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More than anything else, Abram Elam misses the way his name sounded over the loudspeaker at Notre Dame football games. When he would run onto the field or make a tackle, the announcer, tucked high away in the press box, would bellow out A-bram E-lam like it was money, like it was really worth something. And for a few moments afterward, the echo of the boy's name would continue to rise above the stadium, like a flag slowly being hoisted toward the sky.
"You know," Abram says now, nestled safely inside his coach's office, "I could sit and listen to that sound all day and never get sick of it." The boy sighs, crosses one beefy arm over another, and settles back into his chair.
Two years ago, Abram Elam, who grew up in Riviera Beach and is still remembered with awe by much of the community there, was a reserve safety on the Notre Dame football team. At six-foot-one and 210 pounds, he was an astonishing specimen, built with a body that needed to move. His torso looked like it was carved by a sculptor's hand; his calves bulged so that when he walked, it seemed as if he were hauling a pair of overinflated balloons with him. He was a highly touted sophomore then, expected to do great things for the Irish.
Right: His senior year, Abram was named Palm Beach County Player of the Year.
But trouble, like an old song, was about to make a comeback in Abram's life.
The night started out ordinarily enough. After spring football practice let out, Abram and a few teammates headed to downtown South Bend for a late-night bar run. By 1 a.m., the State was hopping. Easter break was just around the corner, and it seemed everyone was out that Wednesday. Inside the club, Abram ran into Justin Smith, a former Notre Dame safety who had been a sort of mentor to him. But they soon lost each other in the crowd, and Abram spent the rest of the evening mingling with friends.
At closing time, he and his roommate, football player Lorenzo Crawford, decided to stop by Justin's house. When the two arrived, they found Justin in the basement, watching a movie with Lindsay Charles, a Notre Dame junior and a former football manager. Lindsay had a "reputation" around campus, Abram would later say, though he refused to elaborate.
He settled himself on the floor, a few paces from where Justin and Lindsay sat cuddling in an easy chair. Lorenzo splayed out on a couch, near fellow football player Donald Dykes and another girl. When Lindsay and Justin starting kissing, Abram placed his hand on Lindsay's crotch, and his fingers kneaded into the inseam of her jeans. He says he removed them when she didn't respond. Lindsay said in court that she pushed Abram's hand away. But both agree nothing was said.
A few minutes later, Justin and Lindsay retreated to a bedroom. Abram, thinking Lindsay had been "feeling him," went upstairs too. There, he came up behind Lindsay, put his hand on her hips, and began to run his fingertips along her backside. "Don't you have a girlfriend?" she insisted. Abram says he left the room, and Justin would later confirm this. They also say Lindsay was a willing participant in what was about to happen.
But Lindsay tells a much different story.
She would later testify that Abram refused to leave, saying, "Oh no, baby; I just want to make you have an orgasm; I just want to make you feel good," all the while forcing his fingers inside her. She again pushed him away, and he left the room momentarily.
At some point, Justin began to penetrate her, Lindsay says. Lorenzo then tore off his clothes and forced her to perform oral sex, she says, and Abram, who had returned to the room, stripped down to his shorts and began touching Lindsay's breasts. Lindsay says she struggled the whole time, again invoking the name of Abram's girlfriend. This time, Abram left for good.
On his way downstairs, Abram says, he passed Donald, who was on his way up to Justin's room.
An hour or so later, Abram arrived back at his dorm, thinking nothing of the incident. When he saw Lindsay in class the next day, they didn't speak a word.
Five days later, she reported that she'd been raped by four football players.
Abram's hometown is a compact, eight-mile stretch on the southern Atlantic Coast. Just five miles from Palm Beach -- one of the ritziest communities in the country -- Riviera Beach is composed of short, squalid, one-floor houses pushed together like partners in an unhappy marriage. The residents are mostly poor and mostly black, and the town has a crime rate three times the national average.
But Riviera Beach is also a close-knit town, where it's not unusual for three branches of a single family to live on one street. Even those not related are often referred to as "aunties" and "uncles." And when tragedy befalls one person, everyone else reaches out. Abram knew that touch well. His young life was a succession of tragedies.
When Abram was 6, his half-brother Donald was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting near the park where Abram often played. Donald, a star football player who used to fire spirals to Abram in their backyard, was just 17 years old. The two teenagers who killed him got 40 years each.