Here is Richard Ben Cramer’s chilling Jerry Lee Lewis story. It originally appeared in Rolling Stone (March 1, 1984) and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
First up, a brief introduction from Cramer:
How was I out to lunch? Let me count the ways. I was new to magazines, never having written for a national publication, much less for ROLLING STONE. I was a newspaperman, just returned from the Middle East—a bit unsteady, still, in America. The provenance of rock & roll I had traced as far back as the record store. Past that lay a great sea of unknowing.
All of a sudden, I was in Hernando, Mississippi, where no restaurant order was complete until the waitress asked, “You wan’ gravy?” Where the leading candidate for sheriff was known as Big Dog Riley. Where Jerry Lee Lewis was a legend and a power, not to mention the spendingest man in the county, which spending had bought for almost a decade the quiet cooperation of local authorities who would perform all kinds of “community service,” like towing the Killer’s car out of a ditch without checking his blood for alcohol, or bargaining his drug charge down to a simple hoe, or shipping off the bruised body of his dead fifth bride for a private autopsy, with no coroner’s jury and little public inquiry into the cause of her death.
And I was proposing to penetrate this long-closed world, to find out how that girl died?
Truly, I was out to lunch.
But God looks after his children who were tardy on brain day. He introduced me to a splendid couple of folks who owned the local weekly newspaper, and then to the local prosecutor, who wanted to help me honorably, even though the resulting story could not reflect well on his grand-jury presentation. And then there were the ambulance drivers, the local cops, local merchants and matrons, meetings at midnight, anonymous notes left at my motel. Bit by bit, they made a picture of life where Jerry Lee lived.
Then, too, I was led to Hernando’s Hide-A-Way, the Killer’s favorite nightclub, fifteen miles north in Memphis, Tennessee, and to the lubricious owner of that nightclub, Kenny Rodgers; in Memphis, too, there was Elvis’s old doctor chum, Dr. Nick; there was Jerry Lee’s manager, J.W. Whitten, and Whitten’s little dogs, Nickie and Kai; there was J.W.’s former wife; and there were former band members, club bartenders, former girlfriends, bouncers, strippers, whores. . . .
Quickly, it became apparent that this unexpected, inexplicable death was not out of the ordinary in the world of Jerry Lee. And not long after, it would become equally clear that the official version of events diverged early and often from the facts. Something went violently wrong at the Killer’s mansion on the night of Shawn Lewis’s death. And as soon as that death was disclosed, everything went wrong with the investigation. A grand jury was quickly led to conclude that no crime had occurred. But I was sure Shawn’s death was no suicide, no mistaken handful of pills. No one would ever prove what happened: Only two people were in the house that night. One was dead and buried before the appropriate tests could be made. The other was Jerry Lee Lewis.
First, I had to learn something about where Jerry Lee’s music came from—and about the stark choices presented to a boy at the Assembly of God church in Ferriday, Louisiana. In a hundred times of trouble, he had vowed he would dedicate his soul and his music to the Lord’s work, forevermore, but he never could make that stick. And then the millions of miles and the thousands of nightclub dates—the rage they required, the drinks and drugs—took their toll. He ate away at himself. By the terms of his church, Jerry Lee made his living with the devil’s dance on his piano. “Great Balls of Fire” was his anthem not by happenstance.
And he ate through the lives of his women. His third wife, his cousin Myra Gale Brown, won divorce with horrific tales of how Jerry Lee beat her up in view of their little daughter. His fourth wife, Jaren Gunn, also won divorce, but she ended up dead, mysteriously drowned in a Memphis swimming pool, just before her settlement came through. Shawn Michelle Stephens was the fifth. A sharp and spunky twenty-five-year-old from Garden City, Michigan, she thought Jerry Lee was her ticket to the good life. They married on June 7th, 1983, and seventy-seven days later, she was dead.
It seemed to me unlikely that the magazine of rock & roll would greet this harsh story with enthusiasm. I thought, in fact, that if I meant to question Jerry Lee’s clean escape from this case, I’d have to possess a ton of stone-hard facts and present them as a wall, every stone immovable. It took weeks in Mississippi, Memphis and Detroit—more weeks in New York. It seemed to me a miracle that I never heard a discouraging word from my editor, Susan Murcko. I thought perhaps I hadn’t made exactly clear what it was I thought I’d found. I wrote with trepidation. I saw every word raising a wall that might fall back on me. It was months after the assignment when, at last, I presented to Murcko a thick sheaf of pages.
Murcko started thinning the wall. She worked with the infinite patience of a medieval mason. Thousands of words were chiseled to dust. And nothing was lost. Murcko, God bless her, was all dogged delicacy.
Then Jann Wenner looked it over. Too thick!
To hell with delicacy! More thousands of words, whole interviews, whole characters, were dust, mere dust. Murcko brushed the wall smooth again.
Then fact checkers . . .
Then copy editors . . .
I was unprepared for this woe. I was a newspaperman. The way I was brought up, you wrote the thing, you sent it in, it ran that night. Next day, it was over. This was months. This was murder.
February 1984, finally, the story was in type. Ten pages in the magazine. I looked it over as if it were some strange geode, compressed as it was by time and tread. I was shocked to discover that it said what I meant.
The county’s inquiry into Shawn’s death never was reopened. The feds took up the scent for a while, but they never made a case on the death of Jerry Lee’s wife. They put all their eggs into the Internal Revenue basket and actually charged Lewis under the tax laws. But as far as I know, nothing much came of it. Some bargaining went on—more judgments against Jerry Lee, more liens. What the hell, he already had enough judgments against him to pave the road to Tupelo.
Jerry Lee got married again—to a cute young thing. The tabloids attended and wrote about her ring.
The Killer’s only reaction to my story came through his manager, J.W. Whitten. He said Jerry Lee was “just surprised . . . that ROLLING STONE would do that kind of thing on us.”
Well, so was I.
“The Strange And Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis”
By Richard Ben Cramer
The killer was in his bedroom, behind the door of iron bars, as Sonny Daniels, the first ambulance man, moved down the long hall to the guest bed- room to check the report: “Unconscious party at the Jerry Lee Lewis residence.”
Lottie Jackson, the housekeeper, showed Sonny into a spotless room: Gauzy drapes filtered the noonday light; there was nothing on the tables, no clothes strewn about, no dust; just a body on the bed, turned away slightly toward the wall, with the covers drawn up to the neck. Sonny probed with his big, blunt fingers at a slender wrist: it was cold. “It’s Miz Lewis,” Lottie said. “I came in…I couldn’t wake her up….” Sonny already had the covers back, his thick hand on the woman’s neck where the carotid pulse should be: The neck retained its body warmth, but no pulse. Now he bent his pink moon-face with its sandy fuzz of first beard over her pale lips: no breath. He checked the eyes. “Her eyes were all dilated. That’s an automatic sign that her brain has done died completely.”
Matthew Snyder, the second ambulance man, had barely finished Emergency Medical Technician school. He was twenty, blond, beefy, even younger than Sonny, and just starting with the Hernando, Mississippi, ambulance team. Even rookies knew there wasn’t anything uncommon about a run to Jerry Lee’s to wake up some passed-out person. But Matthew saw there was something uncommonly wrong now, as he caught the look of worry and excitement from Sonny over at the bed. “Go ahead and check her over,” said Sonny, and Matthew restarted the process With the woman’s delicate wrist. He saw, up on her forearm, the row of angry little bruises, like someone had grabbed her hard. He saw the little stain of dried blood on the web of her hand. He shook his head at Sonny: no pulse.
Lottie knew It was wrong, too. She was a stolid, hard-working black woman who’d taken care of Jerry Lee since before he moved down here from Memphis—more than ten years, that made it. She was crying as she moved down the hall and knocked at the door with the iron bars.
The Killer was there within seconds. If he’d been sleeping on the big canopied bed, he must have been sleeping in his bathrobe. For now, he came into the hall, with the white terrycloth lapels pulled right across his skinny chest, and he looked surprised to find Lottie in tears. Then he looked a silent question into Sonny Daniels’ eyes.
“Mr. Lewis, your wife….” Sonny averred his gaze. He said: “I just checked her over in there….”
Still, he didn’t meet the question in Jerry Lee’s hard eyes. He saw the two bright red scratches on the back of Jerry Lee’s hand, like a car had gouged him from the wrist to the knuckles. When Sonny looked up at last, his own eyes grew, his whole face seemed to grow larger, rounder, younger.
“Mr. Lewis,” he said. “I’m sorry. Miz Lewis is dead.”
The autopsy that cleared Jerry Lee Lewis called Shawn Michelle Lewis, 25, “a well-developed, well-nourished, white female, measuring sixty-four inches in length, weighing 107 pounds. The hair is brown, the eyes are green….” It hardly did her justice. She was a honey blond with a tan, small and full of bounce, with a grin that made everybody smile and had turned male heads since junior high.
“Everybody liked her. She was like the stepchild of the club. Everybody looked out for her,” says Mike DeFour, the manager of DB’s, a fancy nightclub in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dearborn, Michigan, where Shawn Michelle Stephens worked as a cocktail waitress. DeFour treated his waitresses, “the DB’s girls,” like family—he loved them all, took care of them, saw to it that they made good money—even the new girls, like Shawn, who had started part time about four years ago. “Some of the girls I gave nicknames to. Shawn was ‘Little Buzz” because she was always buzzing around, you know, half buzzed….
