Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2018

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Death of the man called Pops shakes homeless community

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Steve Marcus

Oneida Lewis and her brother Edgar stand by their father’s casket at Davis Funeral Home Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. James Lewis is one of two homeless men who police believe were randomly murdered by Joshua Castellon.

Vigil For James Lewis

Cassandra Lewis, right, ex-wife of murder victim James Lewis, says a prayer as friends and family members gather during a vigil at 12th Street and U.S. 95 Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. Lewis is one of two homeless men that police believe were randomly murdered by Joshua Castellon. Launch slideshow »

Funeral For James Lewis

Lydia Fluellen, left, and her sister Oneida Jefferson pray during a funeral for James Lewis at Davis Funeral Home Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Lewis is one of two homeless men that police believe were randomly murdered by Joshua Castellon. Oneida Jefferson is Lewis' mother-in-law. Launch slideshow »

Police Announce Arrest in Homeless Attacks

Metro Police homicide Lt. Dan McGrath responds to questions during a news conference at Las Vegas Metro Police headquarters in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. Metro Capt. Robert Plummer is in the background at left. Police announced Joshua Castellon, 26, of Las Vegas, is in custody and is a suspect in a rash of attacks against homeless men. Launch slideshow »

James Edgar Lewis was sleeping in a bundle of blankets below the U.S. 95 overpass on 14th Street after surviving another day on the streets of Las Vegas when a car drove slowly by in one direction and then back in the other.

The noise did not stir Lewis, a well-known figure among downtown’s homeless, a simply proud man who only hesitantly accepted handouts and spent his days collecting cans to make a little money. The 64-year-old everyone called Pops was quiet, soft-spoken, avoided trouble.

But in the dark of the early morning hours of Feb. 2, trouble found him.

As Lewis lay there unaware, a man — little more than a grainy silhouette on a surveillance video — slowly approaches, leans over and extends his arm toward the sleeping man.

Two bright muzzle flashes from a gun are captured on the video.

James Edgar Lewis’ life ended at that moment — after four years struggling on the streets and far from where it began in Texas, where he grew up and served in the military. Far from his life tinkering with cars and working as a farm hand, a taxi driver and in a grocery store.

A homeless woman named Lucky had just seen Lewis a couple of hours before he died and had trouble fathoming what happened.

“I can understand one thing if he was like antagonizing the guy or doing something ... but he wasn’t. He was asleep,” she said. “It was a shock. I immediately had to find some of our other friends. I mean, he was Pops.”

Had his bicycle not been stolen in the days leading up to his death, Lewis likely would have been out pedaling around, scouring for cans and plastic at the time Metro Police allege the gunman targeted his fourth random victim that week.

British filmmaker David Harriman, who is working on a documentary about the homeless in Las Vegas, captured a video in August of Lewis pedaling down the street on a sunny afternoon, hauling two large aluminum can-filled bags on his shoulders.

In the short video, which the filmmaker provided to Lewis’ daughter, Oneida, after the shooting, the gray-bearded Lewis wears a bucket hat, a clean white T-shirt, jeans and sneakers.

Lewis said he was homeless for four years after he was laid off from a convenience store where he had worked for seven years.

“Basically, I just stay off to myself. I don’t have any friends or anyone,” he said. “Once you reach a certain age, nobody wants to hire you, so that’s how you get homeless.”

The video was the first time Oneida Lewis had seen or heard her father in some 15 years, but it only provided a snapshot into his life after he “dropped off the face of the earth,” she said, crying.

Lewis indeed kept to himself, those who knew him said, but he had more friends than he knew. “He had people who cared for him,” said Harriman, who’d befriended the man a couple of years ago.

His family, friends and former classmates spent years actively looking for Lewis in multiple states.

What is known about Lewis’ earlier life is highlighted in his family-written obituary.

He was born on March 18, 1953, in Huntsville, Texas. He joined the Air Force in 1971, and two years later transferred to the reserve, where he served several years. He was a fan of boxing and football, and he liked to work on cars.

In Texas, before moving to Colorado in 1978, he baled hay and raised cows with his father and brothers. He became a taxi driver and later bought two cabs of his own.

His family doesn’t know when he moved to Las Vegas, but they think it was in the mid 2000s.

Harriman said Lewis had told him he was waiting for his 65th birthday next month to start collecting Social Security and get off the streets.

“He was mentally sharp; he read the newspaper every day ... He was very thoughtful,” said Harriman, who had last saw Lewis about two weeks before his death. Lewis didn’t own a watch, instead using the schedules of airplanes flying overhead and sun shadows on the mountains to tell time, he said.

In an attempt to piece together her father’s recent history, his daughter visited the place he died, picking up his blanket and talking to those who knew him.

She said she was surprised she never spotted him on the streets during outings to nearby Cashman Field or when she drove her son to a friend’s house in the area.

Oneida Lewis moved to Las Vegas in the early 2000s, and her father told her he was considering following her out a couple of years later, but she never heard from him again.

Shortly after she moved to Las Vegas, she ran into a homeless man who resembled her father, but it wasn’t him, she said.

On the spot where Lewis died, a small memorial has popped up.

A stuffed white puppy, a plastic dog, and a letter sit below a sign, which in part reads: “Rest In Peace James Lewis, A.K.A ‘My Old Man,’ A.K.A ‘Pops.’ Fly with the Angels.”

A garbage collector who would often offer Lewis a bottle of water and a snack on his route, got out of his truck and placed a bottle of water at the makeshift shrine. “I just can’t believe it,” said the man, who did not provide his name.

James Kastner, another homeless man who knew Lewis, said he hoped the killer is put away for life. “Because somebody like that, that’s an animal ... That’s just an animal,” he said.

An arrest warrant for Joshua Castellon, 26, has been issued on two counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder in the shooting of Lewis and three other men apparently targeted at random. Castellon was arrested Feb. 16 by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives on a federal weapons count, police said.

No motive has been established for the shootings in which two other homeless men also were targeted, police said.

Members of the area’s homeless community joined the Lewis family Saturday night for an emotional vigil. Small white candles illuminated the impromptu memorial underneath the downtown overpass where he was slain two weeks earlier.

Mourners asked God to shelter and protect those less fortunate and bade farewell to Lewis, who was a “victim of a heinous crime,” said Cassandra Lewis, the mother of his two children. “He was a good man; he was a good father; he was a good friend, an uncle and a son.”

People must come together to provide aid to the “forgotten” homeless communities, Oneida Lewis said. “We forget, but let’s not push them away…They paved they way for us; why don’t we treat them better?” she said.

“Call your family. Please call them,” Cassandra Lewis said to Kastner, as she hugged him.

Lucky, who lives on the same streets as Lewis, said she’s visited the memorial nearly every day since the shooting.

“It’s weird,” she said, “because around here we don’t really have that sense (of community). When bad things happen to people, it’s like, ‘OK, that sucks for you.’ This one was different — to see how many people that he affected.”