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Lewis faces indictment in 2 killings; Warrants issued for two associates of Ravens player; Grand jury action today; Atlanta police accuse NFL star of hindering probe of two deaths

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA -- Authorities accused Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis yesterday of obstructing their investigation into the stabbing deaths of two men and prepared to seek murder indictments today against the player and two of his acquaintances.

Police and FBI agents launched a nationwide manhunt for Lewis' two associates, one from Baltimore and the other from Miami. Both are convicted felons.

City officials, in their first public comments on the high-profile case that grew out of Super Bowl revelry, accused Lewis -- who has been in custody since Jan. 31, the night of the killings -- of covering for his buddies by lying to detectives and even framing another acquaintance.

"Mr. Lewis has misled investigators and in some cases outright lied," said a visibly angry Deputy Atlanta Police Chief C. B. Jackson. "Mr. Lewis has obstructed this investigation. He has had evidence of a crime in Atlanta transported to all parts of the country."

Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore and Joseph Sweeting, 34, of Miami were charged yesterday with two counts of murder. Police said each has been convicted of crimes that include assault, drug dealing and shootings.

In announcing the arrest warrants, city officials addressed days of pointed criticism from Lewis' lawyers and some fans who believe the star athlete never wielded a knife and was arrested based on flimsy evidence from one witness.

Mayor Bill Campbell said the media hype over Lewis, a multimillionaire as the highest paid linebacker in football, has obscured what he termed the brutal murder of Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinth Baker, 21, two friends who splurged on a night at the star-studded Cobalt Lounge in pricey Buckhead.

"They were not celebrities," the mayor said of the victims. "They were not wealthy. They were not famous. They were just two men with families who will be missed. We will not let wealth or fame or celebrity thwart justice."

Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard said he will ask a grand jury today to indict Lewis, Oakley and Sweeting on formal murder charges. Lewis was arrested Jan. 31, and has been jailed without bail since.

Attorneys representing Lewis last night accused police and prosecutors with ignoring key evidence that they say clears their client of any wrongdoing. They lawyers said they tried to meet with Howard on Tuesday to share statements they have obtained from witnesses, and never got a return call.

"They made a case against a celebrity, and they plan to make it stick no matter what the facts are," said lead defense attorney Edward T. M. Garland. "My client made an offer to cooperate and it was answered with a sudden, ill-advised and un-investigated arrest for murder."

If Lewis, 24, is indicted today, a bail hearing scheduled for Monday will be postponed. Garland said he would seek such a hearing, at which time he promised to present evidence to exonerate his client, as quickly as possible.

Defense attorneys began contacting Ravens players yesterday about being character references for the bail hearing they had expected on Monday. Team owner Art Modell said he would speak on behalf of Lewis if there is a hearing.

He continued with his support of Lewis last night after listening to the police's account and new charges against Lewis.

"'I continue to believe in Ray Lewis and so do my players, coaches, front office personnel and entire organization," said Modell.

Police said the two men bought knives -- one of which has been seized as the murder weapon -- at a suburban Atlanta Sports Authority store on Jan. 29, as Lewis held an autograph signing session the day before the Super Bowl. They said officers found a receipt for the knives in Lewis' hotel room with his home phone number scrawled on the back.

Garland said Lewis simply wrote the number down when asked by his friend and did not know what the receipt was for. He conceded it was a mistake for Lewis to socialize with convicted felons, but stressed: "That does not make him guilty."

The slayings occurred shortly after 4 a.m. on Jan. 31 on a crowded street in Buckhead, one of Atlanta's most expensive entertainment districts.

"These were brutal and deliberate murders and came at at time of celebration and pride in our city," said Howard, the district attorney.

Jackson said Oakley's criminal record is "so extensive that I do not have time to detail it today." He said it includes convictions for assaulting a police officer, drug dealing, stealing a car and shooting a gun into an occupied house.

His Maryland record consists of a Baltimore County traffic ticket for driving on a suspended license. But he has a conviction for assault in North Carolina and in 1991 was charged with escaping from jail there.

Oakley was told to vacate his eighth-floor apartment on Park Avenue in downtown Baltimore by Jan. 31, the day of the stabbings, after residents said they complained to a building manager about his associates' presence near their homes.

Sweeting, of Florida, has served two years in a federal prison in Miami for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, been convicted for second-degree grand theft, burglary, resisting arrest and violating his probation, according to federal and Miami-Dade County police in Florida.

In 1985, he was charged with being involved in a high speed chase in which the driver eluded a pair of roadblocks and a pack of police dogs, only to be discovered hiding in a backyard by an off-duty rookie officer.

Sweeting's record also shows arrests in 1992 on charges of possessing cocaine and a concealed firearm, robbery and loitering, Spinosa said.

