When Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis walks off the field after Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans Feb. 3, he will leave a legacy as one of the greatest players of all time.
Off the field, however, questions remain about the 13-time Pro Bowl selection, Super Bowl XXXV MVP, and future Hall of Famer despite numerous charitable works and a reputation for being an inspiration to his team.
Two Murders, No Convictions
In the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 2000 after Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta, two men, Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, died of stab wounds after a fight with members of Lewis’ entourage outside a nightclub. Lewis and two friends, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, were charged with murder.
Lewis later agreed to plead guilty to obstruction of justice in exchange for the prosecution dropping murder charges against him. As part of the deal, Lewis testified against Oakley and Sweeting, who were subsequently acquitted of murder charges.
Lewis and a group of friends had been celebrating at a nightclub in Atlanta after the Super Bowl between the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans.
In interviews during the past week with Examiner.com, three people with close ties to the case gave varying accounts of Lewis, the incident, and its aftermath.
Lewis’ lawyer during the trial, Ed Garland, says Lewis was 100 percent innocent of any criminal acts relating to the deaths, should have never been charged, and has handled himself impeccably since the trial.
Oakley, 44, who was charged and acquitted in the murders, says he’s ok with Lewis except for the fact that Lewis testified that Oakley started the melee. Oakley said the fight started after an argument between Lewis and someone from the other group.
And Priscilla Lollar, the mother of Richard Lollar, who lost his life that night, says Lewis is responsible for the death of her son.
Lewis could not be reached for comment for this article.
Lewis lied to police the morning after the murders. He denied knowing the people in his limousine, which sped away after the fight. Lewis also withheld information that some of people in his limousine were involved in the brawl. Lewis also told friends to “Keep your mouth shut” about the incident.
Investigators and prosecutors bungled the case, failing to interview all the witnesses after the incident, while multiple witnesses changed their stories from what they initially told police to what they ultimately testified about on the stand. No one was convicted in the murders.
One of those witnesses whose story changed at least once from the time he was interviewed by investigators to the time he testified in court was limousine driver Duane Fassett. Click here to view a brief video of his testimony.
After the trial, Lewis, who was in the middle of a four-year, $26 million contract, was placed on probation for a year and fined $250,000 by the NFL. Lewis went from facing a possible life sentence in prison to being named MVP of Super Bowl XXXV a year later when the Ravens defeated the New York Giants, 34-7.
Lewis would later pay settlements to Baker’s grandmother and Lollar’s fiancée.
Ray Lewis: Hero or Something Else?
Since the trial, Lewis has become a model citizen. The Ray Lewis Family Foundation provides assistance to disadvantaged youth and families. Baltimore renamed the street on which Lewis annually gives turkeys away on Thanksgiving “Ray Lewis Way.”
Lewis also has a keen eye for the camera and has craftily promoted his image while becoming the most marketable defensive player in the NFL. He is a TV commercial icon, with endorsements for EA Sports, Procter & Gamble, Under Armour, and Visa among others. His number 52 jersey is a top seller. Lewis also commands a high sum for motivational speeches.
During the national anthem prior to the AFC title game, Lewis stared forward intensely. When Lewis was shown on TV again, he could be seen emotionally mouthing the words, “Thank you father,” over and over and looking up toward the sky.
Lewis’ inspirational, charismatic and passionate personality has helped make him into a perceived hero who is universally praised and has rarely been criticized by members of the TV, radio, print and web media over the past decade.
Broadcasters, NFL players, and many fans heap admiration upon Lewis as both a player and a person. The NFL's website features articles that speak glowingly of the Ravens' star, and a search of his name on NFL.com resulted in at least 16 articles written in the past week about Lewis just on that website.
Lewis reportedly negotiated with multiple TV networks to provide commentary on the NFL after his retirement. ESPN has offered Lewis a contract to work on its NFL programming beginning this summer, according to Sports Illustrated.
Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says he may rely on Lewis for advice when his playing days are over after Lewis’ career, which ends after the Super Bowl.
Lewis has become one of the faces of the NFL. It has been a remarkable transformation for someone who was once charged with murder and admitted to lying to authorities the morning after the incident.
