As Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis prepares to play in Super Bowl XLVII Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, questions continue to arise about his legacy and his connection to a double murder that took place 13 years ago in Atlanta.
One of Lewis’ co-defendants in the double murder trial, Reginald Oakley, said in an interview with Examiner.com Thursday that Lewis didn’t testify about everything he knew about the fatal fight, and tried to shift suspicion onto Oakley after the killings. Still, Oakley says his only problem with Lewis is that the future Hall of Famer blamed Oakley for instigating the fight.
On January 31, 2000, Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker were stabbed to death during a fight in the early morning hours after Super Bowl XXXIV. The killings occurred after an argument between at least one person from the victims’ group of friends and at least one member of Lewis’ entourage.
Lewis and friends Oakley and Joseph Sweeting were indicted on murder charges 11 days after the killings. Later, after multiple witnesses changed their testimony from what they originally told police, the prosecution made a deal with Lewis, dropping the murder charges against him in exchange for testifying against Oakley and Sweeting. However, both men were acquitted after Lewis’ testimony.
Only Lewis was convicted of anything – obstruction of justice – for initially lying to authorities and withholding information. Lewis was placed on a year of probation by the court and fined $250,000 by the NFL. He later paid settlements to family members of both Lollar and Baker.
Lollar and Baker had moved from Akron, Ohio to Atlanta to look for a better life. Several of their friends from Ohio were leaving the Cobalt Lounge around the same time Lewis and his friends walked out of the club.
According to a CNN transcript of court testimony, Lewis admitted telling his friends and the limousine driver to “Keep your mouth shut” as the limo drove away from the scene of the crime. Lewis was concerned about the incident impacting his football career.
Lewis gave a false statement to police, denying knowing the people in his limousine, which sped away after the fight. Lewis also withheld information that some of the people in his limousine were involved in the brawl.
Lewis, who was named MVP of the Super Bowl one year after the killings, became an NFL icon during his 17-year career. The future Hall of Famer is surely the most famous defensive player in the league. He is celebrated by players, fans and media for his football ability and unabashedly emotional personality.
Though Lewis is portrayed and perceived as a mythic hero figure by many, others believe his career is tarnished for his role in what happened 13 years ago.
And the mother of victim Richard Lollar, Priscilla Lollar, goes a lot further. She believes Lewis is responsible for her son’s death.
Some say the case shouldn’t be dredged up after so long. But two people were killed and no one was held responsible for the crimes.
After 13 years, it’s still not clear what exactly happened, and it probably never will be. We want easy answers, but there are none. The case is confusing and complicated.
Life isn’t simple like sports are. In sports, there are clearly defined winners and losers, statistics help measure success, and everything is analyzed and replayed on TV.
From the beginning, there were significant problems with the prosecution’s case. Authorities never interviewed two of the men who jumped into Lewis’ limousine before it drove off from the crime scene. Investigators also failed to interview several other witnesses.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, who hadn’t tried a case in almost four years, appointed himself as the lead prosecutor in the trial. Defense lawyers accused Howard of rushing to judgment.
Multiple witnesses drastically changed their stories from what they initially told police investigators to what they actually testified to on the stand.
And by granting Lewis a plea bargain, Howard, who at the beginning of the trial told the court Lewis was a liar, placed himself in the position of having to prove to the jury that Lewis was credible in testifying against Oakley and Sweeting.
For example, after blood was found on pillows in Lewis’ hotel room after the killings, Howard questioned Lewis so he could provide an explanation. Lewis told the court:
“I had an injury from football that my head -- usually when I play, my head gets cut open a lot of times. I have a certain type of skin on the of my head, falitivitis (sic) or something like that. I'm not sure what -- exactly what it is, but it bleeds. It used to bleed a lot, and now it's just really getting, you know, controlled now.”
Howard asked if Lewis took medication for that condition and Lewis replied, “Yes.”
Virtually everyone who testified or talked about the case described varying versions of who started the fight, what exactly happened during the melee, and what occurred in its aftermath. It didn’t help that the incident occurred shortly before 4 a.m., when many witnesses and those involved in the incident were at least partly intoxicated.
