Tucson Salvage

Suicides, tweakers, and a hero cop who escaped death

Brian Smith
David Lewis at UMC.

He once watched a guy blow his face and the top of his head off with a large-caliber gun. The gory suicide isn’t necessarily what shocked him. It was how the guy survived for a short time afterwards mangled like that, necessary pieces of him gone forever.

So tonight is nothing to Tucson cop David Lewis, this father and husband, college grad and ex-skateboarder. Hell, he nearly died once, on the job, more than a decade ago, dragged 150 feet beneath a car, the left side of his face shredded off, eye out of its socket. He's had to fight for normalcy after that — still does — and he nearly lost it all.

It's around midnight when we arrive on an usually dark stretch of Campbell Avenue near Ft. Lowell Road lit up by pulsing yellows, oranges and reds. A guy attempted suicide by car. He’s pinned beneath a Honda, pants bloody, his legs and boots protrude slightly from underneath. His shirt’s snarled around a rear tire. It takes a minute for this particular brutality to come into focus because this could be death, and that kind of shock is always delayed by a few seconds, or minutes, or longer.

The Honda's driver stands on the side of the road scattered and trembly because she ran over this man, and Jesus how will she get to sleep tonight? I squat closer and see behind the car's front tire a distended belly and hairy chest and shredded skin crushed by an engine block. There's not much blood but an awful secretion foams from his mouth, and a pool of vomit has formed under his head and beard. His right arm is stretched out in the form of somebody who's desperately reaching out for something, like a cigarette, or god. The smell of booze mixes with exhaust from idling fire trucks and ambulances and cop cars, and I'm probably 10 feet away from him.

I wonder in that moment, as he groans and slightly squirms in agony, if it's possible that he could only be dreaming, or if he's aware that this world around him has suddenly stopped and all its eyes are on him? I wonder if he has a mother or daughter, a brother or wife, and if they'd ever consoled him? Maybe he thinks the paramedics saying calming things to him are angels?
These florescent-vested paramedics and cops work quickly, employing the kind of orderly precision that would take any of them far in any career of their choosing — this guy could be dying but that's just not going to happen on their damn watch.

Cops find it hard to believe the guy is still breathing, and say he probably wouldn't be if not for the Hispanic kid witness who quickly procured a carjack and raised the Honda enough so that the guy might survive.

As he's placed carefully on a stretcher and lifted into the ambulance, Lewis agrees that if the man were sober he'd likely be dead. (One good thing about getting run over by a car when you're drunk is you bend like a ragdoll.) At first, I think Lewis is mocking the guy's horrific circumstance, but soon I understand that he's making light of something bigger. He's making light of the absurdity of the insanity of having to work every day with so much torment and sadness, the very kind that finds a woman driving innocently down Campbell Avenue suddenly part of another's insane suicide plot.

The tone helps Lewis stay detached, saves him and other cops from becoming crippled in the misery of others. It's how he can still be a dad and a husband, and a guy who can relax enough in his spare time to train dogs and play guitar. Still, even that, he says, is difficult. The work, "wreaks havoc on your family."

We climb into Lewis' tricked-out 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe patrol SUV and follow the ambulance to the University Medical Center, lights flashing. Disturbed's “Down With the Sickness” plays softly in the cab. It's strange to think cops listen to music when they work.


The 43-year-old, Tennessee-born Lewis swears his threshold for trauma is high. Got from his old man, a tough, 41-year John Deere mechanic who died not long ago at 65. Lewis basically grew up in the neighborhood behind his police precinct, around Jacobs Park.

After high school he worked eight years as a prison guard (including death row at the Arizona State Prison in Florence) while attending college. He met his wife Cimmon at UA and they've been married 18 years. She now works as a probation supervisor at Pima County Juvenile Court. ("She understands my work," he says.) Lewis degreed in political science instead of becoming a lawyer. But once he did a ride-along with Cimmon's cop cousin he "got the bug to be a cop." That was that.

The Operations Division West police substation is hardly NYPD Blue; it’s all mod cons, a big glass and steel structure, spacious—imposing but airy with hard-angles, muscular and patriarchal. Like a modern chuch in suburban Omaha. It houses around 11 uniformed squads of about 10 officers each, and receives 1,200 to 1,300 calls a day. Tucson's high crime.

Much of Lewis' job is paperwork (85 percent he reckons) and there's even a kind of writing lab inside the station with a number of computers. A cop's reporting needs to be accurate, accountable and detailed, to hold up in court, for one thing. Lewis edits reports of others too because he's an LPO (lead police officer), which is a sort of intermediary between a sergeant and a 10-man squad.

