Pot Grower Accused Of Killing Wife Was $246K Life Insurance Beneficiary
Feb. 06–ST. JOSEPH — The jury hadn’t even taken their seats yet and John Lewis became overwhelmed with emotion as his murder trial was about to begin. As Berrien County Trial Court Judge Gordon Hosbein began to swear in the 14 jurors, Lewis wiped tears from his face.
Tuesday was the first day of trial for Lewis, charged with premeditated murder in the Aug. 13, 2017, death of his wife, 55-year-old Carla Lewis. He was also charged with possession with intent to manufacture stemming from a marijuana growing operation found in his home.
Sex, money and drugs can all be motives, but combined they were the motive for Lewis to “brutally execute” his wife, said Assistant Berrien County Prosecutor Jerry Vigansky, in his opening statements.
Lewis, 49, is accused of shooting and killing his wife inside a small marijuana grow room in their home and then calling 911, saying two men had broken into the home and shot his wife and stole her car to get away. A grow room that would “ultimately become an execution chamber,” Vigansky said.
In his opening, Vigansky detailed the evidence that would be presented in what is expected to be a two-week trial.
The prosecutor spoke of alleged affairs Lewis was having with multiple women. One where he allegedly discussed wanting to kill his wife. Vigansky also brought up how Lewis wasn’t fully employed and worked odd jobs, while Carla Lewis was making $80,000 per year, had a $246,000 life insurance policy and $70,000 in retirement money with Lewis as the beneficiary.
Lewis was also reportedly searching online for guns and silencers in the week leading up to his wife’s murder, Vigansky said.
In her opening arguments, defense attorney Jolene Weiner-Vatter stuck by Lewis’ claim that two men broke into the house and killed Carla Lewis.
She was found dead with her head resting on a planter in the marijuana grow room in the basement of the couple’s home in the 1400 block of Lawndale Avenue in Niles Township.
Up until his arrest, Lewis owned the Sevenleaves Compassion Club at 1046 Bell Road in Niles, which is now closed.
He is an apparent cancer survivor who believed in the benefits of medical marijuana and opened Sevenleaves with a goal stated on the club’s then-Facebook page of providing education about medical marijuana.
Although he had a valid license to grow up to 12 marijuana plants for medical use, his grow room did not have a lock. And because his wife was found inside the room, it showed others had access, both of which are violations.
But Weiner-Vatter said Lewis’ compassion club and growing operation made him a target because not everyone agreed with him. His truck, which was bright green with marijuana leaves on it, was reportedly broken into a couple of months before his wife’s death. The truck was also keyed while parked in Lewis’ driveway, Weiner-Vatter said.
Weiner-Vatter also told the jury they would be presented evidence at least one other person was in the house. A palm print collected from a door of the home could not be identified. And evidence collected from Carla Lewis’ car when it was found days later contained DNA from someone other than Lewis.
The defense also questioned parts of the investigation, saying Lewis agreed to take a gunshot residue test, but police never followed through with it.
Testimony began Tuesday with Hugh Fair, a 911 dispatcher.
To support Fair’s testimony, a recording of the 911 call was played in court. Lewis can be heard yelling “We’ve been shot,” “we’ve been robbed,” and repeatedly yelling “Carla.” As the call played the courtroom became emotional as both Lewis and members of Carla Lewis’ family began to tear up.
After a few minutes, Fair heard multiple beeps and the call was lost. Fair testified he thought that meant that call wasn’t dropped, but that Lewis hung up. Lewis also never picked up the phone when Fair tried to call him back.
Defense attorney Ryan Seale asked Fair if he knew for a fact Lewis hung up the phone, to which Fair replied “I can’t prove that.”
Berrien County Patrolwoman Jessica Frucci, who was the first officer to arrive on scene, testified that as officers cleared the home, repeatedly yelling “Berrien County Sheriff’s Department” no one was responding. It wasn’t until they cleared the first floor of the home that they found Lewis in the grow room in the back of the basement, she said.
Vigansky then asked Frucci about her ability to enter the grow room. She testified the grow room’s door was actually a bookshelf on hinges and could not be opened all the way because it was blocked by a washing machine. Frucci said she had to walk sideways and duck down a little to get in the room. Vigansky was drawing into question Lewis’ description of the reported shooter as two large men.
As Frucci’s testimony Tuesday was closing in on 5 p.m., Judge Hosbein concluded court for the day and the defense did not get to question Frucci. The trial will pick back up today with the rest of Frucci’s testimony for the state and the defense’s cross.
The state also plans on showing the jury a life-size recreation of Lewis’ grow room, which will require the jury to move from the courtroom to the replica. Vigansky would not comment Tuesday on his strategy for showing the jury this model.
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