×
Home Culture Culture Features

The Strange and Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis

Was the rock legend’s fourth wife murdered, and did the man known as “the Killer” do it?

Jerry Lee Lewis, Shawn Stevens Lewis, Shawn Stevens

Jerry Lee Lewis and wife Shawn Stevens Lewis attend a pre-Grammy party at the Biltmore Hotel on February 23rd, 1983.

Ron Galella/Wireimage/Getty

The killer was in his bedroom, behind the door of iron bars, as Sonny Daniels, the first ambulance man, moved down the long hall to the guest bedroom to check the report: “Unconscious party at the Jerry Lee Lewis residence.”

Lottie Jackson, the housekeeper, showed Sonny into a spotless room: Gauzy drapes filtered the noonday light; there was nothing on the tables, no clothes strewn about, no dust; just a body on the bed, turned away slightly toward the wall, with the covers drawn up to the neck. Sonny probed with his big, blunt fingers at a slender wrist: it was cold. “It’s Miz Lewis,” Lottie said. “I came in . . .  I couldn’t wake her up . . .  ” Sonny already had the covers back, his thick hand on the woman’s neck where the carotid pulse should be: The neck retained its body warmth, but no pulse. Now he bent his pink moon-face with its sandy fuzz of first beard over her pale lips: no breath. He checked the eyes. “Her eyes were all dilated. That’s an automatic sign that her brain has done died completely.”

Matthew Snyder, the second ambulance man, had barely finished Emergency Medical Technician school. He was twenty, blond, beefy, even younger than Sonny, and just starting with the Hernando, Mississippi, ambulance team. Even rookies knew there wasn’t anything uncommon about a run to Jerry Lee’s to wake up some passed-out person. But Matthew saw there was something uncommonly wrong now, as he caught the look of worry and excitement from Sonny over at the bed. “Go ahead and check her over,” said Sonny, and Matthew restarted the process with the woman’s delicate wrist. He saw, up on her forearm, the row of angry little bruises, like someone had grabbed her hard. He saw the little stain of dried blood on the web of her hand. He shook his head at Sonny: no pulse.

Lottie knew it was wrong, too. She was a stolid, hard-working black woman who’d taken care of Jerry Lee since before he moved down here from Memphis — more than ten years, that made it. She was crying as she moved down the hall and knocked at the door with the iron bars.

The Killer was there within seconds. If he’d been sleeping on the big canopied bed, he must have been sleeping in his bathrobe. For now, he came into the hall, with the white terry-cloth lapels pulled tight across his skinny chest, and he looked surprised to find Lottie in tears. Then he looked a silent question into Sonny Daniels’ eyes.

“Mr. Lewis, your wife . . . . ” Sonny averted his gaze. He said: “I just checked her over in there . . . . “

Still, he didn’t meet the question in Jerry Lee’s hard eyes. He saw the two bright red scratches on the back of Jerry Lee’s hand, like a cat had gouged him from the wrist to the knuckles. When Sonny looked up at last, his own eyes grew, his whole face seemed to grow larger, rounder, younger.

“Mr. Lewis,” he said. “I’m sorry. Miz Lewis is dead.”

The autopsy that cleared Jerry Lee Lewis called Shawn Michelle Lewis, 25, “a well-developed, well-nourished, white female, measuring sixty-four inches in length, weighing 107 pounds. The hair is brown, the eyes are green . . . . ” It hardly did her justice. She was a honey blond with a tan, small and full of bounce, with a grin that made everybody smile and had turned male heads since junior high.

“Everybody liked her. She was like the stepchild of the club. Everybody looked out for her,” says Mike DeFour, the manager of DB’s, a fancy nightclub in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dearborn, Michigan, where Shawn Michelle Stephens worked as a cocktail waitress. DeFour treated his waitresses, “the DB’s girls,” like family — he loved them all, took care of them, saw to it that they made good money — even the new girls, like Shawn, who had started part time about four years ago. “Some of the girls I gave nicknames to. Shawn was ‘Little Buzz,’ because she was always buzzing around, you know, half
buzzed . . . . 

“No, not like that. Drugs weren’t a big problem. You know, a hit on a joint or two, no problem. It was around. Or a shot from a bottle of schnapps — okay, I’d look the other way.” Shawn loved working there. The money was great—sometimes $150 a night. But it wasn’t just that: It was upscale, crowded with people who dressed and threw money around. It was something more for a girl from Garden City, a suburb of little boxes built for the auto workers of the Fifties. There, more was the stuff of dreams.

