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'Nothing makes sense': Former NFL player Phillip Adams shot, killed five people – including family – in South Carolina, police say

Christine Fernando, Christal Hayes, Daniel J. Gross and Josh Peter, USA TODAY
·8 min read
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ROCK HILL, S.C. – Authorities searched for clues Thursday in the nation's latest shooting spree after police say a former NFL player gunned down five people, including a beloved doctor and his two young grandchildren, before killing himself in a quiet neighborhood.

Phillip Adams, 32, who played cornerback for teams including the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his family's home, down the street from the massacre in Rock Hill – a city of about 75,000 that sits near the northern border of South Carolina, the York County Sheriff's Office said.

"There's nothing about this right now that makes sense to any of us," York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson said Thursday afternoon at a news conference. "We are working hard to provide some answers."

The incident was the latest mass shooting to rock the nation in recent weeks, including 10 people slain in Boulder, Colorado, eight in the Atlanta area and four in Orange, California. The shooting happened just before President Joe Biden unveiled his first major steps to address gun violence, directing his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns, untraceable weapons that can be constructed from parts purchased online.

The victims were identified as: Dr. Robert Lesslie, 70; his wife, Barbara Lesslie, 69; and their grandchildren Adah Lesslie, 9, and Noah Lesslie, 5. James Lewis, 38, was found dead outside. Lewis was working at the home for a company that specializes in air conditioning, roof and heating repair, police said.

The 911 calls started around 4:45 p.m. Wednesday: A man identifying himself as a supervisor for the repair company said one of his employees called him screaming that he'd been shot. A second employee wasn't moving, the man told 911 operators in a call played by authorities during a news conference.

“He just keeps saying, ‘I've been shot, I've been shot. Call 911. Please call 911’” the man told a 911 operator. "One is unresponsive, another is talking slurred, and he can't talk."

A neighbor also called 911.

"I was cutting grass out in the yard, and I heard some shots, about 20," the 80-year-old said in the 911 call. "I saw one person laying on the ground."

Tolson said officers found the two repairmen in the yard of the home. Lewis was pronounced dead at the scene. Another employee, Robert Shook, was found injured. He was taken to a hospital where he is in critical condition. Both worked for GSM Services in York County.

Police searching the Lesslies’ home, which is up a driveway from an arched stone gate and not visible from the road, found the doctor, his wife and their two grandchildren together in a room at the back of the house. All were dead, Tolson said.

Tolson said Adams forced his way into the home, and police found evidence at the scene that tied him to the killings, though Tolson would not elaborate. He said authorities contacted Adams' family and found he lived nearby. Some neighbors were evacuated as law enforcers searched for the suspect with police dogs.

Allison Hope, who lives across from Adams’ modest one-story brick home, about a mile from the Lesslies, said police allowed her to return home around 9 p.m. Wednesday. Moments later, a vehicle pulled into their driveway and law enforcement quickly surrounded the property.

Read more: What we know about Phillip Adams

More: Doctor Robert Lesslie and family among those killed by Phillip Adams in South Carolina shooting: What we know

More: Ex-NFL player Phillip Adams' 'mental health degraded fast and terribly bad,' says sister

She said authorities spent hours negotiating with Adams, using a loudspeaker and sending in a robot to scan the house. She said they repeatedly asked Adams to come out and promised to get his disabled mother out safely.

“This is something I can’t grasp yet. I can’t put it all together and I’m trying to, and I witnessed it,” Hope said.

Adams' parents were evacuated from the home as police surrounded the house and attempted to have him surrender. No shots were heard from the home, Tolson said, but police found Adams dead inside of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Two weapons were recovered: a 9mm handgun and a .45-caliber handgun. Tolson said authorities do not have any information that would suggest the weapons were obtained illegally.

Police worked Thursday to determine a motive but haven't been able to make sense of the violence, Tolson said.

Authorities do not have evidence Adams had been treated by the doctor, he said, nor did they have any information about any medications used by the suspect or anything about injuries he may have suffered while playing football.

Authorities say a gunman killed Dr. Robert Lesslie and his family in Rock Hill, S.C., on April 7.
Authorities say a gunman killed Dr. Robert Lesslie and his family in Rock Hill, S.C., on April 7.

