In aftermath of trial, many questions persist

ATLANTA - As he prepared to celebrate the Super Bowl, Ray Lewis dressed to impress, not to kill.

He put on a snappy cream and black-patterned suit, custom-made by a Washington tailor for the occasion. He clasped around his neck a gold-and-diamond necklace he had just bought in a $105,000 shopping spree and put on a full-length, black mink coat and Stetson hat.

He and his friends climbed into a 37-foot Lincoln Navigator and headed for the nightclub district. Before the next day was over, the clothes would be missing and Lewis would be wearing handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit in an Atlanta jail, charged with murder.

Whatever became of his outfit remains just one of the mysteries that endures from that morning. The nearly monthlong trial that flickered out last week generated plenty of questions, but only a misdemeanor conviction and few answers for the families of two men left to bleed to death on a crowded street at 4 a.m. on Jan.31.

The Sun has re-created events leading to the murders and their chaotic aftermath, using previously unreleased documents and interviews. However, Lewis has declined to be interviewed on any subject other than football since returning to Baltimore.

Among the details that have emerged - none of which was heard by jurors - are that the limo driver feared retaliation by Lewis' friends and the tearful football player tried to give their names to police as he was being arrested. Also, police were told one of them was a suspect in other killings and his girlfriend could implicate him in this case.

Lewis, who was not yet 25 and only a few years past the poverty of his Florida childhood, approached the Cobalt Lounge about 1 a.m. the day after the Super Bowl had been played here. He slipped the doorman some bills and his entourage glided past the horde of hopefuls still waiting in the cold.

Inside the bar, with its futuristic finishes, the Ravens linebacker was feeling "smooth," sipping Remy Martin cognac, surrounded by old friends, new friends and people he barely knew.

On his arm was not his pregnant fiancee, but the beautiful Jessica Robertson, whom he had met a few days earlier. They had both attended a party hosted by former NBA great Magic Johnson.

"She was cool. ... We was just kickin'," Lewis would later say.

With them was a limo full of other folks, including Lewis' hometown buddy Kwame King, a graduate student, and friends and friends-of-friends of Robertson's - all of whom gathered for a photograph that would have been a keepsake of those giddy pre-brawl hours, if only Robertson hadn't burned it.

In the old-friend category was Joseph Sweeting, 34, a pal from Lewis' University of Miami days who stands only 5 feet 6 but is a former high school wrestling star. He has a criminal record that includes convictions for theft, burglary and resisting arrest.

Sweeting, known as "Oomph" or "Unk," is trying to make it in the entertainment business as a promoter and producer. He has befriended rap star Luther Campbell and appears, with Lewis, in an X-rated Campbell video filmed in Cancun.

Reginald Oakley, a 31-year-old former barber from Baltimore, was a newer friend, introduced to Lewis by mutual friend Garfield Yuille, a model for the FUBU clothing line. Oakley's past brushes with the law include convictions for embezzlement, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.

He stands out in this saga because he's "the original wise a--," in the words of an alternate juror, the guy whose temper got him clunked in the head with a Moet bottle, which set off the whole melee that led to the slayings.

The other party

Somewhere in the Cobalt crowd was another group of partiers, who knew each other from their native Ohio. They were drinking Moet champagne and smoking "blunts" - marijuana-stuffed cigars.

Though hip, this group would rank a few sartorial notches below Lewis' set, whom they would soon battle on a darkened street. Among them were Jeff Gwen, aka Chino Nino, the rap artist who was barred by his probation on drug charges from leaving Ohio but came anyway to promote his new CD; Marlin Burros, the pit bull breeder; and Lemitrius Twitty, who was trolling for women.

And, of course, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. They ended up at the morgue that day.

The two had had their own trouble with the law - petty drug and firearm offenses - and had moved from Akron two years earlier seeking a fresh start.

Lollar, 24, a barber in suburban Decatur, Ga., was saving to buy his own shop. He wanted to take care of his fiancee, who was expecting a baby. He wore his favorite outfit to the Cobalt: black leather pants and cream-colored sweater with "Cleveland" stitched in red.

Baker - "Shorty" to his friends - was 21 and had a talent for drawing. He planned to someday attend art school. For his outing to the Cobalt, he crammed seven bags of marijuana and a beeper into his blue-jean pockets.

As the morning wore on, the Cobalt crowd grew unruly. A fight broke out in the VIP lounge upstairs, where Cleveland Indians slugger David Justice and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez had been spotted earlier among the glitterati. Management shut that lounge.

Downstairs, Lewis' party got its own reprimand. Robertson's friend, Rehana Grant, a 26-year-old dressed in a see-through, turquoise blouse, danced on a table until told to stop.

As the bar emptied at about 3:30 a.m., the Lewis group headed toward the Navigator, parked a few blocks away. What happened next sounds more like a bad day in junior high school than the aftermath of a party attended by a sports idol.

Chino Nino missed his ride; he and Oakley traded foul language; soon there were blows and then an all-out brawl. But somewhere in the crowd was a knife (or two or three), and by the time Lewis' group slammed the limo doors and fled to the sound of gunshots, Baker and Lollar were on the ground with stab wounds to the heart.

