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The Secret Life of Johnny Lewis

He was a Hollywood actor who had it all—including a dark side that led to a grisly murder

Actor Johnny Lewis as the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011
Photograph courtesy of Carlo Allegri/AP Photo

“Hi, I’m John, your new neighbor.” If Dan Blackburn wasn’t completely stunned to see the bedraggled young man with intense blue eyes introducing himself at his doorstep, it was only because the former NBC newsman had just spent a good 15 minutes tracking his movements from his living room window. Wearing nothing but jeans and red shoes, Blackburn’s visitor had been pacing up and down the pavement of this leafy corner of the Los Feliz Hills. He was slight and wiry, with shaggy blond hair. His bare torso was slick with sweat. There were other intrusions on the neighborhood’s usual quiet on that late morning of September 26, 2012. A housepainter was working on the first-floor deck of Blackburn’s home. The deck overlooked a 1927 Spanish-style mansion known as the Writers’ Villa, where an elderly real estate broker and arts patron named Cathy Davis had opened her doors to generations of playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, and actors while they developed their talents and adjusted to Hollywood life.

“Nice to meet you, John,” Blackburn replied, with a raised eyebrow. The two men stood across from each other in Blackburn’s doorway before John—who Blackburn would later learn was the actor Johnny Lewis—abruptly walked away and Blackburn returned to his morning routine.

At 28, Lewis wasn’t so much a new neighbor as a returning one. For two months in 2009, he had lived in the Red Suite of the Writers’ Villa. Now, three years later, he had just moved back to the villa after being released from downtown’s Twin Towers Correctional Facility following a string of senseless violent assaults. His father had arranged the accommodations, hoping that the villa’s calming influence would help steady his son after months of chaos.

About 30 minutes after meeting Lewis at his door, Blackburn heard his wife, Gloria, anxiously calling for him. He rushed outside to find Lewis on top of the housepainter, pummeling him with his fists. The worker’s face was covered in blood. Specks of it were landing on the actor’s body. Blackburn stepped in to pull the five-foot, ten-inch Lewis off the painter, grabbing him by the shoulder and yelling at him to stop. In one motion Lewis leaped to his feet and slugged Blackburn, who is in his seventies, in the eye, knocking him to the ground. Lewis’s expression was flat, his gaze distant, but he seemed to have superhuman strength. He didn’t flinch as Blackburn stood up and landed a punch to his temple. Blackburn then struck him with a chair, which stunned him enough that Blackburn, his wife, and the painter were able to escape into the house. They tried to shut the front door, but Lewis stuck his arm through the opening, as if in a scene from a horror movie. The three pushed their full weight on the door, slamming it four times until the arm finally slithered away. The group barricaded themselves inside and called the police.

From a window Blackburn saw Lewis leap over the waist-high fence around the deck and pounce on the wooden fence surrounding the Writers’ Villa next door, his feet never seeming to touch the ground. He scaled the fence and disappeared into the villa. “He was like a low-key Spider-Man,” says Blackburn.

Within minutes the police arrived to find a ghastly sight: Davis, the 81-year-old owner of the villa, was inside her home, beaten and strangled to death. Lewis—her tenant and attacker—was also dead in the middle of the driveway, his skull cracked in half.

It didn’t take long for that morning’s events to reach the tabloids: Actor Johnny Lewis had killed his landlady, Cathy Davis, then fallen or jumped to his death. More than a year later the reasons why remain elusive. How could Lewis commit such a monstrous crime? The immediate assumption was that he was on drugs. The truth is far more complicated.

 

 

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Just three years earlier Lewis was wrapping up his gig on the second season of Sons of Anarchy, the hit FX biker drama. As Kip “Half-Sack” Epps, he played an eager prospect who did grunt work as he waited to become a “patched-in” member of the club. Half-Sack got his nickname because of the testicle he had lost while serving in Iraq. There was something about the boyish, gentle way Lewis portrayed him that was a relief from all the macho testosterone of his fellow bikers. In the 2009 season finale, Half-Sack is stabbed to death with a kitchen knife while trying to save a baby. Despite the character’s popularity, Lewis had announced to Sons creator Kurt Sutter that he wanted to leave the show; he told his father the story lines were getting too violent.