No one testified that Lewis ever possessed a knife, and Lewis never testified that he saw a knife in the hands of Oakley or Sweeting during the incident.
During the trial, and again in recent articles leading up to the Super Bowl, much attention has been devoted to what happened during the fight and its aftermath. But less scrutiny has been given to how the fight started. Below are multiple versions of how the tragic events began. The different, sometimes conflicting accounts are perhaps indicative of inconsistencies given by witnesses before and during the trial.
Who Started the Fight?
This much is clear: Words were exchanged between at least one member of the Ohio group and at least one person from Lewis’ entourage. The argument may have started because of a misunderstanding about a phrase that was spoken by someone from one of the groups. At one point, Baker hit Oakley over the head with a bottle of champagne, and that’s when the fight started.
Lewis’ testimony about the argument that led to the fight
According to a CNN transcript of court testimony, Lewis said that as he left the club with one of his female friends, he heard profane language and saw Oakley, Sweeting, and his friend Kwame King standing in front of two members of the Ohio group.
“When I was walking back up, it was -- Reginald was the more -- the aggressor, at that time when I was walking up. He was like, you know, really hostile at the other two guys,” Lewis testified.
Lewis said he then grabbed Oakley and took him back to the limo because Oakley was acting “frantic.” Soon, everyone from Lewis’ group of friends was back in the limo. Lewis said he saw five or six guys from the other group walk toward the car.
When asked why the limo didn’t leave, Lewis told the court, “We were getting ready to go and as they were approaching -- I mean, it was almost an equal or mutual thing, I don't know. Well, yes, we didn't leave because they came back, I guess, I don't know.”
Then, Lewis told the court that Oakley jumped out of the car and Baker hit him over the head with a Moet bottle. After that, “All hell broke loose,” said Lewis.
Oakley’s version of the argument that led to the fight
Oakley told Examiner.com his version of what happened leading up to the fight:
“Ray said I got into a confrontation with one of the guys and that’s what led to the fight. That was what led to the fight but it was after he had exchanged words with the people first. I walked up on the tail end of what was being said between Ray and Jeff Gwen. And it was only me and Ray and the guys there, because everyone else was at the limo. That’s why nobody knows how it started because Ray won’t tell exactly what was said.”
Oakley told Examiner.com what he said when he walked up to Lewis, who was standing across from Gwen and his friend:
I asked Ray, “Is everything alright?” and he tapped me on the shoulder and was like, “Come on, let’s go” and brings me back to the limousine. Gwen and his friend came up behind me, talking tough and I turned around and was like, “Is there a problem?” and then they started talking about what they were going to do.
I said, “You’re not going to do nothing to me, and we got into a confrontation and Ray came back and grabbed me and put me in the limo and he got back out of the limo because his friends, (Joseph) Sweeting and (Kwame) King were out of the limo talking to the guys, asking what’s going on or whatever.
Then one of the guys walked by and said something to Ray and then I saw some more guys coming up behind Ray, so I got out of the limousine to tell Ray, and that’s when Baker hit me in the head with the Moet bottle. And that’s when everybody started fighting.
Oakley said the argument must have started between Gwen and Lewis because of a phrase that only the two of them mentioned. Gwen, an aspiring rapper from Ohio who went by the name “Chino Nino,” was a friend of Lollar and Baker.
“Gwen and Ray were the only two people throughout the trial, throughout the night that I heard use that term. And that term was ‘hoe a-- n----.’ And the only person I heard say that was Ray,” said Oakley.
“And that was that night. When I walked up to see was Ray alright, he was saying to someone that he wasn’t no ‘hoe a-- n----.’ And I never heard anyone else use that term until we got to the trial and Gwen got on the stand, and said that somebody from our group thought that somebody called them a ‘hoe a-- n----.’”
Oakley said Gwen used the phrase during court testimony in reference to his friends, who apparently left the club without him, leaving Gwen without a ride.
Version of the argument that led to the fight from friends of Lollar and Baker
However, if Gwen’s statement to police is correct, Oakley may have played a major role in starting the argument. In a statement given to the Akron Police Department Feb. 9, 2000, Gwen said he was talking about some of the women in the club with his friend Chris Shinholster as they were leaving, when Oakley, who is referred to as #3 in the statement, approached them. Excerpts of Gwen’s statement are below.
