Early on Jan. 31, 2000, Richard Lollar and a childhood friend, Jacinth Baker, were stabbed to death in Atlanta. This much is fact. What’s unknown is who killed them, although the Lollar family still believes Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who’s expected to end his Hall of Fame career at the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, was involved.
Lewis will be celebrated at this year’s game for a remarkable 17-year career that has made him one of pro football’s most recognizable stars. Almost a footnote now is that knife attack 13 years ago, when a 24-year-old Lewis was among those attending that year’s Super Bowl festivities in Atlanta. He was a rising star, his fourth NFL season recently completed, when his path crossed with Lollar, 24, and Baker, 21, at a nightclub in the hours after the St. Louis Rams won the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
By the next morning, two young men lay dead; three others, including Lewis, would be charged with murdering them. Traces of Baker’s blood were discovered inside Lewis’s stretch limousine, and the white suit he had been wearing that night was never found.
“I’m not trying to end my career like this,” Lewis said that night, according to one witness’s testimony.
Four months after the killings, murder charges against Lewis were dropped; he pleaded guilty to a much lesser charge, one count of misdemeanor obstruction of justice, and his two acquaintances were later acquitted. Still, Lewis paid millions in 2004 to settle civil suits filed by Lollar’s fiancee and Baker’s grandmother.
Nearly 13 years after the incident, Lewis’s legacy centers on his outstanding career, his message of faith and giving, and the charisma that will no doubt be on display throughout next week before the Super Bowl.
Richard Lollar’s family in Akron, meanwhile, associates Lewis’s name with something far different, and they continue to struggle — with money and Priscilla’s mother’s illness and the impossibility, even so many years later, to find closure to a situation that has offered none. Some relatives have faced Richard’s death head-on, but his mother has dealt with it by ignoring the ordeal’s most elemental fact: that her son is dead.
Priscilla’s son had moved to Atlanta shortly before his death, and for years, that’s what she told herself: that he was just out of town. The phone might ring any time with his voice on the other end, or he might walk one day through the front door. But dead? No, she wouldn’t consider it. Priscilla says she didn’t even attend her son’s funeral.
“I made myself numb to everything,” she says.
This Wednesday afternoon, though, is different. A reporter has asked her to visit the grave. She says she needed a reason to go, and this is as good a reason as any.
“If it was my son, I would’ve been to the grave,” says Priscilla’s sister Faye, who attended the funeral but hasn’t returned to the cemetery since. “Some people do things differently, but I know it wouldn’t have taken me 13 years.”
A cold wind blows through this neighborhood west of downtown Akron, snowflakes floating to the cold-hardened ground. Priscilla, 56, emerges wearing a sequined hat, pulled low to her eyes, and striped gloves. She asks Faye, seated now at the kitchen table, where to go, but Faye can’t remember the cemetery’s name. Greenlawn, she thinks, but that isn’t correct. All Faye knows is that a tall tree grows near the grave on top of the hill.
“Let’s go,” Priscilla says, and then she leans toward the stove’s blue and orange flame, lighting a half-smoked cigarette.
Demons and temptations
He called her almost every day, Priscilla says. Richard and Baker, friends since high school, moved to Atlanta in search of change. Richard never forgot to check in with his mother.
Some mothers’ stories involve redemption, an unblemished support system and a child’s unquestioned path. Others include drugs, battles with addiction and confrontations settled with knives.
Priscilla speaks openly about her struggles with drugs and the law, and she wanted a better life for her nine children. Addiction sunk its teeth in years ago, and days can still sometimes offer temptations. She was in and out of jail throughout Richard’s childhood, so Priscilla’s mother, Joyce, raised him and several others in the 672-square-foot home she still lives in.
“The best place for Richard,” says Faye, who doesn’t speak with Priscilla about her past problems but believes she has put them aside.
Richard was talented, a singer and dancer and artist who one day asked for as many coat hangers as the family could find, and when they delivered a pile to him, he sat and bent the wire into a sculpture of a monkey. It still hangs in a corner of Joyce’s living room.
If another of Priscilla’s children called her a name or referenced her addiction, Richard would defend her. He had been arrested himself a handful of times on minor drug charges, and so when he proposed to his mother a move south, he also said that when he was settled, he’d return to pick her up.
The night before Richard was stabbed, Priscilla says, he called and talked about the future. He said he wanted to visit to Akron soon, and when it was time to drive back to Atlanta, he wanted Priscilla in the car with him.
‘It was just blocked out’
“This is it right here,” she says, pointing at the entrance sign at Glendale Cemetery. She sits in the passenger seat as the car turns in.
For years, Priscilla refused to discuss her son in the past tense. She told herself that he was still alive. Still in Atlanta, trying to make it as a barber. When relatives put birthday announcements in the newspaper, Priscilla would see them and feel nothing, because without acknowledgement of her son’s death, there was nothing to feel.
“It was just blocked out,” she says. “I’m still thinking he’s in Atlanta, and that’s where I want him to stay.”