City officials used yesterday's briefing, carried live on nationwide television, to fill in some missing details about what happened as football revelers spilled from the night clubs on West Paces Ferry Road -- many disappearing into limousines that lined the streets.

Police said Lollar and Baker got into an argument with Lewis and members of his entourage inside the nightclub hours after the Super Bowl. That dispute, apparently over football, began again as patrons left between 3: 30 a.m. and 4 a.m. Police yesterday gave this account of what happened next:

The groups scuffled, and one person was hit over the head with a champagne bottle as Lewis and his friends walked to a rented 40-foot stretch limo driven by Duane Fassett of Severn.

The two victims were each stabbed three times in the chest during the melee, after which people scattered and Lewis rushed people into the open side door of the limo. He then shouted to Fassett, "Let's get out of here" as someone opened fire with a gun on the vehicle.

As Lollar and Baker lay bleeding on the crowded street, the limo sped to a nearby hotel. Fassett, who has emerged as a key witness, dialed 911 from a car phone. Police found him as he was changing a tire flattened by a bullet.

Others in the limo fled. One ran into a hotel bathroom wearing a bloody shirt. Kwame King, a friend of Lewis from Florida, made it to an airport and flew home to Tallahassee, Fla. Lewis hailed a cab and went to his mid-town hotel, the Georgian Terrace. From there, he went to a friend's home in suburban Atlanta and then to a house owned by lawyer Max Richardson. Three knives were found in the limo and one was discovered at the slaying scene.

Lewis' attorneys have said for days that their client was not involved in the fight or initial dispute and had no idea anyone had been stabbed until he saw it on the news hours later. They maintain Lewis tried to break up the fight and have labeled him a "peacemaker."

Fassett, the limo driver who is under police guard at his home outside Baltimore, has told investigators that he saw the fight, but not the stabbing, and that Lewis was involved and threw a punch at the victims. But the driver said Lewis did not stab anybody. He has identified two people, but police would not say yesterday whether they were Sweeting and Oakley.

Lewis' lawyers have said the player had called police and told them he would talk, but chose not to after his decision to cooperate was met with handcuffs. Police said yesterday it was Lewis' flight that prompted his arrest.

"The perpetrators literally were dripping with blood," Campbell said at the news conference. "Yet not a single individual, not a single passenger in the limo, has told police what has has occurred. The silence speaks volumes."

Though detectives have criss-crossed the East Coast and Midwest in search of witnesses and clues, police said yesterday they have not interviewed a single person who inside the limo other than the driver.

Lewis' high-priced defense teams says they have talked to every person who was in the limo as it sped away, and each clears the the player. They have not, however, talked to the limo driver.

One person identified as being inside, King, 26, who grew up across the street from Lewis in Lakeland, Fla., is in downtown Atlanta hotel under an assumed name and has retained a lawyer, who said his client will talk soon.

Police said yesterday that Lewis, in an initial statement hours after he was arrested before he was to leave for Hawaii to play in his third Pro Bowl, told them that a man named A. J. Johnson was in the limo that night.

Authorities publicly named him as a potential witness, but the Laurel man and former University of Maryland football player told reporters that he watched the game from his girlfriend's house in Maryland and was never in Atlanta with Lewis.

Police said yesterday that they have verified Johnson's story.

Garland said that Lewis was referring to Oakley, whose nickname is A.J.

"We have made every attempt to gain Mr. Lewis' cooperation," said Jackson, the deputy police chief. "From the beginning, Mr. Lewis had deliberately misled investigators and deliberately withheld information."

Jackson would not detail what key evidence Lewis has allegedly withheld or moved to other states. Atlanta detectives were in Miami and Akron, Ohio, yesterday and spent several days earlier this week in the Baltimore area, where they searched Lewis' $753,000 home and were seen taking two containers and a computer.

Police said they have several witnesses who were outside the limousine who they said saw Lewis arguing with Lollar inside the Cobalt and outside on the street. If prosecutors can prove Lewis was part of a fight that led to a homicide, he can be charged with murder even if he did not wield the knife.

Garland has said Lewis was 100 feet away from where the stabbings took place and that he was frantically trying to get people into the limo to get them away from the altercation.

The attorney described the two suspects as "hangers on" and said Lewis did not know their real names nor their criminal backgrounds.

Garland conceded that Lewis made a mistake by including Oakley and Sweeting among his acquaintances, but he criticized the district attorney for announcing publicly he will ask a grand jury to indict his client today.

Staff writers Rafael Alvarez, Richard Irwin, Brent Jones, Jon Morgan, Del Quentin Wilber, Mike Preston and news researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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