#3 said, “Who is y’all talking to?” I said, “I don’t know you.” So he’s acting crazy, ready to fight. Me and Chris told him we just came here to have a good time. So Ray Lewis grabs #3 trying to put him in the car. Another guy comes up to me and Chris and says, “My friend is drunk, he don’t mean no harm, everything is cool.”
In Shinholster’s statement to police, labeled Feb. 14, 2000, he stated that as he was walking away from the club with Gwen when someone confronted them:
A crew of people were walking by. One of them thought we made a statement calling him a “hoe a-- n----.” So we just looked over it was like this guy is drunk, whatever. So one of his boys came back and grabbed him...
What Happened During the Brawl?
Lewis’ version of the fight
After Baker hit Oakley with the bottle, Lewis testified that a brawl ensued:
LEWIS: It was, from that point, it was chaos, whatever, when he hit him in the head, them two just, I mean, went in a dramatic fashion of fighting.
HOWARD: Would you describe what you mean by “fighting?”
LEWIS: Fighting, I mean, you hit me, I hit you back. We just fighting. We just fighting.
Lewis testified that as soon as Baker and Oakley started fighting, Sweeting came to Oakley’s aid. Then some friends of Baker and Lollar became involved in a fight with Sweeting. Carlos Stafford, a member of Lewis’ entourage, began to fight Baker. Lewis said all the men in the limousine except for himself were fighting against the group from Ohio, which included five or six men. The group in Lewis’ limousine included Lewis, Oakley, Sweeting, King and Carlos Stafford.
It was unclear if Lewis was including two other men named Geno and Claudius among those who were fighting. The two men jumped into the limousine after the incident, but were not part of the group in the limousine until after the fight.
Lewis was adamant that he had no involvement in the fight despite testimony to the contrary from three witnesses.
HOWARD: Now, you've heard -- now during this time, did you take part in this incident?
HOWARD: You've heard the testimony from Jeff Gwen.
HOWARD: And he indicated that he saw you holding someone.
HOWARD: You heard the testimony of Mr. Fassett.
HOWARD: And that's your limousine driver.
HOWARD: And he testified that he saw you draw your fist at him.
HOWARD: The testimony, also, was from Evelyn Sparks that she saw you pull someone away. Did that happen?
Oakley’s version of the fight
Oakley told Examiner.com that he started fighting Baker immediately after Baker hit him with the bottle, but that all he did was throw punches:
“I’m sure that somebody stabbed Baker while I was fighting him, because everybody was like right there. It had to be almost 20 guys fighting. Then the fight turned into a tug of war and then it turned into like four separate fights. But in the beginning, everybody was like right there, pulling and fighting together.”
When asked why he didn’t go back to the limousine after he was hit on the head with the bottle, Oakley responded, “Well I couldn’t because the guys were like pulling me. They had me by my jacket and they were pulling me. It was like a tug of war so I couldn’t really break away from the fight.”
In his book, Murder After Super Bowl XXXIV, Oakley writes:
I was holding the guy that hit me by his shoulder with both hands and he had me by his collar when suddenly his body went limp. The weight of his body pulled me down with him and I was bent over holding onto him by his sweater, keeping him from hitting the ground while a group of guys continued to punch and kick us at the same time.
“Everybody get the f--- in the limo,” NFL linebacker Ray Lewis hollered as somebody grabbed me from behind. Shocked and surprised, I released the guy that had collapsed and spun around. Ray’s friend Shorty released me and said, “Come on, A.J., let’s go!”
“A.J.” is a nickname for Oakley; “Shorty” is a nickname for Sweeting.
Gwen’s version of the fight
In Gwen’s statement to police, he says he was fighting off a man from Lewis’ group when another unidentified man was chasing him with a knife.
