Archive for Thursday, July 25, 2002

Suspect’s troubles date to grade school

July 25, 2002


It's been 11 years since Erin McDaniel, then a fifth-grader in Newton, reported a classmate for allegedly planning to shoot another student and bringing a gun to school.

Last week McDaniel, a copy editor at the Journal-World, was stunned when she realized her former classmate Damien C. Lewis was charged with capital murder for the slayings of an elderly Lawrence couple.

"That name struck a chord with me, but I thought surely that's not him," said McDaniel, 22, Lawrence.

Lewis was arrested last week and charged with shooting to death Pete Wallace and Wyona Chandlee, both 71. Police said the couple interrupted a burglary in their 1530 Learnard Ave. home.

Lewis was in Lawrence, wanted since late April for a parole violation. He had been released from the Hutchinson Correctional Facility, where he was serving time for aggravated assault, burglary and criminal possession of a firearm

In April 1991, McDaniel and Lewis sat near each other in fifth grade at Newton's Chisholm Middle School.

"We talked often," said McDaniel, a May journalism graduate at Kansas University. "We were friendly."

Watch led to dispute

Lewis got into a dispute with another student about a watch, claiming the other student stole it from him, McDaniel said. Lewis said he was going to bring a gun to school and shoot the student.

"It wasn't something I took seriously," McDaniel said, noting that the incident was several years before the now well-known school shooting incidents, such as Columbine High School in Colorado. "The next day he opened his desk and showed me he had a gun."

Lewis allegedly said he planned to ambush the student in the restroom after recess, McDaniel said. Lewis had noticed the student always went to the restroom after recess before returning to class.

After recess, Lewis walked by McDaniel and patted his shirt, as if to tell her he had the gun, and then walked into the restroom, she said.

McDaniel decided she had to do something. The student Lewis was after was at the water fountain, so she sent one of her girlfriends over to warn him not to go into the restroom.

"He looked at us as if we were crazy," McDaniel said.

McDaniel then told her teacher about Lewis and the gun. The male teacher went directly to the bathroom and came out with Lewis. The teacher had the gun.

Attempts to contact the teacher and principal who were at Chisholm at the time were unsuccessful. The student Lewis allegedly intended to shoot could not be located.

McDaniel doesn't know what, if any action was taken against Lewis. She said she spent the rest of the afternoon that day talking with the school counselor about the incident. Lewis was transferred to another school.

The counselor, Curtis Stubbs, declined to comment on Lewis, citing student confidentiality.

Stacie McClelland, Lewis' 21-year-old girlfriend here in Lawrence, said Lewis had told her about his childhood episode with the gun.

"He told me when he was 12 or 13 he did take a gun to school and he did get busted with it. He said he did it because somebody called him the "N" word. It had a lot to do with racism."

No retaliation

The truth about the incident didn't come out in the Newton paper until the mother of the targeted student wrote a letter to the editor, McDaniel said.

McDaniel said she was sure Lewis knew she turned him in. She thinks she was the only one Lewis told about his plans. But McDaniel said she didn't fear retaliation by Lewis.

"I wasn't really afraid of him," she said. "I didn't think much about it."

McDaniel and Lewis would later see each other around Newton, but they never talked. She doesn't remember the last time she saw him.

But the memories of that school day in April 1991 came flooding back last week when McDaniel learned Lewis might face the death penalty if he's convicted in the double slaying.

"I'm just very sad about it," she said. "It makes me wonder what kind of horrible things were going on with him when he was 10 or 11."

Violent fight

Until three years ago, Gordon Stineman was principal a Santa Fe Middle School in Newton. He, too, remembers Lewis.

"He was a good student, but he was a volatile student," Stineman said during a telephone interview from his home in Newton.

"In fact, he was in the most violent fight I ever had to break up. When it was over, Damien had torn his shirt off; he was bare-chested, he was really going to get that other kid."

At the time, Lewis was in eighth grade.

Stineman, who retired in 1999, was visiting his daughter last week in Ottawa when Lewis' picture was on the front page of the Journal-World after the arrest.

"I saw that picture and I said to myself, 'Oh, no, is that the Damien Lewis I know?' And then I thought about it, and I said, 'Well, I'm not surprised.' He was a good kid, but, oh, he had a short fuse."

Staff writer Dave Ranney contributed to this report.

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