A working actor since he was a kid, Lewis had earned teen-heartthrob status in his early twenties with a recurring role as Dennis “Chili” Childress on Fox’s sudsy series The O.C. By 2005, he was a regular on the red carpet, often photographed with then-girlfriend Katy Perry on his arm. After his turn on The O.C. ended in 2006, Lewis was flush with featured roles on popular TV procedurals such as Bones, C.S.I., and Criminal Minds; on the last he played a darkly charismatic serial killer.

But Lewis always saw himself as an artist and a writer. A lover of Keats, Kerouac, and Dostoyevsky, he was constantly writing—poems, screenplays, and the beginnings of two novels—and filled his journals with philosophical ruminations. So when he first heard about the Writers’ Villa, through a photographer who was taking his head shots, he was intrigued. It was a house in the hills for creative people, run by a sweet lady, he was told. In April 2009, he contacted Davis and moved into the Red Suite on the second floor. He immediately took to the place—and to Davis. “I hung out with him over there a few times,” says Beau Garrett, an actress and one of Lewis’s friends. “I remember all the nice things he said about her and how she opened her place to artists and eccentrics.”

Between his two stays at the villa, he quit Sons of Anarchy, became a father, was in a serious motorcycle accident, and endured a painful custody battle and several arrests. He bounced in and out of jails, psychiatric wards, and rehab. He attempted suicide. Judges, therapists, family members, friends, and former costars tried to intervene, then either drifted away or watched helplessly as he spiraled out of control.

Which may explain why, after his last stint in county lockup, Lewis sought the comfort and solace—and the generosity of Cathy Davis—he remembered getting at the Writers’ Villa. He planned to move back in and pull himself together.

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The house at 3605 Lowry Road was luxurious yet homey, with exposed-wood beams and rustic antique furniture. Saltillo tile floors matched the walls, which were painted a warm red, yellow, and cream. The centerpiece of the house was a staircase inlaid with ceramic tiles leading to one of five guest rooms, some with majestic views of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Catherine Davis, known by most of her tenants as “Miss Cathy,” was a Texan who had moved to California in 1950. She attended UCLA and worked in various publishing jobs before marrying James H. Davis. After she gave birth to a baby girl in 1958, Davis and her husband purchased the grand house in Los Feliz. By the 1980s, she was divorced, and her daughter, the writer Margaret Leslie Davis, was grown up. So Miss Cathy began a successful career as a real estate agent, using her spacious empty nest as a temporary base camp for her well-heeled clients as they house-hunted.

Over time her home evolved into one of those idyllic, distinctly L.A. arrangements: an extended bed-and-breakfast for up-and-coming performers, directors, and of course, writers. It was Davis, a lively woman with short gray hair and a sparkling wit, who clinched the deal. Val Kilmer, Parker Posey, Paula Poundstone, and Chris Parnell all lived at the villa when they were on the rise, enjoying the company of the good-natured landlady. “Cathy was very friendly,” Poundstone recalls. “One day I was waiting for a cab to the Burbank airport, which didn’t come.” Davis tried to calm down the young comic and wrote her driving directions. But “seeing the lunacy in my eyes and hearing me begin to stammer, she kindly offered to drive me herself, which I graciously accepted.”

If a pitch or audition went poorly, Miss Cathy would be there with open arms and homemade tamales. Her house was also an emotional refuge. Thomas Jane (the star of HBO’s Hung) moved into the villa after a tough breakup with a live-in girlfriend in 2001. “I needed a quiet place to stay,” he says. “I met Cathy and fell in love with her place immediately. The dark wood and heavy furniture relaxed me. It was the perfect place to lick my wounds.”