“No, not like that. Drugs weren’t a big problem. You know, a hit on a joint or two, no problem. It was around. Or a shot from a bottle of schnapps—okay, I’d look the other way.”
Shawn loved working there. The money was great—sometimes $150 a night. But it wasn’t just that: It was upscale, crowded with people who dressed and threw money around. It was something more for a girl from Garden City, a suburb of little boxes built for the auto workers of the Fifties. There, more was the stuff of dreams.
But somehow, in Garden City, Shawn never seemed to get much more. Her mother’s divorce had only made it harder. Shawn had been in and out of jobs, mostly waitressing, since she graduated in 1975. She dreamed of marrying Scott, her boyfriend, but his parents were strict, and they never thought much of Shawn. So DB’s was fine for the moment—great, in fact. She loved the people. It almost wasn’t like work. The musicians took them to parries after hours—great parties.
One DB’s girl, Pam Brewer, took up with J.W. Whitten, the wiry bantam of a road manager for the Jerry Lee Lewis band. Pam flew off to Memphis, and when she came back the next year, she was soon to be Mrs. J.W. Whitten, traveling with the band, flying in Learjets and shopping from a limo! That’s when it happened to Shawn.
Jerry Lee, performing for a week at the Dearborn Hyatt, picked Shawn out from among the girls. Pam Brewer set it up: She told Shawn that Jerry Lee wanted to take her to a party in his suite. It wasn’t like Shawn had been looking for it. In fact, the first time she’d seen Jerry Lee, she’d told her mother: “Mom, he’s a lone man, and he’s about your age. You ought to come and try to meet him….” Instead, It was Shawn who went. ” I always thought Shawn’d be good for Jerry,” says Pam. “She was so cute, petite, and he likes little women. And she was so much fun to be with. I introduced them. I thought she was flexible enough to understand his moods.”
Jerry Lee wasn’t showing his moods the night of that first party. A great party, Shawn told her friends. actually, it was just a few drinks in his suite. A couple of other women were already up there. Jerry Lee played piano and sang, while Pam’s little Chinese Shih Tzu dog sat up with him on the stool. Shawn knew she was looking good, in her jeans, cowboy boots and a huggy little white rabbit jacket. And Jerry Lee treated her so nice! He’d turn away from the keyboard as he’d slow down his rhythm for a snatch of a love song. She felt him sing straight to her. It was February 1981. Shawn was twenty-three.
“Dead. you sure?” said the Killer, as he crossed the hall to the guest room. He grabbed Shawn’s wrist, as if to feel her pulse, then dropped it and just stood staring at her.
“Anything you can do?” Jerry Lee said, mostly to Sonny. “In the hospital?”
“No, sir, we woulda took her already,” said Sonny. He was real polite.
Jade McCauley, a deputy sheriff came into the room at that moment. By happenstance, he said, he’d been patrolling on Malone Road as the ambulance made the turn for Jerry Lee’s house. Of course, his ordinary patrol area was miles away, but nothing about Jack McCauley seemed to fit the ordinary. McCauley, 48, certainly was the sharpest deputy in DeSoto County: a college man, a Yankee transplanted to Mississippi, a man who said he’d made a small fortune on developments like the industrial park in the northeast comer of the county. John Burgess McCauley lived in a hideaway house that made Jerry Lee’s look modest—it must have been worth $200,000, according to realtors who’d seen it. Nobody quite knew what Jack was doing, fooling around in patrol cars with a deputy’s job that paid $12,000 a year. And the way he’d take your head off for the smallest little thing, start shouting and get red all the way up to his crewcut, no one asked Jack.
Sonny was going to explain to Jerry Lee the need for an inquest, but Jack McCauley took over from there. He had that air of command about him. McCauley announced he was going to clear the room. He wasn’t real polite like Sonny—more familiar. “Come to think of it,” says Sonny, “I don’t recall Jack introducing himself. Maybe he knew Jerry Lee.”
Maybe, but it’s hard to tell now. McCauley won’t talk about the case. And Jerry Lee never said much of anything about it, except that day, when he had a long talk with McCauley. They were alone in Jerry Lee’s little den for more than an hour before the state investigators or anybody else arrived at the house. McCauley never filed any report on that long conversation. He did write a report that told how he came in the wake of the ambulance, just after 12:30 p.m., August 24th, 1983, and how he got delayed in the driveway by two employees of Goldsmith’s department store, who’d come to the house to hang drapes, and then how Matthew Snyder told him “that a female subject was dead in one of the bedrooms.” His report continues:
Upon entering a small bedroom on the east side of the residence, Mr. Lewis was bending over the bed where a white female was lying partially covered by a bedspread. She was clad in a negligee….When I first arrived, Mr. Lewis’ speech was heavily slurred, but he was alert and coherent. I telephoned the sheriff’s office and requested a justice of the peace if the coroner could not be located, and an investigator. The latter was requested because there were no visible causes of death and because Mr. Lewis’ bathrobe contained apparent bloodstains and he had a cut on his wrist.
At 13:51 hours I advised Mr. Lewis that his manager J.W. Whitten had arrived but would not be allowed to enter the residence until the investigation was completed. Mr. Lewis commented we need to “find out who killed—how she died,” so funeral arrangements can be made.
So McCauley was the first to report that Jerry Lee’s robe was spotted with blood. Surely, McCauley must have seen, as well, the blood on Shawn Lewis, on her hand, on her hair, on clothes and a bra in another room, on a lamp, in a spot on the carpet. He must have seen the film of dirt on her, and the bruises on her arms and hip, maybe her broken fingernails with something that looked like dried blood underneath. None of this was in his report. But it didn’t matter much. For McCauley’s report never made it into the investigative file, never left the sheriff’s department until after the grand jury had decided no crime had occurred.
Shawn hadn’t been a great fan of the Killer’s, not until that first night in his suite. She was tiny in her mother’s womb when his “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” threatened to knock Elvis himself off the throne of rock & roll. At forty- five, Jerry Lee was still riveting—a star, and he seemed to like her. He’d make funny faces and twist his head around, trying to understand her funny Yankee way of talking. Then he’d understand and try to mimic, and everybody’d laugh—Jerry, too. Of course, girls were never a problem for the Killer. They were always around. Often, Jerry left the details of his trysting to others; now, in February 1981, it was Pam who issued another invitation, this time with a free ticket to Memphis: “Jerry was gettin’ ready to go to Europe, and I figured it was a good time to bring Shawn down. Because I figured he’d take her with him. Which he did….”
Clever girl! Pam Brewer is twenty-six now, and although she’s split up with J.W. Whitten, she still lives in Memphis. She talks in a molasses drawl (well, a girl’s got to fit in!) about Shawn’s springtime trip to Europe.
“He bought a beautiful gold watch for her. I don’t know how many thousands he spent on it. It was his first gift to her….They’d send her out, and she’d get herself a bunch of beautiful suits, and she’d come back and just look at herself in the mirror, because she couldn’t believe that was her in all those beautiful things….
“How could you not get taken by it? I was in heaven all the time I was, uh, involved.”
It was heaven–most of the time. Then there were the times Jerry was speeding so bad after a show: He couldn’t come down, and he’d bully Shawn to stay up with him. God, they never slept. And then it was kind of disgusting when Jerry would stick that big needle with the Talwin narcotic right into his stomach. He said his stomach was killing him, and no wonder, the way he lived.
It was better, sort of, back in Nesbit, Mississippi, in the big brick house—at least you could relax. There was the pool shaped like a piano, and the lake out back with the Jet Ski, a sort of kicky little snowmobile for the water. Shawn loved the sun, and she’d be out there all afternoon, before Jerry woke up. Then at night, they’d go to Hernando’s Hide-A-Way, Jerry’s home club, fifteen miles north, up in Memphis. They’d roll in about midnight, and Jerry Lee would sort of dance to his table, announcing: “The Killer is here.” They’d always drink, or have a pipe or two back in a little office by the bandstand. Sometimes, Hernando’s owner, Kenny Rodgers, would get up to the mike, straighten his pearly tie under the vest of his gray business suit and announce: “Ladies an’ gennlemen! The greates’ ennataina inna worl’…the Killa…Jerra Lee!” And then Jerry’d screw around for hours, while the house band wilted behind him, and Jerry would work to his own private rhythms, singing a snatch of this or that, cutting off songs in midverse, making the whole club dance to his tune. That could get ugly, too, like the time some patrons left the floor in disgust when Jerry Lee cut off another song. “You stupid ignorant sonsabitches,”Jerry Lee screamed from the piano bench. “You got a $20,000 show here, and y’all walkin’ offf rom the Killer!”
Shawn said she knew how to handle him. For one thing, you just had to pay attention. Shawn said she knew, too, how to handle other women. A friend and former DB’s girl, Beverly Lithgow, says: “Shawn told about one of the first times they went out to dinner down there near Memphis, and this girl came over to the table and asked for Jerry Lee’s autograph. So he gave it to her. She came back again and started talking with him. So the third time she came back, Shawn finally just grabbed her by the hair and pulled her down, and said, ‘He’s with me tonight. Leave him alone.’ Shawn said Jerry Lee loved it because she was so forceful.”
