By the time he reported and wrote the Rae Carruth story for GQ, Peter Richmond was a pro at the height of his powers, a decorated magazine writer steeped in next-level storytelling and good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. Don’t let his ex-hippie persona fool you, Richmond was an achiever. He attended Yale undergrad where he studied with John Hersey, the pioneering journalist who wrote the famous account of the bombing of Hiroshima for The New Yorker. And years later, Richmond spent time at Harvard under a Neiman Fellowship.
His newspaper apprenticeship lasted more than a decade, starting at the copy desk at the New Haven Journal-Courier and then the prestigious Washington Post before serving an apprenticeship as a reporter and writer at the San Diego Union and the Miami Herald. It was there, as the national sports writer, he caught the attention of Rob Fleder, features editor for The National Sports Daily, a short-lived but lavish experiment, a national daily sports newspaper.
It was at the National that Richmond made a name for himself as something more than a solid newspaper writer and turned in eye-catching profiles of TV personality Jimmy the Greek, rodeo star Lane Frost, and movie star Bill Murray, with whom Richmond spent several days hanging out in Chicago, in bars and at Wrigley Field, having a grand old time. His work for the National brought Richmond to the attention of Art Cooper, editor of GQ, then poised to become a literary competitor to Esquire. This was in perhaps the most lucrative time to be a magazine writer and it was at GQ that Richmond became a star. He made a splash with “Tangled Up in Blue,” a paralyzingly good profile about Tommy Lasorda Jr., the gay son of Los Angeles Dodgers manager, Tommy Lasorda. It was a story fueled by outrage at the homophobia in pro sports and it remains on the short-list of great magazine profiles.
The hits kept coming through the ’90s, portraits of Barry Bonds, Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken Jr., and beyond sports, Geena Davis, Eddie Murphy, and Paul Newman. There was also the chilling true crime feature on a limo driver shot and killed by NBA star Jayson Williams, as well as the unforgettable remembrance of his military hero father, which was adapted into a must-read memoir, My Father’s War: A Son’s Journey. More books followed, including the definitive biography of singer Peggy Lee, as well as more dynamite magazine features, perhaps none finer than this 2001 story about Rae Carruth, murder, and the NFL, as Peter so graciously explains.—Alex Belth
Alex Belth: The Rae Carruth story came up after you’d been in the business for more than two decades. How did your early years in newspapers inform the writer you would become?
Peter Richmond: Newspapers taught me how to report. I had two or three editors at the Miami Herald in the ’80s who epitomized the post-Watergate era in the business. They were fantastic. So, I learned how to report and I learned the primacy of reporting. Without the reporting, there’s nothing there. I got to cover national sports when I was in Miami—heavyweight championships, Superbowl, NBA Finals, US Open, I was there. And it was at one of these big events, major league whatever, maybe it was a World Series, that I noticed Tony Kornheiser. I’d edited some of his columns when I’d been with the Post. Great takeout writer, his profiles were great, he did one on the Yankee manager Bob Lemon that was incredible. Anyhow, he’s in the locker room interviewing, this is 1985, say Cal Ripken, I don’t know. And I notice that his notebook has four different colored pens clipped to it. Later, I asked him about it and he said, “Oh, well the blue one is when I’m talking to an Orioles player, the red is when I’m talking to the Orioles manager, the orange is when I’m talking to a Cardinals player and the green is when I’m talking to Whitey Herzog.” And I thought, wow, here’s this guy, Kornheiser, you think he’s flippant and he’s snarky and funny and he knows he’s got a great voice but he does the brick work. He’s actually doing it. What I took from that is, if nothing else, you can report.
AB: You can control not getting out-hustled.
PR: When I was young and working in New Haven through a series of happy circumstances I found myself covering the play-off game between the Yankees and Red Sox at Fenway Park in 1978. The infamous Bucky fucking Dent home run game. And there I was sitting in the third row of the press box between Roger Angell from The New Yorker and Peter Gammons, who was the columnist that night for the Boston Globe—not the beat writer. I remember coming back to the press box after the pre-game stuff on the field and seeing that Angell already had pages of notes and Gammons is working the phone—before the game. I just thought I’ll never be able to compete with these guys and that feeling never left me. But that night I stayed in both clubhouses as long as I could, as long as people talked, and was the last one out of the press box at 1:30 in the morning—the Journal-Courier was a morning paper. I made the first edition by dictating. At least I can say I outlasted everybody.
