Sunseria Keith had been looking forward to Pro Bowl week for a
long time, so she was really excited on Jan. 31 as she checked
into the Ihilani Resort and Spa outside Honolulu. Her son,
Baltimore Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis, would join her in a
few hours. He'd be flying in from Atlanta, where he'd attended
the Super Bowl.
A phone in Keith's hotel room rang. "Mama," Lewis's familiar
voice crackled into her ear, "I've got to talk to you." It was
the second conversation between the two that day. Earlier Lewis
had told Keith that police had questioned him in connection with
the stabbing deaths of two men early that morning outside a
nightclub in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, but he'd assured
her that everything was fine. Now everything wasn't fine. Lewis
was phoning from a friend's house outside Atlanta, and police
had shown up at the house to arrest him.
Lewis dropped the phone, but the line stayed connected. This is
what Keith says she heard next: "Hey, don't do that! Don't put
those handcuffs on me, man! I didn't murder nobody! I didn't do
nothing! You got the wrong guy!"
Lewis never picked the receiver back up. He was taken to the
Atlanta City Detention Center, and as of Monday was the only
suspect being held for the stabbing deaths that took place near
the posh Cobalt Lounge. An Atlanta police affidavit charged that
the 24-year-old Lewis, "along with others," killed Jacinth
Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, both from nearby Decatur, "by
punching, beating and stabbing them with a sharp object." Citing
information that Lewis wasn't involved in the crimes, Lewis's
lawyers last Friday tried unsuccessfully to convince Fulton
County district attorney Paul Howard that there was just cause
to release Lewis on bail. It appeared that Lewis would be in
jail until at least Feb. 14, when a bond hearing is scheduled.
The memory of the aborted phone conversation still haunts Keith.
"They have nothing on Ray," she told SI last Thursday night at
her Atlanta hotel. "Nothing. There's no doubt in my mind that
he's sitting in jail for what somebody else did. All he did was
be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Lewis, the Ravens' biggest name, could claim that he has been
wrongly accused on several occasions. Four other times in the
last six years, dating back to his college days at Miami, he has
been cited by police as a possible participant in a brawl or
named in incident reports of battery or charged with assault. He
has never been convicted of a crime, however; in fact, he has
never even been tried.
Still, his arrest came as another blow to the image-conscious
NFL. Lewis is the league's second player to be charged with
murder in two months. Carolina Panthers wideout Rae Carruth is
in a Charlotte jail awaiting trial for killing his pregnant
girlfriend on Nov. 16. That's the worst entry on the NFL's
police blotter of a season, but there's more. New York Jets
tackle Jumbo Elliott awaits trial on charges that last July he
assaulted a man and conducted himself in a disorderly way in a
Long Beach, N.Y., bar. A former Elliott teammate, Matt O'Dwyer,
allegedly kicked out a police-car window after being arrested in
the same incident; he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and
third-degree assault. St. Louis Rams linebacker Leonard Little
was suspended for the season's first eight games after killing a
woman in a DWI accident in October 1998; he had served 90 days
and is on four years probation. In October, Indianapolis Colts
defensive back Steve Muhammad was charged with two counts of
battery against his wife, Nicole, who was pregnant. She died 10
days after his arrest as a result of injuries sustained in a car
accident. In November, Buffalo Bills wideout Jeremy McDaniel and
tackle Marcus Spriggs were charged with sexual assault on two
off-duty police officers. In December, Miami Dolphins running
back Cecil Collins was arrested on two counts of burglary in
Davie, Fla. He sits in a Florida jail, facing possible time in
Louisiana for violating the terms of his probation resulting
from a failed 1998 drug test.
Now, when it should be celebrating its best Super Bowl ever, the
NFL is dealing with more questions about the character of its
players. In the wake of Lewis's arrest on murder charges, Kansas
City Chiefs wideout-return man Tamarick Vanover was named 13
times and recently retired Chiefs running back Bam Morris once
in an affidavit filed by the FBI in connection with an alleged
drug-distribution ring. No charges have been filed against
either man. What's more, Carolina Panthers running back Fred
Lane was arrested last Thursday in Jackson, Tenn., on drug and
Last week one longtime NFL head coach predicted that the league
is likely to see an even greater number of players in trouble
with the law in the years ahead. "If you think this generation
is bad, wait until the next one," said the coach, who asked not
to be identified. "It used to be we knocked out two or three
players in a draft for bad character. Now it's 25 or 30. So many
of these guys aren't ready, with their backgrounds, to handle
money and fame."
Adds Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's
Center for the Study of Sports in Society, "I used to counsel
young athletes about balancing athletics and academics. Now I
counsel them on life and death. There's no sanctuary left--not
in schools, not in sports."
Lewis, who has been named to the last three Pro Bowls, signed a
four-year, $26 million contract extension in November 1998. Late
this season first-year Ravens coach Brian Billick was warned
about some of the company that Lewis was keeping. It wasn't hard
to pick out Lewis during Super Bowl week. He wore a full-length
white fur coat and was chauffeured around town in a 40-foot
Lincoln Navigator limousine he had hired to ferry him from
Baltimore to and around Atlanta. Lewis's attorney, Ed Garland,
says about 10 people were in the limousine as it raced from the
crime scene. "Ray did not know some of those people," Garland
Whether Lewis is guilty of mere bad judgment or something far
worse, his reputation will be forever scarred. Even if he's
exonerated, he may have to look over his shoulder every day if
the real killers think he fingered them. Phil Savage,
Baltimore's director of college scouting, said last week that he
thought the Ravens would have to beef up security at their
practice facility and stadium if Lewis returns. For now,
Baltimore bleeds. "The city is heartbroken," says Baltimore
radio talk-show host Nestor Aparicio, who presented Lewis with
his show's annual nice-guy award in 1998. "He's our first
football hero since Bert Jones. The fans loved him. Ray Lewis
was building a legend here."
