As can happen, a dispute over family land had soured relations between Rusty Lewis and his 78-year-old father, James. Just how bad did it get?
Early one morning, having awakened to find a man standing at the foot of his bed, Rusty Lewis found out.
“This is for you,” James Lewis said, raising an antique pistol and firing two rounds — one into his son’s arm, the other glancing off his forehead.
The shooting, which Rusty Lewis survived, and the relationship between the two men was the subject of a wild trial that played out last week in Montgomery County and ended with James Lewis’s conviction for attempted first-degree murder. “My dad shot me in my arm and my head,” the son said in a 911 call that was played for the jury.
James Lewis is now 80, his health in decline. He sat slumped in a wheelchair during the trial, holding his left hand to his chin and forehead, sometimes taking notes with his right hand and showing them to his attorney. He is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 11 and faces a possible life sentence.
At his trial, prosecutors laid out the plan James Lewis followed: He climbed into his pickup truck in Robertsdale, Pa., drove 130 miles, parked in a church lot near his son’s home, placed red plastic bags over the license plates, walked a short distance to the house, used a key to slip inside, took off his shoes, walked up the stairs, approached his son’s bed and fired the gun.
“This is a man who is very angry,” prosecutor Sherri Koch said in her closing argument, using the present tense to talk jurors through the Sept. 20, 2011, incident. “This is a man who wanted that property.”
James Russell Lewis was born on June 19, 1933, in Washington, D.C., according to court records in the case. He was raised in Maryland and graduated from Hyattsville High School before enlisting in the Air Force and serving during the Korean War. He went on to become an electrician and married three times, having met his current wife, Ruth, while participating in a Hyattsville bowling league.
James and Ruth Lewis moved to Florida in 1980 and, about 20 years later, made plans to return to Maryland to build a home on family property at 350 Ednor Road, in eastern Montgomery County about 10 miles north of the Capital Beltway. But James’s mother stepped in and said he could not build on the land, according to a court filing.
“This was one of the many bizarre events that is part of a long-time family dispute,” a onetime attorney for James Lewis, Thomas Murphy, wrote in court papers.
James Lewis changed his plans, moving to Pennsylvania with Ruth. Several years ago, he learned that his mother — 92 at the time — gave the Ednor Road property to Rusty Lewis. The generational skip did not sit well with James.
At one point, he appeared at the home, pulling into the driveway. A pistol was clearly visible on the console of his truck, according to trial testimony from his son.
“I said I wasn’t afraid of that gun,” Rusty Lewis said from the witness stand. “He told me then that I needed to fear him because I didn’t have a clue what he was capable of. But that was just like all his other things that he said that was just idle threats or whatever. I didn’t pay much attention to it.”
Rusty Lewis, 58, does insulation work at power plants and refineries. He testified that he allowed the church next door to use his land for summer camps. He said he and his dad had been “distant” since he was a boy.
Rusty Lewis slept in on the morning of Sept. 20, 2011, having gotten in late the night before from a family vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., he told jurors. He was still in bed at 9 a.m. when he heard a noise. Assuming it was an aunt who lived in the basement, he went back to sleep, waking up to his father’s words: “This is for you.”
After the two rounds, the younger Lewis attacked his father, wrestling the gun away and punching him in the head, he said. Scared that his father might have another gun — and thinking he might have a bullet lodged in his head — Rusty Lewis headed for the door, he testified.
Outside his home, Rusty called 911.
“James R. Lewis came into my house and he shot me two times and he’s laying in my living room right now,” Rusty Lewis said, clearly in pain.
The 911 operator said police were on the way and asked Rusty Lewis why his father would shoot him.
“He might have been fuming over this for a while,” Rusty said, moaning several times. “My grandmother gave me the property where you’re coming to, and he figured it was his.”
It took police a while to sort through what happened. Both Lewises were treated for their wounds — with doctors removing a bullet from Rusty’s arm.
That set off a lengthy prosecution. James Lewis pleaded guilty in the case in 2012 but withdrew that plea and was allowed to stand trial. He testified in his own defense, acknowledging that he had driven from Pennsylvania with his gun. But he said he did so to go to an auction and stop by the house to talk to his son, not shoot him.
With his sentencing set for next month, James Lewis’s future is unclear. He suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and a degenerative spine. As he said in court on May 14, 2012, “I don’t think I’ll last in jail.”