Priscilla Lollar, 56, is the mother of slain victim Richard Lollar. Her view of Lewis is 180 degrees different than that of many fans and members of the NFL establishment. In an interview this week, Lollar said Lewis is responsible for the death of her son.
Lollar said she only recently acknowledged that Richard was no longer alive. The thought was just too painful, she said. Her mother, Joyce Lollar, 76, raised Richard for much of his life because Priscilla was in jail at times with drug problems. Her son and his childhood friend Jacinth Baker moved to Atlanta to look for a better life after growing up in Akron, Ohio.
Priscilla said her mother’s health started going downhill after Richard’s murder, and she recently had a stroke and a heart attack. Although Lewis paid a settlement to Kellye Smith, who was Lollar’s fiancée at the time of the murders, the money did not go toward the Lollars, who are now struggling with care for Joyce Lollar. Smith was pregnant when Lollar was killed and has a 12-year old daughter with Lollar.
What was your son Richard like, and what are some of your best memories of him?
“He was smiling all the time. He brought a lot of joy to my life. He was gifted. Everything he did he had to come in first place with his hair. He did sculptures. He was an artist, a barber. Whatever he put his hands to, he was just a remarkable child and very amazing. We were amazed at the things he would do.
I remember he was in a dirt bike race. And he was the youngest one there. We just went there to root him on because we didn’t think he’d come in first place. That child came in first place.
I can remember him being loved by everyone. Very respectful. It is indescribable how that child was.
Last year was the only time I could ever talk about him in the past. I could just never go there. I was always thinking one day he would call me on the phone, that he was always on vacation, because it wouldn’t have taken nothing for me to give up and have nothing to live about.”
What is your reaction when you see Ray Lewis on TV and everybody says he’s such a hero?
“I’m numb, numb, numb, numb, because something’s so senseless it’s hard to believe. What was it for? What was the reason? I don’t have no feelings no way whatsoever about the man. I’m a peaceful person.
I know Ray did it, because we had some other people that were there from Akron, but they were scared when they started pulling out those machetes.
The three people that I know was right there, they saw which ones did what. Ray Lewis is the one.”
So you’re saying that Ray Lewis was responsible for the death of your son?
“Yes. Yes. Yes. But like I said. Two, three people that were there were scared because they got the machetes there and those guys were big and these were little guys. They didn’t weigh more than 140-150 pounds. They could have whooped them. Why would they have to do it with the machetes? I could never understand that.
I know he’s going to deny the fact that he was ever involved in the killing. I believe it was all about money. They got away with murder.”
From what you believe, were Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting involved?
“Most definitely. Most definitely.”
Is there anything you’d like to add?
“Ever since then my mother’s health has been going down. My momma’s health went down.
If there’s one thing Ray Lewis could do, help provide my mother with some health care that insurance won’t pay for. That’s what he could do.
He’s not going to acknowledge anything. So it would be senseless for me to ask him why when you know what the answer’s going to be. If he could do anything for the Lollar family…he could help my mother with some home health care.
My mother has to have round the clock care. And her health insurance does not pay for it.”
Reginald Oakley, along with Joseph Sweeting, was charged with murder in the slayings. When Lewis accepted a plea bargain and agreed to testify against Oakley and Sweeting, Oakley faced a possible sentence of life in prison. However, after Lewis’ testimony, both Oakley and Sweeting were acquitted.
Oakley admits to fighting with Baker, but says Baker first hit him over the head with a champagne bottle.
Oakley, who used to live in Baltimore but now lives in Atlanta, is planning to publish a book about the murders this summer entitled Memories of Murder. In the rough draft, he says, “If I would have been found guilty, Ray and I would have been fighting right there in the courtroom.” However, in a recent interview, Oakley says he has no ill will toward the football star, except he disagrees with Lewis’ version of how the fight started.
How do you feel about Ray being portrayed by the media as such a great and spiritual guy?
“Regardless of what happened, anybody can change. Everybody makes mistakes so I wouldn’t doubt that he’s spiritual.”
Have you talked to Ray since the acquittal and how do you feel about him testifying against you during the trial?
“The only thing I was upset with Ray saying during the trial was that I started the fight. I didn’t start the fight. Why he would say that, I don’t know. That’s the only thing I had a problem with. I don’t feel like he told the complete story of everything that he knew, but I think he told what he needed to tell to make things work out to his behalf.
