Collier: A fumble in the Super Bowl murder
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Jacinth Baker was wearing boots and a fur hat, not that there is any particular dress code for lying dead in the predawn street on a winter's morning. Those were the cogent details regarding blood-soaked evidence.
It is not one of your traditional Super Bowl images. We prefer to freeze-frame for our memories the astonishing grace of John Stallworth pulling down a perfect Terry Bradshaw missile on the deep post, Joe Montana's laser slant pass to John Taylor, Kevin Dyson's heroically futile stretch from the victorious tackle of Mike Jones to within inches of the Rams' goal line.
But four years ago tonight, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, two high school buddies from Akron, went to a post-Super Bowl party in Atlanta and wound up dead. For some, even beyond the damaged souls of their families, that's a Super Bowl memory every bit as indelible as Joe Namath's raised, wagging finger, because what happened to Baker and Lollar has never been explained, never been fully understood, never had its myriad horrifying elements fully absorbed into a grieving process that therefore can't complete itself.
The only thing easily apparent is that four years ago tonight, somebody got away with murder.
"Jacinth (pronounced JAY-sinth) was 21, and he wanted to go to art school," Greg Wilson was telling me on the phone from Akron this week. "He'd spent some time in the Job Corps in New York, pursuing his art career. He'd met with some people from Marvel Comics. They told him to get back in touch with them when he finished school. His mother died before it happened. That's my sister, Susan Wilson."
So now, at the close of every January, Greg Wilson can't help but feel some additional sting from the loss of a promising kid who lived in his house like a little brother for most of his childhood.
"Jacinth was real funny," Greg said. "He loved to play around, loved to joke. He'd joke with you all day long. He'd didn't want to see anybody unhappy, to see anybody suffer, anybody go hungry. He had a beautiful personality. Took after his mother that way.
"He left here and went to Atlanta. He was supposed to be going to California for art school, but he had some family down there on his father's side. From what I understood, they were just going to a Super Bowl party in Buckhead at the Cobalt Lounge. That's where everything started."
When the Cobalt emptied around 4 a.m., there were arguments outside. A man named Jeff Gwen got into one with someone named Reginald Oakley, one of nearly a dozen people who'd arrived at the club in a 40-foot limousine hired by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
Evidence at the subsequent trial suggested that Baker joined the fray, hitting Oakley with a champagne bottle. Lewis would later say that Oakley, Joseph Sweeting and Kwame King, all members of his party, bought knives at a local sporting goods store the day before the Super Bowl. Somebody was about to use them.
Lollar and Baker were left bleeding on the concrete when Lewis' limo sped off. Baker's blood was found in the limo. One female occupant of the limo said the party stopped to dispose of Lewis' bloody shirt, but at trial, no witness ever placed a knife in Lewis' hand or said he was involved in the fight except Gwen, whose testimony was discounted because he identified Lewis as wearing a mink coat.
Several in Lewis' party wore mink that night.
Sweeting was charged with Lollar's death, Oakley with Baker's. In a three-week trial that ended with a jury deliberating less than five hours before acquitting both of them, Sweeting's lawyer told the judge the killer was King. Lewis, originally charged with two counts each of murder, felony murder and aggravated assault, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice in exchange for testimony against Sweeting and Oakley.
To this day, Greg Wilson believes Ray Lewis paid for all the defense attorneys.
"If he didn't," Wilson said, "somebody would have told the truth. Where are these guys getting the kind of money that would get them off?"
Lewis was in the middle of a $26 million contract at the time. Less than six months after the stabbings, it was cold legal history. Case closed. No further investigation. Atlanta authorities contend the right men were arrested, just not convicted. At least three others in the Lewis limo were never called to the stand in three weeks of testimony.
Greg Wilson wrote a letter to the newspaper in Atlanta, saying he thought the district attorney put his nephew's case on the back burner.
"I got a letter from him," Wilson said. "He said his office would strive to do better in the next case. That pissed me off. I didn't want to hear about the next case. Nobody here has the kind of money that would keep our case alive. We're just an average family, like anyone else, just trying to make it. If you don't have money, you don't have nothin'."
First Published January 30, 2004 12:00 am