The shooting deaths of seven people by Phillip Adams on April 7 shocked a community in Rock Hill, South Carolina, as neighbors recalled their last memories with the shooter and the victims while trying to make sense of an inexplicable tragedy.
Dr. Robert Lesslie, 70; his wife, Barbara Lesslie, 69; their grandchildren Noah, 5, and Adah, 9; and James Lewis, a 38-year-old employee of Gastonia Sheet Metal who was working on the property, were killed on the Lesslies’ farm that day. Thirty-eight-year-old Robert Shook, another GSM employee, was shot six times in the incident. He was able to call for help, and he clung to life in the hospital until passing away on April 10.
The shooter, Phillip Adams, was a former professional football player who played for six NFL teams over a five-year career after playing college football at South Carolina State University. He was a neighbor and by all accounts a friend of Dr. Lesslie and his family. He lived less than a mile from the Lesslies on the slow-moving, rural Marshall Road where the shooting took place.
Phillip Adams committed suicide in the hours following the shooting.
The massacre brought up discussions on a range of issues including gun control, mental health, CTE, and prescription drug abuse. In the days following the shooting, neighbors and friends were simply trying to register what had just occurred.
“Everybody is looking for a motive,” neighbor LaNette Brakefield said. “How do we find a motive when they are all gone?”
Neighbor and local handyman Casey DeGolyer talked to Queen City Nerve on the day after the shooting. Wearing a “White Lives Matter” shirt and a Confederate flag belt buckle, he said he was worried about Adams’ family, who had already been receiving racist death threats on Facebook.
He said he hoped someone would do something to “rein in the locals” before the backlash led to violence against the Black family.
“This is not a race thing,” he says. “This is a sad story of a kid who was addicted to pills.”
The days before
DeGoyler said Phillip Adams appeared to be in good spirits when he ran into him just three days before the shooting. Adams had just gotten a new four-wheeler, and pulled on DeGoyler on a corner of Marshall Road.
“I said, ‘Shit, motherfucker, you need to give me that side-by-side you just got. You out here getting a four-wheeler with all that NFL money,” DeGoyler recalled. “And then [Adams] says, ‘I’m keepin’ it all, motherfucker.’”
DeGoyler said he and Adams then sat and discussed the property Adams shared with his parents, Alonzo and Phyliss Adams, a former school teacher who recently became paralyzed in a car accident on nearby Craig Road.
Adams had plans to develop his family’s land for a truck farm, somewhere people could come and ride their trucks and four-wheelers through the woods, according to DeGoyler, and had asked him for help on the project.
“I told him, ‘Let me know, beau’ and he drove off,” DeGoyler recalled. That was their last conversation.
Over the past few days, Adams could be seen riding his new four-wheeler up and down Marshall Road. DeGoyler said he would see Adams standing up on the pegs, revving the engine while wearing a t-shirt and backwards hat.
The last time DeGoyler saw Phillip Adams, on April 7 at 4:15 p.m., he was riding the prized four-wheeler.
“I was over here working on my bossman’s land and I waved at Phillip as he drove by on his four-wheeler,” DeGoyler said. “Normally he has his hat on backwards and a little gator thing on his face but yesterday he had a black helmet on with a black lens on it and he rode by and I waved at him as he drove into the driveway to kill the Lesslies.”
At 4:27 p.m. the shooting started.
Confusion amid tragedy
By that time, DeGoyler had already left the property across the street from the Lesslies and headed to bid on another job. On his way back to the property, he saw Adams take off up the hill from the Lesslies’ back to his home. DeGoyler said Adams waved to his boss Don Ferguson’s daughter as he fled the scene of the shooting.
When he got back, there were helicopters landing on the Fergusons’ property.
“I thought Don had an accident on the tractor,” DeGoyler recalled.
He was then told to run inside, that there was an active shooter.
“We were just told it was some Black guy,” DeGoyler says. “We didn’t know it was Phillip.”
After being shot, Shook, unsure of the exact address of the Lesslies’, reportedly called his boss at Gastonia Sheet Metal and informed them of what had happened, asking them to then relay the correct address to 911 dispatchers. It is because of that call that emergency personnel responded as quickly as they did.
At a news conference that evening, York County Sheriff’s Department officials noted there was an eight-minute response time from local police. Brakefield believed it was in this short amount of time that Adams made his way from the Lesslies’ back to his home where he remained during those last few hours of his life.
Adams was found and confirmed dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at 2:37 a.m.
Property records indicate that many on the far end of Marshall Road where Dr. Lesslie and his wife lived own large sums of land, farms often backing up to one another. Brakefield’s property backs up to the Lesslies’ 40 acres, though the houses are roughly a mile away through a patch of woods.
Brakefield said she was not home at the time of the shooting, but that a friend called her to inform her. Making her way back home around 9 p.m., the road was barricaded, helicopters still circling.
“At that point we still thought there was still an active shooter, so when I got home I just grabbed the kids and ran inside,” she says. “Stuff like this doesn’t really happen out here.”
Brakefield has children the same age as the Lesslies’ grandchildren who were killed and says she can’t imagine what she would have done had the killer still been on the loose.
Looking for answers
The Charlotte Observer reported Alonzo Adams blames his son’s death and actions on the NFL, saying “the football messed him up,” implying that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) may have affected his mental health.
His sister Lauren Adams told USA Today that Adams had been suffering from mental health issues in the last few months, that they’d seen a significant decline. She told USA Today, “He wasn’t a monster. He was struggling with mental health.”
Many in the community, like DeGoyler and Brakefield and neighbor Jenny Comer, reported hearing that Lesslie had prescribed Adams OxyContin for injuries he sustained while playing in the NFL, but had recently cut him off.
DeGoyler said he believed that was the motive behind the shooting.
“Dr. Lesslie saw he was getting hooked on the stuff and cut him off,” he said. “It’s pretty much the drug company’s fault in my opinion.”
Friends of the Lesslies have disputed this theory, stating that Adams was never a patient of Lesslie’s.
Like many in this close-knit community, Brakefield, at the time suffering from severe migraines, had once been a patient of Dr. Lesslie.
“I specifically remember when I’d said something about pain and wanting pain medication, he said, ‘If you need to get any pain medications you need to go to Piedmont [Medical Center].’ He wasn’t the type of doctor to go out of his way to give out prescription pain pills,” she says. “He had a great reputation. He was respected.”
DeGoyler said the Lesslies were kind people, that they’d often offer him water when he was out working on their property or others.
He had also seen Dr. Lesslie on the day prior to his murder. As DeGoyler picked up trash off Marshall Road, Dr. Lesslie offered him a drink of water, something both Robert and Barbara would do when they saw people out working.
“I told him no thanks, have a good day, and that was it,” DeGoyler says of that last encounter.
Only hours after the shooting, neighbor Mandy Williams expressed the devastation it had already wrecked on the community. Her son played football with Adams in elementary school. She pointed out that both the Adams and the Lesslies were well-respected in the area.
“This is atypical. We are all devastated. I had children who went to school with Phillip. It’s devastating for both families. We are heartbroken for all the families involved,” Williams said. “They are both just great families.”
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