An excerpt from Gwen's statement is below:
I’m trying to get to him (Baker) when another guy swings at me. So I’m fighting with a guy in a red shirt, when another guy is swinging a knife at me. So I get out of striking range. At this point, everyone start running. I’m running to see Jacinth. He’s fighting with #3. When I reach the area where Jacinth was, I saw Richard laying next to him with his eyes open. So I grab him, telling him, “Let’s go.” I’m pulling him, smacking him, not hard, just hard enough to get his attention, and his eyes roll up in his head. I knew he was dead. I grabbed Jacinth, who was laying on his face. He wasn’t moving, so I assumed he was dead also.
The Knife Controversy
When Lewis and his friends piled into the limo after the fight, shots were fired at the vehicle and the passengers dove to the ground. No one was hurt, and the car stopped at a Holiday Inn Express because one of the tires had been shot out.
According to testimony, it was there that Lewis asked Sweeting what happened:
I walked around the corner and Joseph was standing there. And I walked up to him and I was like, man, what in the hell happened? And he was like, man, they tripped me. I said, what do you mean? I say, what happened?
He said, Lou-Lou, every time they hit me, I hit them. I say, damn, I said you all tripping. And then, when he did that, he had knife in his -- around his hand.
According to court testimony, Sweeting and Oakley had purchased knives at an Atlanta Sports Authority the day before the killings.
In Lewis’ hotel room hours after the incident, Lewis questioned Oakley about what happened, according to testimony:
When I walked back in the room, I asked him, I said: Hey, man, what happened? And he is like, nothing. I said, man, what the hell you was doing. He was like, nothing, I was just beating him. I say, damn, man, I said, you all are tripping, like that. He said, but man, I wasn't doing nothing. I said, man, you had to be doing something. I said, man, you all need to cut this s--- out. I said, you know what, I said, dog, this all on me now. I said man my career is going to end because of you all tripping, you know what I'm saying? I try to stop this fight three or four damn times, and you all kept going.
Oakley told Examiner.com that he felt Lewis was trying to implicate him in the crime after Lewis heard that two men were stabbed to death on the news in the hotel room:
“Ray was acting like he was shocked and surprised but he initially testified that Sweeting told him at the Holiday Inn, ‘Every time they hit me I hit them’ and then he acted like he didn’t know anything back at the hotel room. And then you said it in court, but at the room you’re acting like you had no idea two people got stabbed.
“And then you’re pointing the finger at me, trying to put suspicion on me by asking me where’s my knife, did I stab anybody. So for me, everything started to come together at the trial.”
Oakley said he had known Lewis for only about a year and a half at the time of the incident. According to testimony, Lewis said he had known Sweeting for about four years and King since high school. Oakley’s attorney Bruce Harvey may have been trying to impress upon the jury that Lewis had greater loyalties to friends he had known longer than he had known Oakley.
Oakley acknowledges that his knife, which he bought at the Sports Authority the previous day, was found at the scene. However, he described it as a “small key chain knife with a built in flashlight.”
Fulton County forensic pathologist John Parker said during the trial that it was unlikely the knife found at the scene was the one that caused the fatal stab wounds in the bodies of Baker and Lollar, and that there were no traces of blood or identifiable fingerprints on the knife.
Oakley told Examiner.com that Lewis would have been better off if he told the truth from the start:
“I think if Ray would have just came clean from the beginning and told them what happened – because if someone starts something with you – I think if he would have just told what happened, it would have been less of a problem to him. But he had told everyone to shut up and keep their mouths shut and don’t say nothing to nobody so I was like that’s his situation and I’m going to let him deal with it.”
Hero or Villain?
Real life isn’t like sports. We seek simple, straightforward answers, but it doesn’t usually work that way. We want to categorize people as heroes or villains. Which is Lewis?
Some will remember Lewis as the NFL will -- not only as a great football player, but also as an outstanding person whose faith and charitable works have enabled him to help those less fortunate than himself, while setting an example for others.
Others may remember that Lewis lied to police after two killings, obstructed an investigation in the process, and may have prevented the killers from paying for the crimes.
The answer, as is often the case, probably lies between the two extremes. Lewis may just happen to be a flawed person who made major mistakes in his past but has learned from them and moved on to live a better life.
That won’t be any consolation to the friends and families of the victims, though.
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