Who Murdered a California Hero?

David Lewis lived a hard life, then reformed himself and helped save others in trouble, before he was gunned down in the parking lot of an upscale mall near Palo Alto. Tim McGirk on the mysterious murder that has devastated a California community.

06.15.10 1:36 AM ET

From the outside, Palo Alto seems to exude privilege. Home of Stanford University, the city is a gilded preserve of high-tech millionaires who live in mock Tudor mansions and mini-chateaus, a sort of Northern California country club for the very smart and very rich.

But Palo Alto also has a more sinister side—it lies on the other side of Highway 101. Here residents ruefully joke that the only jobs going are for bartenders and preachers—there are 52 bars and 50 churches in East Palo Alto, and the town has a dubious claim to fame: In 1992, this broken-down, blue-collar enclave was declared the murder capital of America.

A friend and colleague, Kyra Bobinet, describes Lewis as “the six-foot-five Mother Teresa of our continent”—that is, if Mother Teresa had started out robbing crackhouses with a loaded shotgun, as Lewis did during his teenage years as a heroin addict.

Things have gotten better since then. Only a single East Palo Alto citizen has been murdered so far this year. Tragically, the victim was David Lewis, 54, an ex-convict and recovering addict-turned-social entrepreneur, who police and community leaders give credit for having helped bring down this town’s murder rate to near zero.

Lewis’ death last Wednesday is a mystery. An imposing African American with a silvery horseshoe of a mustache, Lewis wasn’t killed in a drive-by shooting or in the crossfire of a turf battle between East Palo Alto’s various gangs. Rather, he was gunned down in the covered garage of the Hillsdale Shopping Center—an upscale mall 10 miles away, where the moneyed folks of Palo Alto and Hillsborough shop at Macy’s and buy Godiva chocolates. “I don’t have a damned clue,” says Dorsey Nunn, a longtime friend, who is the executive director of the San Francisco-based Legal Service for Prisoners With Children. “None of us can figure out who might’ve killed him.”

San Mateo police say that Lewis exchanged words with an unknown suspect before gunfire was heard and Lewis slumped to the pavement beside his 2001 silver Honda, shot in the back. Police say they are working on the assumption that it was a targeted killing. A witness told police that a black sedan was seen speeding away.

A friend and colleague, Kyra Bobinet, describes Lewis as “the six-foot-five Mother Teresa of our continent”—that is, if Mother Teresa had started out robbing crackhouses with a loaded shotgun, as Lewis did during his teenage years as a heroin addict. "I'd fire [the shotgun] at the ceiling, then clean them out,” Lewis later told the writer Paul Loeb. “I never killed anyone, but I was crazy enough to threaten people. I liked being the kid with no future, the kid people were afraid of.”

At 19, Lewis began a grim journey that lasted 17 years, bouncing in and out of California’s harshest penitentiaries, usually convicted on charges of armed robbery or drugs. He seemed destined for life in prison or an early death from a heroin overdose. But an earthquake proved an unlikely salvation. On Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck while Lewis sat behind the bars of his prison cell.

"I felt helpless and hopeless, locked in a cage,” he later recounted to Loeb. “I heard the Bay Bridge had collapsed. I thought of my 27-year-old son, who I'd had when I was 17. I'd spent half my life behind bars. Now he seemed headed for jail, too. I wondered if both of us might die here.”

But even after the earthquake, he needed another jolt to quit his addiction. Briefly out of prison, Lewis was found by his parole officer lying in the bushes, a needle still dangling from his arm from a heroin fix. The parole officer got him into a rehabilitation program, and Lewis began the slow process of healing.

Recruiting Luther Brock, an ex-convict and another recovering addict, Lewis returned to East Palo Alto to re-build the community that he, as a furious teenager, had helped to destroy. With the help of Priya Haji, a feisty Stanford student, Lewis and Brock set up Free at Last, a nonprofit agency that offered help for ex-prison inmates and substance abusers. They sought out addicts in parks and squalid homes; they repaired derelict houses that had become crack dens and moved families back into East Palo Alto’s abandoned neighborhoods. When gang wars broke out anywhere in the Bay Area, Lewis was often the one brought in to negotiate the truce. And in East Palo Alto, the killing slowed down and gradually stopped. A few of the bolder Stanford kids now drift across Highway 101 to sample the taquerias.

Lewis’ approach to treating drug abuse was revolutionary. Up until then, the common thinking was to isolate an addict from the community, from the social and family “triggers” that had turned him or her to drugs in the first place, explains Cheryl Dorsey, director at Echoing Green, a New York nonprofit that promotes innovative social leaders. “Lewis flipped this idea on its head. His idea was that the community has to help in the addict’s recovery.”

Lewis persuaded local businesses to give jobs to ex-parolees, and went back to places he knew too well ,such as San Quentin and Folsom prisons, looking for convicts who were willing to stay clean of drugs for six months in exchange for parole, a job, and a car. Under Lewis’ system—which has since been copied in other states and in Africa and Russia, as well—fewer than 20 percent of the parolees ended up back in jail, compared to the average rate of 70 percent for ex-convicts who fall back into crime, according to East Palo Alto Police Chief Ronald Davis. “David always believed that his own recovery as an addict depended on reaching out to people who were worse off,” says Bobinet, his friend and former Echoing Green fellow.

Lewis, who as a child was dismissed by his schoolteachers as stupid because of his undiagnosed dyslexia, found that he had a gift for inspirational speaking. He teamed up with another ex-convict and motivational speaker, Gordon Graham, touring prisons to urge inmates to break their drug habits—and the cycle of crime and ever-lengthening jail stretches. Drawing from his own harrowing life story, Lewis was able to raise grants from Silicon Valley millionaires and from the state and municipal government.

“I’ve covered the ground from Yale to jail,” he often joked, and it’s true, Lewis’ journey was remarkable. He sat on panels with the Dalai Lama, government officials and academics, and was awarded the 1994 California Wellness Foundation’s Peace Prize. In 2008, he was a keynote speaker at an international conference of police chiefs. “Lewis started out by saying, ‘here I am, an ex-drug dealer and parolee—I’ve never been in a room with so many cops unless I was behind bars,” recalls East Palo Alto Chief Davis, who attended the conference. At the end of his speech, “police chiefs from around the world were lining up to get his business card,” says Davis.

At the modest headquarters of Free at Last, in a seedy East Palo Alto neighborhood nicknamed Whiskey Gulch, most of the staffers were stunned by the news of Lewis’ murder. Nearly all are reformed ex-convicts, former addicts, and gang members who owe Lewis for the new course in their lives. As Brock, the co-founder of Free at Last, puts it: “David wouldn’t hold your hand, but he’d get on the bus with you and ride to the end of the line.”

After the mysterious murder of Lewis, they will now have to ride alone.

Tim McGirk has covered Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a bureau chief for Time magazine. He is now writing out of California.