Van Brett Watkins, the hitman who always maintained he was hired by former Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth to commit one of Charlotte’s most notorious crimes, has died in a North Carolina prison at age 63.
Watkins, who would have been in prison at least 22 more years due to his lengthy sentence for the murder of Cherica Adams and the attempted murder of her son Chancellor Lee, died of natural causes, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Adult Correction said Sunday night. Watkins had been hospitalized when his death occurred on Dec. 3.
Watkins said at Carruth’s murder trial in 2000 and again in a prison interview with The Charlotte Observer in 2018 that Carruth hired him to kill the woman carrying Carruth’s baby and to destroy her unborn child, too. The baby was Carruth’s. The motive put forth by the prosecution at trial: Carruth was already paying child support for one child, by a different woman, and didn’t want to pay child support for another.
Watkins’ projected release date had been in 2045. Carruth, who was convicted by the jury of a less serious crime than Watkins, was released from prison in 2018 after serving approximately 19 years for conspiracy to commit murder. He moved to Pennsylvania after his release, although it’s unclear if he still lives there.
In prison, Watkins became a practicing Muslim. He had already been convicted of a long list of felonies before he met Carruth, but later said that the Panthers’ first-round draft pick in 1997 had badgered him for several months before Watkins agreed to kill Adams, who was pregnant with Carruth’s child at the time.
On Nov. 16, 1999, Watkins shot into Cherica Adams’ car five times on a dark road in south Charlotte in a drive-by ambush. Four bullets hit Adams, who while grievously wounded was still able to make a 12-minute “911” call that saved the life of her unborn baby. Carruth, who had taken Adams to a movie, was driving in a separate car at the time.
Chancellor Lee Adams, the son of Rae Carruth and Cherica Adams, is now 24 years old. He was born with cerebral palsy, due to the complications from his premature and chaotic birth, and has been cared for all his life by his grandmother Saundra Adams, who is also Cherica’s mother.
Cherica Adams didn’t die immediately from her wounds. But she succumbed to the damage inflicted by the shooting four weeks later, in 1999, at age 24.
Watkins said in his 2018 interview with The Observer that he had killed four people in other states before he shot Cherica Adams, although he didn’t identify any of them. Known as “New York” and a burly 6-foot-3 and 286 pounds at the time of the crime, he was an intimidating presence and had already committed several felonies before he met Carruth.
But Watkins said in his 2018 interview that he hadn’t always been a criminal.
“I was a Cub Scout,” he said. “And I had a little pin that I had to turn every time I did a good deed. So I started off good in life. I wasn’t born like this.”
While in prison, Watkins committed more than 50 infractions and was repeatedly cited for fighting, misusing medication and threatening to harm prison staff.
Watkins implicated Carruth as the plot’s mastermind in the trial. But Carruth, now 49 years old, always disputed that he hired Watkins to kill Cherica Adams, saying instead that Watkins shot her as violent retribution for Carruth changing his mind about lending Watkins money in a possible drug deal.
The jury found Carruth guilty of conspiracy to commit murder but found Watkins guilty of second-degree murder, which ultimately meant that Carruth was released from prison more than five years ago and Watkins died while still incarcerated.
Carruth’s impending release angered Watkins immensely during that 2018 interview. He said at one point: “I won’t forgive Rae Carruth. I want him dead.”
While in prison, Watkins and Saundra Adams, Cherica’s mother, occasionally corresponded. Although Adams wanted her daughter’s killers to be punished, she often spoke of her forgiveness of their crimes.
“Because if I’m sitting around in unforgiveness,” she said to The Observer about Carruth in 2018, “it’s like me drinking poison and hoping he’s going to die.”