AKRON, Ohio – Ray Lewis was not convicted of the two murders with which he was charged 13 years ago. He agreed to plead guilty to obstruction, a misdemeanor, and testified against two members of his entourage.
Lewis’ testimony didn’t help the prosecution much. His associates, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, were acquitted.
Nobody has been convicted of the violent stabbing deaths that occurred with multiple witnesses, Lewis included, outside an Atlanta nightclub hours after the Super Bowl.
That was a long time ago for many of us. The details of the melee were gauzy at the trial and have faded more with time.
Lewis, meanwhile, became an NFL demigod.
He will conclude a brilliant football career Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII. The Baltimore Ravens linebacker has been selected for 13 Pro Bowls and likely will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible in five years.
Lewis perfectly fits the narrative of the transcendent sports hero – an overtly religious man who has conquered his past, an inspirational leader of men – with the chance to galvanize his celebrated legacy by winning the world championship in his final game.
What a story line. Over the next seven days, Lewis will be a dominant character in the throbbing buildup toward kickoff. Among the superstar Ravens and San Francisco 49ers on the field, Lewis will stand apart. He will be a focal point.
“I’m in awe of the work that God can do in one man’s life. To me, Ray’s the epitome of that,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last Sunday after the Ravens beat the New England Patriots to reach the Super Bowl.
“Ray’s a guy that has turned everything over. He’s surrendered everything, and he’s become the man that he is to this day. He’s a different man than he was when he was at 22 or 15 or whatever. I think everybody sees that right now. I think it’s a great thing for kids to see. It’s a great thing for fathers to see.”
Reminders of what happened in Atlanta 13 years ago will be inconvenient for Lewis’ ride-into-the-sunset script.
Wouldn’t it be more pleasant if everybody just forgot about those deaths and let Lewis bask in the klieg lights one last time?
The families of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker can’t forget.
While Lewis sermonizes at Super Bowl media day about being guided by the Lord, delivers his fiery pregame speech, wraps up a career that earned him about $100 million in football salaries and millions more in sponsorship money, perhaps raises the Lombardi Trophy and then heads off to an ESPN broadcasting career, two men lie beneath modest placards in Akron cemetery plots about 20 miles away from where Lewis’ bronze Hall of Fame bust will be visited by generations of football fans in Canton.
“It’s sickening to see him,” Baker’s uncle, Greg Wilson, told The Buffalo News this week. “It’s sickening to see his face. It’s sickening to see his name and everybody glorifying him. It’s disgusting to see America grasp him like this.
“People who are saying ‘Let it go,’ I’ll tell you what: Let it be your child, your nephew. Then tell somebody to let it go. You can’t let it go.
“When somebody can stand in our shoes, they would see you can’t let it go. ... We won’t let it die. We’re not going to stop.”
Until four days ago, Priscilla Lollar refused to acknowledge the oldest of her nine children was dead. She spoke about him in the present tense. She refused to attend his funeral. She couldn’t bear to see his grave. She didn’t even know where it was.
Priscilla Lollar saw his plot at Glendale Cemetery for the first time Wednesday. She crunched up a snowy knoll on a bone-chilling, gray afternoon and found Richard Lollar’s name in Section 19, Lot 1, Grave 3.
“It’s still hard for me to accept that he’s gone,” she said. “I see his name there. Maybe that’s the only way I know to deal with it. Maybe if I thought about never being able to see him no more I wouldn’t want to live. I would’ve just gave up.”
Priscilla Lollar stared at the headstone for a few silent moments and began to sniffle. An ambulance wailed along the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway. She broke down in tears, removed the mitten tops from her half-finger gloves and vigorously wrung her hands before bringing them to her trembling cheeks.
“Right now, I just want to see what’s up under there,” she sobbed. “I want to see if he’s in there, something. I don’t know. I don’t know. I wonder if he’s in there. I don’t know.
“I never seen him in no casket or anything. So I don’t know. Now I want to see what’s up under here. I want to see if he’s in there or anything.”
She began to howl.
“I want him to come on back home! I just want him to come home!”
[Video: Watch Priscilla Lollar visit her son’s grave]
Lollar’s brother grieves
Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinth Baker, 21, were buddies who wanted to escape Akron’s bleak, industrial landscape. They’d had their interactions with police over minor drug offenses, but they dreamed big and were drawn to cosmopolitan Atlanta.