She had spunk—”She wasn’t a pansy,” says Bev—enough to leave him when her younger sister, Shelley, came down to visit, and Jerry started showing his moods. Shelley, 20, drove down with their brother, Thomas, and his friend, Dave Lipke. Jerry Lee got jealous; he thought Shelley was bringing a young man for Shawn. Then he got mad, according to Shelley, and started knocking Shawn around. Shelley says the real problem was Jerry Lee’s insistence that she and Shawn have sex with him.
“Iknew what he wanted, and I wouldn’t do it,” Shelley says.
“He made us leave, but he didn’t actually tell us to go. He made Shawn tell us. So she said, ‘Well, if you’re leaving, so am I.’
“It was really crazy. Jerry Lee was wild. He ended up accusing us of stealing his Jet Ski. But the Jet Ski is big, like a snowmobile. I mean, I only had a Camaro. And he saw us drive away. He parted the curtains. We saw him looking through the bars on his window. I kept saying, ‘Duck! Duck!’ We all thought he was going to shoot us.”
Later, Shawn called Jerry Lee to calm him. But Jerry wouldn’t be pacified. Shawn said he sounded “jealous, sort of sick….” As it turned out, it was more than sort of: Within weeks, by July 4th, 1981, the Killer was in a hospital bed with most of his stomach gone and a less than even chance of living. The jealousy was real, too: Shawn had called Jerry Lee from Texas, where she and Shelley wound up living with the love of Shawn’s young life, Scott.
Charlie Ward, the Hernando, Mississippi, city policeman who drove the ambulance truck, already had used the radio once to try to call in the coroner. But Jack McCauley said things might get too public. He decreed radio silence. McCauley used the phone from Jerry Lee’s kitchen to start planning with Sheriff Dink Sowell, who was just as eager to keep matters at a decorous hush. His first order of the day: a deputy to man the gates at the base of the driveway to keep the damn press away.
Sheriff Sowell didn’t need any noise while he was trying to retire in peace and keep a hand on the department with the election of his chosen successor, his chief deputy, James Albert “Big Dog” Riley. There were too many rumors already about James Albert and that Hernando’s Hide-A-Way crowd. You could talk to any of Big Dogs opponents in the hot Democratic primary and collect hellacious stones about James with drugs, and sang gospel songs to the crowds who greeted his return. And with more determination, he sought out the love of a woman, “a different kind of girl,” a woman who might have the strength to change him: Jerry Lee got out of the hospital and started calling Shawn.
Texas hadn’t turned out so well for Shawn, Shelley and Scott, and by the end of summer 1981, all three were heading for home.
At first Jerry Lee’s calls seemed funny to her, like a card from someone she’d met traveling—they didn’t seem part of real life. But as fall gave way to hard Michigan winter, the calls seemed to grow more important. After all, she was back in the same tired circle: the icy, gray streets of Detroit, back and forth to work at a secretarial job. Even Scott and his precious parents! What did his family have against her? And what did they have over him? Why didn’t he want her? Jerry Lee wanted her. He said he’d give her anything. H e wanted to send a ticket—a ticket to anywhere.
As it turned out, she met him close to home. In 1982, Jerry Lee was booked for a show in Michigan. Shawn, her mother, her brother and her sisters met the Killer’s plane, and suddenly, there it all was again: the jet, the limos, the big men holding the doors….Mother, brother and sisters rode with the band. Shawn rode with Jerry in the limousine.
And so it was that Jerry Lee came back into her life with that vision of something more. The Killer said he wanted to marry her, just as soon as he got free of Jaren. The girls from DB’s were so jealous!
Still, there was Scott. “The one thing she wanted out of life,” says her mother, “was to marry Scott and have his baby.”
Scott, now a factory worker in Livonia, Michigan, says: “Shawn just could never get over me and her. We had a lot in common, and we had fun together….But I never could forgive her for going off with Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s the bottom line. Everybody knew about it, and there was no way I could take her back.”
Jerry Lee kept pressing her. Jaren was dead and Jerry was free, and he wanted Shawn to be his. He demanded an answer by the tune he carne back from Europe in the spring of 1983. Shawn stayed behind in Michigan, savoring her dilemma.
Shelley remembers: “I guess we all just said, ‘Yeah, go ahead, try it. If you don’t like it, you can always get divorced.’ I feel so guilty about that….But it was flattering.”
After yet another transatlantic phone call, Shawn announced: “Mom, I’m going to Europe…I’m going to marry him.” Shawn put everything she wanted in her mother’s two suitcases. Except for her family, there was nothing more for her in Garden City. Even her tawny cat, Scottie, had run away.
In a beery bachelorette party at Henry’s, Bev Lithgow asked Shawn why she was marrying Jerry Lee. Shawn laughed: “Because he has a big dick and a lot of money.” Janice Quesenberry, another DB’s girl, says: “Shawn gave me a big hug and kiss and said, ‘Well, I’m going to go for it. I’m not crazy about the man, but I’ve never had this kind of life.’ I told her, ‘You know, you’re going to have his kids.’ Shawn told me: ‘There’s no way I’m having kids with that old creep. I’m just going to stay married for as long as I can, and then I’m getting the hell out.”‘
Still, down to the very last, she wasn’t sure. Scott says she called two days before the wedding to tell him: “If you’d just say the words, I’d come back….”
And still, she was asking Mike DeFour, DB’s manager: “Mike, what should I do?” DeFour shakes his head and remembers: “I told her, ‘You’re free, white and twenty. Go for it. Just make sure you got some money and a plane ticket home.’
“See, none of us ever gave the marriage more than six months to a year. But none of us ever expected her to wind up in a pine box.”
Bill Ballard was in his office when he got the call from Sheriff Sowell, about tw0 hours after Shawn was found. The sheriff told Ballard, the county attorney, that he wanted a legal paper authorizing an autopsy. Once again, there wasn’t much explaining required. William W. Ballard, 40, was likely the smartest man in Hernando. He was the kind of Ole Miss graduate who came out so studiedly tweedy that he made Harvard Law men look flamboyant.
The sheriff knew Ballard was just the man for the job: He had used Ballard as his private attorney. Ballard’s county post was part time—it only paid $14,800. Even Ballard didn’t have much explanation why he kept on with it, but he had, since 1968, and no one ever ran against him. It sort of came with the territory, as a Ballard: His father had been vice-president of the Bank of Hernando; now his brother was bank president. DeSoto County was Ballard country.
By the time Dink Sowell came to see him, Ballard had drafted an agreement insuring that all autopsy information be provided to County Attorney William W. Ballard. Both men headed out to the house on Malone Road.
The state police investigators already had been called there, and the scene was orderly—McCauley had seen to that. The only unofficial personage who had entered the guest room since it was cleared for pictures was Lottie Jackson. Jerry Lee stayed in his den, talking to McCauley. The Killer only emerged once, when the body was being removed from the house.
Sonny Daniels, Matthew Snyder and Charlie Ward were wheeling the body on a stretcher down the hall, when Jerry Lee popped out and asked if he could look. They took down the sheet, and he stared at Shawn. He turned away after a few seconds. He didn’t say anything. “He looked normal,” Charlie Ward recalled. “He seemed to be in good shape.”
Ballard and Sowell knew exactly what would happen to the body. The sheriff explained that he’d already contracted for an autopsy with Dr. Jerry Francisco, the medical examiner up in Memphis. Dr. J.T. Francisco was the man who had staunchly maintained to the world that Elvis Presley died of heart failure.
Of course, Francisco would cost a bundle—far more than the county’s $260 limit for autopsies. But McCauley had taken care of that. He and Jerry Lee had agreed that the Killer would pay. And that was good news, too. For it meant the autopsy was a private report; it need never be placed on public file.
Ballard tried to review these details with Jerry Lee in the big brick house. He needn’t have bothered. The Killer was in his recliner chair. He looked like he was just waiting for all this to be over. He wasn’t weepy. He seemed altogether without emotion, without energy, crashed, like a storm had passed and knocked him dull. When Ballard squatted next to the big recliner and showed Jerry Lee the authorization, the Killer seemed barely to look at the words. He just asked where to sign.
Ballard asked him, “Is there anything we can get for you, or anybody we can call?” He just said his manager, J.W. Whitten, was down at the gate, and he couldn’t get in. “So I told the sheriff, and the sheriff had him let in.”
Just as well, for the state men wanted to get Jerry Lee out of the house. Jay Clark, the chief investigator, really wasn’t that anxious about it. Clark was a bag, easygoing fellow, a plodder, a fifteen-year man with the highway patrol. Very little excited Jay, not even his own hair-raising habit of reading while he drove. But Creekmore Wright, the second man on the job, sure hadn’t seen any case this hot. Wright was younger than Clark, dark-haired, fresh-faced and square-jawed. Of course, Creekmore knew the tales about the Killer, and frankly, the house gave him the creeps. There were those bars on the doors and windows, the bullet holes in the windows and walls, the guns that kept turning up in strange corners of the house. The next day, when Creekmore was to make his second trip to the house, he showed up at the sheriff’s office with his own Magnum prominently holstered. He took some ribbing about it, but he was dead serious. He said he wasn’t going back there without some iron on his side. Now, as Wright and Clark were picking through some bloody clothes in the master bathroom, Creekmore nervously whispered: “Man, if we could just get him outta the house….”
“C’mon Jerry,” J.W. Whitten said, as he walked into the den. “Put some clothes on. Sheriff Sowell wants me to take you away from here.” Jerry Lee rose from the recliner.
