ROCK HILL, South Carolina—Former NFL player Phillip Adams killed five people, including a beloved family doctor and his grandkids, in a mass shooting on Wednesday before turning the gun on himself, according to local authorities.
Dr. Robert Lesslie, 70, his wife, Barbara, 69, and their two grandkids, Adah, 9, and Noah, 5, were killed just before 5 p.m. at the couple’s Marshall Road home just outside Rock Hill.
A fifth victim, 38-year-old James Lewis, was fixing the air conditioning in the Lesslies’ home at the time of the shooting, according to his dad. A coworker, Robert Shook, suffered “serious gunshot wounds” and was in the hospital.
York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson said Thursday that the first calls to 911 came from a manager at Gaston Sheet Metal Services, who said one of his employees had called him screaming they’d “been shot,” and from a neighbor who said he’d been cutting his grass when he heard 20 gunshots.
When authorities arrived, they found the two workers outside the house. The other four victims were found dead in a back room.
Public records show Adams, 32, and his parents live less than a mile down the road from the Lesslies, but the link between the two families was unclear. Tolson said there was no indication Dr. Lesslie had a doctor-patient relationship with the footballer, but the Associated Press later reported the suspect had, in fact, been a patient of the doctor, citing someone briefed on the case.
“There’s nothing about this that makes sense to any of us,” Tolson said.
Neighbors who knew Adams were just as shocked and confused.
Mandy Williams, a neighbor who said her son had played football with Adams in elementary school, said the whole situation was “atypical” and the town was left “devastated.”
“I had children who went to school with Phillip,” she said. She described both the Adams and Lesslies as great families.
“It’s devastating for both families. We are heartbroken for all the families involved,” Williams said.
Casey DeGolyer, a neighbor who described himself as a friend to Adams, said the former football star had been in good spirits when the two had run into each other just three days ago. But when DeGolyer says he saw Adams again on Wednesday, just before police say the mass shooting took place, Adams was riding his four-wheeler and wearing a black helmet.
“Yesterday, I was over here working on my bossman’s land, and I waved at Phillip as he drove by on his four-wheeler. 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” before allegedly killing the Lesslies, DeGolyer said.
He said he left shortly after and returned later only to be told by police to take shelter inside because there was an active shooter.
“We were just told it was some Black guy,” DeGoyler says. “We didn’t know it was Phillip,” he said, adding that he’d later seen Adams leaving the Lesslies home and waving to another neighbor just after the shooting.
The sheriff said Adams forced himself into the Lesslies’ home, and there was evidence there that immediately pointed to his involvement in the killings. Hours later, investigators surrounded Adams’ family home nearby. They evacuated his father, Alonso, and disabled mother, Phyllis, and tried to talk Adams outside, but he was eventually found dead in a bedroom with a single gunshot wound to the head, Tolson said.
Alonzo Adams told WCNC-TV that he blamed football for his son’s problems. “I can say he’s a good kid—he was a good kid, and I think the football messed him up,” he said. “He didn’t talk much, and he didn’t bother nobody.”
The father said he knew the Lesslie family and had been Dr. Lesslie’s patient a long time ago. “I know they were good folks down there. We gonna keep them in our prayers.”
NFL agent Scott Casterline told The State he had missed a call from Alonzo Adams on the morning of the shooting. In a voicemail message Casterline said he only heard on Wednesday night, Alonzo Adams said he wanted to “talk about Phillip.”
“Phillip was a real lone ranger. He really just liked to be by himself, alone, even when he played... I loved Phillip like a brother,” Casterline said. “The Phillip Adams that we knew, this was not anywhere near him. I feel really bad for the victims and their families.” He adding that he still had not spoken to Alonzo.
Adams suffered multiple injuries, including concussions and a broken ankle, during his playing career as a defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets, and Atlanta Falcons. Prior to his football career, he went to South Carolina State.
Gerald Dixon Jr., a former Dallas Cowboy and Rock Hill native, told The Daily Beast that he grew up “idolizing” Adams after his father, former NFL linebacker Gerald Dixon, took him to local games every Friday. He said he was a ball boy for Rock Hill High when Phillip was a star player.