Through word of mouth Davis’s reputation in the upscale Hollywood community grew. When someone moved on, they would tell the next crop of promising talent about the villa. The rent was steep, between $1,650 and $3,000 a month for one bedroom with a sitting area and private bath. There were common areas, including a living room, a large flagstone patio, and manicured grounds, as well as a shared kitchen. “It was filled with successful people who were very ambitious,” says comedian and character actor Taylor Negron, a former tenant. “Everybody worked their ass off to get there—and they had to keep working their ass off.”

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Belushi. Farley. Ledger. Monteith. We’ve read about what happened the following day—maybe after a night partying with friends. They fell asleep and never woke up. Maybe they were alone in their room and mixed too many chemicals. There were warning signs, those close to them would later say, and rehab didn’t take. The most talented people on the planet can seem hell-bent on being their own worst enemy. But Lewis was not a hard partyer. Friends describe him as “intoxicating,” not intoxicated. He was more likely to drink tea and play chess until three in the morning than slam shots or pop pills. “That’s what made Johnny special,” says actor and longtime friend Jonathan Tucker. “No drugs. No alcohol. Just poetry and philosophy.”

As a native Angeleno, Lewis was unique among the usual transplants who lived at the villa. The middle child of Michael and Divona Lewis, Johnny grew up in a Jewish-oriented household in North Hollywood and Sherman Oaks. His family also practiced Scientology. His parents attained what is known within the religion as the highest available level, “Operating Thetan,” or OT VIII. An OT VIII, according to the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, refers to someone in a spiritual state who offers “knowing and willing cause over life, thought, matter, energy, space, and time.”

Johnny’s mother began taking her son on auditions when he was six. He was cast in his first role at seven, a bit part in an escalator safety video featuring a rapping cartoon raccoon. He worked in commercials, including a Pizza Hut spot, and his bright smile and solid acting chops scored him appearances on 7th Heaven, Malcolm in the Middle, and Drake & Josh. At 18, with money in his pocket, Lewis left his parents’ home in the Valley and moved to Hollywood, where he lived with other actors in what was widely known in the entertainment industry as the “Wilton Hilton.” “It was the frat row of young Hollywood,” says director Doug Usher, one of Lewis’s best friends, who lived there with the young actor and future stars like Adam Brody, Bret Harrison, and Ashlee Simpson.

In the mid-2000s, Lewis began dating a fledgling pop singer named Katy Perry. The son of high-level Scientologists and the daughter of strict Pentecostal Christians gravitated to each other. His Joker-like smile and just-fell-out-of-bed style counterbalanced Perry’s teenybopper image. The romance would be short-lived but potent—at least for Perry. Two songs off her Teenage Dream album, “The One That Got Away” and “Circle the Drain,” are rumored to be partly about Lewis.

The actor’s choice of roles was eclectic. After The O.C. and other TV shows, Lewis appeared in a one-off play and such indie fare as 2007’s Palo Alto, CA, in which he played an awkward teenager. “He was incredibly talented,” says his friend Usher, who edited Lewis’s demo reels throughout his career. “He was loved by everybody. He merged with different groups really easily. He fit in everywhere.”

Everywhere except the show that made him famous. Sons of Anarchy, which just finished its sixth season, is not only popular with viewers, it’s a critical success. After two seasons as Half-Sack, however, Lewis became restless and asked to be written out of the show. “Johnny wasn’t happy,” said series creator Sutter in a 2009 interview about Lewis’s departure. “Creatively he really wanted out of his contract.”

“He told us he left because the show was getting into gratuitous violence,” says his father, Michael Lewis. “He didn’t want to communicate that as an artist.” After leaving Sons, Lewis would never return to television. Instead he appeared in a couple of low-budget features and some short films, though he was more interested in living off his Sons money while he finished writing his first novel, about a young musical genius making his way in San Francisco.

In the summer of 2009, Lewis learned that his new girlfriend, actress Diane Marshall-Green, was pregnant. Lewis was thrilled. On April 6, 2010, Marshall-Green gave birth to a girl, Culla May. “We had a beautiful baby shower,” says Usher. “It should have been a great thing.” Though no longer romantically involved, the couple settled into an apartment in Hollywood to raise their child together. The arrangement, however, didn’t work, and Lewis moved out. He soon found himself embroiled in what would be a long and painful custody battle, one that he would eventually lose.