Other family members endured their emotions’ cruel spectrum. Joyce, Richard’s grandmother, loathed the men she believed to be involved in her grandson’s death. Master Lollar, one of Richard’s younger brothers, was angry and introspective; he still wants to look Ray Lewis in the eye and ask him what he knows and how he feels. Faye found herself rattled by the mention of Richard’s name; when a bank employee asked about Richard’s death as she was filling out a job application, she looked at her handwriting and saw a nervous and unfamiliar scrawl.
“I just had to ask God to take the animosity out of me,” Faye says.
Priscilla, though, says she felt none of these things. When relatives refused to watch a television with Lewis pictured on it, Priscilla went about her business.
“I don’t think nothing of him,” she says. “I didn’t hate him. I didn’t do none of that.”
About a year ago, Priscilla was talking about Richard when a friend stopped her. Did Priscilla realize that she had just referred to her son in the past tense? Did she know that she had, moments earlier, acknowledged that Richard had passed away?
Later, Priscilla considered visiting the grave. She was getting older, and she didn’t want her life to end, whenever it might happen, with this debt to herself outstanding. But there’s a deep valley between considering this and taking the steps toward knowing where Richard is buried.
“I never did know where it was at,” she says. “I never asked.”
The woman at the cemetery office says Priscilla’s son is buried somewhere in section 19A — on top of a hill, as Faye had remembered.
The car stops near a curb, still idling. Priscilla doesn’t know what this will be like for her. What will she feel? Perhaps worse, what if she still feels nothing?
“I’m thinking more and more, and I can handle it,” she says. “I can handle it now.”
She opens the door.
On Feb. 3, Lewis will be introduced in New Orleans and will play in his second Super Bowl. He said before the playoffs that he’ll retire after this season, and in five years, he will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is headquartered in Canton, Ohio, less than 25 miles from the home where Richard Lollar grew up.
In the years since Lollar’s death Lewis has become one of football’s most beloved figures. He speaks openly about his faith in God, and his No. 52 Ravens jersey is, according to NFLshop.com, one of its highest sellers. At the country’s most-viewed sporting event, most eyes will be on Lewis, who most assuredly will be compared with a warrior making his heroic last stand.
“I don’t want to hear that,” Faye Lollar says, “because he’s not no hero to me.”
Four years after the killings, Lewis settled two civil suits for undisclosed sums, although it is believed that Richard’s fiancee, KellyeSmith, who was pregnant with their daughter when Richard died, received at least $1 million. Baker’s late grandmother — he wasn’t married and had no children, and his parents had died before his own death — also is thought to have received about $1 million in a settlement. The settlements reportedly included a confidentiality clause.
Lewis has denied involvement in the murders, saying in the past that he’s being blamed because of his name and NFL career. Faye Lollar says she believes Lewis possesses that big name, at least in part, because of what happened outside Atlanta’s Cobalt Lounge and, later, in courthouses.
“I got two families hating me for something I didn’t have a hand in, and the people who killed their children are free,” Lewis was quoted by Sports Illustrated as saying in 2006.
Priscilla says she hasn’t developed a strong opinion on Lewis, other than that she wishes some of that money had come their way. Joyce Lollar, now 76, had a stroke last year; Priscilla, who doesn’t work, says some of Lewis’s money — his base salary this season alone is nearly $5 million — could’ve helped pay some of Joyce’s medical bills. Faye moved last year from Tennessee back to Akron, because the family can’t afford a full-time caretaker.
“Money don’t bring him back,” Priscilla says, “but money can make things easier.”
The family is divided on how they’ll spend Super Bowl Sunday. Faye says she won’t watch, because seeing Lewis would ruin the experience. Priscilla says she might watch but won’t root for Lewis’s team.
Priscilla says she has never met her granddaughter, who’s now 12. Maybe, she says, when the child grows older.
Time has a way of changing all things.
A visit long in coming
Priscilla walks through the line of gravestones, her eyes scanning the names. To the edges, to the center, back to the edges. She finds her way to an incline, a row of markers hidden under a thin layer of snow.
A breeze blows through the naked tree limbs, and the sound of faraway cars fills the air. Then, a voice.
“Here he is right here,” Priscilla says with a smile.
She stands there for a long time, saying nothing. She uses the toe of her shoe to push snow from Richard’s marker, adorned with a pair of clasped hands and a cross. Her shoe traces the marker’s perimeter, again and again, and Priscilla chuckles at her discovery. This is a reunion, but more than that it is proof that life’s most complicated things are love and death, and how we deal with them.
Priscilla’s gloves disappear into her pockets, but her eyes don’t leave the marker. As the silent minutes pass, the smile fades. Her lip quivers, and her eyebrows furrow.
“I love you,” she says, barely louder than a whisper. “I love you.”
She wipes a tear from her cheek, and it won’t be the last. She repeats the words. After more than a dozen years of sidestepping emotion, here she stands, experiencing so many.
“I love you,” she says again, her voice growing louder.
She pauses again and stands in the quiet. Then her eyes look up, and she takes a step forward.
“We’ve got to go,” she says.