David Lewis, a man known for helping to save the lives of others in East Palo Alto was shot and killed Wednesday night in what police are calling a targeted shooting.
Lewis, 54, was found dead from a single gunshot wound in a parking garage at the Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo just before 6 p.m. after witnesses said a confrontation took place between Lewis and the shooter.
"Words were exchanged by the shooter and victim in the parking garage,” police Lt. Mike Brunicardi said yesterday. "Witnesses heard a shot, looked over and saw the victim on the ground and saw a car leaving the area.”
Lewis was still alive when police arrived two minutes after being called to the scene of the shooting.
Police are looking for a black sedan that was seen leaving the area but have yet to identify a suspect and have few other clues into his death, Brunicardi said.
While police spent the day investigating Lewis’ death, friends and family gathered at Free at Last, the drug outreach center he helped found in East Palo Alto, to honor a man who spent most of his early adulthood in prison for dealing heroin.
Lewis spent the past 15 years reaching out to drug addicts in East Palo Alto in an effort to improve the city once known as "the murder capital of America” and became famous for his efforts.
Yesterday, friends, family and colleagues told the activist’s story and praised his accomplishments.
Lewis landed at San Quentin at the tender age of 19 in the mid-1970s for dealing drugs. He served 15 years in prison before returning to the streets of East Palo Alto in 1990 at the age of 34.
Lewis was arrested within three months of his release from San Quentin. Instead of sending the man back to jail, however, his parole officer enrolled him in a year-long residential drug treatment center in East Palo Alto.
After getting out of treatment, Lewis co-founded Circle of Recovery, a support group for recovering addicts.
He helped found Free at Last in 1993 with Priya Haji and Vicki Smothers.
Smothers, who knew Lewis for 42 years, spoke on behalf of his family yesterday at the Free at Last center on Bay Road in East Palo Alto.
"We walked both sides of the fence together,” Smothers said. "He wanted to be an instrument for change, to rebuild the community.”
Smothers described Lewis as funny, calming, patient, shy and non-confrontational.
"He changed my life. He fed me and clothed me,” she said. "People gravitated toward him, men, women and children.”
Lewis worked tirelessly for the community, she said.
"He died from a senseless act of violence, something he fought so hard against,” Smothers said. "In a moment, a phenomenal life was taken.”
Free at Last Executive Director Gerardo Barragan described Lewis as a famous storyteller.
"He wouldn’t finish a story until it was done, no matter how long it was,” Barragan said. "But when the story was done, you knew why.”
Lewis had traveled the world and visited Africa several times where he was doing drug outreach.
Barragan and Lewis spent part of the day Tuesday brainstorming on how to keep donations coming in from foundations that support the center.
Zoe Wigfall, who received drug counseling at Free at Last, credits Lewis with helping to save her life.
Twelve years ago, Wigfall was a pregnant addict with another young child who spent her days hustling for drugs on the streets of East Palo Alto.
"He cared. He cared for the community. He kept coming back until I surrendered. I didn’t want to believe he died. He was an inspiration to me and my children,” Wigfall said.
His colleague and Free at Last co-founder, Priya Haji, wasn’t sure why Lewis was in San Mateo Wednesday but called him a workaholic. He was rumored to have been meeting with staff at the San Mateo County STD/HIV Program located at 225 W. 37th Ave., close to the Hillsdale Shopping Center.
Lewis is San Mateo’s first homicide victim this year.
He leaves behind three sons and a daughter.
The San Mateo Police Department has established a partnership with TipNow.org, a text-based two-way anonymous tip line that the public can access via text message and e-mail. To text an anonymous message: 262-3473. To e-mail an anonymous message: email@example.com. To leave a message on the secret witness line: 5227676. To contact San Mateo police: 522-7700.
Bill Silverfarb can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.