Ray Lewis (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
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.