Jay and Creekmore had moved into the master bedroom by the time Jerry Lee came in to dress. Ballard also had wandered in, his eyes shifting slowly around the room; he regarded the high, king-size bed, with its four heavy posters and canopy; he glanced at a tray of dirty dishes on the floor, with leavings of streak bones and vegetables, and broken glass on the floor, too, with no large pieces to show where it came from; he noticed the 9-mm pistol Jerry Lee kept on the bed table, and mentally, he tracked the line of fire from Jerry Lee’s expanse of mattress to the bullet holes in the wall.
“It seemed like somehow, we all ended up in the kitchen,” Ballard says. “He was fixin’ to leave. And he was lookin’ for a pair of sunglasses, just lookin’ around for a pair. And then someone went out to the car and brought in a box with what looked to me like twenty-five or thirty pairs of sunglasses. It was the manager, or maybe the manager’s brother, selected a pair and wiped ’em off, cleaned the lenses, you know, doin’ all his thinking for him. And then Jerry Lee stood there, and I can just see him. It was like somebody lookin’ for what kind of reaction he should have. He looked at us and said, ‘Sorry. Sorry. I don’t know what to say.’ He put on his glasses and went on. It was pathetic. If I’ve ever seen a tragic figure, I saw one then.”
As Jerry Lee made for the door, he carried a metal strongbox, two feet by two feet, and almost as deep. Creekmore Wright asked politely if he could check the contents. Jerry Lee reluctantly opened the lid to reveal diamond jewelry, a few papers and tens of thousands of dollars in cash. Creekmore got a look in the box and nodded. Jerry Lee took his hoard and departed in a black Cadillac.
The Killer wore a white tuxedo and a red, ruffled shirt to his wedding on the patio of the big Nesbit house. Shawn shone in ivory-colored silk, and she spoke her vows bravely to Justice of the Peace Bill Bailey, who presided. In the rush, they hadn’t been able to find a preacher to do the honors. (Well, J.W. Whitten found one, but he was black and Jerry might not have liked that, so J.W. got the judge.) In the rush, no one thought about the blood test for the license and the three days’ wait required by Mississippi law, until Lottie Jackson brought it up on the morning of the wedding. For a while, it looked like Jerry Lee would have to pack the whole parry off to Tennessee, where things could be done with less wait and bother. But J.W. fixed the license, too. “I made a phone call,” he says, with evident pride. “Just somebody I knew down there.” J.W. winks. “In the business, it’s called ‘juice.'”
Shelley arrived in Mississippi in the first days of June, driving a brand-new red Corvette that Shawn had asked her to deliver for her.
Shelley’s mother said the family would drive down, too, but Shawn insisted that they spring for one-way air fare. No problem, Shawn said: Jerry Lee could send them home in the Learjet.
When at last they got it together, it didn’t seem to want to start. Shawn’s mother walked down the hall to find out what was keeping Jerry. He was almost ready: He was sitting in the master bedroom with his friend, Dr. George Nichopoulos. Dr. Nick had his medical license suspended in 1980 for overprescribing addictive drugs. He was Elvis’ personal physician on part of the King’s long slide into drug oblivion. Dr. Nick testified at hearings that he also wrote narcotic prescriptions for Jerry Lee Lewis. Dr. Nick was still a frequent guest at the Nesbit house. On the wedding day, Shawn’s mother says, she found Jerry regarding three pairs of pills, laid out neatly on a bed table: two of each, three different colors. Jerry Lee said he’d be up in a moment.
J.W. Whitten had invited the National Enquirer, which supplied this account of the big day, June 7th, 1983:
Despite Jerry’s experience at saying, “I do,” he was a bundle of nerves during the ceremony….And three times the nervous groom flubbed the line “according to God’s holy ordinance.” Eventually, Jerry held up his hand to the judge and said, “Just a minute, sir. I’m going to get that right,” and went on to complete his vows perfectly.
Then he slipped a ring on the finger of the honey-blonde bride….The magnificent $6000 ring glittered with a two-carat diamond surrounded by smaller diamonds, all set in silver.
“Oh, Lord, was I nervous,” laughed the legendary hell-raiser, known to friends and fans as the Killer….
“It was love at first sight,” Jerry recalled. ”I’ve never believed in that sort of thing, but there it was: The Killer fell in love.”
There it was…and Shawn, was it there for her, too?
Well, she clipped the Enquirer’s story and sent it to friends and family. On each copy, she crossed out “$6000” and wrote in the margin, “$7000.”
Her father stood in the hallway shouting: “What’s the deal here? You marry my daughter, then you can’t even come out and see us? Thomas Stephens was steamed; the morning after the wedding, he’d arrived with the rest of the family at the house at eleven. They’d sat outside the locked doors at the pool for more than an hour, before Shawn could emerge from the bedroom to let them in the house. Now, after another hour, Jerry Lee still hadn’t made an appearance.
Jerry Lee showed a half-hour later, with a mumbled apology. He was buzzed. They couldn’t understand him. He wasn’t in a very good mood. “l went into the kitchen,” says Shelley, “and he yelled at me, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I just came in for a couple of beers.’ He started pounding his fist on the counter, screaming: ‘You scared of me? You should be. Why do you think they call me the Killer? How’d I get that name, huh?’ Then he slapped my face. I was trying nor to cry. I couldn’t tell my father. Shawn took us to a hotel there, near the airport, and dropped us off.”
The family didn’t have tickets home, and they didn’t have the money to buy them. Gone was the easy promise of the Learjet. Shawn’s mother, Janice Kleinhans, says there weren’t any rental cars available at the airport that day. At last, she had to call Jerry Lee. “I said, ‘I don’t know where this mix-up come from, but if you can get us home, you’ll have this money back right away.'”
Jerry Lee said: “I don’t want no money back from you.” He and Shawn came by a couple of hours later. Shawn was crying as she met her mother in the airport and laid $1000 cash in her hand. Jerry Lee kept the motor running.
In phone calls back to Michigan, Shawn seldom spoke of troubles. Still, at one point, she told a friend chat her life with the Killer was just like jail—she couldn’t stand his jealousy, she felt like she was watched all the time. Once, she called home all excited about her new Lhasa apso—a $500 dog! In her next call, she sadly reported that she had to give up the pet because Jerry Lee got jealous. Later in the seventy-seven-day marriage, most of the calls were about a homecoming, a Jerry Lee concert Sunday, August 28th, in Nashville, Michigan. The family planned to convene—even Shawn’s grandfather, who’d been too infirm to make it to the wedding, was planning to go. “Don’t forget that Sunday,” Shawn reminded them a dozen times.
She couldn’t wait to see her sister Shelley and called in the middle of August to invite her down for a visit. Shelley, who had left her apartment and had to wait a month before moving into her new one, delightedly agreed to a long vacation. “Perfect,” said Shawn. “I’ll send you a ticket.”
Her first night there, they went to Hernando’s Hide-A-Way. Jerry was in a good mood, joking and dancing with Shawn, trying to charm Shelley. When they left at four in the morning, Jerry Lee was still flying. He played some piano back at the house, then put on the cassette of his new, unreleased album. “No one has ever heard any of these before,” the Killer told Shelley and Shawn. When the song “One and Only You” started playing on the tape, Jerry Lee smiled and murmured, “This is dedicated to you.”
He said it to both the sisters, but Shelley felt he was pressuring her. She didn’t want him coming on. She didn’t go for group sex. She said she’d better get to bed. Shawn said: “Oh, stay up a little longer.” Shelley didn’t want to be put on the spot. She said good night and went to bed.
When she got up at two the next afternoon, Jerry Lee was still up, drinking in his den. His sister, Linda Gail, and her children were over at the house for a visit. Shawn and Shelley sat in the sun at the pool until Jerry Lee came out, looking mean and slurring his words. “He said something like, ‘I think you girls better get your shit together,’ and then he hit-me on the thigh and slapped me across the face. Shawn sat up to say something, and he hauled off and backhanded her across the face. He hit her hard, too. Then he just looked at us really crazy and walked off into the house again.
“I just looked at Shawn, and she asked me, ‘Did he hit you hard? Did it hurt?’ I said, ‘You’re damn right it hurt!’ I said, ‘I’m leaving. I don’t care who he is. Nobody can….’ And then I started to cry. ‘He can’t hit me like that….’ I said I was going to the police.
“Shawn said It wouldn’t be a good idea to go to the police down there, because they were with Jerry, and they’d be trying to find a way to get me for trying to cause trouble for him. So I just said I was going. I was really upset. And she said, ‘Just wait a little, Shel, ’cause I’m leaving, too. I’m not staying if you don’t. I know what he’ll do to me if I go back in that house.’ I said, ‘Get your stuff, ’cause I’m leaving, with you or without you.'”
They passed through the den on their way in, and Shelley said, trying not to cry, “I think I’m going to go now.”
Jerry Lee said, “Go. Get your ass outta here. Get walkin’.” He mumbled something about her being trouble.
“Then Shawn said, ‘Shelley’s been as quiet as a mouse since she’s been here.’ Jerry didn’t hear her. She was over by the record shelf He started yelling: ‘Speak up! Whaddya say about me?’ He grabbed some albums out from under her hands, and he smashed them on the floor. Then he knocked her across the room. Linda Gail grabbed up her two kids and left.
