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Fatal attraction

Ray Lewis, multimillionaire pro football player, is among three men who will be tried for murder in a case that ties together fame, race, violence an eight hours of daily TV coverage.

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2000


All Stretched Out Limousine Service in Linthicum, Md., has a fleet of rides available to the public, but a particular 37-foot Lincoln Navigator has become the company's most requested vehicle.

The sports utility vehicle limo seats 14, has multiple televisions and a Nintendo video game. But those are not the only reasons it's booked through May for $1,500 a night.

The sleek, black vehicle is the company's most popular rental because it is the limo Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was renting the night of Super Bowl XXXIV -- the night Fulton County prosecutors allege Lewis and two friends were part of a fight that resulted in the fatal stabbing of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar outside a club in Atlanta's Buckhead entertainment district.

Since Atlanta police returned the limo to All Stretched Out, blood stains and bullet holes have been removed.

But the fascination over the car is indelible.

"That's not surprising at all," said Jack Moore, a professor of American Literature and American Studies at the University of South Florida. "I remember when the car Bonnie and Clyde were killed in, or supposedly killed in, was on display in tours throughout the country. It's the reverse of saints' relics. They have a special magic or glamor. I suppose it helps people recollect the whole narrative.

"The dark side has its allure."

The dark side of the Baker-Lollar murders will begin to come to light when jury selection begins Monday. The twisted infatuation over the limo is a clear sign America remains entranced when the rich and famous become the accused and the indicted.

Lewis, 25 on Monday, and his co-defendants, Reginald Oakley, 31, and Joseph Sweeting, 34, are facing two counts each of murder, felony murder and assault with a deadly weapon; all stemming from the altercation outside the Cobalt lounge. All three defendants could receive life sentences if found guilty.

* * *

The combination of fame, fortune and sensational crime is just one of the reasons the trial of Lewis, who grew up in Bartow and played at Lakeland Kathleen and the University of Miami, is expected to become riveting television.

The mystery surrounding the deaths, as well as the impact the outcome may have on how we view superstar athletes, are added factors in the compelling nature of the trial. Others have suggested the trial could spur race discussions because Lewis is a high-profile black athlete.

ESPN is making the Lewis case the centerpiece of today's Outside the Lines (10:30 a.m.). Bucs secondary coach Herm Edwards and Southern Cal professor Todd Boyd will be guests on the show. Reporters from every major network are expected to attend the trial, and CourtTV will have live daily coverage from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-6 p.m.

"For the American public, it will create a lot of stir because we're always interested in the possible fall of celebrity," said former attorney and CourtTV anchor Rikki Klieman. "It's just like O.J. Simpson. There's a part of us that's fascinated with celebrity. We admire celebrity, we wish we were celebrities, but it makes society feel better when celebrities don't get everything perfectly."

Lewis' fame doesn't rival Simpson's notoriety, but in four seasons he has emerged as one of the league's best middle linebackers. Lewis led the Ravens in tackles for three consecutive seasons to earn three Pro Bowl trips.

The on-field performance led to an off-field bonanza: a four-year, $26-million extension that made him one of the league's highest-paid linebackers. Lewis reportedly flashed his wealth by renting the limousine several times. On the night of the murders, he was wearing a full-length white fur coat.

The appearance of such wealth in a courtroom fuels the public perception the rich can buy their way out of any legal jam. Just read the thoughts of Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.

"We will not allow wealth or fame or celebrity to pervert justice," Campbell said when Lewis and his co-defendants were indicted in February. "What we owe to the public and to the victims and to their families is justice. Nothing more, nothing less."

Depending on who you ask, Lewis is a model citizen and family man who volunteers his time to help troubled children in Baltimore, or a party-loving man who can be seen witnessing sex acts in a pornographic mail order video produced by rapper Luther Campbell.

Friends such as Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp say they would trust Lewis with their own children. Those who grew up with Lewis assert he is a natural peacemaker.

