Facebook records indicate murder suspect was searching for a weapon
Published 9:16 pm Thursday, February 7, 2019
ST. JOSEPH — Just five days before his wife, Carla Lewis, was fatally shot, John Benton Lewis appeared to be looking to purchase a weapon.
During testimony that was presented Thursday, the court learned about a conversation Lewis had with Christopher Fulce on Facebook. Fulce was among those to testify on the third day of the trial in the Berrien County Courthouse in St. Joseph.
John is being charged with premeditated murder after Carla was fatally shot Aug. 13, 2017, at their home 1429 Lawndale Ave. in Niles Township.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Jerry Vigansky told the court that the Facebook messages were obtained with a search warrant. It was the first batch of many messages presented as evidence that day.
On Aug. 8 John wrote, “Got that other thing?” after Fulce asked if he could drop by to smoke marijuana. Fulce said that he believed that the “thing” John was referencing was a gun they had been talking about. Fulce had been looking for one to recommend to John and sent him a picture of his gun as a way of demonstrating what John could be getting.
John said he was looking for something smaller.
Fulce said he has a shooting range in his backyard and is a gun owner. He said he and John first came into contact when Fulce sold him a tractor about two years ago. After that, Fulce would occasionally drop by to smoke marijuana with John at his house. While he said he made recommendations to John about guns, Fulce said he never ended up selling him a weapon.
In his testimony, detective Rick Biggart, with the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department, said investigators are still searching for the murder weapon used to kill Carla.
Biggart and fellow detective Fabian Suarez interviewed Lewis on Aug. 13, hours after Carla had been shot. The interview footage was presented as evidence to the jury Thursday.
John had told police that when Carla returned home that evening from visiting her mother in Muskegon, they had gone to his grow room to move his marijuana plants under some lights. That is when John told police he heard Carla scream and looked up to see two African American men shooting at them.
“I looked up and I just seen guns going off,” John told Biggart in their interview.
John said he had never seen the assailants. After they fired at them, John said they fled in Carla’s 2008 brown Mazda. Surveillance video from Zolman’s Tire & Auto, 1901 S. 11th St., which is about half a mile south of John’s home, captured what appeared to be a brown Mazda following another car, described as a gray or green Mercury, to an alley behind the business, traveling southbound. Biggart said he could not positively identify that the vehicle was Carla’s and they could not tell who was driving.
“I did think it was kind of odd that the vehicles were driving so slow if it was Carla’s vehicle,” Biggart said. “They were not hurrying at all. If it’s a robbery, people are going to steal and get out of the area quickly.”
Carla’s car was found a couple of days later in a cornfield on Yankee Street in Cass County.
During their interview, Biggart asked John who he thought could have done this to him. Like testimony showed yesterday, John alleged that he had not been getting along with some tenants in Belle Plaza. John said the tenants were “trying to run him out.”
John ran a Sevenleaves Compassion Club, which served as a gathering space for medical cannabis users with cards. He also sold glassware for smoking. John said the tenants were unhappy because they also wanted to do medical marijuana-related business. John also mentioned that someone had previously keyed his truck, a lime green car covered in marijuana leaf decals.
Belle Plaza landlord Michael Khosravani said John began renting from him around May 2017. He testified in court that day that he once saw what appeared to be a heated discussion between John and another tenant. The tenant was referred to as “Clyde” and described as someone who can administer medical marijuana licenses. Clyde started his business before Lewis became a tenant at Belle Plaza, testimony revealed.
Assistant public defender Ryan Seale questioned Khosravani about the alleged tension between Clyde, Lewis and a third tenant who apparently had been looking to establish a dispensary in the plaza. Seale asked if any of the tenants have a non-compete clause that would prohibit similar businesses from being permitted in the same plaza. Khosravani said the potential dispensary owner did.
Khosravani also told the court that John said he was running a food bank. John eventually did not have the money to pay his rent. Khosravani seemed to take pity on him and asked Lewis to move his club from 1046 to 1036 in the plaza. Khosravani said he permitted him to store his stuff at the location, too.
In their interview, John told Biggart that he and Carla had not had problems in their relationship. However, testimony showed that John was having sexual relations with other women.
Neda Grable testified that she met John through the compassion club. She volunteered to help out during events, though she said sometimes he would pay her when she worked a lot of hours. Grable said their business relationship eventually turned romantic and that she did have sexual relations with him.
During one of their Facebook interactions, Grable had asked John about his relationship with Carla and how “separated” they were. John responded, “That will be over sooner than you think.”
Others who testified Thursday included Justin Hicks and Andrew Betts. Hicks was doing some renovation work inside the Sevenleaves Compassion Club. He testified that John had asked him to pick up some ammunition and a magazine from the store the day Carla was shot. The items were never given to John and Hicks turned them over to police.
Betts talked about his work repairing the paint job on John’s vehicle. After a brief phone call with John, Betts messaged him on Facebook asking him why he sounded so down. Lewis replied, “stuck with the old lady.”
Betts is expected to return to the stand to testify more Friday.
Vigansky told the court that he would call 17 more witnesses to testify throughout the trial.