Ray Lewis ends his teeth-rattling career tonight in the Super Bowl in New Orleans, one that will likely lead to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But that career nearly ended 13 years ago in a deadly knife fight, a fracas that left a bloody trail from a Buckhead street to inside Lewis’ limousine and to his suite at the Georgian Terrace. Inside his room, Lewis — then a rising star for the Baltimore Ravens — put his head in his hands as he realized he would be linked to the deaths of two young men. He wondered aloud if he’d played his last game.
Lewis says his involvement in the deadly brawl the night of Super Bowl XXXIV will not define him. But what happened in Atlanta in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 2000 still haunts his legacy. The ugly incident also profoundly altered Atlanta’s landscape.
The slayings pushed city leaders to tame Buckhead’s wild party scene once and for all, remaking Atlanta’s night life. In fact, the events of that night are often cited as the beginning of the end of Buckhead as a thriving, raucous nightclub destination where loudspeakers thumped in cruising cars until pre-dawn hours.
The Buckhead where the killings took place largely no longer exists. Cobalt, the nightclub on East Paces Ferry Road where the Lewis entourage and the victims partied, has been torn down, replaced by a large building still in construction. The site of the slayings two blocks east, landmarked by a V-shaped tree and a low-slung brick building where residents watched the fight in horror, is now the site of a 20-story tower.
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“The city was on fire then, money was flowing; Atlanta was a real scene,” said Brian Arlt, a nightclub promoter who helped transform the usually slow Sunday night at the club into the wildly popular “urban night,” which catered to African Americans and changed the image of the village, good or bad, depending to whom one spoke.
“Nightlife has almost disappeared since then,” Arlt said. “(Ray Lewis) cost me a fortune.”
Before 2000, Buckhead leaders had pushed city officials to enact earlier closing times and stop licensing so many bars. The hue and cry intensified after the killings, causing police to crack down on cruisers and arrest people for minor infractions.
Ultimately, economics won out. In 2007, bulldozers erased eight acres of nightlife to create a billion-dollar development that has been forestalled by the recession.
The Buckhead slayings remain a stain on Atlanta and an open wound for the victims’ families. Two young men who had moved from Akron, Ohio, to Atlanta — Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24 — were killed by vicious stab wounds just hours after a Super Bowl, but no one was ever convicted.
The investigation remains raw with Ken Allen, who had just been promoted to his dream job as an Atlanta homicide detective. Allen was put in charge of the investigation but saw it hijacked by political forces, which ultimately caused the case to collapse at trial.
“The focus of the case was Ray Lewis, not necessarily because of the evidence but because he was a celebrity,” said Allen. “It was like they were star struck and saw this as a case that could make a career.”
Allen criticized the rush to quickly arrest and indict Lewis for murder. Lewis was questioned by police on Jan. 31 but lied to officers, saying he didn’t know what had happened or who was in his stretch Lincoln Navigator limo. Allen wanted another crack at questioning the hulking linebacker, having talked to Lewis’ limo driver, Bruce Fassett, who said he saw Lewis throw a punch during the fight. Allen disagreed with higher-ups who wanted to arrest him on murder charges.
“I don’t think Ray Lewis ever should have been charged with murder,” Allen said. “I don’t think he committed a murder. He would not have stabbed anybody. He had no reason to stab anybody.”
Allen added, “Instead, we charged him. Then we were outmaneuvered over the course of the case.”
A fight turns deadly
Lewis didn’t play in the 2000 Super Bowl, an epic game at the Georgia Dome where a Tennessee Titan fell inches short of a game-tying touchdown as time expired. Like thousands of others, Lewis came to Atlanta to party. The brawl was the result of a dangerous, age-old brew — testosterone, alcohol and late-night antics.
That night, Cobalt was the place to be, a swirling mix of celebrities, curiosity seekers and assorted late-night denizens. Limousines clogged the streets, 400 people were packed in the club and as many waited outside in the cold. Lewis, decked out in a fur coat and $45,000 diamond-studded necklace, had to make two or three goes at the doorman before paying him to gain entry.
About 3:30 a.m., Lewis and his group left, walking two blocks east to the limo. At some point, friends of the Akron men got in an argument with Reginald Oakley, a barber from Baltimore who hung with Lewis, witnesses said. Lewis corralled him and shoved him into the limo, trying to get out of the simmering situation. But the trash-talking didn’t stop and Oakley bolted out of the limo. Moments later, Baker smashed a bottle over Oakley’s head, one of the few key facts that was never disputed.
The scene erupted into mayhem. Witnesses said Lewis’ buddy, a ruffian named Joseph “Shorty” Sweeting, was dragged to the ground by two men and pummelled. He regained his footing and tore into an attacker, a witness said. Fassett, the limo driver, said he saw Oakley chase and slam Baker to the street, striking him while he was down.
Just as quick as the fight started, the men with Lewis (there were six other men and four women) jumped back in the limo and they took off. One of the victims’ friends grabbed a pistol from his truck and started firing at the fleeing vehicle, flattening a tire.
It was back at Lewis’ suite at the Georgian Terrace two hours later, as the adrenaline ebbed, that the enormity of the situation sank in.
Oakley noticed his black cashmere sweater was damp and his shirt drenched with blood. “It had soaked through,” Oakley recalled in an interview last week. “I realized it wasn’t my blood.”
They flipped on the early morning TV news to see police lights flashing near the Buckhead nightclub where they had partied. News flash: Two men are dead.