Tolson said Lesslie was a model citizen in the community, someone everyone knew.

"Dr. Lesslie was a pillar in this community with what he's been able to give back," he said. "He was a longtime doctor who treated me in the past. He treated everyone with respect."

Lesslie and his wife had four children and eight grandchildren, according to a website bio.

Lesslie practiced in the area since 1981. He worked in emergency rooms for decades, including as medical director of the emergency department at Rock Hill General Hospital for almost 15 years, according to the bio. He founded two urgent care centers in the area and was an author and columnist.

Lesslie's 2008 book, "Angels in the ER," told the stories of ER patients and staff, and for seven years, he wrote a weekly medical column for the Charlotte Observer.

"It doesn't happen here," said Trent Faris, a York County Sheriff's Office spokesman. "It's one of those strange things that a lot of people are going to have a hard time understanding."

A thick wooden cross stood prominently in the front yard of the Lesslie home on Marshall Road on Thursday afternoon. Neighbors described the family as having a strong Christian background, and the First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill confirmed the family attended services.

The family released a statement through the sheriff's office describing their grief and hope and calling for prayers for all involved, including the suspect's family.

"We are truly in the midst of the unimaginable. The losses we are suffering cannot be uttered at this time. While we know there are no answers that will satisfy the question why, we are sure of one thing: We do not grieve as those without hope. Our hope is found in the promise of Jesus Christ," said the statement, which was read at the news conference by Tolson. "To that end, our hearts are bent toward forgiveness and peace."

More: Breaking down Phillip Adams' NFL career: 'I think the football messed him up,' says Adams' father

Adams spent six seasons in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders, New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons, before his career ended in 2015.

As a rookie in 2010, Adams suffered a severe ankle injury that required surgery, and in 2012, he had two concussions in a three-game period.

Adams' sister, Lauren Adams, told USA TODAY in an interview that her brother's behavior shifted abruptly a couple of years ago and he exhibited mental health issues. She said he was going through a disability claim with the NFL and had been feeling frustrated, explaining he'd been seeing doctors and recently moved in with his parents.

"I know he had been applying for disability and he said they were making it hard for him. And toward the end he felt like they were trying to basically stiff him on money," Lauren Adams said. "I think he got upset about that and that’s kind of where it started, with him kind of feeling like the whole world was against him."

She said his "mental health degraded fast and terribly bad" and described how normal conversations would quickly turn hostile.

Whether he suffered long-lasting concussion-related injuries wasn’t immediately clear. Adams would not have been eligible for testing as part of a broad settlement between the NFL and its former players over such injuries, because he hadn’t retired by 2014.

Asked whether Adams' autopsy would include an examination of his brain or whether he suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), Wendy Bailey, a case manager and evidence technician for the York County coroner's office, told USA TODAY: "Normal forensic autopsies do not identify CTE injuries, however we are researching options to include this study."

Adams’ father told a Charlotte television station that he blamed football for problems that may have led his son to commit Wednesday’s violence.

“I can say he’s a good kid,” Alonzo Adams told WCNC-TV. “I think the football messed him up.”

At a home in York County, five people, including a prominent doctor, were fatally shot in Rock Hill, S.C. The gunman was identified as former NFL player Phillip Adams, who shot himself to death.
At a home in York County, five people, including a prominent doctor, were fatally shot in Rock Hill, S.C. The gunman was identified as former NFL player Phillip Adams, who shot himself to death.

Adams often isolated himself, even as a player, his agent, Scott Casterline, told The Associated Press. Casterline said he spoke regularly with Adams’ father, who left him a voicemail Wednesday morning.

“All of us who knew Philip are shaking our heads. He struggled away from the game. I tried to get him to come to Texas. I was going to find him a job, but he wouldn’t leave South Carolina because he had a son. He was a good father," Casterline said. “Seeing Philip shoot two kids, it’s not him. I can’t fathom it. It’s devastating for the victims and the families."

More than a dozen news vehicles and TV trucks lined the side of Marshall Road outside Adams’ home. It's a few houses down from the Lesslies' home, which sits on a heavily wooded property surrounded by a black fence.

Contributing: Dustin Wyatt, The Spartanburg Herald-Journal; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: South Carolina shooting: Phillip Adams named as suspect; 5 dead