NORTH CAROLINA -- Nearly two decades after hiring men to kill his pregnant girlfriend, former NFL wide receiver Rae Carruth walked out of prison a free man Monday.
The Carolina Panthers' 1997 first-round draft pick was released from Sampson Correctional Institution in Clinton, North Carolina, after completing his sentence of 18 to 24 years.
Carruth walked out of the prison gate just after 8 a.m., got into a white SUV, and drove off.
Carruth was found guilty in 2001 of conspiracy to murder his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams, in 1999.
An official with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety said Carruth will have nine months of post release, which means he'll have to meet certain requirements such as meeting with a probation officer.
The 44-year-old Carruth did not speak to reporters as he left prison wearing a knit cap and an unzipped jacket on a chilly morning with temperatures in the high 30s. There was a smattering of applause when he got into a white SUV and was whisked away. He was taken to an undisclosed location.
Carruth hired Van Brett Watkins and Michael Kennedy to kill Adams, who was pregnant with Carruth's child at the time. Adams fell into a coma and died less than a month later after the shooting.
Due to the shooting, her child was born prematurely. That child, Chancellor Lee Adams, has cerebral palsy and currently lives in Charlotte with his maternal grandmother, Saundra Adams.
After initially saying he would like to have custody of Chancellor, Carruth changed his mind and said he would not attempt to pursue a relationship with his son after being released from prison.
Still, Carruth said he wants to "make amends with Chancellor and try to be the father that I should have been from day one."
Carruth has never admitted guilt in Adams' murder, but in a complex 15-page letter to WBTV-TV in Charlotte in February he wrote that "I feel responsible for everything that happened. And I just want (Saundra Adams) to know that truly I am sorry for everything."
Last week, Carruth told WSOC-TV in Charlotte in a telephone interview, "I just truly want to be forgiven."
He went on to say he was "somewhat frightened" about his release, adding that "I'm nervous just about how I'll be received by the public. I still have to work. I still have to live. I have to exist out there and it just seems like there is so much hate and negativity toward me."
Watkins remains in behind bars, serving a 40-year sentence for killing Adams. Kennedy, who drove Watkins to commit the crime, was released from prison in 2011.
Carruth's arrest on charges of conspiracy and attempted murder nine days after the shooting sent shockwaves throughout the Panthers organization.
The team released Carruth and the NFL suspended him indefinitely after he fled the Charlotte area after posting $3 million bail and was found by federal authorities hiding in the trunk of a car in Tennessee, about 500 miles from Charlotte.
Panthers center Frank Garcia played with Carruth for more than two seasons. He said players were stunned when they heard the news of Carruth's possible involvement in the murder, about 20 miles from the team's downtown stadium in the affluent section of South Charlotte.
"It would be like finding out the guy sitting in the cubicle next to you at work was arrested for murder," Garcia said. "You just don't always know people as well as you think you do."
Garcia said Carruth was a little shy, and mostly kept to himself. But he said Carruth had a passion for helping kids, including reading books to elementary school students.
It was a difficult time in Panthers history.
Some players were called out of football practice to testify at the trial. Those not involved would spend time huddling in the players' lounge watching the trial on Court TV.
"That is one time where you were actually hiding from the cameras," Garcia said. "You just wanted to stay low and not be involved. All along you're asking yourself, 'Did I miss any signs? How is somebody capable of this?'"
While in jail Carruth worked as a barber, making about $1 per hour, the Department of Public Safety said.
That's a far cry from the four-year, $3.7 million contract Carruth signed with the Panthers after being drafted - although he never collected all of that money since he was released in the third year of his deal.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
* Follow us on YouTube
* More local news
* Send us a news tip
* Download the abc7NY app for breaking news alerts
Ex-NFL WR Rae Carruth released from prison 19 years after girlfriend's murder