Could anything have saved Johnny Lewis?

The most shocking thing about the "Sons of Anarchy" actor's death is how unshocking it is

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 28, 2012 4:44PM (EDT)

When former "Sons of Anarchy" actor Johnny Lewis died on Wednesday, it initially seemed like a shocking end to a young life. But as the details of the case have emerged, one of the most harrowing aspects of the story is how many warning signs there were all along the way. A sudden disaster is a special kind of tragedy; one that was building for a long time, a wreck in slow motion.

The 28-year-old Lewis fell to his death from the roof of his Los Angeles apartment after allegedly slaying his 81-year-old landlady Catherine Davis with "blunt-force trauma and manual strangulation." He is also presumed to be responsible for fatally dismembering her cat. His autopsy results are scheduled to be released within the next two weeks. But the chain of incidents that led up to his death was unfolding long before Wednesday.

Back in January, he was arrested for  "felony assault with a deadly weapon" after reportedly beating two men with an empty bottle, leading to a conviction and an order of "treatment of mental health and/or drugs and alcohol." Then in February, Lewis was picked up by police for battering a woman, and charged with two misdemeanors and resisting arrest. Just a week later, he was arrested again, and charged with felony burglary and loitering. In May, he went to the Ridgeview Ranch for facility treatment (he'd also gone through the Church of Scientology's drug program, Narconon, eight years ago). A probation report noted, "There are significant issues which should be addressed. Obviously, defendant's behavior is out of control and needs counseling afforded by a professional."

Whatever he experienced at Ridgeview didn't stick. He was sentenced in August and jailed again under still-unknown circumstances earlier in September. He'd been out less than a week when he allegedly bludgeoned his landlady and attacked two neighbors with a two-by-four and a paint roller before falling to his death.

Could he — and Catherine Davis — have been saved? The signs that he was heading for a catastrophe were all there. In recent years, we've watched celebrities spiral downward to their deaths: Amy Winehouse, who'd had a string of shambling public appearances before her demise in 2011. The disastrous later years of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. And, based on recent behavior, if you woke up tomorrow and read the headline announcing the death of Nick Stahl, or Lindsay Lohan, or Amanda Bynes, you might be sad, but you wouldn't really be surprised, would you? Would you be surprised if they died in an accident that killed someone else?

Fortunately, though few of our own stories end in murder, I don't know anyone who doesn't have a tale of the friend or family member who was beyond saving. The nightmare is that somewhere inside that out-of-control demon is so often a person in genuine pain. But a person who is determined to drag everybody down into hell with him? That's the thing about issues like mental illness and addiction, which Lewis certainly seems to have been wrestling with: Sometimes they're a fire no one can put out. And fire never tidily confines itself. Are some people just irredeemable? And if so, what the hell are we supposed to do with them?

It's the most helpless feeling, to watch a person struggle and still be consumed. It's even worse when that person is a danger to others. Lewis' violence was apparent. In hindsight, he should never have been walking around Los Angeles. In hindsight, a lot of people probably knew that. But unable to help himself, he didn't seem to have been able to get help either. And so he fell — horribly, violently.

"Sons of Anarchy" creator Kurt Sutter tweeted Thursday, "I wish I could say that I was shocked by the events last night, but I was not. I am deeply sorry that an innocent life had to be thrown into his destructive path." He added, "It's also a day of awareness and gratitude. Sadly, some of us carry the message by dying." The message, painfully, is that it's brutal enough to see a man combust. But even when intervention seems useless, we have to keep fighting to figure it out. Because the self-destructive rarely limit their destruction to themselves at all.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Amanda Bynes Amy Winehouse Crime Johnny Lewis Lindsay Lohan Sons Of Anarchy