Jury convicts Niles man of premeditated murder

Published 9:24 am Wednesday, February 20, 2019

ST. JOSEPH — When a jury convicted John Benton Lewis of first-degree premeditated murder for the death of his wife, Carla Jean Lewis, Carla’s sister, Renee Burrington, could not stifle a burst of emotion.

The verdict was read Tuesday morning at the Berrien County Courthouse in St. Joseph. The 12-person jury decided after close to six total hours of deliberating. They first began deliberation Friday afternoon, following closing arguments from Assistant Prosecutor Jerry Vigansky and Assistant Public Defender Jolene Weiner-Vatter.

John had been charged with Carla’s death after she was found fatally shot Aug. 13, 2017, in a marijuana grow room in the basement of their home at 1429 Lawndale Ave. in Niles Township. John told police that Carla was murdered when two men entered their home. While Carla and John were moving marijuana plants in the basement, John said the men opened fire. He claimed the assailants robbed him and took off with her car. Carla’s Mazda was found several days later abandoned in a Cass County cornfield.

When he was first arrested, John was charged with unlawfully manufacturing a controlled substance. John was licensed to grow marijuana plants, but Carla’s body showed that he had let other people tend to the plants, which is not permitted. The jury also found him guilty of this charge.

After hearing the verdict Tuesday, Burrington, of Muskegon, hugged family and friends.

“I’m just so happy that it was justice for Carla,” Burrington said. “She had a heart of gold.”

While Burrington said Tuesday’s verdict would give her peace, her family’s hurt is not over.

“I will never be able to move on,” she said. “There will always be a hole in my heart.”

One of Carla’s daughters, Christy Pruett, said she will remember Carla as being a great mom.

“She was so fun,” Pruett said. “She was always laughing.”

Burrington thanked Vigansky and the investigators involved for finding justice for Carla.

Throughout the trial, the jury heard testimony from three women who alleged to have had affairs with John. John had professed his love to one of the women, April King. In message correspondence over Facebook to his lovers, John had made some derogatory comments about Carla, referring to her as “old lady” or an expletive. He also mentioned “getting himself single” in one of the messages.

Throughout the trial, Pruett said the family had been exposed to another side of John. She said the family was not aware of his involvement with other women.

Other evidence presented through the trial indicated that John might have plotted to murder Carla. On Aug. 7 and 8, days before Carla’s death, Detective Sgt. Cory Peek testified that a computer taken from John’s home showed numerous web searches for a silencer and a Kahr Arms gun.

Further testimony by Detective Sgt. Russell Karsten said an analysis of the bullets showed that a Kahr 9-millimeter gun was among the potential firearms used at the scene of the crime.

John had also deleted a number of Facebook conversations he had with his lovers and others he interacted with the day Carla was shot.

Jessica Frucci, a road patrol officer with the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department who responded to the scene, testified that the bullet holes found in the wall suggested that the assailant had been firing at one person.

John was represented by public defenders Ryan Seale and Jolene Weiner-Vatter. In their argument, Seale and Weiner-Vatter argued that there was too much reasonable doubt to convict John.

In her closing argument, Weiner-Vatter cited forensic evidence which showed that John’s fingerprints and DNA were not found in Carla’s car. This would make it improbable that he drove Carla’s car from their home, she said.

The weapon used to kill Carla has yet to be found. Police who testified throughout the trial said they had no fresh leads on where the gun is.

Also in the courtroom Tuesday were members of John’s family. They sobbed as the verdict was read.

Reflecting on the testimony they heard, Burrington and Pruett said they believe someone else who involved in Carla’s death. They said they hope authorities can find them and bring them to justice.

Presiding Judge Gordon Hosbein revoked John’s bail. He will be sentenced at 1:30 p.m. March 25.