“Every time I see him it was always love and he was always smiling. He didn’t have a hate bone in his body,” he said. “I’m sure there was some demons that he was battling because this is nothing like him. Mental health is something that needs to be addressed and taken seriously. It’s a terrible situation and I pray for both families involved.”
Dixon Jr. said he last saw Adams when he went to congratulate the ex-footballer for opening up a juice store. “It’s tough trying to keep in contact... But when I saw him it was nothing but love and encouragement,” he said.
Lesslie, meanwhile, was described as a “staple” in the community, a man whose decades-long career meant he treated or knew almost everyone in Rock Hill, a place dubbed Football City USA due to the unusual number of residents who go on to gridiron stardom.
“To know the Lesslie family is to love them. Through the decades, they made such an incredible impact on our area and the lives of countless people—more than they could have ever known,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) said in a Thursday statement, before extending his condolences to the Lewis family. “It’s impossible to imagine the grief that the extended Lesslie family must be feeling, including and especially their adult children.”
Locals were aghast at a situation they could not explain.
“We are just in shock. I can’t believe this happened. Who would want to hurt the Lesslies?” one friend of the family told The Daily Beast on Thursday, describing how the community was “devastated.”
Lewis’ father, Tom, told local station WSOC9 that his son was working on the Lesslies’ air conditioning when the gunfire erupted. “He was my best friend,” he said.
Gaston Sheet Metal Services said Lewis and the coworker were both “long-standing, beloved members of our family at GSM” who “embody the values we strive to achieve at GSM, and are family-focused, upbeat, and wonderful team members who cared about all the people they encountered.”
Trent Faris, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, said Dr. Lesslie was one of the local community’s most well-known people. “I’ve lived in Rock Hill my entire life and Dr. Lesslie was my doctor growing up,” he said. “[He’s] been one of those people that everybody knows. He started Riverview Medical Center in Rock Hill... It’s been a staple in Rock Hill for years.”
On his website, Dr. Lesslie wrote that he and Barbara were married for more than 40 years and had four children and six grandchildren. “In my spare time, I enjoy writing, golf, hunting, growing fruit and hops, and bagpiping,” he wrote, while also recounting his decades of emergency-medicine experience in Rock Hill as well as in North Carolina.
The doc was the author of eight books about real-life stories from the emergency room. In one, Angels in the ER, he wrote, “Twenty-five years in the ER have taught me a lot of things. I know without a doubt that life is fragile. I have come to understand that humility may be the greatest virtue. And I am convinced we need to take the time to say the things we deeply feel to the people we deeply care about.”
Eleni Pagiazitis, who worked for Lesslie for four years in patient relations, described him in an interview as “the hardest caring, and most sincere person.”
“He loved life and his family to the fullest and—most importantly, God. He was the sweetest and the funniest. He always cracked jokes with those he knew,” Pagiazitis told The Daily Beast, adding that Lesslie’s wife “was the most delightful, classy and lovely” woman.
“His grandchildren were his greatest joy. He cherished family time beyond words,” Pagiazitis added. “He had a heart of gold and was always giving his passion and professionalism to all his patients.”
The shooting happened just hours before President Joe Biden gave a White House Rose Garden address on gun reforms, calling gun violence “an epidemic” and “an international embarrassment.”
According to local news reports, Adams was a seventh-round pick to the NFL in 2010. “I was on the phone with Coach [Mike] Singletary when my name came on the TV screen,” he told The Herald Online at the time, stating that the first beneficiary of his newfound fame would be his mom, who had been paralyzed in a car accident. “I can’t describe the feeling when I saw my name. I got picked by a team with a great coach and one that is on the way back up.”
The Herald reported in 2010 that Adams’ mom was a longtime Rock Hill teacher who is known around town as “Mrs. P.A.” She did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Citing court records, The Charlotte Observer reported Thursday that Adams was charged with simple assault and battery in 2009—but was acquitted in a bench trial. Earlier this month, he was convicted of multiple traffic charges, including failure to maintain proof of insurance and driving under suspension. Undated public records show he was also twice charged with carrying a concealed weapon.