Detectives, daughter of victim testify against murder suspect Tuesday

Published 8:02 pm Tuesday, February 12, 2019


ST. JOSEPH — When her mother, Carla Jean Lewis, was alive, Kristy Pruett used to talk to her every day.

“She was my best friend,” Pruett said.

Pruett was among those to testify Tuesday during the fifth day of trial for John Benton Lewis at the Berrien County Courthouse.

John has been charged with premeditated murder for the death of Carla, his wife since 2012. Carla was found fatally shot at their Niles Township home on Aug. 13, 2017. John has alleged to police that two unknown assailants shot at him and Carla while they were in a marijuana grow room moving plants.

Carla and John’s home at 1429 Lawndale got a lot of traffic from visitors, as testimony has indicated. A number of those who have testified so far said they would drop by the Lewis household to get marijuana and talk with John or admire his well-known truck, which was covered with painted marijuana leaves. Many of those witnesses knew of John’s Sevenleaves Compassion Club or were members themselves.

Pruett, who is not related to John by blood, told the court Tuesday that Carla tolerated John’s medical marijuana activity and his involvement with the club, but that she had expressed concern about how much of John’s time it consumed and that it was not doing well financially.

Pruett last saw her mother alive the weekend of Aug. 11, when she and her two children accompanied Carla to Muskegon to see Carla’s mom.

When questioned by Assistant Public Defender Jolene Weiner-Vatter, Pruett said she was not aware of any violence between John and Carla.

Detective Cory Peek with the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department testified that he had uncovered deleted social media conversations and multiple searches for a gun when he received John Benton Lewis’ electronics as evidence.

Peek is forensically trained to analyze electronics and when the homicide was reported on Aug. 13, he arrived at the scene to search for clues. He uncovered a number of electronics from John and Carla’s home, including both their cell phones and several computers that Peek told the court he searched for evidence.

Using forensic software to sift through the data, Peek noted that some Facebook messages were deleted from John’s social media account on the day Carla was shot. Many of them were conversations with a number of witnesses that have already testified. Peek explained that when a message is deleted, it can still be accessed for some time, depending on the amount of storage on the device.

Peek also did an analysis of web searches on the electronics. This evaluation showed that between Aug. 7 and Aug. 8, 2017, there had been numerous searches for different caliber weapons, handguns, including a Kahr gun and .22 caliber, and some information on silencers.

Weiner-Vatter asked whether a person could legally buy a gun over the internet, to which Peek said a person could not.

Peek said investigators are continuing to search for the murder weapon and have not received any fresh leads. Authorities are also continuing to search for the person who drove Carla’s car and abandoned it in a cornfield on Yankee Street in Cass County.

Det. Lt. Greg Sanders, with the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department, said he evaluated Carla’s life insurance policy and retirement package from her place of employment with Bayer. During his testimony, Sanders said John was entitled to about $334,500 from those policies.

Weiner-Vatter questioned whether he had asked John if he was aware that he was entitled to those benefits. Sanders said he did not ask John.

As testimony has already indicated, Justin Hicks turned over several boxes of Tula-brand ammunition, one box of Independence ammunition, a Kahr-brand magazine and loose bullets to police the day of Carla’s death. Hicks had been asked by John to retrieve a bag containing the items at John’s Sevenleaves Compassion Club in Belle Plaza.

Sanders described the Tula ammunition as unique in his experience working in law enforcement. The steel cases turned over by Hicks matched or were like the steel cases that were discovered at the scene of the crime, Sanders said. Sanders also noted that most cartridges use brass, rather than steel.

Sanders was among those who examined the crime scene on the day of Carla’s death. He said he walked through every room in the home.

“It didn’t look ransacked,” he said. “Cluttered is how I would describe it.”

Sanders also made use of the life-size model replica of the grow room where Carla was found deceased. On the back wall of the replica were markings indicated by an x. These indicated the four bullet holes noticed at the scene. Based on his experience in firearm training, Sanders said it appeared that the shooter was targeting one person. Berrien County Sheriff’s Deputy Jessica Frucci testified earlier in the trial that she believed one person had been the intended target.

Others who testified during the trial Tuesday included Shawn Yech, a member of the drug ballistics team with the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department, and one of Carla’s grandsons who had attended the trip to Muskegon on Aug. 11, 2017.

Following another day of testimony, Assistant Prosecutor Jerry Vigansky said he has eight witnesses left to testify. The defense is expected to call 11 witnesses after that. Presiding Judge Gordon Hosbein said he expects the jury to be able to deliberate by next Wednesday.