Tragic tale taints Lewis’ legacy

Joyce Lollar opened the scrapbook she’d been holding in her lap, and for the first time all afternoon the sadness melted from the room.

“That’s when he was 7. Look at him, he sure was a handsome little guy,” she said with a smile as she touched the old photo, running a loving finger across her grandson Richard’s curly hair, his olive skin and that gap-toothed grin.

As she flipped the pages, she took you on a childhood tour. There was the 5-year-old boy in the white cap and gown of his Head Start graduation. There were pictures of his peewee football and baseball teams, another of him as a Boy Scout. There were prom pictures, one of him when he was voted Barber of the Year and a portrait of his fiancée and their 3-year-old daughter, India, born a month after he died.

Joyce pointed to photos of a wedding party in Georgia. “These are the last pictures we have of him.”

Actually, there are two more – both of which she wants nothing to do with:

One is the January 2000 image of her grandson, 24-year-old Richard Lollar — stabbed to death, covered by a sheet and lying near his slain buddy, 21-year-old Jacinth “Shorty” Baker — on a street in the Buckhead section of Atlanta after Super Bowl XXXIV.

The other, she said, is the one painted by the lawyers for NFL star Ray Lewis and the two other guys arrested for the murders.

“They did everything they could to portray my grandson as a street person,” said Joyce, making reference to three minor drug arrests that had been hammered on. “They tried to make Richard out to be a nobody. And that’s wrong. I want people to know he was somebody - somebody special.”

That’s how I started a story on Ray Lewis a little over nine years ago and it’s that image — the one of a tearful grandmother sitting there in her Akron home telling me the story of the brutal slaying of the boy she raised — that keeps coming to mind during these NFL playoffs as the Ravens’ linebacker is being raised to iconic status by fellow players, coaches, league brass, fans and many of my brethren in the media.

Certainly no one can deny that Lewis, who leads Baltimore into the AFC championship game with New England on Sunday, is one of the great linebackers the NFL has ever seen.

He’s made 13 Pro Bowls, been named All-Pro by the Associated Press 10 times, was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2000 and 2003, was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV and is the only NFL player to have more than 40 sacks and 30 interceptions.

He recently announced he’ll retire at the end of this, his 17th NFL season. Then he’ll move straight into an on-air job ESPN has waiting for him and this fall he said he wants to be able to watch his son begin his college career at the University of Miami.

This final playoff run, the pending retirement and the familial embrace have dovetailed into a warm, fuzzy fairy tale for a lot of folks.

But let’s cut to the chase here.

‘It was a massacre’

It’s called a trench knife — brass knuckles affixed with a blade. Joyce said it was one of the weapons bought by one of Lewis’ pals when he accompanied the linebacker to a sporting goods store the day before the murders. She said it also was thought to be one of the knives used to inflict five precise, twisting stabs to the heart and other vital organs of her grandson and also used for similar deadly thrusts into the heart and liver of Baker.

“They said it was a massacre,” Cindy Lollar-Owens, Richard’s aunt, whispered to me that day as she sat there with Joyce. “The knives they used. The way they sliced ‘em up and how the crowd beat ‘em. The Baker boy — he was a little guy, just 5-foot-3 — they flipped him over and kept stomping on him when he was out cold. At least Richard’s face was OK.”

So the question today is:

Is Ray Lewis that glorious figure so many are making him out to be, a guy who has made the most of a second chance and become a true role model? Or, is he a guy who, if he didn’t get away with murder, certainly helped his pals do so?

On January 31, 2000, following Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta, Lewis and the dozen or so people with him were involved in a fight with some other people outside the Cobalt Lounge.

When it was over, Lollar and Baker, the two lifelong pals from Akron who had moved to Atlanta for a better life, one as a barber, the other as an artist, were dead.

Following the confrontation, Lewis and his entourage piled into the $3,000-a-day limo the linebacker had rented and sped off with Duane Fassett, who had chauffeured for Lewis in the past, at the wheel.

Among those in back were two of the linebacker’s buddies, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, who Lewis would later admit was the guy who had purchased three knives the day before.

As the group fled, the limo — as investigators were told — stopped at a dumpster and a bag of bloody clothes was thrown in.

