Retired lawyer in Myrtle Beach found outlet in multifaceted life in writing mystery novels

For The Sun NewsFebruary 23, 2014 

  • Inside

    • Read a review of Don Lewis’ latest book, “Kalup’s Crossroads,” on Page 2E.

Mystery writer Don Lewis has just returned with wife Sheryl from St. Lucia, an island located midway down the Eastern Caribbean chain.

“It was not exactly the jewel of the Caribbean, but the Windjammer was the best resort I’d ever been to,” he said.

Coming back from a tropical locale and now living in what some would call a paradise in its own right, the couple relocated to the Grand Strand more than nine years ago from Pennsylvania after Lewis retired from a varied and successful career as a criminal trial lawyer – including a stint as Crawford County District Attorney in Meadville, Pa.

“I used to bring my kids here every summer,” he said. “In those days, North Myrtle Beach was the place to go because that’s where all of the water slides and things were.”

He said he had a timeshare for a time, and it was common practice for him to bring his neighbors along.

“I always said that when I retire, I’m going to Myrtle Beach to stay.” The Lewises now live in Surfside Beach. “I wanted to get away from the honky-tonk, but be close enough to it so it was accessible to me easily.”

Lewis, 73, has lived a multifaceted life that at first glance can seem dizzying: The aforementioned law career, spanning 17 years as a prosecutor and 14 as defense attorney, practicing in Pennsylvania and Florida in both state and federal courts before retiring at age 62 – some of this in Tampa as assistant U.S. attorney in the Drug Task Force, working closely with DEA and U.S. Customs.

“Trial lawyers are kind of like the combat soldiers of the legal profession,” he said. “If I couldn’t be a trial lawyer, I didn’t want to be a lawyer.” Being what he called a “paper lawyer” was not for him.

Pretty impressive for a guy who by his own admission got kicked out of college more than once.

“I think there is a plaque somewhere at John Carroll University [a Jesuit college near Cleveland], recognizing the fact that I didn’t get anything above an ‘F’ that first year,” he said. “I was too busy playing football and having a good time.” Later, he attended Waynesburg University and ultimately earned his law degree at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

But a lot of living took place along the way.

Indeed, Lewis is from Pittsburgh, and one can still hear that in his conversational style – especially when he said things like “get outta town.” . He was a two-time boxing champ in high school, football player in college and high school and for all intents and purposes, a thrill seeker.

He has hitchhiked across Mexico and hopped box cars, hobo style, across the Southwest. He has made more than 300 freefall skydives, taken flying lessons in an Aeronica Champion that he said already crashed once – and ridden his Harley-Davidson Road King back and forth across the country many times.

Lewis was a Green Beret and is a recipient of the Bronze Star Medal for his service with the 5th Special Forces Group, Detachment A-214, in Vietnam – serving as a combat paratrooper from 1964-1965.

“I left college because the war was on – and I figured, if I don’t get in now, I’ll miss it. I mean – who knew it would last forever?” He enlisted in 1963, eager to serve his country.

Last year, he attended a reunion with the surviving members of his detachment. “Five of us were able to be there in Salt Lake City and most of them I hadn’t seen since 1965. It became emotional for me when I realized that we would probably never have the opportunity to be together again.”

Lewis’ first stab at writing came as a result of information he was putting together for a training company he was developing, called LETI – or Law Enforcement Training Institute.

“I would notify police departments all over the country and set up classes with [police officers] on how to handle themselves in the courtroom,” he said. “Every weekend I was going somewhere – and the further away, the longer I was gone.” He said he was getting tired of traveling around.

Add this to the pressure of being a criminal trial lawyer. He was beginning to feel like there was no way he could live up to his reputation.

“Every time I went into court, people would come off the street to watch me try a case,” he said. “I was expected to win every time, and I knew I couldn’t do that. Every morning I used to get up, and when I was shaving, I would look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Is today the day they are going to find out I don’t know what the h*** I’m doing?’ ”

A friend of his suggested that he try his hand at writing – and since he already had material, the result was a book called “The Police Officer in the Courtroom: How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Cross-Examination Through the Proper Preparation and Presentation of Investigative Reports, In-Court Testimony, and Evidence,” which is now a go-to textbook used on college campuses and distributed widely in law enforcement circles.

“Mike Thomas [owner, Charles Thomas Publishers] wants me to put out a second edition because the first one has been out for 10 years,” he said. “I told him that this isn’t the kind of book that needs updating. It’s law, strategy and tactics – and they don’t change. It has been the same since time immemorial – since they began trials.”

But the friend who suggested writing as a stress-reliever was talking about novels, not textbooks.

“He told me to do something where I can make things up, so I decided to start writing [novels] then – and it was great. It was therapy. I would be in court on a Friday in the middle of a trial. I would go home and go out on my boat and I’d be writing. Monday morning, I’d come in and ask my secretary what I was supposed to do that day – and she’d say, ‘you’re in the middle of a trial for Pete’s sake.’ ”

He was hooked. Now, Lewis has four crime mysteries under his belt: “Rizzo,” “Kalup’s Crossroads,” “Dark Covenant” and “Satan’s Boots Don’t Creak.” Lewis has a Web presence as well, www.mysterywriterdonlewis.com, which includes a blog, reviews and an online store for his books.

