Years later, murder case still echoes for Ray Lewis, families

Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)

For more than a decade, Priscilla Lollar struggled to face the realization that her son had been killed in a brawl outside an Atlanta nightclub.

But these days, her emotions are raw again, as one of the men charged in the slaying — Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis — attracts national attention for his impending retirement and the team's playoff run.

The brawl in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 2000, left two young men from Akron, Ohio, dead from stab wounds. Lewis and two acquaintances were charged with murder, but the charge against Lewis was reduced to a less serious one in a plea deal, and his co-defendants were acquitted.

Lewis, who might be playing his last game Saturday, will retire after the playoffs as the most popular Raven in team history. But his legacy — Super Bowl MVP, one of the National Football League's best linebackers, two-time defensive player of the year — will include the footnote of the murder charges. Fans of opposing teams have taunted him by calling him a murderer, and some in the news media are discussing the case again.

Hyperbole over the incident has lessened, but may never fade. News outlets, including National Public Radio, the Orlando Sentinel and the popular sports website Deadspin, have written about it recently in light of Lewis' retirement. Opinions cover a wide spectrum, from those who say Lewis should no longer be tied to the murders to those who say the crime victims should not be forgotten.

Lewis and his teammates have said the experience matured him and made him eager to give back to the community. "Not only did it have a profound effect on the player he became, but it had a profound effect on the person he became," former teammate Shannon Sharpe said, noting Lewis' charitable work.

Lewis would not comment Thursday when asked about the incident. His trial attorney, Max Richardson, said this week that it should be left in the past because his client's name was cleared.

But if Lewis will be remembered as a hero by many fans in Baltimore and around the nation — his No. 52 has been the top-selling NFL jersey recently — in Akron, Priscilla Lollar tries to move on without thinking about him.

"I never did acknowledge [my son] being dead until last year," she said this week. "I wouldn't have wanted to live. I always felt that he was in Atlanta and he would be home soon and would call me soon. It was like that for years."

The Lollars have not been able to watch Lewis play on TV, and they maintain that his money and power gave him an advantage at trial.

"How can you understand something that is senseless?" Priscilla Lollar said. "There was no justice in anything. ..."

Thirteen years ago this month, Lewis and his friends were celebrating at a posh nightclub after Super Bowl XXXIV, won by the St. Louis Rams over the Tennessee Titans.

The group included Joseph Sweeting, 34, a music producer and promoter whom Lewis knew from his time at the University of Miami, and Reginald Oakley, 31, a former barber from Baltimore.

Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, childhood friends who had moved from Akron to the Atlanta area, were also partying at the Cobalt Lounge.

The two groups spilled out onto the streets about 3:30 a.m., and a member of Baker and Lollar's group traded words with Oakley.

"A Moet bottle smashed into the side of my head. ... I swung and he swung back and all hell broke loose around us," Oakley wrote in "Memories of Murder," a self-published book whose account mirrors trial testimony about the start of the street fight.

Amid the brawl, Lollar and Baker were stabbed and bled to death on the street. Someone fired shots at Lewis' limo as his group sped away.

Police arrested Lewis before the day was over, and the linebacker cried as he was read his rights.

Priscilla Lollar remembers her son as a creative child who liked to draw and sing. The oldest of nine, he was a talented barber whose brothers and sisters looked up to him, she said.

"You just wouldn't believe it," she said. "People would come for him to cut their hair, I would listen to them offering him $100 just to give them a fade."

Atlanta was supposed to be a new start for Baker and Lollar. Lollar had pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of marijuana possession. At the time of his death, Baker was being sought by police on charges of possession of cocaine and driving with an open container of alcohol; he had previously pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of improperly handling a firearm.

Lollar was 24 when he was killed, Baker just 21. Lollar had gone to Atlanta to work as a barber in a friend's shop, part of a wave of Akron men who went to the city at that time, his mother said. Richard's fiancee was pregnant, and his daughter, India, was born a couple of months after his death.

Baker's parents died before he was killed; an aunt, Vondie Boykin, declined to be interviewed about the brawl and its aftermath.

Priscilla Lollar said both families, and the mother of Richard's daughter, are trying to move on. They still don't know exactly what happened that night.

"I was in the dark on a lot of things," said Lollar. She said she did not attend the trial, although other members of the family went.

The trial in Fulton County did not go well for prosecutors. Some outside experts said at the time that the prosecution was sloppy and the charges against Lewis, Sweeting and Oakley had been rushed. Others noted that witnesses had changed their stories.

Two weeks into the trial, prosecutors agreed to drop the murder charges against Lewis if he would plead guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice and testify against Sweeting and Oakley, who had criminal records that included convictions for theft, burglary and resisting arrest. The obstruction-of-justice charge was related to Lewis' telling those who left in the limo after the fight that they should keep quiet about the incident.

Lewis testified that he tried to stop the fight and that Sweeting and Oakley bought knives the day before they ended up at the nightclub. Lewis testified that he asked Oakley later what happened. "I said this is all on me," Lewis told the court. "My career is over because you guys tripping."

After less than six hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Sweeting and Oakley; neither man could be reached for comment for this article. Lewis had a year of probation for the misdemeanor charge and was fined $250,000 by the National Football League for violating its conduct policy.

Sharpe, a Hall of Famer who joined the Ravens soon after Lewis was arrested, said this week that the two talked on numerous occasions that year about the experience.

"I'm sure he felt bad that two men lost their lives, tragically," Sharpe said. "His name will forever be attached to that. I told him ... a great portion of people will always remember you for what transpired in Atlanta; you can't change that, no matter if you win 10 Super Bowls."

Faye Lollar, Richard's aunt, says of Lewis: "I had to forgive him to start my life and live my life. Richard was a big part of our lives, for him to be taken so harsh, it was just devastating. Everybody's trying to go on with their lives. Ray don't even cross our minds."

Priscilla Lollar says justice will come eventually. "I trust in God that he's going to take care of it," she said. "I can't do nothing about it."

A few years after the incident, Lewis settled civil lawsuits with both families. Richard Lollar's daughter received about $1 million, according to news reports; the Bakers' settlement was not disclosed publicly. Police consider the case closed.

Lewis helped lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl win in the season that followed the trial, and he has been widely praised for his charitable work. His Ray Lewis 52 Foundation has, among other things, distributed food and school supplies to Baltimore families.

Ravens senior vice president of public and community relations Kevin Byrne declined to comment this week about the Atlanta incident, saying that the case has been resolved.

When approached in the team locker room after practice Thursday by a USA Today reporter, Lewis wasn't happy about the topic being broached. He declined to discuss it, saying, "Really, really. Why would I talk about that? That was 13 years ago."

In a 2010 interview with the Baltimore Sun, however, Lewis opened up about the killings.

"I'm telling you, no day leaves this Earth without me asking God to ease the pain of anybody who was affected by that whole ordeal," he said. "He's a God who tests people — not that he put me in that situation, because he didn't make me go nowhere. I put myself in that situation.

"But if I had to go through all of that over again ... I wouldn't change a thing. Couldn't. The end result is who I am now."

Former teammate Sharpe noted that Disney, the company that passed over Lewis for a Super Bowl MVP commercial in 2001, is involved in a post-retirement deal with him. ESPN, a Disney subsidiary, will hire Lewis as an NFL commentator, according to news reports.

"That shows you how someone can rehabilitate their life," Sharpe said. "I'm sure there are some people that still dislike Ray for what transpired in Atlanta, but I know a different Ray Lewis."

Baltimore Sun Staff writer Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.