The substation fits Lewis' personal code, a cop's code, a militaristic way of orderliness and conduct and cleanliness — from his perfectly pressed uniform and strict tactical training to officer protocols, and there's a million to memorize. Even this night, a ride-along with him in his cop SUV, he's acutely aware that something's always required of him—from overseeing trainees to quelling bickering addicts. Even simple street observations reveal senses working in overdrive; he's many feet away interviewing a witness yet overhears word-for-word a conversation I have with another officer. Driving through neighborhoods he detects slights in the dark that I don't and points them out—the faintest whiffs of weed, a possible stolen car, a couple arguing deep in the dark. And he knows he terrifies pretty much any driver he's behind, just by his presence. "If they only knew that my mind was doing 10 other things," he laughs. The code offers salvation too: Some of Lewis' patrol work deals in literal filth — the feces — and maggot-riddled existences of folks he comforts or confronts.

He knows cops scare people. I tell Lewis I’ve had horrible experiences with cops over the years. Mostly entitled white cops in Phoenix using undue force for no reason. I've had my head slammed down on hoods of cop cars, found myself handcuffed and searched more than once after just riding my bike at night from Circle K with my beer in my barrio hood, where I happened to be one four white people living. Been picked on by cops elsewhere too, in Detroit and Texas and Iowa ... Maybe I looked like a drug addict and that made me an easy target for lazy cops. That’s nothing compared to what myriad others suffer.

U.S. Cops have killed 800 hundred people so far this year. And the clash between the violence-baiting law and oil-pipeline protesters and Native Americans in North Dakota is inhumane.
There's been a spike in murders of cops, too.

Talking police brutality, the articulate Lewis chooses words carefully. Assholes populate every profession, he points out. I say it seems like a bigger group of them come together around guns. He nods. He's been hassled by cops, too. On down time, riding his motorcycle with all his tats, pulled over. He's seen it. He knows. Look, he tells me, if there's anyone around his precinct who's not straight up, "I myself will set him straight. It's just not tolerated here. I started in 2000 and it's always been like that. Who's using force and how much is all tracked now," he adds. "Big brother is all around."

This PR spin horseshit?

"It's not PR horseshit," he says. "We get thanked everyday here for doing our jobs. That hatred toward cops just isn't happening in Tucson."

The night before we meet, one of his own was shot, a bullet grazed his head. But still. Lewis shakes his head. The police in Tucson are taught well, he says, better than in many rural areas and cities. It takes a year and half of training, from the police academy through field training and a probation period, to be a cop here. He trains still, all the time, whatever comes up, “human trafficking, terrorism, narcotics, you name it. People don't realize that you just don't take a test and become a cop.”

The cop has never shot anyone with a bullet. He’s never killed anyone. He has used less lethal ways of apprehension and self-defense, such as pepper ball shots and blasts of beanbag rounds from a shotgun. He's knows what that feels like too; it's part of their training to be shot by such.
But Lewis many times figured he was goner. Like that time in October 2004 when he joined a miles-long car chase through Tucson. Cops and a police helicopter chased two burglary suspects in a Dodge Dynasty. The Dodge blew through lights hitting 100 miles an hour at 11 p.m. on Tucson streets with their headlights off. Anthony Stringer wasn’t stopping for cops and he had guns in his car.

"Back then we didn't have road spikes and we weren't trained to use the pit maneuver, where you actually hit the back of the car," Lewis says. "And the pursuit lasted a total of 55 minutes, went all the way up to West Cortaro and Camino de Cerro, at a trailhead with parking lot. The helicopter was telling us it was a dead-end and to be prepared."

The Dodge flew into the dead-end, and his passenger leapt out.

"I pull in and stop, put my car in park and as I get out of the car to chase after him I see headlights."

The Dodge was heading straight at him.

Lewis talks mechanics of the accident in startling detail, details only hinted at in court documents. The Dodge driver was trying to kill him and he hit Lewis' car head on, lifting it off the ground. The Dodge “hooked my foot and dragged me 150 feet on pavement." At one point the Dodge slammed into a pole as Lewis was still attached, but behind the car.

“He was trying to put it in reverse to run me over,” Lewis says. “I got up and pulled my gun and screamed at him to get out of the car. He did. I handcuffed him.”

Another pursuit car arrived. The cop looked at Lewis's bloody face and knew something was horribly wrong. His eyeball had popped out and his nose was filleted into his sinus cavity. Pieces of his skull were gone. He had brain trauma. Airlifted to University Medical Center, Lewis stayed bedridden for weeks.