All of this later served me when I got to Art Cooper and GQ because all of the features and profiles I wrote were informed by reporting. When the Rae Carruth situation came up I brought it to Art and said, “This is a really heavy story for a lot of reasons.” “But what? I’m supposed to send you down to Charlotte for a month?” And I say, “Yessss” because I know it’s a courtroom drama and I can report it. And he lets me do it.
AB: This also comes up with “The Accidental Martyr,” Chip Brown’s Esquire story from 1993 that is part of this series. Your story came out in 2001 which was near the end of this period in magazines but it is astounding that you were afforded all that time to report this story.
PR: Craziest luck in history that I got to magazines at that place in time.
AB: What was the transition like from newspaper writing to doing magazine features?
PR: I went from being on the rim—an inside-baseball term for the copy-desk— in New Haven, minor league single A. Then I made it the major leagues on the copy desk at the Washington Post but washed out there. A friend had just taken over the San Diego Union and asked me to come out and be a writer. So, I’m now in double A and in San Diego I was allowed to write long stories. Same in Miami, which was high triple A. But those pieces, even the longer ones, were not true magazine features, which was its own thing entirely. Magazine stories are not newspaper stories. But all of this is a craft, and it’s always been a craft to me. If you learn how to lay the bricks you’re going to succeed as long as you remember it’s a craft. John Hersey said that the first day of our senior semester at Yale. It was the highest literary course at Yale, 12 people, you have to be recommended, and I got in and the first thing he said, “If anyone in this room thinks they’re an artist you can leave because writing is a craft.”
By the time I get to Rae Carruth, I know how to report, I know how to organize, and learning how to write thanks to editors like Rob Fleder at The National, who really opened my eyes to the different level it takes to write good magazine stories, and then of course David Granger at GQ. But also, the other writers on the GQ staff in the early ’90s like Scott Raab, Tom Junod, Charlie Pierce, Mike Sager, and Alan Richmond. Later Allison Glock. They were all so good it scared me. Truly scared me. Each one of them had something in their toolbox that I didn’t have. So, for the next ten years I was motivated by the devil. It stoked the unhealthily competitive fire. But it paid off with some good stories.
I wanted to advance in the writing world. But I’ve never been happy where I am. It’s a huge character flaw—but at this point it doesn’t matter. Soon as I got something I was thinking beyond it. Always looking for the next thing. I could have easily been on the rim of the New Haven Journal-Courier while also covering the New Haven Nighthawks in the winter for 20 years. I could have. And part of me, looking back, wishes I had.
AB: Because of the toll the ambition to be a feature magazine writer took out of you?
PR: Yup, you said it. That’s it. Once you get in some sort of spotlight, even if it’s a small spotlight, all the rules change and your worst instincts come out. I was comfortable on the Rim. No doubt, everything I learned through all of that stuff led to Art Cooper and GQ. I’m writing books, I’m getting good advances, and I’m getting insane amounts of money from GQ and I lost all contact with being on the Rim at the New Haven Journal-Courier.
AB: And that’s the person who goes to Charlotte for a month to cover the Carruth trial in 2001.
PR: The Super hungry, carnivorous ego Richmond. I was drawn to the Carruth story for a number of reasons not the least of which is that I had never been in the courtroom for a murder trial. So, the reporter in me was, “Are you kidding me?” Then I get down there and Tommy Tomlinson of the Charlotte Observer is there, and another guy from Raleigh, local guys. There were no other national writers there so I knew from the first day I was in a good spot. And as the trial went on I knew I had a lot of really good stuff but still the writing was difficult. Because I had to absorb 4 weeks of trial notes, notebooks and notebooks of notes, and then I’ve got to synthesize meaning to it and I’m on a deadline. The writing was difficult. Good difficult but difficult. My editor was Jim Nelson who eventually fired me from GQ. But he did a terrific job on that piece.
AB: You also brough your expertise of your experience of a fan of the NFL to the piece. You’ve written a book about the 1976 Oakland Raiders that won the Super Bowl and I know you are a degenerate pro football fan.