In late October 2011, Lewis lost control of his Triumph motorcycle near Twentynine Palms. At the hospital the staff checked him for signs of a concussion, but he was allowed to leave after tests came back negative. Michael Lewis, however, noticed that his son’s behavior was becoming erratic and bizarre. Had the accident shaken something loose in his brain? he wondered. The elder Lewis scheduled two MRIs, which Johnny refused to undergo. Friends picked up on Lewis’s change in behavior, too. During an acting class in December, he kept speaking in a vaguely British accent. “I asked him about it because I was confused,” Tucker says, “but he shrugged it off.” By the new year Lewis’s behavior would turn from curious to dangerous.

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Cathy Davis, the beloved owner of the Writers’ Villa. Johnny Lewis was living in one of the villa’s suites when he killed her in 2012.

On the morning of January 3, 2012, Lewis was lounging in the Northridge condo he had bought for his parents, watching his mother cook omelettes. Clad in pajama bottoms and a T-shirt, he announced he was going out for a stroll. As he walked past a neighboring unit, he thought he heard cries of distress and broke in. But the place was empty. Not long after, two men arrived and asked him to leave. Lewis went after them with an empty Perrier bottle, striking each on the head. A fight ensued, spilling out onto the patio. Lewis bit one of the men on the arm while attempting to flee. He was overpowered and detained until the police arrived.

Lewis claimed he was acting in self-defense. Police charged him with trespassing, burglary, and assault with a deadly weapon, and he was sent to the Twin Towers jail. Three days later his behavior landed him in the psychiatric ward as a “5150”—code for involuntary confinement. He remained there for 72 hours. When Lewis’ father bailed him out, his discharge summary read: “Chief Complaint: Blunt Head Trauma and Suicidal.”

After a total of eight days behind bars, Lewis returned to his parents’ house in Northridge. He was a physical and mental wreck. His face was puffy, and he sported two black eyes. “He looked like a wounded, broken animal,” recalls his older sister, Anna. He acted like one, too. He wouldn’t let anyone touch him or even get near him. He was acutely sensitive to light and began turning off all the lights in the house, eventually disabling the fuse box.

The following weeks were a blur of self-destructive activity, including slashing his wrists in a suicide attempt. Michael and a network of family and friends kept a close eye on him. By the end of January, Lewis seemed more stable, and his father decided to let him live on his own in Santa Monica. Trouble started again immediately. On February 10 Lewis was arrested for coldcocking a man outside a yogurt shop. He was released on $20,000 bail. Days later he walked—fully clothed—into the ocean in Santa Monica and was hospitalized for hypothermia. On February 18 he was arrested again, this time for trying to break into a woman’s apartment in Santa Monica (he said he thought it was his friend’s place). Again he was released on bail.

As his legal woes grew, Lewis’s condition worsened. In May 2012, Tucker picked up his friend for one of his many court appearances and was unsettled by the change in his demeanor. “It was another person completely,” he says. “He had a look I’ve only seen in disturbed veterans of war. His memory was scattered. He vacillated between basic lucid conversation and incoherence.”

Doctors prescribed Lewis the drugs Zyprexa and Abilify, both of which are used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But he resisted taking any medication and may have “cheeked” the pills—hiding them inside his mouth, pretending to swallow, then spitting them out. Part of the problem, according to his father, was that Lewis had yet to receive a clear diagnosis. Was he bipolar, psychotic, or as his father believes, suffering from traumatic brain injury? “We got the motorcycle head injury, then he’s beaten in the head 17 times [during the Northridge break-in],” Michael says. “Then when he’s in jail, he is pounding his own head against the concrete and attempting to leap from the second-story pier. Then you have the doctor’s own diagnosis of brain trauma. And that’s just the stuff we know about.”