The man who would end up prosecuting the case, first-term Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, was asleep at his home in West Cascade, an upper-class suburb south of the city. The phone rang.

A staff member told him of the double homicide and that investigators had already turned up some promising leads.

Acting on a tip, police seized Lewis' limo at a Holiday Inn Express about a mile from the scene, with a flat tire. There were bullet holes in the side and bloodstains throughout the interior.

Shaken driver

They found the driver, Duane Fassett of Severn, in the lobby, chain smoking and shaking so badly he was spilling the coffee out of his cup. He wouldn't say much, so the officers put him in handcuffs and locked him in a squad car.

At the police station, he gradually opened up. He revealed the renter of the limo - Lewis - and gave police the player's cell phone number. And he revealed the hotel where the player had stayed (Fassett slept in his limo) and where police found more blood.

Despite his celebrity status in Baltimore, where his No.52 jersey was the Ravens' best seller, Lewis was not immediately recognized in Atlanta. "We had no idea who Ray Lewis was. Somebody said he was a football player," said Howard, who himself had played outside linebacker in high school.

Who Lewis was would soon become apparent. His $26 million, four-year contract made him the highest-paid linebacker in football. He led the NFL in tackles and was supposed to play days later in his third Pro Bowl.

Fassett was a solid witness who could put Lewis and the other two men in the thick of the fight. Moreover, the limo driver described punches to the victims' stomachs and chests that meshed with details of the crime that hadn't been released yet.

Detectives also tracked down Chino Nino after a friend of Gwen's reported him anonymously to Atlanta police. He described the same type of punches.

This was important because the coroner told Howard early in the investigation that the victims had been stabbed in the chest and that their bodies bore no obvious "defensive" wounds to the hands or arms. This would indicate they hadn't seen the knife.

The conclusion: The killer or killers had probably used a small knife, cupped in their fists with the blade sticking out between their fingers, and used underhand punches - a style convicts use when fighting with shanks in prison.

After the killings, Lewis and his friends scattered to the airport, their homes and their hotels. In his room, Lewis lamented that the incident could ruin his career. The Akron group, too, fled. One of them had fired the gun at the limo and went home to dispose of it in the woods. Twitty, the lady's man, left the scene of his friends' deaths to keep a rendezvous.

Meeting with police

When police first met with Lewis at a house in the suburbs belonging to his fiancee's family, he was friendly but not forthcoming. The detectives concluded that he was lying and reported back to headquarters - where an arrest warrant was drawn up and signed by a judge.

By the time Lewis hooked up with an attorney, Max Richardson, and called police back to divulge the names of other limo passengers, police already had other ideas. When they showed up at Richardson's suburban home, they had an arrest warrant, and Lewis was handcuffed and read his rights.

The player began to sob.

Richardson blurted out a few names, but he referred to Oakley by the name some knew him as, "A.J. Johnson," and Sweeting became "Sweeney."

To prosecutors, it looked like a cover-up. Lewis' cell phone had been in repeated use almost immediately after the killings. The player called Robertson about 6a.m., and she agreed to come to his hotel and pick up his clothes.

Some limo passengers were seen tossing a laundry bag in a dumpster after the fight. Lewis' suit and mink coat as well as the clothes worn by Sweeting and Oakley were never recovered. Lewis testified he does not know what became of his clothes.

The next day, Lewis appeared briefly in court dressed in an orange jumpsuit; on the outside, the search for legal firepower was under way.

Ravens owner Art Modell called his friend, home run king Hank Aaron, a front-office executive with the Atlanta Braves. Aaron suggested prominent Atlanta attorney Edward T.M. Garland, with whom Aaron shared a BMW dealership. Garland's law partner, Donald F. Samuel, wrote a textbook on criminal law.

Lewis' mother arrived accompanied by a Florida-based attorney. Ron Cherry of Baltimore, Lewis' personal attorney, flew into town and called around for references. Teams of attorneys, all seeking to represent the millionaire football player, converged that first night on the Fulton County Pretrial Detention Center reception room. "It was quite a scene," Samuel recalled.

Cherry invited the competing barristers to dinner at the Marriott Marquis. Each firm took a separate table. Cherry made the rounds, seeking the fastest bond motion. Garland and Samuel promised to file one by 9:01 the next morning.

They got the job.

On Friday of that week, Garland met with Howard, a prosecutor seen by defense attorneys as a man who could be reasoned with. The two knew each other well. Garland had been the honorary chairman of Howard's election campaign four years earlier. Garland had hoped to work out a reduction or elimination of the charges in exchange for testimony. But Howard "was rigid and inflexible," Samuel said.

The prosecutor, who was facing his first re-election in the fall, said he would fight the bond. He vowed to go to court on the murder charges, based on a police investigation that was picking up momentum.

On the day of the killings, the troubled limo driver told police he didn't want to "get nobody into trouble" and feared for the safety of his family. "I ain't got no reason to be afraid of Ray. Ray would never hurt me. But them other two," Duane Fassett said, "I don't know ... what they might do."