“Shawn was, like, whimpering: ‘You’re so mean. What’s wrong with you?’ She was sunk down into the big brown chair. He picked up a set of keys and whipped ’em at her, hit her in the forehead. She bent down to get the keys, and she told him: ‘I’m leavin’ with Shel. I’m not stayin’ here with you.’ So he tells her, ‘I’ll show ya leavin’. He grabs her by the front of her robe, and he hauls her off down the hall. He says, ‘You’re my wife. I’ll kill you before you leave me.'”
Shelley left the house on foot. She hitched a ride to the nearest store and called her father.
Back in Detroit, Shelley called her mother to recount the fight, but she omitted any mention of group sex. “Well, there may be things you didn’t know about,” her mother said. “Maybe she was making him mad somehow. There’s two sides to everything. One night, when you’re over here, we’ll call her together and all talk about lt.” But before they made that call, Shawn wakened her mother with a phone call at 3:30 a.m., August 23rd.
“She said, ‘I’m leaving him:” her mother recalls, “‘if and when I can get away from him….’
“I said, ‘Shawn, it’s three o’clock in the morning. Call me tomorrow.’
“She said, ‘I don’t know if l can. Whatever you do, make sure nobody calls for me here.’
“‘Honey, call me tomorrow, okay?’
“‘I don’t know if I can, but I’ll be in touch, Mom.’
“‘Okay, talk to you later….'”
The next day, Shawn was dead.
In the quiet house, after Jerry Lee left, Jay Clark and Creekmore Wright, Sheriff Sowell and Bill Ballard drafted a report for Dr. Francisco, who’d requested a description of the scene. Jay Clark did the writing. Jay and Creekmore did the talking, since they were the ones who’d seen the body. Later, Ballard would seem very upset when the funeral director, Danny Phillips, fed the statement to reporters. Ballard needn’t have worried; the description they drafted was mild enough:
Ambulance arrived on the seen approx. 12:52 p.m. Victim was located in front bedroom lying in the bed with cover up to neck. The bed was very neat and did not appear to have been slept in.
There was by visual inspection blood, or what appeared to be blood, on the web of the left hand. There were also bruises on the lower left arm and the upper right thigh. Victim was clothed in a blue nightgown. There were no other items near the victim’s body. . . .
They decided that should wrap it up.
By that time, they knew about the blood on Jerry Lee’s robe and on his slippers. They knew, or had reason to assume, that the body was moved to the guest bed and reclothed in the nightgown. They knew someone had tried to clean up the house after a disturbance. They saw bloody clothes in the bathroom, blood in a rivulet on a door, blood in a spot on the carpet; they could see a bloody piece of gauze on a cabinet in the billiard room where they were writing the report. Why did they omit these facts? “It wasn’t my report,” says Ballard. “I was just watching.” None of the others will talk, including Lottie.
Ballard and Sowell left for the Brantley-Phillips funeral home to attach the report to Shawn’s body for the trip to the morgue in Memphis. On the way out, Sowell paused to tell the reporters that Jerry Lee had been wakened just after noon, by the drapers from Goldsmith’s. Jerry Lee talked with them and then told Lottie Jackson to go wake up Shawn. Sowell declined to offer a theory on the cause of Shawn Lewis’ death. The sheriff said a search had turned up no nonprescription drugs, and no unusual amounts of prescription medicines.
In the big brick house fifty feet away, state investigators and crime lab technicians would work for another full day, collecting enough drugs to fill three single-spaced pages on a crime-lab list, and at least one hypodermic syringe. There was no way to tell if they were illegal drugs or prescription medicines: The job of analysis wasn’t finished for months, and the job wasn’t even started when Bill Ballard and a county grand jury wrapped up the case with a pronouncement that no crime had occurred.
Fifteen miles north, in Memphis, the Killer was resting at the house of J.W. Whitten, who told reporters that Jerry Lee wouldn’t be able to come to the phone: He was “in shock” and “heavily sedated.” But Jerry Lee soon made it to the phone: That evening he would call Shawn’s mother; he would calk to Shawn’s sister Denise. He would call Hernando’s Hide- A-Way, in a late-night search for hypodermic needles. A witness said the Killer asked, “You got any rigs? Goddamn cops cleaned me out.”
In the county sear of Hernando, at the Brantley-Phillips Funeral Home, the morticians, Danny Phillips and his father, John Phillips, had time for a good look at the corpse. It was Danny, the independent-minded thirty-year old, who first released the description that Jay Clark and Creekmore Wright had written up. It was Danny who first reported that Shawn Lewis had traces of blood in her hair, and under her broken fingernails. It was Danny who told reporters that the bruises on Shawn Lewis’ arm had fingernail indentations above them, showing that someone had grabbed her roughly. Danny told reporters, too, that her neck had discoloration. Perhaps someone had exerted pressure there. Bill Ballard came down hard on Danny for releasing the description of the body, and John Phillips had a talk with his son about the firm’s reputation and their “stake in this community.” So Danny grew more careful when he talked about Shawn Lewis. But he wasn’t going to shut up altogether:
“It’s like Charlie Ward said—he drove the ambulance that day, you know. He brought her from the house, and he was standin’ right here, and he said: ‘You know, somethin’ don’t seem right.’
“I’d never say Jerry Lee killed that girl,” Danny says, when he gets going on it. “It might be innocent as a train wreck. But I’d like to see it investigated. To me, I just can’t believe that girl just got to that bed and lay down and died. You just can’t make me believe it.”
“Jan? This is Pam’s friend…” Shawn’s mother had just gotten home from work. It was six p.m., August 24th. “…I called to tell you that Shawn didn’t wake up this morning.”
Shawn’s mother screamed and dropped the phone. Her husband, Robert Kleinhans, took the receiver and the scant information Pam could supply.
In the little Garden City house, the rest of the night was spent on the phone, calling relatives, the funeral home, Sheriff Sowell, Dr. Jerry Francisco, Bill Ballard, the funeral home, then a lawyer nearby in Michigan, then the funeral home again.
Sowell told Mr. and Mrs. Kleinhans to direct all inquiries to Ballard. Francisco called back the next morning to say: “If you’ve got any further communication, call Sheriff Sowell.” Danny Phillips, at the funeral home, told Shawn’s mother how the body looked when he carted it up to Memphis. It flashed on Mrs. Kleinhans that her daughter would be cut up and buried before she could even see her. “But I told her,” Danny remembers, “there wasn’t anything she could do about it, because It was private. It wasn’t DeSoto County orderin’ the autopsy.”
Mrs. Kleinhans called Bill Ballard, protesting the quick autopsy. She was too late, he told her. The autopsy was under way. Later, he recalled that he must have misspoken; the autopsy wasn’t begun until the next day. Shawn’s mother might have stopped it, or at least held It up. But she didn’t find out in time.
Mrs. Kleinhans picked up the phone again just after nine p.m. “This is Jerry,” she heard, and her breath caught. She says Jerry Lee told her: “I can’t understand why this happened, we were gettin’ along so well.”
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, Jerry. I know different. Shelley told me about the fight when you slapped them and dragged Shawn off to me bedroom…’
“He said, ‘I mighta slapped ’em, but I never drug Shawn off anywhere.’
“‘Well, that’s not what I heard.’
“‘Well, how would you like to wake up with your wife dead next to you?'”
Mrs. Kleinhans stared at the phone for a second. She answered with a quake in her voice: “They told me she was in another room.”
She says Jerry Lee snarled back, “Well, she’s dead. And I’m alive.”
Shawn’s mother says: “I didn’t know what, I couldn’t…I just told him, ‘I don’t think I want to continue this,’ and hung up. I didn’t know what to think.”
A girlfriend of Shawn’s put the family in touch with a lawyer, Michael Blake, who runs a plain-spoken practice, mostly drunk-driving and negligence cases, from a small office in a shopping mall a few miles from Garden City. He knew that the family couldn’t pay much; that was always Blake’s first question. But he thought he might bulldog the case for a while and find a wedge for a lawsuit. He, too, started calling Mississippi.
The night was nearly over when Blake got a call back from Jay Clark, who agreed to take statements from Shawn’s mother and sister. Blake also got through to Ballard, who promised, calmly, evenly—one legal man to another—to keep Blake fully apprised.
Just before midnight, Denise spoke to Jerry Lee for the last time. His speech was slurred. She could barely understand him: “‘Jesus Christ, Jerry, what happened?’
‘”Denise sisser’s daid an’ she ‘uz a bad girl.’
“‘What? What do you mean? Jerry! What do you mean?’
“‘Sheuzza baggirl. . . anshe daid. . . .’
Jerry mumbled on until Denise thought she would cry, then she hung up.
“No foul play,” Francisco reported to Ballard early the next day. “It’s pulmonary edema. Fluid in the lungs. Due to causes unknown.”
Ballard says: “He told me it was consistent with a drug overdose, but he said it’d be some time before all the drug scans would be completed.
“I asked him, ‘What’s your impression from what you’ve been able to do? Foul play doesn’t seem likely?’
“He said, ‘No likely about it. There is no indication of foul play.'”
Francisco’s chipper certainty took a weight off Ballard. The Memphis medical examiner might have looked like a fool or a liar in the Elvis Presley case; he had also been criticized by a congressional committee reviewing the autopsy of Martin Luther King Jr. Ballard knew the stories, but he knew Francisco couldn’t be shaken.