A cameraman records the crime scene, including Lewis’s blood on the driveway,. Photograph by Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo

Head trauma can trigger behavioral changes, says Christopher Giza, M.D., a pediatric neurologist and neuroscientist at the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center. “Some areas of the brain are particularly prone to traumatic brain injury. If you have an injury in the frontal lobes, you can have significant changes in behavior—irritability, impulse control problems, and at the extreme end, violent outbursts.” But Lewis was neither diagnosed with nor treated for severe head trauma, and the symptoms his father describes after the October 2011 motorcycle accident (headaches, sensitivity to light) are indicative of a mild injury, such as a concussion, says Giza, which wouldn’t trigger aggressive behavior.

Lewis’s lawyer was working to persuade the courts to allow Lewis to swap jail time for a stay in a treatment center. While incarcerated, however, Lewis didn’t appear to have a substance-abuse problem. “I did a lot of drug seeking in that place,” says Tim Woodhead, a 26-year-old former inmate who became friends with Lewis in Twin Towers. “There were a lot of opportunities that he turned down multiple times.”

On May 23, 2012, after two months in lockup, Lewis was transported to Ridge-view Ranch in the foothills of Altadena. With an activities list that includes equine therapy, yoga, meditation, and art therapy, Ridgeview calls itself a “dual diagnosis” facility, treating residents for psychosis and substance abuse. His family believed his staying there was better than being in jail.

Lewis revealed as much in an e-mail sent to Tucker and other friends—who shared it with Lewis’s father—on June 12, 2012: “The core of the story is that I was involved in a fight; my actions were self-defense but my means were a glass bottle—after a few court dates, a stint in county jail and the realization that there is no self-defense law in California I am back on my feet and doing well. The court case is still on-going, but from what we’re hearing it has every good chance of getting dropped outright or disappearing with time-served…” At the end was a postscript that read, “On a side note, we are pleading rehab to avoid trial (‘addicted to marijuana’ what a trip...).”

At Ridgeview Lewis’s claims of being “addicted to marijuana” didn’t fly with the trained counselors and fellow addicts, says Michael, “so he switched and pretended to be addicted to alcohol—‘that demon rum, man, it possessed me!’ At that point he said they started to believe him.”

Despite the questionable diagnosis and treatment for a disease he didn’t believe he had, Lewis’s mental state began to improve after a few months. In one of his final journal entries, from July 2012, Lewis wrote, “Felt more whole today...more complete, like parts of myself had been stolen in my sleep and scattered all over the world and now they’ve begun to return.... I’m more determined than ever now. I’ll face what I am. I’ll face what I was.”

What he was facing was serious time for the Northridge bottle assault. His lawyer sought a deal: Lewis would spend an entire year at Ridgeview in lieu of jail. But Lewis was so confident his case would be dropped—It was self-defense!—he fired his lawyer, defiantly acting as his own attorney, which Judge Cynthia Ulfig allowed. Lewis figured he would spend a few days in jail, then resume normal life. No more curfews and mandatory group sessions at Ridge-view; he would be free.

Instead he was sentenced to a year in jail and hauled back to Twin Towers. But because of the county’s overcrowded jails, Lewis’s sentence was drastically reduced. He spent a total of six weeks in jail before being released on September 21. The night he got out, he checked into the Los Feliz Hotel in Atwater Village. The following Sunday his father helped him shop for new clothes before driving him to the Valley to pick up his Triumph. Lewis asked his father to contact the Writers’ Villa to see if there was a space available. Since his son wasn’t agreeable to returning to Ridgeview, Michael believed the quiet and peaceful surroundings of the villa would be the next best thing. “It didn’t occur to me to say, ‘Oh, by the way, he was having problems,’ ” he says. “I thought, ‘This is a place he was familiar with, and they will give him a lot of love.’ ” Cathy Davis made sure his old room would be ready and waiting for him.

On Monday Lewis moved into his room on the second floor of the villa. Michael called the following day to check in on his son. Johnny answered agitatedly, “I’m busy, what do you want?” He eventually calmed down and told his father they would talk later. It was the last time Michael Lewis spoke to his son.

