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Cherica Adams and Rae Carruth and two ghoulish North Carolina nights

Ask, if you could, the murdered Adams and Shaniya Davis: ‘The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls’

This month, the names Cherica Adams and Shaniya Davis may float across the minds of some. Key word being may. The spirits of the woman, Adams, and the young girl, Davis, haunt the state of North Carolina.

Society’s ability to silence the stories and the experiences of black women is disgustingly impressive. Davis, age 5, was raped and murdered on Nov. 10, 2009, by Mario Andrette McNeill after the girl’s mother effectively rented her out to resolve a $200 debt. Adams was hunted down by car and killed in her automobile on Nov. 16, 1999, in a murder for hire. These anniversaries of the days their lives were snatched from them sit on the horizon.

Adams, the victim of the most heinous crime in NFL history, has recently returned to the spotlight. Her death was the result of a murder-for-hire plot both organized and executed by Rae Carruth, Adams’ then-lover and former Carolina Panthers’ first-round pick wide receiver. Carruth was released from North Carolina’s Sampson Correctional Institution on Oct. 22 after being sentenced in 2001 to 18-24 years. Adams, who was pregnant at the time of her death, is survived by her and Carruth’s now adult son, Chancellor Lee Adams.

“Gettin’ higher than the soul of little Shaniya,” J. Cole raps. “And to the ones that killed her / Hope you burn in fire …”

Davis, a child with a Magic Johnson-like smile, died on Nov. 10, 2009. Her body was found nearly a week later. And nearly a decade later, her rape and murder remain a grisly pillar of human trafficking. The end of two lives — one with a child in her belly, the other not even old enough to learn long division. In these times.

It’s journalistically impossible to tell Adams’ and Davis’ stories without making the men who horrifically took their lives the focal points. But they’re more than just their deaths. They’re two people, a woman and a young girl who never walked the earth at the same time, who were never given the chance to pursue their happyness. Say their names. Because that’s the only way they can continue to live.

Nov. 16, 1999. It’s a strange kind of fate that led Adams, then eight months pregnant, to the movies with Carruth to see The Bone Collector — the Denzel Washington and Queen Latifah-led film about two cops hunting down a serial killer. Adams’ life, the son she would never meet, and the chain of events leading up to her death are detailed by Thomas Lake for Sports Illustrated in the finest, most gut-wrenching narrative of 2012. And this year there is a deeply reported series by Scott Fowler of The Charlotte Observer.

But suffice it to say that Adams was a woman pregnant by Carruth and Carruth paid hitman Van Brett Watkins and two Charlotte drug dealers (Michael Kennedy and Stanley “Boss” Abraham) to help him murder Adams because Carruth did not want the child — his child — that Adams was carrying. According to Watkins, Carruth wanted it done sooner than later. It didn’t matter where. “So he gave me a bunch of different scenarios,” Watkins said. “[Carruth] said, ‘Do it at the Lamaze class when I take her there.’ ”

Adams’ personality, according to those who knew her, was magnetic. She was a gorgeous 24-year-old who worked in real estate and as an exotic dancer. She dabbled in acting, too, appearing briefly in House Party 3. By the end of her life, she apparently had come to peace with the fact that she would be a single mother — Carruth never appeared to embrace fatherhood. Not with Adams, or with his first child’s mother, Michelle Wright, who has said that Carruth rarely saw their son, who was born in 1994 during his sophomore year at the University of Colorado.

Carruth’s aversion to having more kids was intense. Amber Turner met Carruth in 1996 when he was in college and moved with him to the Queen City after he was chosen by the Panthers. She became pregnant in 1998. Carruth and Wright already had their child — one whom Carruth reportedly joked with Turner about killing “so I wouldn’t have to pay [the mother] any money.”