According to a 94-page case synopsis report by Atlanta Police Det. Ken Allen, the driver's account grew in detail with retelling over the next few days. Fassett said three men were "active participants" in the fight.

Tracking the suspects

Police began tracking one of them, Oakley, using a travel itinerary found in Lewis' room at the luxury Georgian Terrace.

At Oakley's hotel, a clerk told police the Baltimore man had checked out in a hurry on the morning of the killings, showing up at the front desk with a cut on his head and wearing oversized clothes. He asked that the name on the registration be changed to his "real" name, "Joseph Sweeting."

A detective discovered Oakley had bought his airline ticket through Sweeting's travel agent.

Meanwhile, police learned Sweeting had spent the previous night at the Holiday Inn Express with his girlfriend, Sandy McLeod, of Miami. She later told police she recalled him playing with a knife as he waited for Lewis' limo.

Hours later, Sweeting returned, looking for McLeod. She wasn't there, but another Miami woman, Leilani Rosario, let him in to use the bathroom. When he came out, she asked him about a cut on his finger, which he said was "nothing." In the bathroom, she found a bloodstained towel, according to Allen's account.

When Atlanta detectives requested help from their counterparts in Miami in tracking down Sweeting, they got plenty. They were referred to a special unit known as the "Redrum squad" - murder spelled backward - that investigates old, unsolved killings.

"The entire unit was familiar with Mr. Sweeting and his alleged criminal activities," Allen wrote. Later, a Miami detective said he had been investigating Sweeting on and off since 1985 and that he was a suspect in some unsolved homicides. Sweeting had also had ties to a drug gang called "The Untouchables" and was alleged to be part of a group that dressed as women and robbed jewelry stores, the detective said, according to Allen's account.

Sweeting's attorney, John Bergendahl, said Friday that his client hasn't been arrested since he got out of prison in 1992 and dismisses the allegations of unsolved crimes. "If there were a prosecutable case, maybe there would have been some charges, but he wasn't charged," he said.

Messages to Sweeting

From jail, Lewis was getting messages to Sweeting through one of the player's sisters, who relayed them to McLeod. According to an informant's report to Allen, Sweeting told McLeod not to worry because Lewis wouldn't turn on him.

Eventually, both Oakley and Sweeting would turn themselves in to police - evidence, their attorneys say, of their innocence.

A week before the trial began on May15, prosecutors offered Lewis a deal: Plead guilty to aggravated assault and testify against Oakley and Sweeting and the murder charges would be dropped. Lewis would spend three years in prison. Garland spoke with Modell about the offer, who relayed word that would mean the end of Lewis' NFL career. Lewis said no.

Oakley turned down a deal, too. Prosecutors offered voluntary manslaughter and a 20-year sentence if Oakley would testify, his attorney, David Wolfe, said.

Howard saw no reason to bargain further with the defendants. "We felt we had a very solid case going into this thing," he said.

Just to be sure, Howard hired a consultant who assembled a replica jury. Howard and Clinton Rucker and Sheila Finley, two crack assistants from his specialized trial unit, conducted a mock trial. Howard played the role of defense attorney.

Witnesses weren't called, but evidence was described to the jurors. The mock verdicts were guilty, guilty, guilty.

By now, the incredible shrinking case of the Super Bowl murders is well-chronicled. Witnesses recanted portions of their testimony. Fassett, among other things, ended up saying he never actually saw Lewis punch Lollar - only cock his arm.

Rosario, who had seen Sweeting the morning of the killings with a fresh cut on his hand, came to Howard in a hallway just before her turn on the stand and said she didn't really see the cut, only heard him say he had one. The blood on the towel? It was just a drop, and may have been left by her roommate, she said. Howard never called her.

"It was really mind-boggling," the prosecutor said.

What went wrong?

Howard blamed a number of factors, primarily people not wanting to finger someone on national TV. The defense attorneys may have coached the witnesses, too, he said. Investigators hired by Lewis beat police to many of the 11 limo passengers. By then, they were all represented by attorneys and demanding immunity.

Family members of the victims declared that some witnesses must have been paid off.

Defense attorneys say they did nothing wrong, and challenge Howard's assertion that witnesses waffled. The prosecutor simply wasn't properly preparing his witnesses and made a number of procedural missteps.

By the end of the second week, even Lewis was bored. He whiled away the hours squeezing a tennis ball and practicing variations of his autograph.

His case in shambles, Howard met with his staff and decided to cut a deal. On June4, he went to Garland's home and offered to reduce the charges against Lewis to misdemeanor battery and obstruction of justice. Garland nixed any charges involving violence.

Garland then dropped a bomb. Lewis had seen Sweeting with a knife after the killings, apparently demonstrating how he had stabbed someone.

Believing Lewis' testimony could be the life preserver for his case, the district attorney agreed to recommend a 12-month probation on one charge of obstruction of justice. Lewis took the stand.

Even that wasn't enough to rescue the case. The jury acquitted Sweeting and Oakley after less than six hours of deliberations, leaving Lewis' misdemeanor plea as the only conviction in the case.

"I think Ray kind of summarized it pretty good when he said this whole thing was going to come back on him," said alternate juror Wally Wright after the trial.