A night well suited to a football star; Questions linger over Atlanta events


ATLANTA -- At the Cobalt Lounge, Ray Lewis celebrated Super Bowl Sunday in a style befitting the millionaire athlete. He stepped from a super stretch limousine in a mink coat, a high school buddy at one elbow, women at another.

The retro-chic club in the trendy Buckhead area of Atlanta was packed with patrons who gladly paid $100 to mingle in a bar that caters to the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Jordan.

The Ravens' star linebacker joined other celebrities in a VIP suite. Guests leaned on the brushed stainless steel bar. They relaxed against the sloping black leather walls. Dom Perignon flowed amid the jangle of conversation, the thump of hip-hop.

At the club's close, when Lewis and his friends stepped from the blue glow of the Cobalt Lounge after 3 a.m., a post-party street crowd swept the NFL star into a confounding fray that left two men dead and Lewis in the national headlines and an Atlanta jail cell.

In the week since Lewis emerged from the cocoon of the upscale club, the circumstances surrounding the stabbing deaths of Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinth Baker, 21, remain as hazy as the smoke swirling in the light of the Cobalt's halogen lamps.

The 24-year-old football star remains in the Atlanta City Detention Center. He denies any involvement in the stabbings. His lawyers say he was unaware until hours after the killings that people who left the club with him were involved in a fight that had turned deadly. Lewis' lawyers say they will share what they find with police, including the nicknames of "some people" they suspect to be involved in the stabbings.

Lewis is the only person charged in the case, although at least eight others fled the scene in his $125-an-hour Lincoln 220 Navigator as gunshots rang out. Bullets struck the limousine's side and flattened a tire.

The identities of two of the eight others believed to have been in the fleeing limo have been made public. Kwame King, a childhood friend of Lewis who joined him for the Super Bowl festivities, has not spoken publicly in defense of Lewis. And confusion over the second man stems from authorities' identification of him as A. J. Johnson. The A. J. Johnson who knows Lewis and played football for the University of Maryland, College Park, says he wasn't in Atlanta the day of the Super Bowl.

Questions also remain about the victims' actions that night.

Lollar, an affable and talented hairstylist, and Baker, an aspiring artist, drove to the Buckhead area of clubs, restaurants and galleries to join in the Super Bowl hoopla and never returned to their homes in Atlanta's Decatur suburb.

But it has yet to be established whether the men were in the Cobalt Lounge that night, or when they first encountered Lewis' party.

Police and Lewis' attorneys say a dispute broke out among some people as patrons from the Cobalt Lounge left the club after it closed.

Chuck Payne, an Atlanta video show host who was filming in the club during the champagne Super Bowl party, didn't see a street fight. But, Payne said, "There were so many people outside the club going to their cars" after the club closed.

Last week, Edward T. M. Garland, a prominent Atlanta attorney representing Lewis, described the incident as "a moving set of events, many people milling about, a sudden confrontation." Defense investigators are trying to piece together a scattered puzzle.

"His public, his fans are entitled to the truth. This community is entitled to the truth," said Garland, one of Atlanta's best-known criminal lawyers.

It's unclear whether the argument broke out near the club and escalated along the sidewalk as Lewis and his company headed for the limousine. The 40-foot-long black limo was parked about a block and a half from the club. The victims' bodies were found in the street, at an intersection about a half-block from the limo.

Garland, Lewis' lawyer, said last week that a champagne bottle was broken over someone's head. A man riding in Lewis' limousine after the attack had blood on his shirt. Jana Harris, a lawyer in Garland's firm and spokeswoman for the defense team, said evidence will show that the blood in the limousine is not that of either victim.

Tony Mitchell, Lollar's half-brother, said he believes Lewis' friends that evening were former athletes or men built as well as the linebacker. He says his brother and Baker were slightly built. "These are little men. Why would it take five to six big guys to jump on a guy named Shorty?" he asked, referring to Baker's nickname. "This is what baffles me."

Then there are the knives. Three were found in the limousine. Police have not said if they are the weapons used in the killings.

Lewis' legal team insists that the athlete did not have a knife, wasn't involved in the stabbings, and didn't know what had occurred on the street when he and the others jumped in the limousine to flee the gunfire.

Garland characterized Lewis as a "horrified bystander."

Atlanta police, relying on one witness, not only put Lewis at the scene, but ascribe to him a significant role in the killings. That witness is believed to be the limousine driver, Duanne Fassett of Severn. But Fassett, has apparently said that Lewis was not directly involved in the stabbings. Private investigators working to free Lewis have found at least three witnesses who they say will testify under oath that Lewis is innocent of the charges against him.

Lewis' whereabouts before his arrival at the Cobalt Lounge also have not been revealed.

The fanfare accompanying the Super Bowl drew Lewis and a limo full of friends to Atlanta several days before the game. Although not avid football fans, Lollar and Baker got caught up in the revelry enough to splurge on a night out in Atlanta's pricey entertainment district.

Those seem to be the only undisputed facts in the double killing and Lewis' involvement in it. The repercussions of the incident have been felt at Atlanta's City Hall, the National Football League's Pro Bowl in Honolulu -- where Lewis was to play today -- and the Baltimore Ravens' offices in Maryland.

The stabbings have given added momentum to a proposal by an Atlanta civic group to roll back the 4 a.m. bar closings in the Buckhead district, where 100 businesses have liquor licenses. The Buckhead Coalition, which represents 75 businesses and heads of corporations in the area, is pressing its case with Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.

"We have seen problems brewing in the district for some time," said coalition president Sam Massell, a former mayor of Atlanta. "We need fewer clubs. We need fewer hours of operation and we need more policemen."

As Lewis' defense team continued yesterday to pursue leads on the football player's behalf, Richard Lollar's family buried the hairstylist in his hometown, Akron, Ohio. Baker will be buried there tomorrow. Lollar's pregnant fiancee is due to give birth to their daughter this month. Baker leaves behind an elderly grandmother and six brothers and sisters.

Much has been made of what's at stake for Lewis. A favorite of Ravens fans, he is involved in several Baltimore area charities. With a four-year, $26 million contract, he is the NFL's highest-paid linebacker.

"Ray doesn't know anything else but football," said Kimberlie Arnold Ford, a former girlfriend who dated Lewis when they were students at the University of Miami. "To take it away I don't think he would survive."

Mitchell said last week he wants his half-brother's killers to be brought to justice. But he also feels compassion for Lewis' family.

"I'm praying for my family. I'm praying for his family," said Mitchell, 30, an Atlanta car salesman. "Anybody who is involved in this is going to be a victim as well."

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