The franchise was still the Cleveland Browns in the spring of
1995 when it dispatched a scout to Phoenix for the photo shoot
for the Playboy All-America Team. The scout's job: Observe the
players interacting with others and try to judge character and
leadership. According to the scout's report, Lewis, a sophomore
who was about to turn 20, came in as an unknown but after a half
day of activities emerged as the unquestioned leader of the
group. "When we interviewed Ray at the scouting combine before
the 1996 draft," recalls one former Browns-Ravens executive, "he
gave us detailed opinions--as if he were a scout--of all the
players in the Big East and the players at the Florida schools.
We were amazed. He knew more about the players than a lot of our
Lewis was also familiar with trouble. Though he wasn't arrested,
he was cited by Coral Gables, Fla., police as a suspect in an
August 1994 bar brawl on the Miami campus. Six weeks later his
girlfriend (now fiancee) Tatyana McCall told police that Lewis
had pushed her, struck her and grabbed her around the throat
during an argument in his dorm room; no charges were filed. In
September '95, McCall, the mother of Lewis's then
three-month-old son, Ray Jr., got into an argument with
Kimberlie Arnold, a former Lewis girlfriend. McCall and a friend
who was at the scene told police that Arnold said to McCall,
"You done messed with the wrong ho. I'm gonna put a bullet in
your temple." Lewis was summoned and, according to some
witnesses, shook Arnold in a threatening manner. Again, no
charges were filed. Last November a woman claimed that Lewis and
a friend roughed up her and two other women at a Baltimore-area
bar; the charges are pending, though a prosecutor said last week
that he may dismiss the case because a number of witnesses have
refuted her accusation.
Nevertheless, the Ravens had no character worries listed in
their scouting report when they selected Lewis with the 26th
pick in the first round of the 1996 draft, and they weren't
alone in that assessment. Four other teams contacted by SI said
Lewis's character wasn't a concern as the draft approached.
"I've looked over our reports on Ray since [the murders],"
Savage says, "and I can find no red flags. One of our people had
a good source on the Miami coaching staff, and he was very
positive on Ray. Lawrence Phillips was in the same draft, and I
remember telling [Baltimore vice president of player personnel]
Ozzie Newsome, 'If you draft [Phillips], you'll go to sleep
every night wondering if he's in trouble.' It was nothing like
that with Ray."
Witnesses have given conflicting statements about what
transpired at the Cobalt Lounge after closing. One said that
angry words were exchanged after someone stepped on the foot of
a member of Lewis's party in the club. Garland says witnesses he
interviewed said that at least three groups were fighting, and
that at least one person in the victims' group had a gun, but
that Lewis was in the limo when the stabbings occurred. One
witness said that a member of the victims' group broke a
champagne bottle over the head of a member of Lewis's party.
During the brawl, Garland says--citing witnesses--there was a
mad rush away from the scene, and several strangers jumped into
the limo. Shots rang out as the vehicle pulled away.
"I know for sure Ray didn't see a stabbing take place," says
Lewis's civil attorney, Ron Cherry. "He may have some suspicions
as to who did it, but I don't think he has a positive thought."
Keith says, "Ray was a little tipsy. He doesn't know who killed
those men." Georgia law, however, holds that someone can be
convicted of murder if he aids in the commission of the crime or
participates in another crime during the incident.
Lewis came within a few minutes of getting out of Atlanta
without being arrested. When first questioned on the morning of
Jan. 31, Lewis told police that he had to catch a 12:40 p.m.
flight to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl. He offered to return to
Atlanta immediately after the game if police had more questions.
Then he dashed to the airport, only to arrive at the gate five
minutes late. Upon finding out there were no nonstop flights to
Honolulu for the rest of the day, Lewis planned to take the next
day's 12:40 p.m. nonstop instead. Says Cherry, "That's hardly
the act of a fleeing felon, is it?"
Lewis was arrested later that day. According to his agent,
Roosevelt Barnes, the disbelief still hung over Lewis last
Thursday. He had a bologna sandwich and water for dinner. Some
4,500 miles away his Pro Bowl replacement, San Diego Chargers
linebacker Junior Seau, dined on seafood chowder, grilled
halibut, Caesar salad and fresh papaya juice. "[Lewis] had a
look on his face like he's going to wake up soon, and it will
all be over, like he's in an episode of The Twilight Zone," says
A family, a team and a league are left to pick up the pieces.
Three days before the Super Bowl, Savage spoke to a Rotary Club
in West Mobile, Ala. After the talk one businessman asked Savage
if teams really consider character in their drafting decisions.
Absolutely, Savage replied. In fact, he noted, the Ravens have
passed on several questionable players.
"Now," Savage says ruefully, "one of our first-round picks is in
jail for double murder. I don't think any of us can believe it."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JENNIFER ABELSON
COLOR PHOTO: ERIK S. LESSER/AP CHARGED Lewis expected to be in Honolulu playing in the Pro Bowl last week but instead ended up in an Atlanta courtroom facing two murder counts.
"Don't put those handcuffs on me, man!" Lewis said. "I didn't
murder nobody! I didn't do nothing! You got the wrong guy!"