Richard was a barber with plans to open his own shop. He began cutting hair when he was in grade school and eventually won local hairstyling contests.
He was imaginative and talented. When he was 12, he asked his mother to bring home some wire hangers for an art project. He twisted them into a monkey sculpture that wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery. It proudly hangs in the living room of the family’s Hartford Avenue home.
“He was a good dude,” said Master Lollar, 8 at the time his big brother was killed. Master Lollar considered Richard the guiding force in his life.
Now Master imagines the conversations they should be having and tries to guess what advice Richard would give him. Master dropped out of Buchtel High in 2007, but those metaphysical discussions with Richard compelled him to get his diploma recently and apply to barber college, too.
“He’s still a good dude,” Master Lollar said. “I just pray and talk to him and hope that he gives me the guidance. He talks to me back. Every day I wish he was here. Every day it hurts.”
Richard Lollar’s fiancee, Kellye Smith, was pregnant when he was killed. Their daughter is 12 years old now and lives near Atlanta. Smith’s family sued Lewis for $13 million in damages.
Baker’s grandmother, Gladys Robinson, sued Lewis for $10 million.
Lewis avoided civil trials by settling both lawsuits out of court.
Baker also was the oldest child in his family and wanted to make a living as an artist.
“He had a God-given gift,” Greg Wilson, his uncle, said. “He could draw things from memory or out of the clear blue sky. It was something else. That’s gone now.”
Baker’s parents died about a year before he did. His father had a heart attack. His mother had a brain tumor.
In a way, Wilson considers them fortunate. They didn’t have to bury their son.
“This family is hurting,” Wilson said. “This family is hurting bad. My mom and dad [Baker’s grandparents] went to their graves knowing that nobody went to jail for Jacinth’s murder. That boy’s murder took a toll on this family like you wouldn’t believe.”
Reporters in New Orleans this week likely will ask Lewis about the murders. He and his teammates have bristled about those questions, but they won’t go away.
“That was a sad, sad tragedy and we all have sympathy for the families who lost their loved ones,” Lewis said in a statement sent by the Ravens to The News. “I hope the families eventually find peace.”
Witnesses not credible
Members of the Baker and Lollar families still refer to Lewis as “a murderer,” although they know that he isn’t – not in legal terms or reality.
In practical terms, however, they believe he was critical to helping the killers get away with repeatedly stabbing Baker and Lollar in the chest outside the upscale Cobalt Lounge on Jan. 31, 2000.
“How can somebody help commit a murder and people praise him for playing a game?” said Faye Lollar, Richard’s aunt, who attended the trial in Atlanta. “They’re chanting and giving him the glory. For what? I believe he was involved with it just as much as everybody else.”
Lewis admitted that he lied to police officers when they originally questioned him. He refused to give up the names of those at the grisly scene, hindering the investigation from the start.
The cream-colored suit Lewis described wearing that night – not white as commonly reported – never has been found. He claimed to have forgotten what happened to it. Baker’s blood was found in the Lincoln Navigator limousine Lewis had rented to drive from Baltimore to Atlanta, and investigators believed they would have found more blood on Lewis’ clothes.
As for the street fight, Lewis insisted he was a peacemaker who tried to usher his friends into the limousine so they could drive away.
Witnesses gave police statements that incriminated Lewis, but during the trial, their testimonies became vague.
Limousine driver Duane Fassett told police he saw Lewis punch one of the victims, but testified Lewis only drew a fist and didn’t actually strike anyone.
Jeff Gwen, an aspiring rapper friend of Baker and Lollar, told police he saw Lewis remove an expensive necklace before joining the fray and throwing punches. But at the trial, Gwen stated that Lewis merely held onto somebody to help quell the scene.
Chester Anderson, a convict who claimed to be a witness, testified that he saw Lewis kick a man who was on the ground. The jury didn’t find Anderson credible.
The jury returned not-guilty verdicts after five hours of deliberating. Five jurors spoke to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the trial and revealed their frustrations about the case.
Multiple jurors said they wanted to convict, but the way the indictment was written limited their ability to find guilt and District Attorney Paul Howard didn’t deliver evidence promised in his opening remarks.
