Police have a suspect in the "targeted" killing of East Palo Alto drug-intervention leader David Lewis, as well as a description of a vehicle at the Hillsdale Mall when Lewis was fatally shot in the back, according to sources.
East Palo Alto and San Mateo police have scheduled a press conference for 11:30 a.m. today to provide additional information about the case.
Close friends of Lewis, 54, of East Palo Alto, said there could be no reason for his killing except for the greed of drug dealers who are possibly angered by his success in getting people off the streets -- affecting their incomes.
Lewis was highly successful in getting people off drugs and that means less money for dealers, friends said.
Lewis was shot and killed in the parking lot of San Mateo's Hillsdale Shopping Center Wednesday in what police described as a "targeted" killing.
He had long been active in drug intervention programs and services for released prisoners. He co-founded the "Free at Last" program in the early 1990s and received national recognition for his efforts.
"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.
Taylor, a receptionist at the Palo Alto Weekly, said she did not know why anyone would target Lewis, except perhaps because he had been successful in getting drugs off the streets.
"Is it because things are so bad now? Is it because he was messing with their money? Getting people off the street -- that means the money stops circulating. That's the reality, though. If greed is getting to that level, it's the end of the world," Taylor said.
Lewis was shot once in the back at about 5:40 p.m. Wednesday in the west parking lot of the mall, 60 31st St., according to police. He appears to have been targeted and that it was not a random killing, police said.
He was taken by ambulance to a local trauma center, where he died, police reported. Officers arrived on the scene within minutes of the shooting but were initially unable to find a suspect.
Police cordoned off a crime scene in the parking lot, but business inside the mall was not disrupted.
According to reports, police have a suspect. Witnesses were at the scene and provided a description of the car.
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 remembers thinking about his four children, wondering what was happening to them. He also recalls 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. These days, he's chairman of the board of Free at Last, a drug treatment center in East Palo Alto.
When he's not attending to board duties, he works as an HIV and substance abuse counselor. He travels 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."