He wanted to be a screenwriter when his football days were over, yet nothing Rae Carruth could have dreamed up for Hollywood could have matched this: A first-round NFL draft choice, accused of murder and on the lam, making a cellphone call to his bail bondsman from inside the trunk of a female friend's Toyota Camry in a motel parking lot. Yet that was where the 25-year-old Carruth, a genial and well-liked wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, found himself on the evening of Dec. 15. When FBI agents popped the trunk, Carruth, fearing he might be shot, raised his hands and surrendered, perhaps never to see freedom again.
To the shock of those close to him, Carruth became the first active NFL player ever charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors say he arranged to have his 6�-months-pregnant girlfriend, 24-year-old Cherica Adams, killed in a Nov. 16 drive-by shooting on a quiet street in Charlotte. Of the many questions swirling around the case—How did Carruth know the three men in the car from which Adams was allegedly gunned down? What motive could he have had?—none was as difficult to answer as the simplest: Who is Rae Carruth?
To start with, he's not Rae Carruth. Legally he's Rae Lamar Wiggins, his surname coming from the biological father who didn't raise him. Yet, while growing up in a hard-scrabble section of Sacramento, he always went by the last name his mother, Theodry, took on when she married Rae's stepfather. When that marriage broke up, Theodry was left to raise Rae alone. She forged an extraordinarily close bond with him.
Rae loved rugged sports—at age seven he drew pictures of himself as an NFL player—but he also had a soft side, especially around women. As he grew into a teen, eventually earning a football scholarship to Colorado, he proved deft at winning the affection and trust of women, sometimes dating several of them simultaneously without the others' knowing. While a sophomore in college he fathered a son, Raelondo, with a girlfriend in Sacramento and was later ordered to pay $3,500 a month in child support.
Carruth valued his privacy. When Colorado teammate Rashaan Salaam won the Heisman in 1995, Carruth told a friend he would never want that much media attention. As a senior he refused to grant interviews, even to acquaintances who worked for the school paper. "He was always somewhat mysterious and reserved, almost as if he was sitting back watching everything around him unfold while he took notes in his head," says a college friend, Elizabeth Newman, who's now a reporter for SI.
Shortly before the 1997 draft, thieves broke into Theodry's house and burned it down. Though the fire shook him up and affected his performance at the NFL combine, Rae attempted to hide it from NFL teams, afraid that they would think he was involved with gangs in Sacramento. After joining Carolina as the No. 27 pick—he received a four-year, $3.7 million contract—he had a brilliant first season, leading NFL rookies with 44 catches and 545 receiving yards, but remaining somewhat of a puzzlement. He wore five jersey numbers in three seasons. When he was arrested, none of his teammates claimed to know him very well, though all described him as friendly.
Carruth's career took a downturn after his first year. He missed virtually all of 1998 with a broken right foot. He had caught 14 passes in five games this season when he was sidelined with a sprained right ankle suffered in a 31-29 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 17.
That injury coincided with a change in his attitude toward Adams's pregnancy, according to her mother, Saundra. After initially asking Cherica to consider an abortion, Saundra said last week, Carruth became "excited about the baby, seemingly." For several months, she said, Carruth attended prenatal-care visits with Cherica, but he stopped going after he was hurt. "He seemed to be more pressured after his injury," Saundra said, "more pressured about money and how much the baby was going to cost him."
Even though Cherica was a successful real estate agent who could have paid for much of the baby's care, Carruth may have had reason to feel squeezed. On top of having to make support payments for Raelondo, he reportedly had lost money in an alleged pyramid scheme involving car title loans in South Carolina and is being sued for backing out on the purchase of a $224,000 house in Charlotte. Investigators theorize that Carruth, concerned about his NFL future and the prospect of doubling his support payments, may have panicked.
This much appears irrefutable: If Carruth—an English-education double major in college who made the academic All-Big 12 team—did mastermind the murder of Adams, he did so with remarkable clumsiness. Early on Nov. 16, shortly after midnight, Carruth was driving his white Expedition, followed by Adams, in her black BMW, in a residential neighborhood in Charlotte, according to lawyers involved in the case. The two, who began dating after they met at a party a year ago, had gotten together that evening. According to the attorneys, Carruth used his cell phone to call another car, in which three men were riding: William Watkins, 44, who detailed Carruth's car and did odd jobs for him, and who, according to a court document, was the triggerman; Michael Kennedy, 24, an acquaintance of Watkins's who recently had pleaded guilty in South Carolina to illegal possession of a 9-millimeter pistol; and 19-year-old Stanley Abraham Jr., a day laborer whose relationship to the others is unclear. The attorneys allege that shortly after receiving the call the car with the three men drew alongside Adams's car, and Watkins opened fire. Four bullets struck Adams, in the neck, the chest and the abdomen. She called 911 on her cell phone and gave an account of the shooting. After nearly a month in the hospital, she died on Dec. 14. Her baby, a boy named Chancellor Lee Adams, was delivered by caesarean section hours after the shooting. He remained in fair condition on Monday at the Carolina Medical Center.