“That’s when things got crazy,” said Oakley. “Ray asked me in front of everyone, ‘Did you stab anyone?’ “
Lewis, who allegedly learned from Sweeting that Sweeting had used a knife in the melee, ordered everyone to keep their mouths shut. Then he put his head in his hands. “I’m not trying to end my career like this,” he said.
Detectives soon found Fassett fixing the flat tire of the limo and sweated him for answers. By nightfall, Lewis was in custody on murder charges.
The trial implodes
But charging Lewis meant prosecuting a man who would spend more than $1 million in legal fees and expenses to defend himself. He hired top-notch lawyers, like Ed Garland and Don Samuel, and seasoned investigators who unearthed one hole after another in the case.
The lawyers saw defending their client not only as a legal battle, but something akin to a political campaign. Each time authorities called Lewis a murderer, Garland counter punched, accusing authorities of rushing to judgment.
On Feb. 10, 2000, then-Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, police brass and Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard held a news conference announcing they were seeking a murder indictment against Lewis.
Garland watched from his Buckhead law office, with a forest of TV truck antennas outside. Garland waited until Campbell’s press conference finished and then waited 15 minutes until 6 p.m. to hold his own, when he knew all local news stations would broadcast him live.
Defendants pushed for a speedy trial, which started in May. The trial exposed a prosecution built on shaky witnesses.
Jeff Gwen, an Akron rapper with the victims that night, told police he saw Lewis punching Lollar, one of the victims. In court, he backed off that statement, merely saying Lewis and Lollar were “tusslin’.”
The next day featured a witness collapse straight out of Perry Mason. Limo driver Duane Fassett, the star prosecution witness, had old police he saw Lewis punch one victim in the mid-section and heard Oakley and Sweeting in the limo tell each other, “I stabbed mine.”
But on the stand, the haggard and clearly reluctant Fassett said he never saw Lewis throw a punch. Howard then made a critical error. He failed to challenge Fassett about the statement he previously gave police.
This meant Howard, who dramatically imitated Lewis swinging a fierce uppercut during his opening statements, could not call to the stand the policeman who interviewed Fassett to let the jury know what the limo driver previously told the cops.
Then, when Howard asked what Fassett heard Sweeting and Oakley say, the driver responded he did not remember.
The following day, the prosecution’s case went from bad to worse with the testimony of a con man and habitual liar. In a recent interview, Garland said he warned Howard about calling Chester Anderson as a witness.
On the stand, Anderson testified he saw Lewis kicking a lifeless victim lying lay face down on the street. But on cross-examination, Anderson admitted he had stolen the identity of a Texas man, running up cell phone bills, rent on an apartment and buying five cars under Chad Anderson’s name.
Garland then turned to the jury and bellowed, “Stand up, Mr. Anderson.” The real Chad Anderson, who’d been flown in just for this moment, stood up behind the defense table to gasps in the courtroom.
With his case against Lewis in tatters, Howard worked out a mid-trial plea deal with him. The linebacker pleaded guilty to obstructing justice, a misdemeanor, and got probation. In exchange, he was called as a prosecution witness.
On the stand, Lewis placed his former co-defendants in the thick of the deadly fracas and said he later saw a knife in Sweeting’s hand. But under cross-examination Lewis buttressed self-defense arguments from lawyers for Sweeting and Oakley, saying he saw them attacked by Baker and Lollar’s group.
Days later, the jury returned with not guilty verdicts against Sweeting and Oakley, who spent that night celebrating at another now-gone Atlanta landmark — the infamous Gold Club strip joint.
Lewis resumed his NFL career and became MVP of the Super Bowl the following season. Since he walked out of the Fulton courtroom, he has earned more than $85 million in salary, plus millions more in endorsements and commercials.
Howard, who some legal experts predicted would be hurt politically by the fiasco, won re-election months later and again three times since. He declined to comment for this story.
Samuel, who with Garland, later represented NFL stars Jamal Lewis and Ben Roethlisberger, praised Howard for resolving the case against Lewis like he did. “We really were able to prove Ray was innocent,” Samuel said. “Not just to the judge and jury, but to the DA. Paul, ultimately, came to believe that as well and did exactly what a good DA should do.”
Unanswered questions remain
So what happened that night? There are no clear answers.
Detective Allen was so disillusioned by the case he left the homicide unit and now is the president of Atlanta Police Department’s chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police officers, watching out for his brethren.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Joseph Sweeting was the person who stabbed those men,” Allen said. “Sweeting bought the knives. He had been in federal prison, so he would have known how to shank fight,” he added, referring to how inmates crudely fashion weapons to kill or injure one another.
Allen also believes Lewis got out of the limo and threw Lollar into the tree before Lollar was killed. “Ray Lewis had already showed he was a person who didn’t mind fighting,” Allen said. “In this instance, he was defending himself and his party.”
Sweeting, who lives at his parents’ Miami home, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Sweeting’s lawyer, Steve Sadow, said, “I know exactly what happened, and Lewis had nothing to do with it.” Sadow declined to go further, citing attorney-client privilege.
Oakley, the only limo passenger to actually attend the Super Bowl that night, denies stabbing anybody. He said it was Lewis who first argued with the Ohio men, not him. Asked about Lewis’ involvement there, Oakley, who has written a book called “Murder After Super Bowl XXXIV,” shook his head, adding, “For him to say he stood there and didn’t do anything doesn’t make sense.”
Speaking to the national media Tuesday, Lewis expressed sympathy for the families of the victims and said of the episode, “I live with it every day of my life.”