“He’s very good that way. He doesn’t talk down to a jury. he likes to tell you exactly what it is, and he likes to defend his position. Lawyers know with Francisco: Unless you can rake him apart, you don’t even question him in front of a jury. If he gets annoyed, he’s going to drive the nails right into your coffin.”
Francisco got Shawn’s body out of the lab within hours, back to the funeral home in Hernando. The embalming had to be hurried. The body was due in Jerry Lee Lewis country, Ferriday, Louisiana, Friday night. And Shawn had better look good.
The technicians from the state crime lab headed back toward Batesville, Mississippi, with their van full of stuff from the house on Malone Road. The state investigators, Jay Clark and Creekmore Wright, were out at the house again Thursday, but they assured all comers they had a good work-up on the scene; It should be smooth sailing from that point.
Sheriff Sowell also said he already had most of the mystery cleared up. In the days ahead, Sowell would release his account of the Shawn Lewis death. The Memphis metropolitan daily, the aptly named Commercial Appeal, took a swan dive on the story. The Hernando weekly, the DeSoto Times, was first and fullest with Sowell’s best stuff.
Sherriff Sowell said, “Jerry Lee had cut his finger on some glass,” and that this was probably responsible for the blood on Shawn Lewis’ hand. The bruises were described by Sowell as superficial, the kind that anybody might have. “She had been up during the day,” noted Sowell in explanation of how she might have lain down on a neat bed. Sowell noted that there was nothing to indicate that anybody had been attacked. “There were no marks of any violence.”
AIthough Sowell said he did not know when the autopsy would be completed, he did not see that there was any emergency now, since the autopsy had removed much of the urgency: “A lot of questions have been answered at this time.”
This sanguine confidence would last for a week, until the Detroit Free Press interviewed Shawn’s family, and the threats, abuse and violence of the marriage became public for the first time.
Shawn’s family bought round-trip tickets to Memphis and got to the funeral home in Hernando for the viewing late Friday afternoon. Thomas Stephens, Shawn’s father, a Catholic, requested some privacy with the body so he could recite the rosary for Shawn. Danny Phillips wasn’t taking chances. He called J.W. Whitten for permission, then fetched the local priest. When the prayers were said, Shawn’s father tucked a cross into her folded hands, and the casket was closed for the trip to Ferriday. Jerry Lee didn’t come to the viewing.
Shawn’s casket was opened for another viewing at one a.m. in Ferriday’s Comer Funeral Home. This time, the Killer came to look, and he said she wasn’t exactly right, something about the hair. Danny Phillips says they told him it never comes right after they open up the head for an autopsy. “Well, she was a pretty girl and I loved her,” Jerry Lee said. Then he saw the cross. “What’s that doin’ in there?”
The Ferriday funeral director said: “That is a symbol of the Catholic faith.” Jerry Lee took the cross from her hands. He was mad.
“How’d that get in there?” Danny Phillips told him about the family’s private prayer in Hernando. “‘That wasn’t right,” Jerry Lee said. He turned to J.W. Whitten, pointing: “You fucked up.”
J.W. protested: “I didn’t tell ’em to do it.”
The Killer waggled a finger between Whitten and Phillips:
“You fucked up. And you fucked up.” He ordered the casket dosed. There’d be no viewing that night.
The funeral went off at 2:30 Saturday. Some of Jerry Lee’s kin played piano and sang hymns from the front of the church. Jerry Lee’s cousin, Gerald, spoke the oration. It was all about Jerry Lee’s troubles. It slowly dawned on Shawn’s family, sitting in their third-row pew, that they were the only strangers in the Assembly of God church. This was Jerry Lee’s service. No one would say anything about Shawn. lt started to sink in on Shawn’s mother after the hymns, about ten minutes into the service, when Jerry Lee walked into the church and everything paused while he made his way up to the front pew. The Killer wore a white tuxedo and a red ruffled shirt.
Shawn was buried in the Lewis family graveyard, where Jerry Lee had played as a child. The Yankee strangers left as soon as they could. They barely talked on the long ride north to Memphis and the airport. They didn’t even pause in DeSoto County. There was nothing for them there.
The Killer, too, barely paused in DeSoto County. The next night, he was back in Memphis, back at Hernando’s Hide-A- Way, with two girls at his side; one witness said they were dancers from a strip joint called Gigi’s Angels. The Killer was singing through a lopsided grin; he was making up a little ditty as he moved to his table: “Ah tol’ her when she lef’ me. . .Ah’d have anothuh in her bed. . . .”
Interview: James Albert Riley, sheriff-to-be. He sat before a wall full of badges, in a big swivel chair, his bovine features set in mistrustful concentration. It was midnight, and no one except his campaign manager, David Camp, was in the sheriff’s office to hear him. Big Dog had picked the time.
A: I’ma tell ya the truth now…Jerry Lee Lewis don’ mean shit to me. I don’t even know ‘im.
A: Now, shit. I know y’all come to tie me up in this Jerry Lee Lewis shit….Now I’ll be straight with y’all now, I don’t know if Jerry Lee even knew about those checks. Shit. I’ll tell you this is gonna cost me the sheriff’s election. I don’t even know ‘im.
A: Now what the hell does Hernando’s Hide-A-Way have to do with anythin’? [Riley rocketed back in his chair, hit the wall, staring. He didn’t speak for a minute. His elbow started hammering on the padded arm of the chair.]
A: I’ll be hones’ with y’all, now. B’lieve it or not, Jerry Lee hardly even talked to me…I was only up oncet, aw, twicet, to Hernando’s….
A: I don’ know a damn thing about gamblin’ machines.
A: Now I don’t know shit about drugs. They couldn’t stack enough money in this room to make me put that stuff in my body.
A: You work an’ bust your ass and you try to be straight, and where the hell does it get you? It gets you in a damn magazine with this Jerry Lee Lewis shit to fuck up your whole damn life. Now, y’all got a man’s life in your hands! l’ll be hones’ with y’all now….
Interview: Roger Jones, County Coroner. He tucked at the waist carefully, to slide the solid slab of his chest behind a Formica table at Coleman’s Barbecue; he folded before him two hands the size of good dictionaries. “Them hands for pullin’ cow tits,” he said. He wasn’t always a coroner. He was a deputy sheriff. Meant to be sheriff someday, too.
Q: You signed the death certificate, but you never saw the body?
A: Well, in this case, an autopsy was performed by Dr. Jerry Francisco. So I just put on the certificate, “See autopsy.”
A: See, what I do, normally, is I get six people, bring ’em to where the body’s at. We investigate….Now, strange deaths, you know, twenty-five-, twenty-six-year-old people, bruises on the body, something like that, that’s a strange death. There’s no reason a twenty-five-, twenty-six-year-old person should be dead. But unless you have an autopsy, you can’t determine no cause of death….That takes the pressure offa everybody.
A: The death certificate signed, that don’t mean nothin’. Death certificate just shows the people dead.
A: No, I never done it like this before.
A: I’m still in the dark. Far as I know, there was two people there—him and her. You gotta ask him or her. Hell, no witnesses, nothin’. You gotta take a man at his word.
A: Well, I asked Bill Ballard. I tol’ him, I said, “I can’t sign the death certificate without a coroner’s inquest.” So he called down to Jackson, and he call me back, tol’ me: “Here’s how you could do it. You just say, ‘See autopsy?’ So that’s what I did.
A: No, I didn’t see it. Tuesday, I took the certificate over to Ballard. He showed me some paper, showed me he was gonna clip it together. He said, “You want me to send it for you?” I said, “That’d be fine.”
[Photo Credit: Jim Herrington]
J.W. Whitten squeezed the sleep from his eyes. He slowly adjusted to the afternoon sunlight filtering into his Memphis house. His little dogs greeted him, yapping and licking, climbing up the front of his bathrobe. J.W. said he wanted the dogs’ names in the story. They are Nickie and Kai.
Then J.W. got right to business: “I can see how her family’d be concerned. But they’re tryin’ to make Jerry into some kind of scapegoat or somethin’. You know they just liked the money. Some of the family’s constantly poppin’ in and out . One time they all of’ em came down and they went to the airport, called up, and they didn’t even have no money to get home. I told him, ‘Jerry, tell ’em all to get me hell out. You married Shawn, not all the rest of ’em.
“It’s my opinion this Shelley came around, an’ every time she’d come around, she’d cause trouble. She was connivin’. She’d always have Shawn off to the side, talkin’. Jerry’d think they were talkin’ about him. I’d tell him, ‘Those Yankee people ain’t the same as us. They don’t mean nothin’ by it.’…But if it wasn’t for the family, none of this woulda ever happened.”
J.W. Whitten has been taking care of the Killer’s business for twelve years. He got with him just by hanging around, being the biggest Jerry Lee fan in town. J.W. likes to tell how he and his daddy were riding in a pickup, down a farm road of Tennessee dirt one day in 1957, when the radio started playing “Great Balls of Fire.” J.W.s daddy told him: “Now, son, there’s your real talent.” J.W. never forgot.
Now, Jerry Lee is his life. On tour 200 days a year, it’s Jerry, twenty-four hours a day. J.W. writes all the checks. He confides, with something like pride, that the feds are planning to indict him, along with Jerry, on a tax charge. When J.W. talked of Shawn’s death, his story was Jerry’s, his reactions were Jerry’s, his feelings….
