as a nanny. That job made her decide any child of hers was always going to have excellent manners, which is why Saundra has taught Chancellor Lee to say "Thank you" at every opportunity.
Cherica enjoyed social life. Her beauty – as well as the peaceful nature she had and that her son inherited – attracted people to her. She met Carruth at a pool party hosted by another pro athlete in Charlotte, and the two began an off-and-on relationship.
When Cherica got pregnant in 1999, Carruth wanted her to have an abortion, Saundra says. Carruth already had another child – born while he was still in college – and did not want to be financially responsible for a second child.
Cherica wanted to have the baby, though. The two didn't see each other for awhile. Then Carruth asked her out on a movie date in November 1999, although they drove in separate cars. The film they saw – called "The Bone Collector" – was about a serial killer.
After the movie, Cherica Adams was following Carruth's car on Rea Road in southeast Charlotte. Carruth suddenly pulled over and stopped. Cherica did the same.
Another car then drove up beside her BMW. Van Brett Watkins, who would ultimately testify in court that Carruth hired him, shot five times into the BMW before his driver sped away. Four of the bullets hit Cherica.
None of the bullets hit her unborn baby. But as blood began to pour out of Cherica's body, the baby started to suffocate.
What followed was a courageous and haunting "911" call by Cherica Adams. She saved her baby's life with the call, moaning in pain while giving her location and implicating Carruth. Part of the call 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."
After a nationally televised trial, Carruth was sentenced in 2001 to at least 18 years and 11 months in prison for his role in conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend. Three other men involved in the conspiracy also received sentences for the crime, with Watkins sentenced to 40 years as the triggerman. Those three all eventually apologized to Adams.
Carruth never has apologized – or publicly acknowledged he did anything wrong. He declined my interview request for this story.
He did his only interview since the shooting in 2001, with CNN/SI, saying he was totally innocent and that Watkins acted on his own. Saundra Adams calls this theory "delusional."
Carruth unsuccessfully appealed his conviction numerous times until all his appeals were exhausted. Carruth's mother, Theodry Swift, has remained in touch with her son. Swift lives in California and also declined an interview request for this story, although she did provide several comments in an email she sent me.
"I don't think anything I could possibly share," Theodry Swift said in that email, "would change public opinion of my son."
'Maybe I can just talk to him'
As a prisoner for the past 16 years, Carruth has mostly kept out of trouble. The last infraction he was written up for in prison – for fighting – came in 2004. His projected release date seems unlikely to change.
When Carruth does walk out of prison, he will be 44 years old. It is possible he will try to make a living as a barber. It is possible he will move back to California, where most of his family still lives.
What is certain is that Saundra Adams plans to be there and have her say on the day he is released.
"I'm hoping that I'll be able to make contact with Rae, maybe by next year," Adams says, "so it won't be a total surprise to him. I'm not trying to just corner him. I want him to know that we want to be there."
Adams says her deep Christian faith has helped her forgive Carruth. What she longs for now is for her grandson – who bears a startling resemblance to his father – to have some sort of relationship with his only living parent.
Asked how she envisions the day that Carruth is released, she says: "I would like Chancellor and I to be there so he could officially meet his son. Even if it's for a few minutes – just have an embrace with his son.
"Maybe I can just talk to him and tell him some important things about what his son is doing, and where he is in life."
And if Carruth snubs his son? Saundra Adams has a plan for that, too.
Therapy, Part II
Chancellor Lee Adams is slowly writing his name.
He is back in the offices at Child & Family Development in Charlotte, where he has gone at least once a week for a dozen years and is considered part of the family.
Everyone here calls him by his middle name, Lee, because it is easier for him to say and to write. He grips the marker, his hand curled around it awkwardly. Because he is excited today by the presence of several visitors in his therapy session, his hand shakes. His task: to write "Lee Adams" on a piece of paper that has the sort of wide lines you might remember from first grade.
"Take a deep breath first, Lee," Wash, the therapist says. "Your hand is already moving."
"OK," Chancellor Lee says. He slowly writes L-E-E. The letters are legible but jagged.
"That's good, but that's going to be your practice one," Wash says. "Let's do it again."
The second time the letters are much straighter.
"Beautiful!" Wash says. "Now your first name has straight lines but your last name has all these curves. Do you want me to write it first or tell you the letters?"
Saundra – whom Chancellor calls "G-mom," for grandmom – interrupts.
"You know how to spell Adams," she says. "How do you spell Adams?"
"A-D-A-M-S," Chancellor Lee says, and then writes it down to applause.
"Nice job!" Wash says.
"Thank you," Chancellor Lee says.
Progress with Chancellor Lee has always come very slowly but steadily.
"It can take him years to learn something like putting on a shirt or self-feeding," Wash says later, "just because of his varying muscle control and his physical challenges with cerebral palsy. He's been working on putting his shirt on, honestly, for four years. But he blows every goal out of the water at the end, persisting until he can achieve it, with no complaining whatsoever."
Next up: "Coopin."
That is what Chancellor Lee calls "scooping," which is what he does when he practices getting small items out of a bowl with a spoon. His grandmom would like him to be able to feed himself more effectively.
"He's really not sensitive about people watching him – but I am," says Saundra Adams. "People kind of stare, because I'm feeding him some, and usually it's because I don't want to make a big mess in the restaurant. ... When I let him do it himself, he gets the stares. I don't think he gives a hoot about it. It's more me."