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Lewis as Half-Sack in a scene from the FX series Sons of Anarchy

As the police pulled up to the Writers’ Villa, they spotted Johnny Lewis in the middle of the driveway, lying faceup and lifeless. Looking at the villa, they saw a patio and a roof, which rose about 15 feet above the ground. They noted that Lewis’s left eye socket was caved in. His skull was smashed just to the left of center. He had plunged from either the second floor or the roof and died instantly.

Inside, the scene was even more gruesome. Walking upstairs from the first floor, which was pristine, investigators had to step over broken glass before entering a large bedroom in the southwest corner, Lewis’s room. There they found a rusty hammer with traces of blood on it. Following the trail of destruction to the attached bathroom, they discovered the body of a dead cat in the shower covered in blood, its skull bashed in.

Across the hall from Lewis’s room was the master bedroom—Cathy Davis’s room. There was blood on her bed frame, wall, table, and chair. On the floor next to the bed lay her body. The blunt-force trauma to her head “fractured her entire skull and obliterated the left side of her face, leaving her brain exposed,” wrote Coroner’s Office medical examiner Kelli Blanchard in her report. “Brain and tissue matter seen on the floor around her. Her face is covered in blood. Her nose is split down the middle and her upper jaw is split open.” There were also four small puncture wounds on her left cheek, presumably from a mechanical pencil found beside the body. The official report, released two months later, revealed that Davis had been killed by blunt-force trauma to the head.

Investigators believe that just minutes after he had introduced himself to Blackburn, Lewis went back to the villa and confronted Davis in her room. No one knows what fueled his rage, but one rumor floated among Davis’s friends was that he had gone to the fuse box and turned off the electricity the night before the attack; Davis had confronted him and given him a stern warning to never do that again. Whatever the reason—if there is one—the results were unthinkable. Lewis had punched Davis several times, then strangled her with his bare hands. It was unclear whether he’d used the hammer found in his room on Davis, but the force of his beatings was so severe that the investigators believe Lewis may have stomped on Davis’s skull. He then killed her cat and left it in the shower.

Moments later, investigators believe, Lewis went outside and attacked the housepainter and Blackburn before his “Spider-Man” climb back into the villa. He then ascended to either the upper patio or the roof. It’s unclear whether he jumped or slipped. His death was officially ruled an accident, not a suicide.

As the news broke, a theory quickly emerged on the Internet: Lewis had been on “bath salts,” an illegally manufactured designer drug often containing an amphetamine-like chemical called methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV. The use of bath salts had made headlines in the spring. The snortable and injectable powder was reportedly the catalyst for a handful of grisly attacks around the country, including one by the notorious 31-year-old Florida “cannibal,” who was shot by police while biting and “devouring” the face of another man in the middle of a busy street. The New York Daily News also threw out the possibility of another designer drug called “Smiles”—a psychedelic phenethylamine ingested as a pill, powder, or mixed with chocolate—that had been linked to a series of suicides and overdoses. But Lewis’s toxicology report, which came back two months after the incident, indicated that there were no drugs or alcohol in his system. No bath salts, meth, or cocaine—or his prescribed antipsychotic medication.

The toxicology report was a disappointment. If it wasn’t drugs, what drove Johnny Lewis to murder? Critics of Scientology have pointed to the church’s resistance to psychiatry as a possible reason why Lewis’s early behavioral issues may have been untreated. Lewis’s father discounts that assumption, claiming that he pursued and encouraged psychiatric treatment for his son. It was Johnny who refused to comply.

Those who were once close to Lewis expressed their grief. Us Weekly reported that Katy Perry was “devastated,” and that her best friend, actress Shannon Woodward, tweeted: “Johnny Lewis, I love you deeply and madly and always. My heart is broken in a million little pieces.” She then added: “Johnny Lewis was one of my best friends. He was very, very ill. His actions were a despicable result of that. It was not who he was.”