Turner testified that she heard Carruth talking about having acquaintances in California who would do it for him. When Turner became pregnant in 1998, Carruth demanded she get an abortion. “He said, ‘I ain’t going to have no more kids with someone I ain’t going to be with,’ ” Turner said. “ ‘Don’t make me send somebody out there to kill you. You know I’ll do it.’ ”

“[Carruth] said, ‘Do it at the Lamaze class when I take her there.’ ”

Though she changed her account during cross-examination, saying Carruth was not a violent person, Turner in court produced a crippling letter Carruth had written her. In it were specific instructions about what she should do and say if questioned by the police and/or media. “Here is what you’ll recall when asked about my son [Chancellor],” Turner read. “No. 1, upset I missed the baby being born. No. 2, upset [I] missed [his] first steps, first words …”

On the night of the hit, Adams nearly called the movie date off. The men hired to murder her after the date nearly backed out of the heinous conspiracy because the killing of a pregnant woman was almost too gruesome even for hired hitmen. Almost. Nearly. And in one of the most rage-inducing details of the entire saga, Carruth planned the hit over the spring and summer of 1999, often using coded language and referring to his unborn son as an animal.

“ ‘I don’t want the dog to get out. I need the fence,’ ” Watkins, the hitman, told Fowler. “And that was code for he don’t want the baby to get out. He needs Cherica killed.”

Watkins was the man who unloaded the bullets in Adams on that dark North Carolina road. Following Carruth, her black BMW was trapped as Watkins and his two associates pulled alongside her and blocked her in.

A year later, Watkins testified in court. “He hired me to kill Cherica Adams and the baby,” he said. “I couldn’t bring myself to kill the baby. I shot at the top [of the car], not through the door.” Wiping away tears, he directed his anger toward Carruth. Watkins stood up in the witness box and yelled, “Are you happy now?”

Adams’ final moments remain painfully immortal. There’s the 911 call she mustered the strength to make only moments after the shooting. She’d been shot four times. Blood soaking her seats. She was screaming, drowning in her own blood, life leaving her body by the second. On the 12-minute call, Adams goes back and forth with paramedics about where, precisely, she was.

It was shortly after midnight, and there was no true light aside from her car’s beams. Adams’ car had careened into the front yard of a house in a somewhat isolated area. She pressed on the horn repeatedly. She sat in pain on the phone for 12 minutes waiting for help to arrive.

“How did this happen?” the medics asked while on the phone with Adams.

“I was following my baby’s dad,” she responded. “Rae Carruth, the football player.”

“So you think he did it?”

“He slowed down. And a car pulled up beside me.”

Minutes later on the same call.

“Where’s your husband at?” the medics inquired — if nothing else, trying to keep Adams conscious as long as possible until the ambulance arrived.

“I don’t have one.”

“Or your boyfriend. The one that you said was with you. Where’s he at?”

“He was in the car in front of me and he slowed down and somebody pulled up beside me and did this.”

“And then where’d he go?”

“He just left. I think he did it. I don’t know what to think.”

Imagine that confusion. You’ve just been shot multiple times. You feel the blood emptying out of you. You’re on the phone praying help arrives before whatever bit of life left in you expires. You’re a month away from giving birth. And one of the last thoughts in your head is that the father of your child just attempted to murder not only you but also your child. His child. The child who was born, and who lives with cerebral palsy (a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture caused by damage to a developing brain) as the result of his own father’s extreme cowardice and evil.

Michelangelo once said, “Death and love are the two wings that bear the good man to heaven.” That 911 transcript was Adams fitting herself for the wings that would lift her to the afterlife. Before she had the chance to look into the eyes of her child, before she could ever help him move into college — perhaps at Winston-Salem State University, the historically black university she attended — she was gone.

Adams’ call to 911 wasn’t to save her own life — it was about the life inside her. Even on a swift road to death, she never gave Carruth the satisfaction of completing the fiendish mission he had planned for the better part of a year.

Defiant and protective until her final curtain call: That’s what resonates about Adams the most. The obsession to remain alive just long enough so the life in her could have a chance for survival. When Chancellor Adams attended a recent Carolina Panthers game alongside his grandmother Saundra (Adams’ mother), it was hard not to be taken over by emotion. Life exists after death. Adams was there. And while many of life’s ugliest emotions will always be reserved for Carruth and the plan he orchestrated 19 years ago this month, the conversation should always be about Adams and the love a mother can feel and exhibit for her child — a gift the world could never deny.

