DA Pressured Lewis Heir To Wear Wire Prior To His Suicide, Lawsuit Claims

(February 25)  David Lewis, a third generation member of the Lewis Homes homebuilding and shopping center development dynasty, was driven to suicide in 2010 by pressure put on him by district attorney Mike Ramos to act as a cooperating witness against members of his family, according to a lawsuit filed by his widow and surviving son.
Lewis Operating Corporation and the Lewis Group of Companies today stand as two of the premier business operations in San Bernardino County. They are the corporate successors to Lewis Homes, which was founded in Claremont in 1955 by Ralph Lewis, an attorney, and his wife Goldy. Starting with small subdivisions, to which he had his wife devoted intense focus with regard to design and living space detail, Ralph Lewis gradually expanded the company’s operation to involve larger and larger development projects.
By the 1970s, Lewis Homes, which had relocated its corporate headquarters to Upland, had grown to become one of Southern California’s major homebuilders. In the 1980s, the company became known for its large master planned developments, involving specific plans that included homes, retail centers, schools and parks. By 1990, Lewis Homes was the single largest homebuilder in the western San Bernardino County cities of Ontario, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana, and the torch had been passed to the second generation of the Lewis family – sons Richard, Randall, Robert and Roger –  who guided the company’s scope of operations beyond California to Nevada, Arizona and Utah and transformed the paradigm of Lewis Homes to include an array of partnerships and ventures falling under the umbrella of the Lewis Group of Companies. Now in its 59th year, the Lewis juggernaut has completed the development of 56,000 homes, 10,000 apartments and 14 million square feet of retail, office, and industrial space.
With the march of time, two members among the third generation of the Lewis Family were stepping into the shoes of their forebears, David Lewis and Jennifer Lewis, the son and daughter of Richard Lewis. Jennifer, with a bachelor’s degree in urban and regional planning and development from the University of Southern California, was involved in the planning of new development projects.
David, who graduated cum laude with a B.A. in business economics and accounting from UCLA and went on to obtain a masters degree in real estate development with a specialization in finance and construction management from the University of Southern California,  had acceded to become the executive vice president of the Lewis Group of Companies, overseeing both land acquisition and obtaining building entitlements in Nevada and Southern California.  He had also worked closely with his uncle Randall on the marketing of the company’s various proposed and completed projects, such as in March 2009, when the two made a presentation to the Rancho Cucamonga City Council relating to a proposal by a consortium the company had formed with several other developers known as  Rancho Partners with regard to that group’s plans to acquire 1,400 acres of surplus flood control district property within and straddling Rancho Cucamonga’s city limits and subdivide it for both residential and commercial use.
By 2008, David Lewis was at the seeming pinnacle of success and was being groomed as the heir apparent to succeed his father as the head of the company. Along the way, he was elected to the board of directors of the Baldy View Chapter of the Building Industry Association, was a member of the Urban Land Institute, a member of the National Association of Office and Industrial Properties, as well as a member of USC’s Graduate Real Estate Association.
Married and with a young son he had named after his grandfather Ralph, David was working in large part out of the company office in Las Vegas where he had established a second home, though he continued to have a role in pursuing business for the company elsewhere.
Sometime in 2009, however, his life took a sharp turn downward, subjecting him to heretofore unimaginable and, apparently unbearable, pressure. That pressure included an intensifying battle with drug addiction, pending criminal charges and the attempts by law enforcement to subjugate him into a role of informant against friends and acquaintances, politicians with whom his business dealings had brought him into contact, others in the building industry, and, worse still, members of his own family.
While the precise set of circumstances that led David Lewis into the depth of despair have long been shrouded, that fog has now begun to lift.
What is established is that on June 22, 2010, he returned to his Las Vegas Vegas home and, according to the Las Vegas Metro Police, used a shotgun to kill himself.
The Clark County Coroner’s Office ruled the death a suicide.
On July 11, 2011, Lewis’ widow Rachel and son Ralph Lewis filed a lawsuit in San Bernardino County Superior Court naming the county of San Bernardino, state of California Highway Patrol, San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos, a State Highway Patrol officer identified only by his last name, Bissett, and three San Bernardino County sheriff’s department employees.
Rachel and Ralph Lewis are represented in the suit by New York-based attorney Paul L. Mills.
