Panthers' darkest hour revisited with Rae Carruth's release from prison

AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer, David T. Foster III

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rae Carruth, the Carolina Panthers' 1997 first-round pick, was released on Monday from the Sampson Correctional Institution in Clinton, North Carolina. He had spent 17 years behind bars.

Carruth, now 44, was convicted on Jan. 16, 2001, and sentenced to 18 to 24 years for conspiracy to commit murder of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams, who died about a month after the shooting. At that time, there had not been any cases of an active first-round NFL draft pick who had been charged and convicted with such a crime.

Carruth's release is a fresh reminder of that day on Nov. 16, 1999, when the plot to kill Adams and her unborn child unfolded on a twisting two-lane road in a posh Charlotte neighborhood. Adams was shot multiple times by Van Brett Watkins, who was hired by Carruth. Watkins was sentenced to a minimum of 40 years.

Chancellor Lee Adams, Carruth's son, is now 18 years old. Chancellor Lee survived the shooting in his mother's womb but a loss of blood and oxygen the night of his birth caused permanent brain damage.

One could argue the tragic shooting by the former Colorado wide receiver was the Panthers' darkest hour, darker than the allegations of sexual and workplace misconduct that recently led founder Jerry Richardson to sell the team to billionaire David Tepper.

Richardson was never charged with or convicted of anything. Even though the NFL fined him after a lengthy investigation, he still was supported by many in the organization and in the city, and the story was in the news cycle only a few months. The Carruth story was the topic of conversation for more than a year and a half.

And, as several pointed out, somebody was murdered.

The city of Charlotte was in the infancy of being a pro sports town in 1999. The Panthers had been around three seasons, and despite the unprecedented success of making the playoffs in their second year and the brief playoff flirtation of the NBA's Hornets, the national spotlight seldom shone here as it did in other markets with two major franchises.

The shooting and the ensuing trial brought CNN and other national news agencies to the city. Court TV broadcast almost every minute of the trial, which Carruth's teammates followed daily in the break room at the stadium.

The trial didn't reach the national scope of the O.J. Simpson case that took place in Los Angeles five years earlier. But it put Charlotte and professional sports in this market in the spotlight at a level it hadn't experienced before.

Here are some key questions that arose from that dark moment in Panthers history:

What has happened to Carruth's son, and will Rae have custody when he's released?

Chancellor Lee has been raised by his grandmother, Saundra Adams, in Charlotte. This year, Carruth broke a 17-year silence when he wrote a letter to WBTV in Charlotte and apologized to Saundra for the death of her daughter. He asked whether he could have the "responsibility" of permanent custody for Chancellor after his grandmother dies.

Carruth later wrote a letter making it clear he'll "no longer be pursuing a relationship with Chancellor and Ms. Adams."

"I promise to leave them be, which now I see is in everyone's best interest," Carruth continued after a public uproar over him seeking custody.

"When I revisit this [moment] ... you just hope that Chancellor ... you're thankful he's around," former Panthers starting center Frank Garcia said. "His grandmother is a saint for raising him. She even tried to forgive Rae for Chancellor. She and he, those two individuals are what this story should be about. Unfortunately, it's going to be about a guy that did a heinous crime."

A source close to the situation wouldn't say who will meet Carruth on Monday but made it clear Carruth will not be doing interviews.

How did the Panthers react?

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, in his second year with the franchise in 1999, had to testify for the defense during the trial. He and other team officials have declined to comment for this story.

"That was without a doubt the most significant event in the history of the Panthers," said Steve Beuerlein, Carolina's starting quarterback at the time and now an NFL and college football analyst for CBS. "Obviously, it wasn't to the most prominent person in the organization as it was with Jerry. There's a big difference there. But somebody was murdered."

Most players were in shock over what happened. They shied away from talking about Carruth, in part because few really knew him.

"Rae was a unique person," Beuerlein told ESPN.com. "He kind of stuck to himself. I don't know if he had any real close friends on the team."

How did the city of Charlotte react?

