CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It came in the form of a neatly hand-written letter. Fifteen pages folded inside an envelope from the Sampson Correctional Institution in Clinton, North Carolina. The carefully penned words offered nearly two decades of thoughts from a man who made headlines in the worst of ways and then disappeared.
Rae Carruth has spent the last seventeen years of his life behind bars. In 2001, the star Carolina Panthers wide-receiver was convicted of charges related to the murder of Cherica Adams, a beautiful 24-year-old who was seven months pregnant with his child. She was shot four times while driving her BMW by someone Carruth hired to pull the trigger.
The story made national and international news. The thought of a 1997 first round draft pick having the soon-to-be mother of his child killed in order to avoid paying child support didn't make much sense.
But that's what police said happened. He was arrested twice in the months after the shooting; first, in November 1999 on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder, among other charges.
He was arrested a second time a month later, in December 1999, after Adams died. FBI agents found Carruth hiding in the trunk of a car in the parking lot of a Best Western hotel in Tennessee. He, along with three co-defendants, was charged with murder.
A little more than a year later, in January 2001, Carruth was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, shooting into an occupied dwelling and using an instrument to destroy an unborn child. He was found not guilty of the first-degree murder charge.
He was sentenced to 18 to 24 years in prison and is scheduled to be released this fall.
Motivated to break his silence
During the trial, Carruth didn't take the stand and aside from one interview he did with CNN early in his sentence, the public has never heard his side of the story.
Instead, the narrative has been written by a bright-eyed boy with an infectious smile. Carruth's son, Chancellor Lee Adams, is 18 years old now. Cherica's mother, Saundra Adams, has been by her grandson's side as he's fought to overcome the challenges that come along with his Cerebral Palsy diagnosis.
Chancellor's joy is apparent and Carruth can feel it – even behind bars.
While he's only met his son twice, both times in the early years of his life, Carruth has kept a close eye on Chancellor through frequent newspaper and television stories. And he says Chancellor alone is the reason he's finally deciding to break his silence as his October release date quickly approaches.
An open-letter to Saundra Adams is the way Carruth has chosen to share his side of the story. Over the years, Chancellor's grandmother has done interviews that Carruth claims haven't always been truthful. Therefore, he spent days working on a letter that would offer his version of the truth to Adams and the world for the first time.
Carruth says he long ago accepted his lot as a "social pariah". He knows people may hate him even more after reading his words. But he only seems to care about one person. Carruth says he wants to be a father to his son.
The letter, addressed to Ms. Adams, was sent to WBTV, not her personally. He says that's because he's written her before and received no response. This way he can apologize to her once and for all for what happened to her only child.
The call from Sampson prison
Saturday afternoon, the phone rang in the WBTV conference room. The recording announced a call from the Sampson Correctional Institution.
On the other end of the line was the voice of a man that used to be recognizable from post-game press conferences. Seventeen years in prison hadn't changed Carruth's voice from that of the Panthers player captured on tape in the WBTV archives.
The call had to come in the late afternoon after he finished his shift as a barber at the prison barbershop. He works there on Fridays and Saturdays.
Since being incarcerated, Carruth has earned his certification as a barber from the North Carolina Board of Barber Examiners.
At first, Carruth spoke cautiously. He's always been wary of reporters and, he said, watching the way his story had been covered over the past two decades hadn't done anything to ease his hesitation.
His call to WBTV was arranged by a longtime family friend who reached out to a WBTV reporter after Carruth decided to write the letter.
While he was eager to get his side of the story out, he wasn't excited about speaking on the record.
He finally agreed to a recorded interview after some back-and-forth with a reporter.
'I take responsibility for what happened'
"I feel like if I did it in the open, it would put an end to the lies. If I say publicly, 'Ms. Adams, I apologize, Ms. Adams, I take responsibility for what happened,' that she can no longer get on television and do an interview and say Rae has never apologized to me," Carruth said.
Carruth wouldn't answer questions about the specifics of the night Cherica was shot multiple times. But he does say he takes full responsibility for her absence.
"I'm apologizing for the loss of her daughter. I'm apologizing for the impairment of my son," Carruth said. "I feel responsible for everything that happened. And I just want her to know that truly I am sorry for everything".
He still wishes he could go back to 1999.
"If I could change anything, I'd change the whole situation. His mother would still be here and I wouldn't be where I'm at. So that's what I'd want to change. I want the incident to never have happened at all," he said.
From the beginning, the story read that Cherica was Carruth's girlfriend. In fact, a neighbor told WBTV the night of the shooting he heard Cherica tell police her boyfriend, Rae Carruth, was responsible.
But he tells a different story. In the letter, Carruth addresses their relationship and the alleged motive that he had her killed because she wouldn't get an abortion. Carruth says the two were never in a relationship. Instead, he says, the two had just casually "hooked-up" a handful of times.
Carruth admits he brought up the possibility of abortion when Cherica told him she might be pregnant. But according to him, he never broached the subject again once she expressed her desire to keep the child.
'I should be raising my son, his mother should be raising her son'
While Carruth touches on many topics in the letter, he says his main goal in writing it was to hopefully build a relationship with Chancellor one day. Carruth, now 44, feels like he owes him.
"I let him down as he came into this world and the only way that I can make that right and the only way I can work out my relationship with my son is to be there for him," he said.
Adams has said in past interviews she plans to be at the prison gates with Chancellor when his father is released. She's also said she is open to the two having a relationship. The day Carruth read that, he says he mailed visitation paperwork to Adams and invited them to Sampson County, but never received a response. Carruth knows he's a stranger to his son but he wants to start building a relationship before his release.
In the letter, Carruth tells Adams she, of course, won't live forever and he'd like to be the one to care fulltime for Chancellor eventually. He says he realized the responsibility that carries.
"I should be raising my son. His mother should be raising her son. Ms. Adams should not be doing this and I want that responsibility back," he said. "I feel like he might not ever have his mother in his life but he could still have me and I could still make a difference and I don't think that's anyone's responsibility when I'm still here".
Through the photographs and videos Carruth has seen of Chancellor over the years, he says he sees himself, and Cherica, when he looks at his son.
And while he's critical of things said about him by Ms. Adams, he's nothing but complimentary of and grateful for the role she's played in Chancellor's life.
In the letter, Carruth thanks Adams for the "unconditional care, compassion, love and support" she's shown the child from the very beginning. He goes on to call Chancellor a "miracle child" and credits Adams for that.
A changed man, ready for a quiet life
Carruth says he's not the person he once was; seventeen years behind bars and a relationship with God has changed him. He admits the version of himself in the public eye twenty years ago was immature and self-centered.
"When I first got incarcerated I would ask myself how did this happen? How are you here? And the number one answer that I had was I didn't have a relationship with God," he said. "And I know some people might smirk or laugh about that but I know now that I have a very real relationship with God and that's changed a lot of the ways that I see and view a lot of things".
On October 22nd, 2018, Rae Carruth will be a free man. He doesn't say much about his plans, just that he'll likely go back to California to live a private life. He hopes Chancellor can one day be a part of it and he wants Saundra Adams to know the ball is in her court.
As the call wrapped up, Carruth paused after being asked what about the biggest lesson he's learned while in prison. He sighed and said, "I've learned that the choices that we make in life don't just affect us. They affect your loved ones, your family, the people around you and that's something I didn't realize before."
Now, he says, he wants to make up for that.