PR: Yes, NFL is my religion no matter how much it conflicts with my sense of morality. Also, remember, this is the pre-concussion era. And off-field brutality was a different story at the time. Ray Lewis and Rae Carruth were aberrations. The NFL was still riding so high. What started with the Cowboys and Steelers and the Super Bowl getting so huge in the ’80s and the league just exploding. With the Rae Carruth case, there was just enough sensationalism to it that Art Cooper green-lighted it. Five years later if I tried to pitch a story about a player who tried to take a hit out on his ex-girlfriend, editors would roll their eyes, gimmie a break. But then? It was different. Carruth did what he did right at that tipping point where now we’re so cynical about all the players.
AB: What did you know about Carruth when you went to do the story?
PR: All I knew was that he was a first round wide receiver which means the guy has hands. I knew that they said he took a hit out on his pregnant girlfriend. That’s all I knew. That he was a very talented professional football player who had been handed a lifetime dream and despite that was capable the most violent of crimes. Beyond violent. The most corrupt, there aren’t words to describe it. But no, I knew nothing about him. I’ve still got the newspaper cynic in me. I think sports exploits young men who have no idea how they’re being exploited. And I went down, of course, thinking a Black person is going to be penalized for being Black. I also went down thinking if he really did this, it’s fascinating pathology and I really want to find out about it.
AB: Because you can’t look away from that kind of sociopathic personality.
PR: We’re drawn to evil behavior instinctively because we want to find out what real Evil is so we can know what Good is. That’s not a good way of saying it but I think if you can understand why a guy would take out a hit on his pregnant girlfriend, you might get an idea of what ethical behavior is.
AB: Did you feel that the story required you as the writer to take a moral position?
PR: Absolutely. I remember when I worked for the National and I was worried about having too strong of a point of view in my lede. Frank Deford told me, “Don’t ever worry about putting in a strong point of view; every reader who reads a good piece knows that you have a point of view.” So, with Rae Carruth, when I find out what he did, which violated so many of my own ethical and moral standards, I’m allowed to have that come through, because the facts totally supported it. If I had come out of that court room two, three weeks later and thought, Oh, I’m still not sure then trying to write this thing about the beautiful women crossing his life and how he’d never grown up. If I’d come out saying, I’m not sure, I couldn’t have written that. But it was a slam-dunk of a trial, so when I sat down to write I knew that this guy not only got exploited by the system and maybe by his upbringing, I don’t know, he stopped growing at the age of twelve, vis a vis with women. I also knew that he had something innately, not evil, but I knew he had an imbalance inside him that neither he, nor anyone around him, made any effort to correct.
When I sat down to write it I was certain that what I thought the day I walked out of the courtroom on the final day, was accurate. I had a real confidence writing that thing. The morals are only part of the sub-text of the Rae Carruth story. We all have moral outrage. We all have our pre-dispositions. For me anyone who is anti-Gay or is a racist or a misogynist I’m sorry I don’t get it but it’s my job to try and understand you. That’s very important.
AB: Can you talk about how you open and close the story focused on the women in Carruth’s life? He was a so-called Ladies man but he didn’t even seem to like women.
PR: Of course. He never would have enlisted a murderer if he liked women. Obviously, one of the subtexts is the American male, the 1950s-bred ideas about men and women. And sports are never on the progressive ends of things. By the time I did this story I had been married twenty years, my wife is the ultimate feminist and I worship her for it. I love how strong she is. I was looking for a way in to the story. I go out to Sacramento and interview one of the women, a former wife, I’m so deep into this thing. And these women are strong women. I didn’t come away from talking with his ex-wife thinking she was anything less than impressive. You can characterize women that “chase” professional athletes all you want but the fact is they are people, they’re not a science experiment. At some point during the trial, I thought how could he not want to be emotionally involved with at least a few of these women. These are people.
He never got beyond what was an elementary school level with dealing with girls. You are starting to be attracted but you don’t like them, they’re girls. Rae never got past that level. That might have changed if he’d been in a different situation. But football was an environmental trigger.
AB: Did you get any pushback from Carruth after the story was published?
PR: I never heard from Carruth or his people. And that was part of the privilege of working at a magazine like GQ where the fact-checking was so good there was nothing in the piece that was going to be wrong or libelous. The story didn’t make a big splash or anything. I think people were uncomfortable with not only the ugliness of the event but the way the NFL treated its players. But when I wrote I didn’t think it was all that good, but I did think I nailed it. It’s not art. My sense after all those years of doing stories, the Rae Carruth piece is something a gildsman in the 16th century produces for the Medicis who need a bronze door. It’s gotta be pretty, dramatic, and it’s gotta work. The Rae Carruth case had everything. Nobody else was there from a rival magazine to freak me out. Then it was just reporting skills, my moral stance, and organizing a story. Sometimes, maybe a few times in a career if you are lucky, everything falls into place.