"For better or worse, the mood across the city was excitement," said Chris Fialko, who was Carruth's second-chair co-counsel to David Rudolf. "I know that's hard to say. But Charlotte had always wanted to be a damn world-class city, and all of a sudden we had a world-class trial going on."

It was not a proud moment, obviously.

"That was by far the worst. ... This is a big-time city now. There's going to be big-time things happen that will be publicized. Unfortunately, it was a negative way of putting this city on the map," Garcia said.

Why did this tragedy have such an impact?

The Panthers were three seasons removed from reaching the NFC Championship Game. They'd loaded up the roster with players such as future Hall of Fame linebacker Kevin Greene for a run at the Super Bowl. They fell short of the playoffs by one game, going 8-8.

"It was an exciting time," said Beuerlein, who was selected to the Pro Bowl after passing for a career-high 4,436 yards and 36 touchdowns. "But this Rae Carruth thing was what the rest of the country saw with their first big exposure to Charlotte. ... Obviously, it was a black eye as far as negative attention to Charlotte and to the team's reorganization."

It was more than surreal to others. It was real.

"Embarrassed," Garcia said. "That's the way we felt as players. We'd just come off a glorious two years with the expansion year in '95 and '96 going to the playoffs. The red carpet was rolled out everywhere. Something like this happens and that carpet gets pulled back ... real quick.

"It's like, 'These animals are capable of this! Who knows?' That's kind of the feeling we got. We didn't want to do much. We didn't want to go out. We kept to ourselves."

What's a forgotten detail about the case?

That Carruth fled Charlotte after Adams died on Dec. 14, 1999, and he was found in western Tennessee on Dec. 16 hiding in the trunk of a friend's car a day after he failed to surrender on murder charges in Charlotte.

"We assumed there was something to the story," Beuerlein said this past week. "If he wasn't hiding something, he wouldn't be hiding in the trunk."

Has Carruth been in touch with current or former Panthers?

There is one story shared by Beuerlein, who was surprised when Carruth reached out to him a couple of years ago via social media.

"I got a friend request from him," Beuerlein said. "I had to see what he wanted. So I accepted. It was, 'Hey Steve,' something along the lines of 'I don't know if you remember me.' I was, 'I remember you for sure. How's it going?'

"He said something along the lines of it's been a tough deal, obviously, but I'm looking forward to getting out in a couple of years. Your name came up and I wanted to reach out to see how you're doing. I never heard back from him again. But it was one of the most bizarre friend requests that I've had."

Most current players were in their teens or younger when the murder happened and have heard of Carruth only through word of mouth. They aren't aware that Carruth was the person who wore No. 89 before Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver.

"Until I came here, I didn't know what happened," said tight end Greg Olsen, who came to Carolina in 2011.

Did Carruth get paid by the Panthers or the NFL while in jail?

No. The organization, in conjunction with the NFL, quickly put Carruth on leave of absence without pay and called it a legal matter moving forward.

Panthers coach George Seifert and Richardson then made the decision to waive the receiver once Gene Brown, the team's head of security, informed them there might be a connection with Carruth in Adams' murder. They got the support of then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, the head of the players' union.

The Panthers used a morals clause in Carruth's contract as reason for separating from the player, and the NFL suspended him indefinitely on Dec. 17, 1999.

Janitor and barber are among the jobs Carruth has held in prison. In 2014, he reportedly was making $1 a day as a barber.

Why should NFL fans today care about Carruth's story?

At the time, no one in the NFL had dealt with a plot for murder situation involving an active NFL player.

"People were looking at each other like, 'Really? Can somebody we know possibly do that?' " Garcia recalled. "As much as we wanted to put it out of mind, it was kind of the little constant reminder that the guy next to you, you may think you know him, but you really don't know him well. You might want to get to know him better."

Beuerlein agreed.

"The real questions from our perspective was, 'Could we have seen anything that might have indicated he was having that kind of trouble? Had he been acting any differently leading up to those days,'" he said. "When I look back at it, he was always just a little bit different."