“No, it was really a shock. But, you know, you stumble into the bathroom, you know, take some pills, it’s easy to make a mistake. Hell, if you don’t know what you’re doing…
“No, they were just talkin’, watchin’ TV. She went to the bathroom. She said, ‘I took some sleepin’ pills.’ He said, ‘Well, how many? You didn’t take too many, or I’m gonna call the ambulance.’ She said, ‘No, It wasn’t that many.’
“People come out to hang the drapes, wake him up. That’s when he tried to wake her up because it was her project. That’s a woman’s job. He noticed her lips were blue. He couldn’t wake her. He smashed the wall with his hand. Cut his thumb. That’s where the blood come from. He walked her up and down the hall, carryin’ her, shakin’ her. Finally laid her on the other bed. That’s how she got to the other bed, see? She had that gown on….Called out to Lottie: ‘Lottie, I can’t get Shawn awake. Call the ambulance.'”
Lottie called J.W., too. He was at the gate in twenty minutes. A couple of hours later, Sheriff Sowell called him into the house, told him about the autopsy plan.
“No, Jerry picked him. Jerry wanted the autopsy and he wanted it in Memphis. He just wanted the best, and Francisco is the best in this part of the country. Sure, it cost us. I can tell you, $2800, but Jerry wanted the best.
“The sheriffs? Number one, as far as I’m concerned. They did their job, but they were very, very nice. Very understanding. Very sympathetic.
“Yeah, I gave the money for the campaign. Now, understand, now. I gave those contributions, but I did it for Jerry, of course. It was just my concern for Jerry, livin’ there and wantin’ the best man for sheriff.
“Well, a friend of mine in Memphis told me he was the best man in the race….No, not one particular friend….Oh, yeah, I checked it out and felt he was the best qualified.”
J.W. said Jerry Lee spent two days “in shock…right in this livin’ room, right where you’re sittin’…We talked, watched some TV, mostly talked. You know. things goin’ on, or business, workin’, things like that. He’d try to stray from the subject of death. He was tryin’ to push the death away from him.
“He’s the greatest,” J.W. said. “He’II come back from this. The first two days, you could tell he was really bothered, but after that, he got it together….”
J.W. picked up one of his dogs. “He talked to Nickie, didn’t he?” he goo-gooed in the dog’s little face. “You talked to the Killer, dincha, dincha?
“Put the dogs in the story, man. Nickie and Kai. They were very understanding. Jerry couldn’t believe how they sympathized with him.
“But you understand, Kai, doncha, doncha?”
Ballard said he’d take the case to the grand jury, just to allay all the doubt. “I’ve tried to make it clear,” he said, “that the only reason for the grand-jury inquiry is to try to dispel some of the suspicion. There is still no indication of foul play.”
With the drug scans after the autopsy, Francisco found what he sought. He phoned Ballard with glad tidings: fluid in the lungs resulted from an overdose of methadone, the synthetic narcotic most commonly used to wean junkies off heroin. Ballard had the cornerstone of his case: a precise and non-violent cause of death. It might have been a suicide, or an accident. It didn’t matter which. As long as it wasn’t a killing.
Ballard put out the news: AUTOPSY LINKS SHAWN LEWIS’ DEATH TO METHADONE, the headlines said. And for the evening paper: LEWIS’ WIFE KILLED HERSELF, OFFICIAL FEELS. Ballard later said his quote—”I believe it was suicide. She was no stranger to drugs…”—was supposed to be off the record.
He still didn’t have a written autopsy report. (He said he didn’t want to rush Francisco.) But Ballard and Jay Clark went to the morgue in Memphis for a meeting. As a courtesy, they took along Jimmy Radford, the district attorney’s investigator, although It was pretty clear there wasn’t going to be any prosecution. Francisco insisted at the meeting that Shawn herself must have taken the methadone. He said he could find ”no mechanism” by which it could have been forced on her.
“No indication of foul play,” Ballard told the Commercial Appeal that evening.” I think we made a thorough investigation of this case and nothing has pointed to homicide.”
There were basic forensic procedures incomplete:
There were drugs by the scoopful in the big brick house on Malone Road. No one knew which drugs Shawn used, or even what all the drugs were. The Mississippi state crime lab did not finish the testing for months. The tests were nowhere near complete by the time the case went to the grand jury.
There was blood on Shawn, blood on Jerry Lee’s robe and slippers, blood on a door, on the carpet, on a lamp, on gauze, on a towel, on bedding, on Shawn’s clothes found in the bathroom….No one knew whose blood It was. Once again, the crime lab did not finish the tests for months.
There was evidence still accruing from the investigation:
Jay Clark had gotten to the drapers from Goldsmith’s. They told him they never talked to Jerry Lee. Instead, they’d stood outside the house knocking for a half-hour. It was Lottie who tried to let them in, when she drove up at about 12:20. As she fiddled with her key in the lock, the Killer opened the door from within. Lottie went to the master bedroom to wake Shawn. Then Lottie came back and told the crew chief from Goldsmith’s: “I have something I have to take care of right now. Why don’t you wait in the den?” Lottie and the Killer were closeted in the master bedroom for a half-hour before the ambulance came, and for about fifteen minutes before the ambulance was called. What did Lottie find in the bedroom? And what was going on in the house while the drapers were stuck outside?
Jay Clark also found two girls Jerry Lee had picked up at Hernando’s Hide-A-Way three nights before Shawn’s death. After dawn, according to one of the girls’ statements, the Killer took them to his house for group sex with Shawn; it led to an argument. The girls ran out of the house across Malone Road and begged the neighbors to take them to Memphis. Did Shawn also try to escape?
There was evidence that the investigators didn’t turn up, or didn’t want to know:
For example, the married couple who rode the girls back to Memphis tried to deny the incident when a couple of reporters showed up at their door. Although they’d complained about the Killer for years, on this occasion. they launched into a loud panegyric on his neighborly virtues. When the reporters mentioned that the incident was covered in the investigative reports. the husband started snarling, “Thassa buncha shit.” Angrily, he dialed the sheriff’s office. asked by name for Deputy McCauley and shouted: “It ain’t s’posed to be in there. I never signed anythin’ like that!” Did McCauley cut some deal with the neighbors?
A night before Shawn died. Jerry Lee was spotted sitting alone in his Cadillac. stuck in a ditch off the exit ramp of the freeway leading to Memphis. The sheriff’s office was called; two deputies arrived at the scene. (The Killer ordered the deputies to fetch his tow-truck man, David Camp, campaign manager to James Albert Riley.) When Jerry Lee was taken home and his car was towed from the ditch, the deputies forgot to administer a test for intoxication. The incident was not recorded in the sheriff’s department logs. “I knew not to log it or nothin’,” said the dispatcher, John Crawford. “When I heard it was Jerry Lee Lewis, I knew is was just a community service.”
That same night, after Shawn called her mother to announce she was leaving Jerry Lee, she made another call, which Ballard & Co. might have known about if they’d pulled the Killer’s telephone bills. In Michigan, Scott’s sister was wakened by the call from Shawn. who asked about Scott: Did he still love her? She asked Scott’s sister to meet her, alone, at Jerry Lee’s August 28th concert in Nashville, Michigan. Shawn asked about seven times: You’re going to come now, aren’t you?” Shawn said she’d call back the next day to make sure about the meeting. She was in midsentence when the phone went dead. Was that the call of a woman planning suicide? And who cut the line?
Certainly, there was a fight at the Jerry Lee Lewis house on the night the Killer’s young bride died. And certainly, evidence was altered. Broken glass was still on the floor, but the big pieces had been removed. Shawn’s garments, with substantial bloodstains, were found stuffed in a paper sack in the master bathroom. Who tried to clean her up? Who reclothed her in the negligee? How did she get to the guest bedroom? Who stripped the sheets and pillowcases in the master bedroom?
Lottie Jackson stripped those sheers. Shortly after he took control of the scene, McCauley found her locked in the master bedroom. He knocked and she wouldn’t respond. He called, and still she wouldn’t open up. Lottie finally came to the door, and McCauley saw the cleanup in progress. McCauley revealed that episode in a “supplemental” report, dated nearly a month after the grand-jury verdict.
But no one needed more reports to shatter the Killers fragile story. lf Shawn went to bed after a quiet night, how did she get dirty? lf he shook her and dragged her up and down the long hall, why didn’t her feet show the contact with the carpet? lf he laid her atop the guest bed when he could carry her and shake her no longer, how did she get under the covers? Why did he say he sent Lottie there to wake her? Why did he say he’d just woken up?
Why would a stripped woman, “no pansy,” scheme to leave her husband, call for news of an ex-lover, make elaborate plans to meet family and friends, promise to telephone them soon…and the next day give it up and kill herself?
Or how did a canny twenty-five-year-old, “no stranger to drugs,” a woman who knew what sleeping pills were, who had used them one at a time with success, grow so careless as to swallow what Francisco described as “ten to twenty tablets” of a drug she’d never been known to use?
How did Shawn Lewis die?
“We may never have an entirely logical sequence,” Ballard said, very quietly, almost sadly, two days before the grand jury met. “You have to get your scenario of what happened and why. And sometimes, the why just lingers sometimes.”
But now he had a ten-page report from Francisco. He had his cause of death. He had an expert who’d testify surely that it was an accident, or suicide.
Ballard brightened: “I think that as time passes, I’ll feel better knowing that we let a grand jury see everything we had….The last thing I want to do is have anybody think I was putting a lid on this thing.”