Except when it does.

Nearly a decade to the day Adams was struck down in a hail of gunfire, 5-year-old Shaniya Adams of Fayetteville, North Carolina, lost her life. It’s a crime so heinous that J. Cole (in the way that Tupac Shakur immortalized Latasha Harlins) holds up young Shaniya in a blistering cautionary tale. The platinum and Grammy-nominated artist is Fayetteville’s most famous son, and his lines on 2010’s “See World” are a reminder of the tiny value placed on the bodies of women — even before they’re allowed to become women. “Gettin’ higher than the soul of little Shaniya,” J. Cole raps, enraged, on the song from the critically lauded Friday Night Lights. “And to the ones that killed her/ Hope you burn in fire.”

Shaniya lived in the Sleepy Hollow Mobile Home Park with her mother, Antoinette Nicole Davis, as well as her brother, her aunt, Brenda Davis, her aunt’s kids and her aunt’s boyfriend. Brenda Davis had previously dated a man named Mario Andrette McNeill. In the late night hours of Nov. 9 into the early morning hours of Nov. 10, McNeill drank alcohol, did cocaine and began texting a slew of ex-girlfriends. Around 3 a.m., McNeill ended up at Brenda and Antoinette’s trailer.

Mourners hold a vigil at Swain Station Baptist Church near the scene where searchers found a body believed to be 5-year-old Shaniya Davis on Nov. 16, 2009, on Walker Road southeast of Sanford, North Carolina.

Travis Long/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images

According to The Fayetteville Observer, Shaniya’s mother, Antoinette, initially told detectives that she owed McNeill $200, and that the only way he’d accept payment was in cash or sex. Antoinette Davis agreed to let McNeill take Shaniya to a nearby motel to molest her. Then she switched her story, instead saying that McNeill took Shaniya to a motel so an unidentified man could have sex with the 5-year-old. However it went down, Shaniya left Sleepy Hollow alive with McNeill, and he checked into a Comfort Inn early that morning of Nov. 10.

The Amber Alerts began. A massive search for Shaniya began. McNeill was brought in for questioning. Shaniya’s body was discovered almost a week later on Nov. 16 — exactly a decade after Adams’ ambush.

“He just left. I think he did it. I don’t know what to think.” – Cherica Adams

In a move McNeill would try to combat later to no avail, his lawyer told police where the body was — an area that deer hunters used to field-dress their kills. Near outdoor portable toilets. Shaniya’s body was found partially under a log. She was raped. But not before she was murdered. More from J. Cole:

That girl was 5 years old that they just murdered

And did some wicked s— to her that was unheard-of

You f—— coward, ain’t gotta tell ’em go to hell

’Cause that’s the s— that make them other n—-s sick in jail.

How many times did Shaniya ask, with fear cracking through her voice, where she was going? How paralyzed with fear must she have been in that hotel room with a man best described as Satan in the flesh? Did she pray for her own death to escape her pain? What type of world do we live in when a 5-year-old may hope to die to find peace? How did an entire system let Shaniya down when warning signs had all but demanded she be removed from the household that sold her life away for $200?

McNeill was convicted of first-degree murder in 2013 and sentenced to death. Shaniya’s mother, Antoinette, was sentenced to no less than 17 years and six months and no more than 21 years and nine months for her role in one of the most notorious human trafficking cases in American history. Her expected release is in 2029. The year Shaniya would have turned 25.

Cherica Adams and Shaniya Davis are tied together by dates and state lines that make them kindred spirits in the most unfortunate sense imaginable. “The measure of any society,” then-first lady Michelle Obama said in October 2016, speaking directly to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, “is how it treats its women and girls.” Cherica, Shaniya and the countless others who’ve been robbed of their innocence, and at worst their lives, deserve peace in the afterlife — and much more than they received in this one.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.