Clarence Carter Lewis Jr., assistant manager of a Captol Hill Safeway food store, had a theory about hold-ups with which the police agree - do what you are told, and you do not get hurt.
So, on a June evening in 1976, when Mario Johnson, then 23 and armed with a handgun, ordered Lewis to open the store safe and cash drawer in the manager's office, Lewis opened them. And when Johnson ordered Lewis to lie on the floor with his face down, Lewis dropped to his $99[WORD ILLEGIBLE]$120 Then it happened.
$99[WORD ILLEGIBLE]: feel a thing. All I could hear was this loud ringing in my head . . . and I couldn't see. I was on a cloud, it was dark, nothing existed," Lewis, 30, said recently.
"I laid there . . . all sorts of thoughts went through my head. I saw my grandmother . . . she had died . . . she had raised me . . . then I heard people call me . . . Shank! Buddy! Clarence! Mr. Lewis! I heard them call, but I couldn't answer . . . I just felt if I reacted to the sounds I would just go out completely," he said. "Are you all right?" someone asked. Finally, Lewis said, he told them, "I think I've been shot."
Fear has kept Clarence Lewis out of Safeway stores since the night Mario Johnson fired a 32 caliber bullet into Lewis' head. Lewis lost 43 percent of his vision as a result of his injury. Bullet fragments are still in his head and a metal plate now covers the place where his skull was shattered.
Lewis, who had spent six years as an assistant manager at 10 different Safeway stores - many of them in them in the poorest areas of the city - now teaches at a Safeway training school for employes who work at store cash registers.
"I don't want to go back in the stores, ever," Lewis said.
During the days and nights he spent in Safeway stores, first as a part-time bagger while in high school, later arranging stock and then as assitant manager, Lewis said, he liked the work and enjoyed mingling with customers. It was a good job with good pay an benefits even though, at times, life in the stores could be rough, he said.
There were "little probems," he remembered, such as kids who ripped open cereal boxes, thieves who stole sacks of groceries and vandals who broke windows in the middle of the night.
And there were big problems, he said, such as the man who pulled out a gun when Lewis tried to convince him not to switch price labels on a package of meat.
"He told me if I said one more . . . word it would be my last word, so I didn't say anything else until he walked out," Lewis recalled.
And then there were the robberies, Lewis said, which became a routine.
Young robbers, would "come in and yell and shout and act nervous," and they made him worry, Lewis said. But th older, more professional ones seemed less of a risk, he said.
Lewis remembered one man who walked into a Safeway then at Second and K street NW and said "How you doing?" He asked for the sodas and then casually drew his hand from his coat pocket and displayed a silver gun.
"Oh, by the way," Lewis said the man told him "this is a robbery." With a snap of the man's fingers, the man's accomplices were in place, Lewis said.
"This guy was extremely calm," Lewis said. "I wasn't at all worried . . . this guy just knew what he was doing."
One night, at a different Safeway store, Lewis said he looked up from his paperwork and into the barrel of a rifle, held by a man with a white stocking pulled tight over his face.
"If you move, I'll lay you to rest right where you stan," Lewis remembered the man saying.
"I didn't move . . . I think that was . . . the first time I was actually scared," said Lewis, who spent 13 months as a machine gunner in the Marines in Vietnam.
Lewis said he once thought about quitting his job at Safeway in 1972 when James Taylor, manager of the chain's store on Bryan Place SE, was shot and killed in a robbery. Lewis, who worked in the dairy an frozen food department, was just outside the store when the shooting occurred.
"I was really upset about it," Lewis said, and he thought about going into computers or joining the police department. But his district manager convinced him to stay, Lewis said.
Besides, Lewis said, he thought at the time, "I've been very lucky all my life."
During the two years he remained at the Bryan Place store, Lewis rememberd, "Everytime you would look up you were getting robberd."
"We had guards, but the guards were not allowed to carry guns." Lewis said. The glass front of the store was bricked up so would be robbers could not look in, but holdups persisted, Lewis said.
For a moment, after he had recounted this story Lewis put his hand to his forehead and looked away.
"Why did I stay?" he said. "I don't know, I don't know, good company I guess. I figured it was life. I enjoy dealing with the public even though they sometimes create hassless . . . I enjoy straightening them out . . . I enjoyed my work, to be honest with you . . . "
"My mother and family all said, 'Buddy . . . why don't you get out of it?" he said. But he told them "all you have to do is do what they tell you, and you won't get hurt."
On June 12, 1976, Clarence Lewis was in his fifth day on the job as assistant manager at a Safeway at 522 7th St. SE. It was a Saturday, Lewis said, and he remembered wearing a sportcoat, as he did each Saturday, "to look professional . . ."
Just before 8 o'clock, Lewis said, he was at the cigarette machine and "when I looked up . . . there he was." It was Mario Johnson, Lewis said, and "one thing I could tell right away - this guy was shaky."
With the help of this first cousin, Michael Moore, Johnson had recruited James Arthur Lewis and Lewis' nephew, Ricky Ricardo Lewis, to carry out the robbery, according to assistant U.S. Attorney Steven D. Gordon. At Johnson's trial in D.C. Superior Court earlier this year, all three men testified against him, Gordon said.
According to their plan, Gordon said, Moore, who was unarmed, was to clean out the cash registers. Ricky Lewis, who carried an empty sawed-off shotgun and James Lewis, armed with a .22 caliber revolver, were to cover the front and back doors to the store.
Mario Johnson, armed with a .32 caliber revolver, was to take the manager and get the money from the store safe, Gordon said.
When it began, Clarence Lewis said, he did what he was told. When he reached into his pocket for the keys to the office door, however, Mario Hohnson suddenly grabbed his hand. Lewis again reached for the keys, but Lewis on the head with the gun.
Johnson suddenly grabbed his hand. Lewis managed to get the key out of his pocket, as he saw blood drip from his head to the floor.
In the manager's booth, Lewis opened the door to the safe - which he kept unlocked for just such occassions - and then opened the cash drawer.
"He told me to lay down on the floor, face down . . ." Lewis remembered. Then, Lewis was shot.
In the months that followed the shooting of Clarence Lewis, Safeway introduced new security measures in its stores, which police had described at the time as "an easy mark for armed robberies."
New safes were installed and could be opened only by guards from armored cars. Cameras, such as those used to photograph bank customers, were placed in the stores, and police surveillance was increased.
Not until about six months after the shooting, after his fear of blindness and the pain of recovery had subsided, did Lewis put his life together.
He now is an accomplished bowler, although he said he cannot see all the pins simultaneously because of his loss of sight. He has learned to ski and proudly displays to a visitor a custom-made, gray and red snow suit. Last April, he married a woman named Lillie. Lewis described her as "the one who pushed me on."
Although he has learned to deal with the partial loss of sight, fear has changed his life.
"I've said to myself 'I could go back in the stores,' but I don't know how I would react in another robbery . . . if somebody told me to lie down . . . Lewis said.
Mario Johnson was sentenced recently to serve a minimum of 10 years in prison, after a Superior Court jury found him guilty of armed robbery and assault with intent to kill while armed. The three men who were his accomplices also are in prison.
"He got off easy," said Clarence Lewis of Mario Johnson. "The fact that I'm alive is no doing of his . . . that was an act of God."