Among the 140-character condolences, one connection flatly admitted he wasn’t surprised by Lewis’s homicidal frenzy: his former boss, Kurt Sutter. His tweet read, “i wish i could say that i was shocked by the events last night, but i was not.”

On October 7, 2012, Lewis’s friends held a memorial service in Hollywood. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t be more there for you, that I couldn’t save you from pain,” Beau Garrett said before hundreds of friends who gathered at the Moth Theatre. “Some of us are built with the tools to survive this world, and some of us are not.”

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The actor with onetime girlfriend Katy Perry in the mid-2000s . Photograph by John Shearer/Wire Image for Brent Bolthouse Productions

From the outside the Writers’ Villa today looks exactly as it did before the events of September 26, 2012. The grounds are meticulously landscaped. The bloodstains on the driveway are long gone. But the future of the villa is in flux. Davis’s daughter, Margaret Leslie Davis, originally thought of selling the home, though she’s now considering keeping it. The Writers’ Villa Web site that once offered a “rambling Spanish home in Los Angeles, set up for creative people” is offline. The glory days are over.

But like any actor who manages to get some screen time, Johnny Lewis lives forever. Take his performance in Criminal Minds, which you can find on YouTube. In a ratty gray T-shirt, with his hair disheveled and a wispy beard creeping across his jawline, the 25-year-old is playing a serial killer who’s just been caught. An FBI special agent (Joe Mantegna) wants some answers: Why, he asks Lewis’s character, do you feel compelled to kill?

“Why? I have no idea why,” says Lewis with a wan grimace. “I see a guy walking down the street with a stupid look on his face, and I want to bash him over the head with a bottle. To me, that’s normal. It’s weird to me that no one else feels that way. It’s all I think about. I can’t stop.”

Of course no one would ever suggest that Lewis was anything like a made-up television character. But for those close to him, differentiating fantasy from reality is a continuous struggle. “My wife and I do not believe the allegations. He was a peaceful person,” his father says. “I keep expecting a phone call from him asking me to pick him up from the airport, that he’s sorry for what he put us through, and that it was all just an acting exercise to get him ready for some thriller movie where everyone thinks he’s dead but he really isn’t.”

Bill Jensen is a freelance writer based in Phoenix, Arizona, whose articles have appeared in the Village Voice, Miami New Times, and the Long Island Press. This is his first story for Los Angeles magazine.


This feature originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine. It has been updated to reflect a correction. We reported that Michael Lewis had an association with L. Ron Hubbard. The two have never met.

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  • 12
  1. Glenn Langohr posted on 01/30/2014 04:43 PM
    Great article.
    1. Aiya posted on 01/31/2014 03:38 PM
  2. Marc Headley posted on 01/31/2014 11:44 AM
    I worked at the HQ of scientology and shot an entire film with Johnny when he was younger. He was brilliant and always the greatest kid on set. The film took place on an alien planet and Johnny learned an entire alien language to shoot the film. He must have been a teenager when we shot the film, but he was very mature for his age. Ironically the film also starred the late Isaac Hayes who was also involved with Scientology.

    It is very sad to hear about what happened to Johnny. I know for a fact that him being involved with Scientology did not help this at all. I worked in Scientology for 15 years and Johnny is one of hundreds of accidental deaths and suspicious circumstances surrounding scientologists. There are enough that I am sure someone has made list somewhere.

    Based on how few scientologists are out there, statistically their death rates are very high. Stay away if you value your life and those around you.