Photos of his face from over several years, progress of surgeries, frighten. It's a painful, recurring nightmare. He says the entire left side of his head is “basically prosthetic,” fitted with 15 titanium pieces. He's still plagued by headaches.

So far he’s endured 18 reconstructive surgeries, nearly losing his left eye numerous times in the processes. He can't blink so that eye tears up, which means it’s prone to problem-causing bacteria. Some surgeries failed because skin grafts died. (Skin grafts are necessary to maintain his eyelid and areas around his eye, and because scar tissue tightens and shrinks, he undergoes operations at least once a year. He will for life.)

"I had surgeries in Tucson that did not go well," Lewis says. It took a world-renowned specialist based in Scottsdale, Ariz. to save his eye. “Because of him I'm back at work."

Doctors lifted skin or cartilage from Lewis' neck and arm, and from his ears. His hearing suffers because his ears are now pinned back, slightly misshapen and smaller.

His family suffered too. The worst part, Lewis says, came after. He was out a year as a patrol officer, seeing only light duty between surgeries. Long recovery stretches fueled depression, frustrations and anger. His marriage about ended. He got hooked on painkillers like Percocet. He began self-medicating with booze to blot out the disfigurement, the physical and emotional pain, the life. His dad was an alcoholic too and his only sibling has struggled with addiction for years so Lewis was aware he was on slippery ground. Then his job tried to push him into retirement.

Why didn't he retire?

He laughs.

"Everybody asks me that. I worked my butt off to get this job, I was two years in. I wound up fighting to keep my job."

The Tucson Police Department awarded Lewis the Medal of Valor and the Scarlet Shield Medal for still taking down the bad guy after suffering so. He received an accommodation for his actual court testimony. Support letters arrived from around the world.

* * * *

We drive around the Grant Road and Oracle area, neighborhoods filled with low houses and trailer courts, bare-bulb lit porches, roaming dogs. Folks scatter as the Tahoe moves through, or wave with clinched teeth, forced smiles. The mix of classes and people living here, the college students, the refugees, the meth and heroin. Lewis patrols it old-school, talks of serving its people and a greater good. If he's seen-it-all jaded, he keeps it hidden.

In a moment we’re stopped. A couple brawling on Stone Avenue, in darkness between Speedway and Drachman. They look lost and broken and feral. Lewis steps between them, nearly takes a few punches. According to the mounted laptop inside the Tahoe, the man’s lengthy arrest record reads like a character’s background in a modern tragedy, from car theft to meth sales. Lewis convinces the guy to head home. He drives the woman, who's been crying, to a safe place nearby.

Minutes later he's in front of a Circle K dealing down a shirtless dude in shin-length sweats and a menacing face and his pole-thin underage girlfriend. A beer heist gone south. The K clerk is there too. Soon they're all laughing, late-night surreal under fluorescent lights, and beer banner blues. In less than 30 minutes, Lewis defuses two ugly scenarios.

He hops back into the Tahoe and talks at length about his teenage kids, a straight-A student daughter and a son who's looking toward a possible career in computer engineering, "if he can get his grades up." He talks therapy too, not the physical but the emotional. How it helped him navigate the surgeries, the marital problems and the near-death experience.

* * * *

We're waiting for life or death word from Sharon the charge nurse.

Doctors, med students and nurses move quickly, attaching tubes and medical apparatus to the guy who attempted suicide, and they're talking with him, too. His name is Wayne and he's laid out on the bed inside the brightly lit University Medical Center emergency area. He's conscious sort of and breathing, still smelling of booze. His voice sounds like a busted fan and he’s scared. A chaplain hangs around.

Lewis waits to hear whether Wayne will live or die. The cops have closed off that section of Campbell, because should Wayne die a criminal investigation will ensue and the street will stay closed. Should he live, Lewis will radio the news and the street will clear.

A long while passes. The doctors and students finished testing Wayne and have moved on to other patients, other bodies. You can hear Wayne breathing. That dark part of Campbell near Ft. Lowell remains closed.

"I'm not thinking that Wayne is somebody's dad or son," Lewis says. "I'm processing in my head all these things that have to be done for me to do my job. But, man, I'm just like anybody else."
Nurse Sharon steps over. "Yeah,” she says. “You can't let it get to you.” She shrugs. "But it does. Usually when I'm home drinking a beer in the shower."

She over at Wayne connected to all those tubes and things. "He'll have to try suicide another day," she says flatly.

Lewis phones his sergeant and Campbell Avenue clears.

Pulling out from the hospital parking lot, Pearl Jam's "Daughter," a song from the POV of a girl who's molested, plays in the cab. Lewis says, "You can't say that I've seen it all, or that any cop as seen it all, because the very next day something will top it."

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