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FLESH AND BLOOD: A TRUE STORY
NFL Wide Receiver Rae Carruth, the Women Who Loved Him, And the One He Wanted Dead
One by one, day by day, they’d glide to the witness stand, this procession of improbable women, a spangled harem of them, drifting into the courtroom and out again, leaving the scent of their perfume and the shadow of their glitter and the echo of their cool. Week in, week out, they never stopped coming.
That was the extraordinary thing. How many there were. The final count stopped short of thirty—that was the number of photographs of women Rae was said to keep in a box at home—but there were more than enough of them to make each and every morning worth my springing out of bed for, worth walking down to the courthouse for, worth getting frisked at the doorway for: in the hope that a new one might illuminate the somber courtroom with its smoked-glass view of the jailhouse across the street.
And sure enough, in the middle of a gray day of testimony filled with the babble of a psychologist or the grunt of a jail guard or the platitudes of a coach, out of the blue Rae’s attorney would suddenly say, “The defense calls Dawnyle Willard,” and next to me the TV guy would arch an eyebrow at the local columnist—who’s this one? what’s the angle? lover? friend? cleaned his apartment? helped him jump bail?—and they’d both shrug, because no one had heard of Dawnyle Willard.
Then everyone would turn to the back of the courtroom to get a look at the newest entrant, because we just knew she was going to be beautiful. And honestly, she just about always was.
Dawnyle certainly was. Stately, slim, a dancer. Former girlfriend, now confidante. Wept on the stand, at the pure goodness of the man.
Amber was cool, slim, and fiery and a favorite among those of us who spoke of such things during breaks in the action, although Starlita was easily the most exotic; she looked like a Mexican princess dropped into a southern murder trial. Michelle was the pretty little girl next door. Monique was innocently cute. Trisha, Rae’s current squeeze, was … well, a tad young looking. But she was pretty enough for you to understand why Rae would nod at her each day when, sandwiched by grim bailiffs, he left the courtroom—nodding as if to say, Hey, babe, don’t worry: you’re the one now. And I swear, she believed it.
Sometimes, though, Rae nodded at the woman in the front pew. She was there every day. By some measures, she was the most handsome of all: high forehead, piercing eyes, coiffed and jewelried to the highest. Some newcomers to the courtroom thought she was another female friend. But this was Rae’s mother, Theodry Carruth, anchoring the Cult of Rae from the center of the home-team bench.
Really, there was no other way to think of them—other than as a cult—at least not after the mother of one of Rae’s former girlfriends took the stand near the end of the trial, and the mother was gorgeous. Not only was she beautiful, but get this: after her daughter testified against Rae, the mother testified glowingly for Rae.
And then, as she left the stand, she looked right at Rae—a man facing the death penalty for taking out a hit on a pregnant woman—looked right into his eyes and, all sweet and wet, mouthed the words I love you.
As the weeks passed and the women came and went, I would look over at Rae and stare at his profile, which never changed, because Rae never changed expressions, even during the closing argument, when the lead prosecutor played the 911 tape of Cherica Adams’s moans: sounds from beyond the grave, all sputtering utterances, atonal syllables so skin-crawling that throughout the courtroom shoulders heaved in sobs. But Rae’s face flinched not at all. Animated and emotional and expressive as the women were—weaving and looping their tales of his goodness and his charity—Rae remained a well-tailored sphinx.
And so, day in, day out, I’d ask myself a question. Not what they all saw in him; the first look at Rae explained that: this baby face, the contours all smooth and rounded, the outward down-slant of his eyebrows giving him this puppy-dog-swatted-with-a-newspaper look. Girls loved to take care of Rae even before he became a millionaire. No, the question I kept asking myself was this: If Rae Carruth loved women so much, why did he keep threatening to have them killed? How, if he gathered women around him like a cocoon, if he thrived on them and fed on them and drew sustenance from them, could a man get to a point in his life where he routinely considered disposing of them? And how could such a man wind up finding a home—even flourishing—in the National Football League?
