CLINTON, N.C. — Former Carolina Panther Rae Carruth walked out of prison and back into the free world Monday.
At 8:02 a.m. on a cold and clear October morning, Carruth was released from the minimum-custody facility at Sampson Correctional Institution, about 190 miles east of Charlotte. He will no longer be primarily identified as offender number 0712822 in the North Carolina prison system. He is now Rae Wiggins, also known as Rae Carruth, also known as a free man.
About 10 TV trucks and a couple of dozen members of the media awaited Carruth's release in a parking lot that bordered the prison.
Carruth didn't speak to reporters before entering a white Chevy Tahoe. It was not immediately known who picked him up or where he was headed.
Carruth must meet occasionally with authorities wherever he lives for a nine-month period as part of his post-release requirements.
The Carolina Panthers' first-round draft choice in 1997, Carruth served nearly 19 years in prison. In January 2001, a Charlotte jury convicted Carruth of conspiring to murder Cherica Adams, who was nearly eight months pregnant with Carruth's child when she was shot four times inside her car on Nov. 16, 1999. At the time, Adams was Carruth's on-and-off girlfriend.
Carruth was 25 on the night Adams was ambushed in Charlotte. He was in the third year of a promising NFL career and boasted a net worth of approximately $368,000.
Carruth is now 44 years old. His money is long gone, eaten up mostly by his legal defense. His 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash is a thing of the past as well. His son Chancellor Lee Adams turns 19 next month.
Chancellor Lee has been raised since birth in Charlotte by his grandmother, Saundra Adams. Cherica Adams was her only biological child.
Chancellor Lee was born by emergency C-section less than 90 minutes after his mother was shot. He has brain damage and cerebral palsy owing to the blood and oxygen that he was deprived of during the chaotic minutes after the gunshots.
Adams didn't die immediately of her wounds and saved Chancellor Lee's life with her haunting 911 call. But she did pass away four weeks later in a Charlotte hospital.
In 2016, Adams told me that she and Chancellor Lee planned to meet Carruth at the prison gates so that he could see his son and she could talk to him honestly about the crime he committed and its aftermath.
In recent months, though, Saundra and Chancellor Adams both changed their minds about being in Clinton on the day of Carruth's release.
"We're not going," Saundra Adams told me Sunday.
Saundra Adams hasn't ruled out Carruth and Chancellor Lee seeing each other at some point in the future, however. While Adams said she doesn't believe she, Chancellor Lee and Carruth will ever have a sustained relationship, she also said she long ago forgave Carruth and doesn't wish ill on him as he re-enters society.
"I want to forgive him so that I can move on and enjoy the fruits of my labor and enjoy my life," Adams said in a recent interview. "Because if I'm sitting around in unforgiveness, it's like me drinking poison and hoping he's going to die."
Carruth's murder conspiracy conviction stemmed from the fact that the jury believed that Carruth had hired a hitman, Van Brett Watkins, to shoot and kill Cherica Adams and her unborn child so Carruth wouldn't have to pay child support.
Two co-conspirators - Watkins and Michael Kennedy, who drove the car used in the drive-by shooting and also acquired the gun Watkins used to shoot Adams - testified in court in 2000 that Carruth masterminded the murder plot.
Carruth already had another son at the time of Cherica Adams' shooting, and he was paying $3,000 a month in child support. That son is now 24. He and Carruth have talked on the phone regularly in the past few years. That son, like Chancellor Lee, never visited Carruth in prison, however, according to his mother, Michelle Wright.
Carruth told WSOC-TV in a phone interview days before his release that he wished that Saundra Adams had brought Chancellor Lee to see him before his prison sentence ended.
"I was really looking forward to the opportunity to see my son - to touch him, to hug him, to kiss him," Carruth said of Chancellor Lee Adams. "All these things I've never had the opportunity to do. And I wanted to apologize to him in person for all that he's been through."
Carruth has never admitted to conspiring to murder Adams, a fact that still rankles Saundra Adams. A Charlotte jury convicted him on three counts, including conspiracy to commit murder, in 2001. But it acquitted Carruth of first-degree murder.
Carruth's lead defense lawyer, David Rudolf, spoke with the former NFL player in August at the prison and then was authorized to speak to the Observer by Carruth.
Rudolf said in an interview that Carruth still maintains Watkins shot Adams on his own as an act of violent retribution after Carruth backed out of an agreement to finance a drug deal. However, Rudolf said, Carruth doesn't argue with the jury's compromise verdict even though Carruth tried to appeal it several times.
"He (Carruth) sort of thinks it sort of came out probably where it should have," Rudolf said of the jury's verdict, "in that he was responsible for putting Cherica in that place."
In February, Carruth wrote a letter to WBTV saying he would one day like to have primary guardianship of Chancellor Lee Adams. This infuriated Saundra Adams, who said at the time Carruth would never get primary custody of the son he once wanted dead.
"He will never be raised by a stranger - someone he doesn't know and who tried to kill him," Adams said of Chancellor Lee.
Carruth reversed course in a later letter to the Charlotte Observer, saying he understood his initial suggestion was a mistake and telling everyone to "please calm down" because he would not pursue custody of Chancellor Lee.
Carruth has been in custody since he was found in a friend's car trunk in Tennessee in December 1999, trying to hide from authorities in a space that was far smaller than a prison cell. When he was captured, Carruth's pants were down around his knees and he had $3,900 and two bottles full of urine in the trunk with him, according to Mark Post, the FBI agent who caught Carruth.
In 2000, while in jail, the former English major at Colorado wrote a poem called "How It Feels To Be Caged."
Carruth's poem began:
"Think about how many times you've been to the zoo
"Ever wonder how it would feel if one of the animals were you?"
"I bet you've never sensed the animals' pain, humility or rage
"Because it's impossible to conceive unless you've lived on both sides of the cage."
Where Carruth goes next - or what he will do for a living - is unclear. His future relationship with the son he was convicted of trying to kill is also muddy.
But one thing is for sure: For the first time in nearly 19 years on Monday, Carruth switched sides of the cage.
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