Prosecutors say Lewis, Sweeting and Oakley disturbed the peace in the early hours of Jan.31, chasing down and killing Baker and Lollar outside the lounge as they ran for their lives.

"Here's Ray Lewis, a guy who seems to have the world by the tail," said Clara Tuma, the CourtTV reporter covering this case. "He has everything going for him. That he would be involved in something like this with so much lose is such a startling thought.

"There's two compelling arguments: One thought is that he believed he was above the law and could do what he wanted and lie to police any time he wanted; the other was that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and because he was the most famous person around, he ends up being charged with murder."

Tuma said the interest in the Lewis trial is heightened by the fact the case is not clear-cut. Eyewitness accounts have been conflicting and inconsistent. It's a real-life mystery that will be played out before TV viewers.

* * *

The case will be more than an intriguing legal battle. Some believe sports will be on trial. Lewis is one of two NFL players who began the 1999 season on team rosters but ended it facing murder charges. The trial of former Carolina receiver Rae Carruth may be even more sensational because he's accused of masterminding the murder of his pregnant girlfriend.

The Lewis and Carruth cases are unrelated, but linked by timing. In a span of 37 days, they became the first two active NFL players to be indicted for murder. Guilty verdicts will strengthen the belief these incidents are harbingers of an on-going problem athletes have with violence.

"Obviously, every time there is a trial like this, it's certainly not going to help the image of sports," noted author and sports personality Dick Schaap said. "People argue that this is just a reflection of society and what happens to athletes is on par with what happens to the rest of citizenry. But these guys are millionaires, and the number of millionaires getting in trouble are not as high in society as it is in sports. "It reminds me of a lot of guys I've met in sports. ... They grow up but they don't forget they're street kids. The mind-set is if you don't take, they'll take from you. The first person I noticed that in was Billy Martin, and that was when he was 55, 60 years old. He still thought he was a street kid. It's understandable because sports encourages that mentality."

* * *

Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, argues these events are a reflection of an increasingly violent society. Lapchick said that, sadly, it was inevitable an athlete would be accused of murder because sports is just a part of the culture we live in.

"This is an individual man on trial," Lapchick said. "Sports isn't on trial. Sports may be on trial in the eyes of the public, but that's racially loaded. It fits into the stereotypical views some people have about professional sports because they are becoming abnormally African-American."

The defendants are black, so the trial may carry racial overtones.

"Some people may see it as racial and say, "He's not just an athlete, he's a black athlete,' " said Moore, a member of USF's Institute on Black Life. "There may be some radical black who says he's getting railroaded. I think the race factor will play itself out between those two extremes."

Lewis supporters in Lakeland already have suggested the football player is a victim of stereotyping.

"We don't feel Ray is getting due process of the law," Lewis family friend Howard Mathis told the Ledger last month. Mathis organized a rally in Lakeland for Lewis.

"I'm certain that Ray will be exonerated. They're really trying to railroad him up in Atlanta, so we need to do something for the man."

Clearly, the perspective is different for those who know and love Lewis. Belle Glade minister J. Richard Harris, a spiritual counselor to Lewis and other NFL players, is more concerned about the effects the trial will have on Lewis than what it might mean to society.

"Hopefully he won't be scarred for life," Harris said. "He's already lost an untold amount of money in endorsements. He keeps telling me, "Rev, why me?' I tell him, "Ray, why not you?' "

While many topics are on the periphery of this trial, at the core are the lives of the three defendants and justice for the two victims. Schaap said that shouldn't be lost on the general public or the reporters covering the trial.

"It's a rule of thumb. If anything deserves a certain amount of attention, it's going to get more," Schaap said. "Anything the media can grab on to and run, and I'm including myself as part of the media, we do.

"The basic story here is a tragedy, two people died. But that's not what the story is going to be. It's going to be a prominent football player on trial for his life. When we have this type of media saturation, it tends to trivialize what happens."


-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story.

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