“Everybody walked,” Wilson said. “But you know what we did? We brought Jacinth home, and we buried him.
“Jacinth never received justice. The family’s not happy. The family is still in turmoil. It’ll be 13 years and everybody’s still angry and getting older, and the justice system still fails us.”
Wilson will concede that Lewis probably didn’t wield a knife in the killings, but he’s convinced the All-Pro linebacker knows more than he has divulged and backed the Oakley and Sweeting defense teams.
In Wilson’s mind, they’re all guilty of torturing Baker’s family. Wilson reasoned that perhaps God has forgiven Lewis for what happened in Atlanta, but he suggested that Lewis continues to sin by denying justice.
“Not one of them has a conscience,” Wilson said of Lewis’ entourage. “I hope that every one of them in that limousine are being haunted mentally to the day they die about what happened that night to Jacinth and Richard.
“They’re going to answer to God. They’re going to burn in hell.”
Is it appropriate to revisit Lewis’ role in the 2000 double-murder case when he’s about to finish an incandescent career?
Lawrence Wenner, professor of communications and ethics and director of Loyola Marymount University’s Forum on Media Ethics and Social Responsibility, perceives a near 50-50 split in public opinion.
“Fans are of two minds about this particular issue,” Wenner said. “Some fans are saying ‘Let it go. It’s over. He’s apologized. He’s paid his price. He’s great on the field.’
“Other people are amazed that ESPN would hire this guy with this tainted background, a guy who’s strategically cultivating an image of crying and being patriotic and using his Christianity forwardly and very visibly and take this to be quite a charade.”
Lewis is an NFL icon despite – and some could argue partly because of – what happened 13 years ago. Many assert Lewis was victimized by the system and emerged triumphant, furthering his mystique.
His No. 52 Ravens jersey has been one of the NFL’s best sellers over the years. His sponsorship deals include Visa, Reebok, Under Armour, SoBe Lifewater and Old Spice.
Electronic Arts, manufacturers of the wildly popular Madden video-game franchise, have used Lewis as a prominent pitchman. He was chosen for the cover of Madden 2005, delivers a fiery motivational speech in the opening credits of Madden 13 and appears in television commercials with actor Paul Rudd.
Hip-hop artist Nelly references Lewis in his arena anthem “Heart of a Champion.”
“We want to believe the hero story,” said Krystal Beamon, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas Arlington. Beamon, a former All-American sprinter at Oklahoma State, teaches a class called sociology of race, class and sport in the media.
“The reality is this guy was charged with two murders that he likely was involved in,” Beamon said. “But we see him as such a super human in an institution we value so much that we then begin to want to see him as a good man.”
At a time when myth-making has proven dangerous in sports – Joe Paterno, Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o, to name a few – cynicism can be worthwhile when analyzing the full measure of a man.
“We adopt this narrative that he’s reformed and he loves the Lord and he’s a better man,” Beamon said. “We want to believe that. That’s how important sports are in our society and how much we want heroes.
“If I’m Ray Lewis and I want to change my image and get into sportscasting and all the goodies that come when you retire, I’m going to follow that model. America is a Christian nation, and we can identify with washing the slate clean and wanting to be a better man.”
‘Satan in human form’
Wilson refuses to buy into Lewis’ outwardly Christian persona, saying Lewis is “hiding behind his Bible” to bolster a marketable image.
“Step up and be the man you claim you are,” Wilson said. “Step up and tell the truth and quit portraying yourself to the children of America like you’re a hero.
“You ain’t no hero. You ain’t s---. Tell the truth, and take it like a man.”
Master Lollar doesn’t view Lewis with cynicism as much as he senses a sinister element at work. Master Lollar admits the slayings trigger dark thoughts about humanity and that he has contemplated suicide over the loss of his big brother.
Master Lollar said when sees Lewis on television, whether during a game or in a commercial, memories of Richard’s death return in an instant.
“He’s Satan in human form, a person that is so evil,” Master Lollar said of Lewis. “I can barely see a person wearing his jersey.
“You know what I wish? One time in my life, me and him would have a talk. I want to ask him how it feels. I never helped somebody get away with murder. How does that feel? Do you care? Or did you do it just to protect your fame?”