“They ditched their bloody clothes and Ray Lewis told them all to keep their mouths shut,” Cindy told me that afternoon in Akron. “That’s not the actions of innocent people.”

To this day, the white suit Lewis was wearing the night of the murders has never been found.

Traces of Baker’s blood was found in the limo.

Initially, Fassett said Lewis was involved in the brawl, which some say ignited when Baker hit Oakley with a champagne bottle.

Eleven days after the incident, Lewis, Oakley and Sweeting were indicted for murder .

After that, it’s hard not to say the case wasn’t bungled by the prosecution.

Thanks to weak evidence — even though published reports at the time said all the limo’s passengers weren’t interviewed — and witnesses, including Fassett , changing their stories in court, the prosecutors quickly went for a Hail Mary pass.

They offered Lewis a plea deal. All the felony charges against him would be dropped — he could plead to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge — if he agreed to testify against his co-defendants.

He pounced on that like it was an unprotected quarterback.

And then when it was time to testify, he did so tepidly and never implicated the other two.

After just five hours of jury deliberation, Sweeting and Oakley were acquitted.

No one else would ever be charged.

‘Hard to get closure’

In 2004, Lewis managed to preempt a civil proceeding when he reached a financial settlement with Lollar’s then-4-year-old daughter. He also paid the Baker family an undisclosed sum.

Several years ago when I asked Lewis about the night in question he refused to answer. He did the same a week ago when a USA Today reporter broached the subject.

Meanwhile, Lollar’s daughter, who is 12 now, lives with her mom, Kellye Smith, in Atlanta, goes to a private school and her family has done its best to shield her from the details of her father’s death.

As for Joyce, she’s now suffering from serious coronary problems and Cindy and the rest of the family still have not been able to fully make peace with the murder. As they told a USA Today reporter recently, they are especially disheartened by the love-fest that engulfs Lewis in these final days of his NFL career.

Joyce told me the same thing that day I visited her:

“Nothing has been, or ever will be, the same. It’s hard to get closure when those responsible for the murders haven’t been held accountable. But whoever did this don’t need to be walking this earth. Not the way they done those boys.

“The counselors tell us we should all sit and talk about it, but we can’t. Richard’s oldest brother was suicidal a while, until he realized what he’d be doing to me. I can’t bury two grandsons.”

Back then she put a bumper sticker on her car asking for justice and Cindy showed up at some Cleveland Browns games and then Super Bowl XXXV in Miami to pass out fliers that asked the NFL, “What about the double murder?”

“That’s the Super Bowl the Ravens won and I was scared to death,” Cindy said. “I only handed out about 20 leaflets and quit ‘cause I could tell people were angry.”

Joyce nodded: “That’s how it is with fans. Fans don’t get mad about what happens away from the field. They just want the team to win. The only way it would bother them is if it was their own kid laying up there in the cemetery.

“As for the people promoting the NFL and all the people selling the clothes and video games, they don’t care nothing about Richard Lollar. It’s all about making money.”

And as is evidenced today, Ray Lewis is a money machine. In 2009, he signed a multi-year contract worth $44.5 million. He has several lucrative endorsement deals, his jersey is one of the biggest sellers in the NFL and as soon as he retires he’ll become a well-paid fixture on TV.

But while the future is promising for him, Joyce has been left holding onto fading snippets of the past.

“Richard started cutting hair for people right here in the basement,” she proudly told me that day I visited. “Couldn’t of been about 8 or 10. He’d cut the hair of his brothers and sisters and friends. And when I’d get home from work, he was real respectful. He’d tell ‘em, `Nana’s here, cut down the music.’

“He kept that same attitude when he graduated from barber school. He won awards for his work, and when Shorty told him he’d do better moving down to Atlanta, that he could cut movie stars’ hair and one day get his own shop, he went.

“And when he met Kellye and they were gonna have a baby, he was real excited. It was the first child for both of them. The day before he was killed he called me and told me he was going to those Lamaze classes with Kellye. I told him, `I didn’t know men folks did that these days.’ And he told me he wasn’t like other men folks. He was gonna be special.”

As she fought back her emotions, I remember Joyce shutting the scrapbook and whispering:

“He just never got the chance.”

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