He is working on a forthcoming title called “The Border Incident,” a de facto sequel to “Kalup’s Crossroads,” and a reprise of the now-retired Assistant U.S. Attorney, Sonny Kalup, and his team.

“It’s going to be controversial,” said Lewis. “Three border patrol agents get info that there is going to be a crossing at a certain place on the Rio Grande – an illegal crossing. So they go there – and they end up getting ambushed and fired upon. According to the Mexicans – the Americans fired on the Mexican border patrol and killed someone.” The Americans insist that this is not the case.

Mexico demands extradition of these agents to Mexico to stand trial for murder. Ultimately, Kalup is brought in as special prosecutor and he brings along his investigative team.

“He goes to Texas and the story goes from there,” said Lewis, who expects to debut this title sometime this spring.

By chance, Lewis began a friendship with Mickey Spillane shortly before the legendary creator of Detective Mike Hammer passed away in 2006. “He had a friend who worked with my wife at Grande Dunes, and this guy told him that I was a writer and former prosecutor,” said Lewis, adding that Spillane liked people who were in law enforcement and fellow writers.

The pair had lunch in Murrells Inlet.

“We sat there for three hours and talked, and it was amazing how much we had in common. He made parachute jumps, and I made hundreds of them – and we both played football.” He said they hit it off. “After 10 minutes, I was calling him Mick.”

The upshot of this was that Spillane gave Lewis an open-ended invitation to come to his house.

“I used to go over and we’d sit on the porch and talk. I learned a lot from him. He was a wonderful, gentle and sweet guy – not at all the tough guy image that he portrayed.”

Jim Brouwer, author of “Gold Beneath the Waves: Treasure Hunting the Surf and Sand,” mentioned Lewis in the acknowledgements of his book, which is all about metal detecting on the beach and in the surf, for inspiring him to keep moving forward and stay focused.

“Don Lewis is a writer of mysteries,” said Brouwer. “A good mystery pulls you in and challenges the reader. The plotting must be meticulous. The clues and trails must be believable. And the characters must be relatable; people with quirks and idiosyncrasies and beliefs. Don Lewis excels at all of these.

They say to write what you know best. Don Lewis’ background as a trial lawyer gives him an inside track on the motives and minds of those he has defended and prosecuted.”

He asserts that all four novels are excellent food for those who love the mystery genre.

Brouwer cites Lewis as a friend and mentor for many years. “Our lunch discussions center on the complex plot, the twist, the dark places, and the shafts of light of the next novel.

“Where will the next crime lead? I guarantee that a Don Lewis novel will never be predictable and yet all the pieces are there for the astute reader. A good mystery is thought-provoking, sometimes dark, and always leaves one desperate for a solution. A Don Lewis novel is a great read that meets all these criteria.”

Wife Sheryl has been party to Lewis’ adrenaline-fueled pursuits.

“These adventures and experiences are things that people think about, watch on TV or read about, but he actually does them,” she said. “Gotta love that about him.”

But did she ever worry about this?

“Of course I worry about him when he is riding his Harley cross country for a month or skydiving – but I would never talk him out of following his dreams,” she said. But she has also been skydiving, white water rafting and water skiing without knowing how to swim.

“I rode my Harley Fatboy with Don on his Road King from Western Pennsylvania to Sturgis for the big rally.”

Two peas in a pod.

An author working on a project has the potential to be tough to live with, but not so in Lewis’ case.

“He is always eager to share new ideas about the story and what direction it is headed in next,” she said. “He spends a lot of time on the computer making outlines, creating lists of characters and doing research on parts of the country where the story takes place – or looking up specifics for other aspects he plans to include in the book. I can tell when he is on a roll, and I try not to interrupt him and break his train of thought.”

Francis J. Schultz, current Crawford County District Attorney, shed some light on his predecessor.

“Don Lewis is a dear friend of mine,” he said. “He was an excellent trial lawyer and is an even better man. I loved trying cases against him because I knew I was in for a battle and that I was going to learn something.”

Schultz added that Lewis could be aggressive the courtroom when he believed he had to be. “He could also be very charming and funny during a trial.”

After 29 years, what, according to Sheryl Lewis, is the secret to their long and happy marriage?

“It is easy to live with someone you really love and who loves you back,” she said. “You treat each other with respect and don’t intentionally do anything to hurt them or their feelings. You can’t be too sensitive and have to let some things simply roll off your back. This is what works for us.”

Does Lewis have plans for an autobiography?

“People say, ‘geez – you’ve done all of these exciting things’ – and I understand why they feel that way,” he said. “But I have learned that once you do something, the luster kind of lessens. Once you do it, you’ve done it, and it doesn’t hold the same mystique as it did before you did it. There is nothing more boring than writing an autobiography, in my opinion.”

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