    RIP Johnny.
  3. Skip Press posted on 02/02/2014 05:36 AM
    Michael & Divona Lewis have a Jewish household and ALSO do $cientology? Where did you get that? He's a nutball hard-core $cientologist and the cult was a major part of Johnny's problem. http://www.valleylifeimprovementcenter.com/
  4. Michelle posted on 02/02/2014 09:16 AM
    In these situations, there is always a need to try to find some explanation or someone to blame. Unfortunately, sometimes there is no explanation other than severe mental illness, which does not discriminate between talented people from good homes, and everyone else. A good friend of mine from high school is lost to us now because of schizophrenia that onset when he was in his mid-20s. It is extremely terrifying to watch a happy, warm, functional person descend into the worst kind of paranoia and hallucinations, violent behavior, chronic unemployment and homelessness, and an inability to care for themselves in the most basic ways. My friend is currently homeless and we only have a vague idea of where he is at any given time, thanks to rambling, frightening updates he infrequently posts to his Facebook page. He has been in and out of both jail and mental institutions for years. He will not take his prescribed medication; he can only be medicated when he is restrained and injections are administered. While nothing excuses what Lewis did to others, something obviously went very wrong with this young man's brain. I did not realize this until my friend was diagnosed, but schizophrenia can appear almost without warning, in people who have previously been completely functional, in cases where there is no family history of mental illness. My heart goes out to Johnny's family and friends. They lost him twice - once to the illness, and again when he died.
  5. david posted on 02/05/2014 08:58 AM
    It's incredibly nauseating to read this article when the slideshow makes the page moved up and down repeatedly. I'd like to finish it, but am unable to look past this.
  6. Stephanie Carter posted on 02/05/2014 07:13 PM
    Wow. What a strong, riveting, and tragic story for a first piece for La Mag. Looking forward to more from this writer...
  7. Michael Lewis posted on 02/23/2014 12:31 PM
    My family and I are grateful for the hundreds of messages of support and the outpouring of love for our son that have come to us, by various means, from friends and strangers around the world. He and his artistry still touch the lives of many. My intention in consenting to being interviewed for this article was to bring to the conversation the point of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) as a factor in Johnny's final year. A high-speed motorcycle accident accompanied by head trauma in October of 2011. Pounded at full-force seventeen times in the face and head by a man twice his size on January 3rd 2012. Repeated blows to the head while incarcerated that same month, followed by a fall (deliberate? accidental?) from the second tier of Twin Towers. These are not light things. He was diagnosed (but not treated) on his release January 11th by the prison medical staff as suffering from "ecchymosis" ( internal brain hemorrhage). This is not a mental, but a physical factor, and is, what I believe, a major factor in his decline. Drugs were never a factor. Though he had experimented with drugs previously and had a prescription for medical marijuana, he never, not once, to our knowledge, ever tested positive for drugs during that final year. His past and present religious beliefs, despite the prejudices of others, were never a factor. And mental illness, despite the best efforts of psychiatrists, lawyers, judges and well-meaning friends and relatives, was not a factor. He didn't "suddenly go crazy" after his motorcycle accident, after never having been crazy before. He didn't suddenly develop a sensitivity to light, unfocused eyes, illogical thinking and behavior due to some mysterious coincident conspiracy of genes and chemical inbalances suddenly coming to fruition. TBI is, as has since been pointed out to me by others who have personally suffered its effects, either themselves or through a loved one, is a 'walking illness." There are often no physical signs betraying its presence. The individual simply looks and acts crazy, prompting observers, professionals and non-professionals alike, to make the illogical leap to "mental illness," or "drugs," or whatever prejudice they would like to insert in the blank space. The article, I hoped, would stimulate a more in-depth and intelligent conversation along the lines of recognizing TBI as a possible factor in many otherwise unexplained deaths and crimes. I notice that executives in pro football and baseball, for instance, have awakened to the long and short-term effects of concussion and brain injury, and have taken steps to ensure the safety of their players. The biggest barrier to learning is the idea that one already knows. As I mentioned to the editor and the writer as they were readying the piece for publication, it's my hope that, with this conversation on the table, enough people will realize that there is something more to know, and that lives will be saved.
    1. Yorick posted on 03/17/2014 02:48 PM
      @Michael Lewis Thank you Mr Lewis. I also think a debate should range on this topic. But maybe, in your extensive contact with the writer and editors, you could have also spared a word of sympathy or regret for Cathy Davis and her relatives? Your son must have suffered terribly. I find that horrible. But so did she whose house you placed your mentally unstable child in. It might be worth a second of silent reflection...
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