According to the lawsuit, between June 6, 2010 and ending on June 22, 2010, Lewis “undertook a series of actions whose combined goal and intention was to commit suicide. During this period he (Lewis) was subjected to coercion by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, defendant District Attorney Mike Ramos and other San Bernardino County employees, against decedent, to cooperate in an investigation of his family, including by wearing a concealed electronic recording device and other actions, when these defendants knew or should have known that, due to his vulnerable mental condition, this coercion was reasonably likely to cause decedent substantial or permanent mental injury, or cause him to take his own life.”
The complaint highlights the fact that Lewis was arrested the day prior to his death. On June 21, 2010, Lewis was pulled-over by a CHP Officer on Interstate 15, and subsequently arrested for being under the influence of drugs. Several hours later, Lewis was released from the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.
The complaint states that approximately 12 hours after his arrest, at or about 11:00 a.m., Lewis killed himself.
The lawsuit contends that the Lewis family was, at the time of Lewis’ suicide, under investigation by the San Bernardino County District Attorney.
During the last seven to eight months of his life, there were indicators that David Lewis was working with either the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office or another prosecutorial or investigative agency,  meeting with or phoning witnesses and criminal suspects and their associates, seeking information and statements that would be of use in constructing any of a number of public corruption cases. The district attorney’s office has not confirmed or denied that Lewis was acting in any such capacity.
Some public officials were completely unsuspecting of Lewis. Others grew wary of him and his approaches. It is unknown what information he may have been successful in garnering. With his passing, he will not be available to testify against anyone, though it is conceivable that audio recordings made of conversations he had with various individuals might yet be produced as evidence against some targets of those investigations where criminal charges have already been filed. The three-year statute of limitations has elapsed against any targets not already charged.
Rancho Cucamonga city councilman Rex Gutierrez, who was charged by the district attorney’s office and subsequently convicted of theft, fraud and conspiracy for working on personal and politically-related issues while employed at the county assessor’s office, told the Sentinel in an article published on July 9, 2010 and before his conviction in 2010 that he considered David Lewis, with whom he had become acquainted over the previous  several years, something of a friend. But they were not overly close, Gutierrez said. Early in 2010, Lewis evinced an increased interest in speaking and meeting with him, Gutierrez reported. The timing of this coincided with Gutierrez’s progress toward trial on the charges of which he was eventually convicted and which were filed against him in 2009. The first trial held on the matter ended in a mistrial on June 30, 2010, eight days after Lewis’s death. Gutierrez was convicted at a second trial in October 2010.
The district attorney’s case consisted of allegations that Gutierrez had voted favorably as a Rancho Cucamonga city councilman on projects by developer Jeff Burum and that Burum had essentially rewarded or bribed Gutierrez by interceding with then-county assessor Bill Postmus, to whom Burum had delivered over $400,000 in political contributions, to hire Gutierrez into a no-work assignment at the assessor’s office. After a two week trial and less than three days of deliberations, the jury deadlocked.
In the  weeks and months before the trial, David Lewis made repeated contact with Gutierrez, inquiring about how the preparation for his trial was going and other issues involving Burum.
“I felt it was amazing how he would call me so often and ask questions about the Colonies and my involvement with Jeff Burum. I didn’t think about it at the time, but in retrospect I think it is conceivable he was looking for information that might have been of use in my prosecution or in a case the district attorney’s office wants to make against Jeff Burum. I really didn’t get too deep into it with him. I pretty much told him I didn’t think Jeff had done anything illegal and said I didn’t know of anything inappropriate that went on.”
Gutierrez’s reference to the Colonies is to The Colonies at San Antonio project, which was undertaken by a company co-managed by Burum, the Colonies Partners. In 2002 the Colonies Partners sued the county over flood control issues at the Colonies project, located in northeastern Upland and in 2006, that lawsuit was resolved by a controversial 3-2 vote of the board of supervisors to confer a $102 million settlement on the Colonies Partners. That vote was supported by then-supervisor Bill Postmus, and supervisors Gary Ovitt and Paul Biane. The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office and the California Attorney General’s Office indicted Postmus and Jim Erwin, a former president of the San Bernardino County sheriff’s  deputies union who served as a consultant to the Colonies Partners during their efforts to settle their lawsuit against the county and who was later hired by Postmus as assistant assessor, charging them with involvement in an extortion, bribery and conspiracy scheme in connection with the $102 million settlement and Burum’s provision of four separate $100,000 contributions to political action committees controlled by Postmus and Erwin, as well as Paul Biane, and Mark Kirk, Ovitt’s then-chief of staff. Postmus subsequently pleaded guilty to all charges against him and turned state’s evidence. A superseding indictment named Erwin, Burum, Biane and Kirk, charging them with bribery and conspiracy in relation to the settlement.