Well, because he really didn’t like women at all. (He liked to fuck them, and he liked their attention, and he liked the idea of them, but he didn’t like them.) And because he was accustomed to violence. And because he was making a living in a league in which a man and his basest instincts are encouraged to run wild. Well, he was until recently, anyway; Rae doesn’t play football anymore. He’s in prison up in Nash County, where he won’t have to worry about women and women won’t have to worry about him, and as his crime swiftly seeps into the background noise of the culture, we’re already starting to act as if we didn’t have to worry about Rae Carruth anymore. As if the whole episode were an aberration.
Of course, it’s anything but. Take even a cursory look at how Rae Carruth went from first-round NFL draft pick to ward of the state of North Carolina, serving a quarter century of hard time for conspiring to commit the most horrific crime in the history of professional sports, and the question is not how it could happen but when is it going to happen again.
He came from the place so many seem to come from; only the details vary from kid to kid. Rae didn’t grow up with his biological father. As a child, Rae split time among several houses, including his mother’s, set in a neighborhood of squalor and dismay on the south side of Sacramento—on an avenue where vandals routinely set cars aflame—and her sister’s place in a nicer part of town, absent the bars on the windows. Even then, even before he was showered with privilege, Theodry worried about the sharks and the vultures preying on her son, “the guppy.”
This is how she describes him. This is why she describes herself as “the piranha” when it comes to protecting her son. To know Rae Carruth and to understand the course he chose to take, to divine the nature of his particular rebellion—because isn’t that what all our adolescent contrarinesses are? rebellion against what was lacquered onto us beforehand?—you must first know Theodry Carruth. There is a hardness and a strength to her, and they seem like the same thing; she seizes the space she is in and commands it from on high.
But if one may be tempted to call Rae’s mother domineering, one ought not to, because she will not tolerate being described as overbearing, and she will tell you so. Describe her instead, she warns in a voice that brooks no argument, as simply having been raised by a Southern mother, and then say she is raising her son thusly.
Theodry Carruth’s vigilance over her only son’s upbringing paid off at least in the short run: Rae’s grades at Valley High School were solid, he stayed out of trouble, and big colleges came calling. In 1992 Rae went off to the University of Colorado. Back on the infernal block on Parker Avenue, Theodry Carruth turned one of the rooms into a miniature shrine where family and friends gathered to sit in mock stadium chairs and watch Rae’s games from Boulder. It was called the Rae of Hope room. Neighborhood kids would set it on fire a few years later.
At Colorado, Rae’s coach Bill McCartney was a demagogue. On the field, McCartney was known for teams that played hard and thuggishly. Off the field, he was known for the conversation he’d had with God. One day God told McCartney to found the Promise Keepers. Soon thereafter, at McCartney’s urgings, tens of thousands of fathers and husbands took to gathering in football stadiums across the land to beat their chests and flagellate their souls and collectively recommit to their gender. The subtext of the Promise Keepers was a patently sexist one, of course: portraying women as worthy beings but regarding them, ultimately, as secondary, as biblical chattel.
But beneath the roar of McCartney’s fire and brimstone, his daughter was getting pregnant by two different football players in four and a half years—the first, the star quarterback, wanted her to abort the fetus; the second sired his child during Rae’s freshman year. This only proved that when you climb too high in the pulpit, it’s easy to ignore the funky stuff going on under your nose. Especially if you’re a member of the sinning crowd: McCartney himself quit on his Colorado contract after Rae’s third autumn in Boulder. Broke his promise, if you will.
Rae’s college athletic achievements were legendary—in one game alone, he had seven receptions for 222 yards and three touchdowns. In 1997 he entered the hallowed fraternity of first-round draft picks under the watchful wink of the NFL. The Carolina Panthers took him as their first selection, number twenty-seven overall. Like all rookies, he would be instructed on how to behave. But like his first-round peers, he knew what had actually just happened: he’d been ushered into a land of entitlement, where the only promise he’d really be held to was the promise he’d shown thus far on the playing field.
The Panthers gave him a four-year contract worth $3.7 million and a $1.3 million signing bonus, and it wasn’t so much the amount of money that was stunning but the ease with which it came. Within days of being signed, Rae got a check for $15,000 in the mail from a trading-card company. Just for being Rae. How sweet was that?
Copyright © 2021 Peter Richmond
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