Razor Girl I first learned of Razor Girl’s 1926 case visiting a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police exhibit at the Museum of History in 2010. No historical crime review of a Southern city […]

October 4, 2016 // jd // No Comments // Posted in Crime Files

Razor Girl

I first learned of Razor Girl’s 1926 case visiting a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police exhibit at the Museum of History in 2010. No historical crime review of a Southern city can overlook a case that so neatly highlighted the privilege of being a murderess in an older South, at least if you were small and funny and knew how to flirt.

True, her 23-year-old bigamist husband Alton Freeman was, as we say, no better than he ought to be. He’d been running around on her, a convicted thief living off her $15-a-week factory wages. One night, he told his 19-year-old wife Nellie he was leaving her as soon as he pulled off a whiskey heist.

Nellie calmly told the officer who later arrived at their little house that she’d hugged him around the neck, asking if he didn’t love her. He didn’t. She didn’t know how sharp the knife was, she said, until he lay on the floor, only a bit of flesh and bone holding his head to his body.

Nellie wasn’t shy about talking to police and to newspapers. She attracted the best lawyers in town to her defense team. Charlotte juries had a habit of acquitting women of murder, and prosecutor and former mayor Frank McNinch vowed he’d see the end of women getting away with murder. The battle was set.

The courtroom was packed every day of the trial. Women in particular flocked to see the spectacle. After all, a woman couldn’t be sent to prison, could she? That wasn’t the done thing. All that was missing was a cotton candy vendor, but someone was selling replica straight razors to commemorate the event.

The jury deliberated for two days, read some Bible verses on forgiveness, talked the manslaughter hold-outs around, and found Nellie Freeman not guilty by reason of insanity, it being not unheard of that a woman could be “struck crazy” for a short period of time, long enough to kill a lying, cheating husband. The judge allowed her to take her bloodied dress and her razor with her, and she seems to have vanished from Charlotte.

Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, 27 Views of Charlotte (Eno Press 2014).

Henry Louis Wallace: The Unexpected Serial Killer

Little-known outside Charlotte is its own extranormal serial killer—unusual because of who he was and because of who he killed. Henry Louis Wallace was black. He preyed on his friends and acquaintances. According to the FBI Behavioral Science Unit (the profilers made famous by one-time Charlotte reporter, novelist Patricia Cornwell), neither of those were supposed to be the norm.

Was that why no one really noticed? Some argued that black women are so marginalized that no one cared. But plenty of people cared. Michelle Stinson’s sister was three when she died. Twenty years after the murder, she commented on a YouTube video memorial, saying how much she missed getting to know her sister. The most-reprinted photo of her sister shows Michelle bending over, maybe taking a sip of something? A young woman, like the others, living her life. Most of the nine Charlotte victims were single moms, most of them worked in fast food restaurants or retail. Some were attending Central Piedmont Community College or were working to make better opportunities for their children. All of them lived around Eastland Mall.

Unfortunately for them, they all crossed paths with a charming young black man who seemed to love women and babies, was even called “Uncle Henry.”

Why did no one notice a pattern sooner? That’s the question that’s always asked in such cases. He operated for 22 months, from 1992 to 1994, when Charlotte’s murder rate was 87 among a fast-growing population of 400,000. To compare, Charlotte saw 52 murders in 2012 and had more than double the population. The police had only seven full-time investigators. Could they have put the pieces together faster? Or was Wallace that good?

The murders all took place in a five-mile radius in east Charlotte. The community was scared, pushing for action, blaming the police for not doing more or for ignoring the cases because the victims were black women. Those cries had to be painful for lead investigator, Detective Sergeant Gary McFadden, who was black.

This killer cleaned up the scenes. This killer had extraordinary access to the women he killed. He eluded police dragnets. He defied the rulebooks given to serial killer hunters. In the end, though, it was good detective work that found him. Too many of the women had one common name somewhere in their lives: the friend of a sister, a customer in a Taco Bell, the friend of an ex-girlfriend. Too many connections.

Unfortunately for his last victims, he seemed either to increasingly enjoy the killing or to need more money for drugs in the final days. He killed three in the last three days before his arrest.

Henry Louis Wallace as the “Charlotte Strangler” hasn’t achieved the notoriety of Wayne Williams, convicted of the Atlanta child murders, or Derrick Todd Lee, the Baton Rouge serial killer. Charlotte’s civic promoters, always wondering why the city gets overlooked, are likely glad its serial killer is ignored. The victims’ families and those touched by their loss continue to make sure they aren’t forgotten.

Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, 27 Views of Charlotte (Eno Press: 2014).

“Where are they now? Henry Louis Wallace,” Charlotte Magazine, August 2010 []

Rae Carruth

Rae Carruth was first known in Charlotte as 1997’s 27th NFL draft pick, with a four-year, $3.7 million contract to play wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers. Football fans expected great things—until he brought Court TV and star forensic expert witness Henry Lee (also of O.J. Simpson fame) to town.

Cherica Adams was driving on Rea Road between Colony and Highway 51, leaving the late-show movie she’d watched with her boyfriend Rae. In 1999, the part-time realtor and one-time men’s club dancer was sitting sassy in her BMW. Rae led the way in his Expedition down the dark section of road.

He stopped, her car behind his, to let another car pull alongside her. Six shots punctured her car door and shattered her window.

Anyone who has heard what happened next, even without knowing Cherica, knows she had to be feisty and strong. Hit four times, she managed to turn right into a small subdivision, into the yard of the first house. She honked her car horn and summoned the homeowner. She called 911 and, in a shaky voice, told the dispatcher what had happened and who was involved. She even wrote out a note when she got to the ER, prompted by the physician trained, as many in Charlotte are, to preserve evidence. Doctors saved her baby. She hung on for a month before she died. The police went looking for Rae Carruth and found him in Virginia, hiding in a car trunk.

This tragedy embarrassed Charlotte. Jerry Richardson, the owner of the relatively young Carolina Panthers franchise, the only NFL owner to have played in the league, was known to hire for good character. This wasn’t the kind of player or the kind of publicity he wanted—or that anyone wanted for him.

Van Brett Watkins, the guy who admitted pulling the trigger, pled guilty, got life, and helped put Carruth in prison, in one of the most riveting performances I’ve ever seen on a witness stand. Court TV featured his testimony among its most memorable courtroom moments.

The real heart of the case, though, is Chancellor Lee Adams, the little boy Cherica fought to save—the little boy Rae wanted to kill so he wouldn’t have to support him. Cherica’s mother, Saundra Adams, is raising him. Because of Cherica’s blood loss, his brain was damaged. He’s got cerebral palsy and requires a lot of care. But a happier thirteen-year-old would be hard to find, a loving spirit that infects those who meet him, including a Sports Illustrated writer whose article made me cry.

Saundra Adams gives us another important picture of Charlotte: a woman of faith deep enough to offer forgiveness. Van Brett Watkins has written her from prison; he’s sent $5 or $10 at times to help her out; he asked her to forgive him. In a beautiful note, she acknowledged the hole in her heart, but she prayed he would have peace.

A loving teenager who looks startlingly much like his self-absorbed father and a grandmother with a hole in her heart—those pictures of resurrection from the worst of indifference and evil are the other side of the worst that people can do.

Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, 27 Views of Charlotte (Eno Press 2014).

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