In the minutes prior to being fatally shot in the back Wednesday afternoon, East Palo Alto drug-intervention leader David Lewis was arguing with an unknown suspect or suspects, police said at a press conference Thursday morning.
Lewis, 54, was fatally shot once and died en route to a trauma center in San Mateo, San Mateo police Chief Susan Manheimer said at an 11:30 a.m. Thursday press briefing at the East Palo Alto Police Department substation. The San Mateo Police Department is in charge of the homicide investigation.
Lewis was a well-known community leader who worked hard to turn wayward lives around, for which he was known nationally. He started the city's drug-rehabilitation Free at Last organization and a highly successful parole re-entry program. He was shot in the back in a parking area in broad daylight at 5:42 p.m. at Hillsdale Shopping Center, near Mervyn's in the western part of the mall. A black sedan was seen leaving the scene after the shooter fled, she said.
Investigators have processed "a lot of forensic evidence" and have surveillance tapes and eyewitnesses to the shooting, Manheimer said.
"We will pull out all the stops and won't rest" until the suspect or suspects are found, she said.
"Because of his tremendous ties in this community, information provided by the community will help us break this case. Bring us information," Manheimer said.
Manheimer would not confirm nor deny if a specific suspect has been identified. According to sources, police have a suspect, but Manheimer said she did not want to focus on any one person and miss others who might have been involved.
"We have absolutely developed some leads," she said.
"There are some different ideas about this -- whether it was a random act of, say, road rage or something with long-term tentacles. Nothing surprises us," she said.
The San Mateo police station "looked like Grand Central Station" and was filled with community leaders and others willing to help police. But police have no idea what Lewis was doing at the mall, she said. "It could be anything as mundane as going shopping. We don't know what precipitated that exchange of words," Manheimer said.
But Manheimer and East Palo Alto police Chief Ronald Davis, a longtime friend of Lewis, said Lewis' work trying to turn people's lives around was sometimes dangerous.
Davis described Lewis as dedicated to his work and fearless. He would approach people who were hanging out on street corners and go to their homes. He met several times with prisoners at San Quentin Prison, Davis said. He said it is not yet known whether the shooting was related to Lewis' work in the community.
"He was doing this work for close to 20 years. It was challenging and dangerous work," Davis said.
"It's hard to believe that this would happen to a person of good quality like that," said Doris Taylor, a close friend of Lewis for many years, who described him as being like a godfather to her daughter.
Lewis had recently returned from a fishing trip with one of Taylor's daughters and his fishing license was still in her purse Wednesday. Her daughters are devastated by Lewis' death, she said.
"He was the closest thing to their dad that they had," she said of Lewis' relationship to her children, now grown.
Lewis was a community outreach specialist with the San Mateo County AIDS Program. He also was a facilitator for Gordon Graham and Company in the Framework for Change video curriculum.
Colleagues at Free At Last said they were shocked by his death.
"He was a very great friend to everyone. He did an amazing job -- a great job -- not only in East Palo Alto but for the county," said Saul Barrajas, an outreach worker. Memorial plans were not yet known, he said.
Lewis was featured in the Bill Moyers documentary, "Circle of Recovery," and spoke on a national speakers circuit.
He received the California Peace Prize in 1995 and the Positive Image Award in 1992.
In a Sept. 23, 1998, interview in the Palo Alto Weekly, Lewis reflected on his life as a former inmate and how the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake shook him up and launched him onto a new path:
"I've been in maximum security prisons for 17 years and have seen some ugly things," Lewis said. "None of which affected me. But that (earthquake) did. I don't really know why."
Lewis remembered thinking about his four children, wondering what was happening to them. He also recalled his fear of dying in a cage.
"I just had this overwhelming feeling of, 'I don't want to be in this situation anymore,'" he said.
When his prison term ended two months later, he decided to get on with his life -- not his past life, but a new one.
When he wasn't attending to board duties, he worked as an HIV and substance abuse counselor. He traveled the country speaking in communities and in prisons, hoping to guide young lives down a path different from the one he chose.
"I feel like I am a positive role model now," Lewis said. "I feel like I am making a huge difference and am impacting so many young lives."
Anyone with information that could lead to finding the killer is asked to call the San Mateo Police Department at 650-522-7700 or the secret-witness line at 650-522-7676.