The grand jury met for about three hours. The only witnesses were McCauley, Clark and Francisco. Ballard Francisco. Ballard had Lottie Jackson and the ambulance crew “on standby,” in case the jury wanted them. It didn’t. Jerry Lee wasn’t even on standby.
Ballard wouldn’t say what evidence was presented. The only witness to comment was Francisco, who brushed past reporters on the way out, after forty-five minutes in the jury room—the entire afternoon session. Francisco was asked to characterize his testimony.
“Painless,” he said.
Michael Blake, the Detroit lawyer, came down to witness the jury process. He wasn’t allowed to, so he spent his time in the courthouse records. He soon learned It wouldn’t be worth the time or trouble to sue Jerry Lee. The Killer already had a half-million dollars in judgments against him, and none of the plaintiffs could collect. They couldn’t even reach his possessions, because the IRS already had two liens on the house and its contents.
Blake did get from Ballard a copy of the autopsy which he showed to a medical examiner back in Detroit. “It seems incomplete,” said the examiner, Greg Kauffman. “It simply does nor answer a lot of questions—questions that should have come up.” He said: “Pulmonary edema is a totally nonspecific finding. It could be caused by a drug overdose, or it could be caused by drowning, strangulation, suffocation, asphyxiation, by trauma to the head or other parts of the body. “These possibilities can be tested, but the tests were either nor performed or nor reported.
Francisco’s autopsy does not even list the bruises and bloodstains evident to untrained eyes. There is no analysis of the blood observed on Shawn’s body. There is no mention of the bruises on her arm and hip. There’s no mention of the condition of her fingernails, nor analysis of the blood that appeared to be clotted beneath them.
There is no mention of any residue of the tablets that Shawn is supposed to have taken. “If they were ten-milligram tablets, she would have taken ten to twenty of them,” Ballard quoted Francisco. Bur the Killer’s prescription for methadone specified five-milligram tablets. Did Shawn gulp twenty to forty pills? And was there nothing left of them?
Francisco’s report shows only: “The stomach contents measures 725 cc’s.” That is a tremendous amount to find in a slender woman’s stomach. But the autopsy doesn’t say what It is. Could it be lake water or swimming-pool water gulped in extremis? Impossible to know. Could it be just a big dinner, or liquid that she drank herself? Once again, hard to say. But methadone hits the bloodstream within a half-hour of oral ingestion. It peaks at four hours. How could Shawn eat a big meal when she should have been already comatose? Or did the methadone enter her body with the meal? It would be soluble in liquids. Once again, Impossible to know. There was a tray of food remains visible in the master bedroom, but collection and analysts of the food seems to have been neglected.
Or could the methadone have entered via some route other than her mouth and her stomach, perhaps after she’d eaten? “Come to think of it,” says Danny Phillips, the funeral director, “it looked like there was a hypodermic mark on the inside of her right arm, just under the armpit. I’m sure of that. l’d hate to say it was a hypodermic mark, but It looked like a puncture wound.” Francisco’s autopsy notes: “There are two small abrasions on the anterior aspect of the right arm, adjacent to the arm pit measuring three millimeters in diameter each.” There is no further description of the “abrasions.”
There was at least one hypodermic picked up at the house that day. By January, Ballard said he still didn’t have an analysis of traces in the syringe. Ballard said he wasn’t qualified to discuss omissions or questions from the autopsy. Sowell refused to discuss any aspect of the case (although in a carefully worded leak to the Commercial Appeal, Sowell admitted that the private, out-of-state autopsy was illegal). And Francisco refused repeated calls for more information about his report. “Francisco may be taking the position that I find myself in,” said Ballard. “When you don’t have a homicide, you don’t have an investigation, and when you don’t have an investigation, what right do I have to release information?”
On the day the grand jury met, Ballard refused to release the autopsy, “at the family’s request….” He meant husband Jerry Lee Lewis. Ballard refused to release investigative reports. “No sir, no reason. I just don’t make snap decisions like that.” He said no record of testimony was taken. The witnesses and jurors were sworn to silence.
To reporters who filled his office, Ballard announced that afternoon: “The grand jury was of the opinion of no probable cause of a crime being committed. There was still no indication of foul play….I don’t think the jury missed anything.”
Does that mean that he and the jury came to know how Shawn Lewis died?
Ballard came forward at his desk. His words grew more pronounced and even rose a notch in volume. “What ii still comes down to is there is no reason to suspect foul play. And whether I know what happened in the last twelve hours or the last two days before the death of Shawn Lewis, there is…still…no…reason…to…suspect…foul…play.”
Ballard serried back in his seat.
“That’s it, as far as I’m concerned.”
The Killer had a party at Hernando’s Hide-a-Way to celebrate his forty-eighth birthday. It was four days after the grand-jury session. Jerry Lee’s friends were happy.
They convened at about nine—record producers and independent truckers, ex-girlfriends of singers, Memphis matrons and off-duty cops, all bunching up at the door, flashing their printed invitations at a big black man in leather, whose eyes drifted unhurriedly from their faces, over their clothes to their shoes, with a detour toward the left armpit for men who might be packing guns.
Inside, the best tables went fast, staked out with bourbon bottles clumped in the center of the tablecloths. Late arrivals had to stand along the walls, leaning against the juke box or the poker machines. The men did a lot of back-pounding. Their women stood by, posing. There was a man in a suit and a smile, pounding every back and shaking the ladies’ hands. A campaign button on his lapel showed him in a smile and a suit, and advertised his name and lever. Owner Kenny Rodgers slid through the swelling crowd.
The noise from the crowd barely diminished as an inaudible introduction gave way to a wobbly country song by Webb Pierce, another Louisiana hell-raiser who was singing hits while Jerry Lee Lewis was learning to shave in Ferriday. Now nearly sixty, a drinker, thirty years past his prime, Pierce finished his song, and the crowd gave him a big hand for who he used to be. Pierce bowed and beamed like they meant it. Funny how they just don’t know.
And then he was there! Kenny Rodgers got up on the stage, took a mike and announced with wheezy emotion: “He’s here, folks. Here is Jerra. Jerra, you’re still the greatess. Ain’ nobody to touch ya.” The crowd cheered and whooped for Jerry Lee, who raised a hand and pulled his face in a taut grin.
They had a long table for him, set up to one side of the dance floor: a pile of gifts and a forest of bottles. Jerry drank from a glass of whiskey. Everybody tried to crowd around to the back of the table, to shake his hand, kiss him or whisper something. Jerry didn’t know most of them—especially the women, who bullied their way to the spot just behind him. One girl in a loose flowered shirt left her seat for a fifteen-minute struggle to Jerry Lee’s right ear. She whispered something and he answered, and she worked her way back through the crowd, beaming. “I told him, ‘You know, I came all the way from Kentucky to see you.’ And he said, ‘Oh, did you?’ That was all I had time for, cause Blondie next to him was goosin’ me.”
There was Blondie on has right and a lovely ltalianate brunette on the other side. There were a half-dozen other young women ringing the table. They took turns pouring or talking for him, if no one had his ear. Jerry Lee looked, without change of expression, from one to the other, as if they were so many TV sets. The lnstamatic flashes etched cruel skeletal shadows on his sagging face. The flesh seemed to have worn away with the millions of miles, millions of photos, millions of whispers. His eyes stared, flat black spots, unmoving, unblinking, giving out nothing. Now the Killer reached over toward the pile of gifts, lifted a gold paper crown and put it on his head. The flashes started popping off like crazy. The King was all bones and coal eyes under the shiny gold headband. The girls at the table all threw their heads back, threw their faces into bright young smiles…Oh, Jerry! Oh, Killer!
“It’s just some friends of ours, you know, some girls I put there, just to talk to him, you know,” J.W. Whitten said, looking on in approval, hovering at a corner of the dance floor. “Yeah, some of ’em he knows, some of ’em he don’t.” The dark-haired beauty at Jerry Lee’s left had her hands on his cheek and chin, her face right behind them. She was wiping lipstick off him. Kenny Rodgers was at the mike: “Folks, the mos’ greates’ ennataina in the worl’…y’all know him, so less givem a big han’….” Jerry Lee stood stiffly to work his way to his piano. He was holding up a hand, smiling, acknowledging cheers.
“Yeah, he looks good, don’t he?” J.W. said. “He’s okay now. That’s all over. You know the grand-jury vote? Sure I got it. Was 14-2, or somethin’, only two against us.
“Listen,” J.W. said, and he even turned away from the stage for a moment. They’ll never bust him in DeSoto County. That’s like bustin’ Elvis in Memphis. Never. Never. And you can quote me on that.”
I need all day to read this. Great images. Check out Hal Shaefer's obit in the NYT.
1) Worth your time. This story is a classic.
He always reminded me of an evil doppelgänger-polar opposite of Danny Kaye...
 That's fucking evil and brilliant.
This story had me hypnotized, unreal to think he got away with it.
Still slugging through it. Fascinated. Passing along to my wife.
Hmm. No comment on Hal Shaefer? Richard Ben Cramer wrote the book on Joe D. Shaefer plays a major minor role.
One of the all-time best mag stories. Up there with "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold." And his intro is just as fascinating. Thanks for posting this. BBanter continues to amaze.
The killer's wikipedia page says Shawn died of a methadone overdose. Obviously written by a superfan.
He wasn't called "The Killer" for no reason.