In the earlier referenced July  9, 2010 Sentinel article, Erwin said that the month before the original February 2010 criminal indictment was handed down he received a call out of the blue from David Lewis. The call was both unexpected and unwelcome, Erwin said, in that there was no particular affection between him and Lewis and indeed some small degree of tension in their relationship, in that his affiliation with Burum and his company, which to a certain extent has had a historical rivalry with the Lewis Group of Companies, put him at odds with Lewis.
“He told me he had some Lakers tickets and that he would send a limousine out to pick me up so we could go to the game together,” Erwin said. “I didn’t really consider him to be a friend or even an acquaintance. I didn’t think it was a good idea. It occurred to me, and seemed more likely, that he would be wearing a wire. I mean, this phone call came out of nowhere. I politely told him, ‘No, thanks.’ It’s one thing to go out on the town with someone for a fun evening,  but something again when they are trying to record you.”
David Lewis on multiple occasions over the last six months of his life was witnessed in the company of Upland Mayor John Pomierski, who, was eventually, in March 2011, indicted by a federal grand jury on political corruption charges involving, bribery, extortion and money laundering. He subsequently pleaded guilty and is now serving time in a federal penitentiary.
Lewis Homes, with its corporate headquarters in Upland, has historically been one of the major residential developers in the city.  The Lewis Operating Company and the Lewis Group of Companies and their principals had been major donors to Pomierski’s electioneering funds over the ten years he was in office.
Exactly what information was exchanged between Pomierski and young Lewis during their various huddling sessions is not publicly known. The exchanges, at the time they were taking place, were viewed simply by many as innocent social contacts between the up and coming developer and an established older, and more gregarious, political hand. Nevertheless, the FBI focus on potential political corruption involving Pomierski and reports that developers were being shaken down for kickbacks or having their projects and proposals benefited by upfront under the table payments made many developers doing business on the west end of San Bernardino County in general and in the City of Gracious Living in particular, very nervous.
David Lewis may have taken to his grave specific knowledge about any such kickbacks if indeed he ever had such knowledge at all.
The reason for Lewis’ apparent cooperation with law enforcement authorities is not entirely clear. For some time, his drug use was whispered about in rarified quarters of the community. His arrest by the CHP  gave credence to those subliminal suspicions. Such a proclivity, augmented by a sub rosa arrest, could have given the district attorney’s office or the FBI leverage with which to secure his cooperation in their investigations.
Perhaps of relevance is the possibility that he had either fear, or direct or indirect knowledge, of facts related to the FBI’s inquiry and where it might lead and was potentially personally caught up in the investigation into allegations of kickbacks and bribery involving developers and local elected officials.
In the lawsuit filed on behalf of his widow and son, however, the only reference to his acting as an informant is on behalf of the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, not the FBI or U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“There was a state-created danger as to the district attorney, because he [Mike Ramos] coerced the decedent into conduct that pushed him in his fragile condition of mental disability into becoming suicidal. This affirmative action left him in a worse condition and caused his death,” a filing made on December 1, 2011 in U.S. District Court states.
That filing came after the case was transferred on October 4, 2011, pursuant to a motion by the county, to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Eastern Division, due to the federal causes of action listed in the lawsuit.
In addition to claiming that Ramos and district attorneys’ office subjected David Lewis to psychological pressure that led to his suicide, the suit also propounds the theory that the CHP and the sheriff’s department acted with callous disregard to David Lewis’ safety and wellbeing because several items indicating he was suicidal were found in his car at the time of his arrest, including books about committing suicide and the use of a firearm, as well as containers of a prescription drug used for the treatment of a mental disability.
On December 14, 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips dismissed the civil rights claims, and remanded the case back to the state superior court to hear the wrongful death claim.
On January 9, 2012, Phillips’ decision was appealed by the Lewises.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on February 24 issued a decision denying the appeal and upholding Phillips, in effect returning the case to West Valley Superior Court for litigation regarding the wrongful death allegations minus the civil rights violations aspects contained in the complaint. The state court action had been stayed pending the ruling from the Ninth Circuit.
The Ninth Circuit ruled that despite David Lewis’s “erratic driving and materials in the car suggesting suicide,” there were insufficient grounds “to plausibly allege that an officer conducting a routine DUI arrest was deliberately indifferent to a suicidal arrestee.”
The Lewises have two weeks from February 24 to request another hearing before a circuit court judge panel or appeal the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and special damages against the county and state, and punitive and exemplary damages against the individual defendants.

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