- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2001

TAMPA, Fla. "O.J. Lewis."

The homemade sign hanging from the stands in Oakland, Calif., during the AFC Championship game Jan. 14 showed Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis may never gain absolution from his involvement in a double murder hours after last year's Super Bowl.

He won the NFL's defensive player of the year award. His Ravens are favored over the New York Giants in Sunday's Super Bowl XXXV. This should be the pinnacle of Lewis' young life.

But Lewis can't escape the brawl at an Atlanta nightclub that left two men stabbed to death in the street while he and friends hurriedly rode away in a limousine amid gunfire.

Lewis didn't murder Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker. His crime was having the wrong kind of friends, the ones that often come after signing a $24 million contract. Lewis eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for providing false information to police. Lewis' friends, Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley, were later acquitted of murder charges in the much publicized trial.

The past year has brought little closure. Police essentially closed the case after charging no one else. Lollar's then-unborn child is 11 months old, with a mother who cries for a daughter who will never know her father. Relatives plan to picket outside Raymond James Stadium before the game, claiming they haven't received justice because of Lewis' fame. Several recently said they wanted to kill Lewis.

"It's like Lewis wants to pretend it never happened," said Lollar's aunt, Cindy Lollar-Owens. "Everybody knows regardless of all different stories is he was there."

Lewis does want to forget it. He wants everyone to forget and just watch him on the football field. But murder cases involving former NFL players O.J. Simpson and Rae Carruth won't let it happen. Lewis can't avoid being linked to the increasing violence of pro athletes.

"That story of my book is closed," Lewis said yesterday before more than 200 reporters. "It was always based around me, but it was not about me. The questions I hear, but my part is to not answer. If that was one of your children, you'd want that chapter closed… . This stuff isn't good press."

Indeed, it is the sad tale of a young hairdresser who moved to Atlanta from his hometown of Akron, Ohio, hoping to become wealthy cutting the hair of the rich and famous. It is the sad tale of a small-time hoodlum who cracked a champagne bottle over Oakley's head. A brawl involving more than 10 people erupted outside the Cobalt Lounge. Witnesses differed on Lewis' involvement, with some saying he hit Lollar in the chest several times.

Lewis and friends piled into the 37-foot Lincoln Navigator limo when gunshots rang out. Oakley and Sweeting, who both had police records of weapon and drug charges, were splattered with blood. The driver later testified Lewis told him to keep his mouth shut.

Atlanta police questioned Lewis, who later admitted he lied to them. Instead of heading for the Pro Bowl in Honolulu, Lewis spent several nights on suicide watch in the psychiatric ward. The patients' screams still haunt his dreams. He spent 15 days in jail before a $1 million bond was posted. Televised reports prompted his young son to ask why daddy was shown wearing handcuffs.

Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell promised Lollar's family a conviction. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard personally handled the case, entering the courtroom for the first time in four years.

That's what still burns Lewis the most. He was suddenly a celebrity on trial. Lewis told ESPN the Magazine that "I'm O.J. because I went clubbing with friends at the Super Bowl and there was a fight outside the nightclub? All I'm guilty of is being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people, but I feel like what I'm most guilty of is being successful."

Lewis backed up that stance before the Super Bowl media, saying his race and status were the only reasons he was charged with murder.

"The scary part about life is, yeah, I have money, I'm black, I'm blessed, but the real truth is this was never about those two kids dead in the street," Lewis said. "It's about Ray Lewis. That's not right. Don't be mad at me because I was on center stage. The [people] to be mad about is Paul Howard and the mayor of Atlanta. These people never said, 'We're going to find out about who killed those people.' They said, 'We're going to get Ray Lewis.'

"If I'm an average Joe, none of you write about this. It's that simple. People say [NFL players] are out of control. Are we really? I party like anybody else. I'm a man. I bleed. I cry. I moan. I do all that. Let's move on in life."

Lewis wasn't a stranger to courtrooms. Assault charges for grabbing a woman's shoulder were dropped while he played for the University of Miami, while an $8 million civil case is pending on a reported 1999 assault of two women in a Baltimore bar. Lewis also settled a paternity suit with a Randallstown, Md., woman for a daughter he now acknowledges.

Lewis plea-bargained to a reduced charge in Atlanta and remains on probation through June. The NFL fined him $250,000. Lewis testified against Oakley and Sweeting, but the jury needed only five hours to acquit them. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed 81 percent blamed Howard for mishandling the case, though he was later re-elected in the staunch Democratic county. Howard declined comment on the case.

Lollar's old chair sits empty in tribute at an Akron beauty salon just a few miles from where he's buried. His daughter, India, took her first steps last week. The family now associates the Super Bowl with death.

"Ray Lewis' kids get to see their daddy every day," Lollar's fiancee, Kellye Smith, told the Orlando Sentinel. "My baby will never get to see her daddy. I'm tired and I'm lonely and I'm mad. Ray Lewis may think he got away with something, but he just ought to know his day is coming."

Lollar-Owens self-published "The Benefits of Murder: The NFL and the Murder of Richard Lollar." She wanted to call it "A Blood Trail" because blood from the crime scene was found in the limo.

"The mayor of Atlanta promised us he was going to make sure that this guy being famous that justice would be served," Lollar-Owens said. "We were secure enough. When the witnesses put Ray Lewis with my nephew and all the evidence, you thought he would get sentenced. You didn't think the money would get him out of it."

Lewis admits he hugs his four children a little more often now. He's more cautious about his friends and no longer associates with Oakley and Sweeting. But talking about the case isn't going to convince skeptics, and he's simply tired of trying. When questions turned to the murders, Lewis would simply say "Football, football, football," trying to change the subject. If the public doesn't accept his explanation, then Lewis doesn't care.

"Jesus didn't please everybody," he said. "He was spit on, slashed at, talked about."

Lewis believes the public will watch the game and forget the past. They will see perhaps the finest defensive player on the best defense in NFL history.

"You won't get any argument from any head coach or general manager that he's the best defensive player in the game," Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "Everybody would love to have Ray Lewis on their team. He paid his debt to society and moved on well."

Asked if he prays for Lollar and Baker, Lewis nods with the look of someone who cares without accepting responsibility.

"I pray for a lot of people," he said. "I pray for this country because of the violence that goes around."

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