The progress is amazing for a child with so many challenges, both mentally and physically.
"I can't believe 17 years has gone by," Adams says. "I remember it like it was just yesterday, talking to the medical staff and them telling me all the things he won't be able to do. That he won't walk. He won't talk. He's not going to be able to feed himself. That you'll be lucky if he's able to sit up. ... And under my breath I was rejecting every last word of it. I wasn't in denial. ... But I had a faith that was stronger and bigger than what those facts were."
For Amy Sturkey, Chancellor Lee's primary physical therapist since he was 5, his attitude is what stands out.
"He's so genuinely sweet," Sturkey says. "I remember as he started developing as a young man thinking, 'Oh this is going to be the end of him being so sweet.' Most of my clients start with more of 'Why me' and 'It's not fair' and 'I don't want to have to work like this' as they get older. ... But he's just the kindest, most loving boy. I wish everybody could get to meet him."
'I don't blame the Panthers'
Saundra Adams graduated from UNC Charlotte and once was employed by IBM. But she no longer works, having devoted her life to caring for her grandson. She and Chancellor Lee primarily support themselves with governmental assistance. They live in a modest home in Charlotte's university area that they have nicknamed the "Purple Palace." She has received some donations over the years that she has applied to their living expenses.
Adams, 58, says she has never been contacted in an official capacity by the Panthers – although she and Chancellor Lee are major fans of the team and have met several individual Panthers players, including current defensive end Kony Ealy. Neither the club nor the NFL has ever helped her financially, she says.
When Carruth fled to Tennessee instead of turning himself in when charged with murder in December 1999 after Cherica Adams died in the hospital, the Panthers waived him. They have stayed far away from Carruth, and the case, ever since.
"What the Panthers did was distance themselves from Rae Carruth when this happened," Adams says. "He was their team member, and they cut him from the team. I don't blame the Panthers organization (for not reaching out to help Carruth's son). Of course, I think it would have been nice if they had done something, because they do support a lot of different charitable causes. But I think to do so may have put them in a situation they didn't want to be in."
Panthers team spokesman Steven Drummond said the team did not wish to respond to Adams' comments or to questions as to why the club has not helped the family financially.
The Adamses have gotten aid from Carruth's old college. Saundra and Chancellor Lee Adams have been receiving donations for several years from a foundation called "Buffs 4 Life" set up at Colorado. That's because of Jon Embree, Carruth's former college coach at Colorado, who decided after talking to Saundra Adams that he had to help.
"She is someone who really walks the walk," Embree says of Saundra Adams. "It's easy to say 'Forgiveness' when it's not you. Yet she does it. The first time I was able to talk to her was just unbelievable. The happiness and the joy in her voice – I mean, it was incredible."
Embree has arranged for Adams and Chancellor to visit Boulder, Colo., during his foundation's annual golf tournament and share her story. For each of the past four years, the foundation has made a donation to the family. Now Embree is the point man who is trying to raise $80,000 so that the Adams can build a substantial addition onto the "Purple Palace."
The idea is for Chancellor to get a bedroom and a bathroom downstairs so he can continue to live in the house as he and his grandmother grow older. When Saundra Adams eventually dies, she says another caregiver will likely move into the house to help with Chancellor Lee – who will never be able to live completely on his own.
Embree, who is married and has three children, said he hopes to come to Charlotte and start planning the addition in the spring of 2017, once Tampa Bay finishes its NFL season.
"I told Saundra this was a lifetime commitment," Embree says. "I don't like doing anything halfway. Just to help her a little bit for a couple of years and then disappear ... no. If you're going to do it right, you have to try to do it for a lifetime."
The occupational therapy session is almost over. Chancellor Lee has buttoned his shirt, written his name and worked on feeding himself. It is time for his reward, the one he looks forward to at the end of every session.
"I'm going to put your favorite song on now, Lee," Wash, the therapist says. "It's your theme song, isn't it? Time for our dance party."
The voice of Pharrell comes through the loudspeakers. In one chair, Chancellor Lee starts to shake his shoulders. In a chair across the room, Saundra Adams does the same thing.
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Wash reaches her hands out for Chancellor Lee, who grabs them and stands up.
"You want to dance by yourself?" Wash says. "Can you balance well enough?"
"Yeah!" Chancellor Lee says, and Wash releases his hands.
The boy makes two thumbs-up signs while he dances and starts to sing along as the song's chorus repeats.
"Happy," Chancellor Lee says, grinning widely. "Happy!"
Finally, the release
What if, on Oct. 22, 2018, Saundra and Chancellor meet Carruth at the prison gates, and Carruth snubs his son?
After all, Carruth has never written to Chancellor Lee from prison, never taken any responsibility for Cherica Adams' death, and never wanted the boy to be born in the first place.
"If he does that, you know, I think he's going to be the one that's losing," Adams says. "He will lose out on the opportunity to know a really great young man.
"And to see how hard Chancellor has worked and the determination that he has, I would just hope he wouldn't reject himself. Because to me, to reject Chancellor is to reject himself. If he does that, that's on him."
She knows, though, that a cold shoulder from Carruth is possible – maybe even probable.
"What I will not let it do is make Chancellor feel like he is unloved," Saundra says. "So whether he accepts him or he rejects him, I will already be grooming Chancellor ahead of time that his actions mean nothing as far as how you are loved.