The incident actually started between Ray and the guy. And I was defending myself. I was attacked with a Moet bottle.
But I understand the position Ray was in. If you’re a witness to a murder and you’ve got the people who did this out on the street, these people can come after you.”
If the confrontation started between Ray and someone from the other group, was it verbal or were there any punches thrown?
“It was verbal.”
Is there anything you want to say to the family members of the victims?
“I am sorry anytime someone loses their life. It was a very unfortunate situation that everybody involved had to go through, but it wasn’t anything intentional on our behalf that night.
I just hate that the whole situation happened. It was a very unfortunate situation. And it was just a sad situation. But no one was out there with the intent to start any type of confrontation or harm anybody. That was no one’s intention in our group that night.”
Do you have any hard feelings toward Ray?
“Everything’s ok with Ray.”
What mistakes did the prosecution make?
“They had their eyes set on Ray. They couldn’t get Ray, so they used Ray to try to get someone else. I don’t think they should have given anybody immunity. It kept the truth from coming out. By not interviewing everyone, it showed they weren’t looking for the truth.”
Is there anything you want to add?
“I was the one that was attacked. They tried to make me into a villain. I was attacked and assaulted with a bottle. I could have been killed.”
Attorney Ed Garland of the law firm Garland, Samuel and Loeb defended Lewis in the murder trial. On the firm’s website, it says of the case, “Garland said that Lewis' only crime was to tell his two companions after the brawl that led to the deaths, ‘Keep your mouth shut,’ and giving an incomplete statement to police. ‘He fully acknowledges his responsibility for those acts,’ Garland said after the plea was entered.”
Garland spoke highly of Lewis in an interview this week.
Reginald Oakley said he disagreed with Lewis saying that Oakley started the incident. Oakley also said Lewis told what he needed to say to make things work out on his behalf, but didn’t tell everything he knew. Do you have a comment about that?
“Ray Lewis was completely truthful ultimately, describing the matters surrounding the deaths of the individuals in this case.
The evidence showed that Ray Lewis did not initiate or cause in any way the events that led to the fight and deaths that evening.”
Do you know what happened to Lewis’ clothes he wore the night of the murders?
“Lewis’ clothes were returned to Baltimore with him and I believe were ultimately available to the investigators in this case.”
What mistakes did the prosecution make? Was it initially a rush to judgment for the prosecution to charge Lewis in the murders? Do you know why the prosecution didn’t interview everyone from the group of Lewis’ friends who were in the limousine leaving the scene?
“At the time of Ray’s arrest, there had in fact been a rush to justice. The prosecuting attorneys, police and the mayor got caught up in the idea of defending Atlanta’s reputation and making Ray Lewis a victim. He was truly a victim here of a prosecution that was brought without an adequate investigation and it resulted in the collapse of murder charges against Lewis. They did not conduct thorough interviews with witnesses, they didn’t take time to analyze the underlying evidence, and as you pointed out in your questions, there were a number of witnesses that the prosecution ultimately never interviewed.
And they brought witnesses in the trial that were unworthy of belief and whose lack of credibility developed clearly during the trial and that’s why the prosecution ultimately withdrew the murder charge.
I would say that Ray Lewis was totally a victim of the failure of the prosecuting agents to conduct a thorough investigation. And unfortunately, the prosecutor himself was let down by the police and the investigating agents. So he wound up being handed a case that was on a false basis.”
Do you think the murderers were in that limousine when it left the scene?
“The question of who stabbed whom and how that occurred is not something I’m going to pass judgment on. The one thing I do know is that Ray Lewis was 100 percent innocent of any criminal act as it related to the deaths in this case and should have never been charged.”
The spotlight will be firmly on Lewis on Super Bowl Sunday in New Orleans when he plays the final game of an illustrious 17-year career. He will be interviewed countless times in the next week and a half, and his career will be looked back upon with immense praise by players, fans, and members of the media. He has become perhaps the most well-known non-quarterback in the NFL.
But there will always be questions by some about Lewis’ alleged involvement in the killings that took place 13 years ago after Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta.
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