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From murder mystery to love story: A reporter’s two decades covering Rae Carruth

Former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth, right, walks to a court appearance in 2005. (Chuck Burton/Associated Press)

Two decades after he was convicted of masterminding the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, former Carolina Panther Rae Carruth is set to be released from prison next week. Charlotte Observer sports columnist Scott Fowler has covered the story from the start. What began, though, as a horrific murder mystery in 1999 has become something more over the years: a story of forgiveness — and love, too. Carruth’s girlfriend, Cherica Adams, gave birth to the child, who has been raised by her mother, Saundra Adams. The child, Chancellor Adams, suffers from cerebral palsy but celebrated his 18th birthday last year.

In anticipation of Carruth’s release, Fowler spent the last year producing a serialized podcast that revisits Carruth’s life, the murder of Cherica Adams and the lives of Saundra and Chancellor. The Washington Post talked to Fowler recently about the two-decade reporting odyssey and what he learned about the peaks and valleys of the human condition.

The Post: You were the Panthers beat writer when Carruth first arrived in Carolina in 1997. What do you remember about your first impressions of him?

Fowler: He was a first-round pick [out of Colorado], and he was a really fast wide receiver. The Panthers were ecstatic to get him because he was projected to go in the top 15 of the draft and he fell to 27th. The Panthers needed more offense and, boy, were they fired up about him . . . He had a good rookie year and then injuries slowed him down. He got here and he was very guarded. Some people love to talk to us and some don’t. Carruth was definitely in the latter camp.

The Post: Did you have any interactions with him?

Fowler: I had a long conversation with him about — and later this took on more importance — uniform numbers. Carruth was one of the few players who was really dissatisfied with every uniform number. He was very into how he looked and despite the fact that he was really a skinny, muscular and wiry guy, he thought he looked fat in all the numbers that didn’t have a one in them . . . He cycled through like five uniform numbers in three years . . . and I remember him telling me, “I want one number I can make famous all on my own.” Later in the 9-1-1 call, the dispatcher is asking his pregnant girlfriend after she’s shot, “Who do you think did this?” She says, “Rae Carruth” and they can’t understand her because she’s moaning in pain. And finally she says, “Number 89.” The number was famous.

The Post: Walk me through your coverage of Carruth after the night of the murder.

Fowler: By ’99 I was a columnist so in the immediate aftermath it was a column about who was Carruth and what was he like. At that time you didn’t know the depth of it. And the answer then, honestly, was we didn’t know much. Then I covered the trial. Not everyday — it went for three months — but it was a sordidly fascinating thing . . . Eventually he gets sentenced, and after he goes to prison, I’m always trying to keep up with the story. I’m always trying to talk with him — and that never works out — but also to talk with others connected to him . . . I didn’t become fully immersed in it again until . . . I made some inroads with Saundra Adams — and if there is a hero of this story [it’s her]. Well, two, really — [her and Chancellor]. I met with her and she decided to trust me. Since then, over the past three or four years, I’ve always written one big story on the people Carruth left behind.

From 1999: Carruth's arrest is a shock to all

The Post: For the podcast, you went back and talked to everyone connected with the case. What is there to learn about the story 20 years later?

The takeaway for me and what has changed my life for the better is being around Saundra Adams. I’ve spent a lot of time with her, and I don’t know how she does it. The compassion and forgiveness that she has shown to really all the people involved in her daughter’s killing, it often makes me think as I’m going through life now, “What would Saundra do?” Somebody cuts you off in traffic, what would Saundra do?

She would never want someone to say she’s a saint. She’s still feisty. She’s still mad at Carruth in ways. But she has forgiven him, and she really has moved on in her life raising this disabled grandson who’s got cerebral palsy and brain damage and it’s remarkable. I mean all the characters are interesting in their own way, but Saundra is the inspirational one. And she has stirred some emotions in me that I didn’t know I had.

[As far as the new reporting], I should mention the hit man. Carruth didn’t pull the trigger. He was convicted of conspiracy to murder [Adams]. But he hired [Van Brett Watkins] to do it, who confessed to doing it. He shot Cherica through the window of his car and so he’s still in jail. I went to see him and spent a very surreal three and a half hours with him one day and he is a very unusual interview. He gave very vivid descriptions and told me a lot of stuff no one ever knew about the crime.

The Post: Has staying with these same people for so long affected you personally at all?

Fowler: If you’re lucky in journalism, you have one story in your lifetime that you remember more than any other. I feel like this has got to be mine. It has taken so many twists — how long does one story stay [newsworthy] for so long? And how long does the journalist stay in the same place for so long? Both of those have to happen . . . When I started with this I didn’t have any kids and I now I have four. It’s been that long.

The story, the murder mystery part of it — I mean Carruth still claims through his lawyer that the way it’s reported is not the way it went down. But it’s really a love story, and it’s a love story between Saundra and the grandson, and that’s the part of it I like to think about when I’m going to bed at night, rather than the nightmarish part of the young woman getting ambushed on a dark road.

The Post: What is Chancellor’s life like?

Fowler: He’s 18, and he’ll always have to live with a caregiver. He walks with a walker and speaks in one or two word sentences, but he’s an incredibly happy kid and very determined. The disabled part was all because of the night. She was shot; she’s pregnant and that affects him not getting enough blood and oxygen. But he would tell you life is really good. He’s only been surrounded by love.

From February: Carruth apologizes for death of mother of his son and makes bid for custody

The Post: Does he understand what his father did?

Fowler: He knows his dad’s in prison, but he does not understand to any real extent. Saundra’s told him that he did a bad thing.

The Post: Carruth gets out of prison October 22. What happens then?

Fowler: At one point, Saundra told me a couple years ago that she and Chancellor were going to be at the prison gates. “I have some things to tell Rae,” she said. That was one of the stories I wrote along the way. As it comes closer it doesn’t seem like she’s going to do that after all . . . She’s gone back and forth on visiting Rae, and at this point, the answer is that he isn’t going to be a part of their lives. I’m not saying he will never see his son, but he’s not going to see him on October 22. I think he’ll end up moving from North Carolina as quickly as he can back to California. His roots are deepest there.

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