But somehow, in Garden City, Shawn never seemed to get much more. Her mother’s divorce had only made it harder. Shawn had been in and out of jobs, mostly waitressing, since she graduated in 1975. She dreamed of marrying Scott, her boyfriend, but his parents were strict, and they never thought much of Shawn. So DB’s was fine for the moment — great, in fact. She loved the people. It almost wasn’t like work. The musicians took them to parties after hours — great parties. One DB’s girl, Pam Brewer, took up with J.W. Whitten, the wiry bantam of a road manager for the Jerry Lee Lewis band. Pam flew off to Memphis, and when she came back the next year, she was soon to be Mrs. J.W. Whitten, traveling with the band, flying in Learjets and shopping from a limo! That’s when it happened to Shawn.

There was trouble from the start of Shawn’s marriage to the rock & roll legend. “You scared of me?” he once asked her sister. “You should be. Why do you think they call me the Killer?” Two months later, Shawn was dead.

Jerry Lee, performing for a week at the Dearborn Hyatt, picked Shawn out from among the girls. Pam Brewer set it up: She told Shawn that Jerry Lee wanted to take her to a party in his suite. It wasn’t like Shawn had been looking for it. In fact, the first time she’d seen Jerry Lee, she’d told her mother: “Mom, he’s a lone man, and he’s about your age. You ought to come and try to meet
him . . . .” Instead, it was Shawn who went. “I always thought Shawn’d be good for Jerry,” says Pam. “She was so cute, petite, and he likes little women. And she was so much fun to be with. I introduced them. I thought she was flexible enough to understand his moods.”

Jerry Lee wasn’t showing his moods the night of that first party. A great party, Shawn told her friends. Actually, it was just a few drinks in his suite. A couple of other women were already up there. Jerry Lee played piano and sang, while Pam’s little Chinese Shih Tzu dog sat up with him on the stool. Shawn knew she was looking good, in her jeans, cowboy boots and a huggy little white rabbit jacket. And Jerry Lee treated her so nice! He’d turn away from the keyboard as he’d slow down his rhythm for a snatch of a love song. She felt him sing straight to her. It was February 1981. Shawn was twenty-three.

Dead. you sure?” said the Killer, as he crossed the hall to the guest room. He grabbed Shawn’s wrist, as if to feel her pulse, then dropped it and just stood staring at her.

“Anything you can do?” Jerry Lee said, mostly to Sonny. “In the hospital?”

“No, sir, we woulda took her already,” said Sonny. He was real polite.

Jack McCauley, a deputy sheriff, came into the room at that moment. By happenstance, he said, he’d been patrolling on Malone Road as the ambulance made the turn for Jerry Lee’s house. Of course, his ordinary patrol area was miles away, but nothing about Jack McCauley seemed to fit the ordinary. McCauley, 48, certainly was the sharpest deputy in DeSoto County: a college man, a Yankee transplanted to Mississippi, a man who said he’d made a small fortune on developments like the industrial park in the northeast corner of the county. John Burgess McCauley lived in a hideaway house that made Jerry Lee’s look modest—it must have been worth $200,000, according to realtors who’d seen it. Nobody quite knew what Jack was doing, fooling around in patrol cars with a deputy’s job that paid $12,000 a year. And the way he’d take your head off for the smallest little thing, start shouting and get red all the way up to his crewcut, no one asked Jack.

Sonny was going to explain to Jerry Lee the need for an inquest, but Jack McCauley took over from there. He had that air of command about him. McCauley announced he was going to clear the room. He wasn’t real polite like Sonny — more familiar. “Come to think of it,” says Sonny, “I don’t recall Jack introducing himself. Maybe he knew Jerry Lee.”

Maybe, but it’s hard to tell now. McCauley won’t talk about the case. And Jerry Lee never said much of anything about it, except that day, when he had a long talk with McCauley. They were alone in Jerry Lee’s little den for more than an hour before the state investigators or anybody else arrived at the house. McCauley never filed any report on that long conversation. He did write a report that told how he came in the wake of the ambulance, just after 12:30 p.m., August 24th, 1983, and how he got delayed in the driveway by two employees of Goldsmith’s department store, who’d come to the house to hang drapes, and then how Matthew Snyder told him “that a female subject was dead in one of the bedrooms.” His report continues:

Upon entering a small bedroom on the east side of the residence, Mr. Lewis was bending over the bed where a white female was lying partially covered by a bedspread. She was clad in a negligee . . . . .When I first arrived, Mr. Lewis’ speech was heavily slurred, but he was alert and coherent. I telephoned the sheriff’s office and requested a justice of the peace if the coroner could not be located, and an investigator. The latter was requested because there were no visible causes of death and because Mr. Lewis’ bathrobe contained apparent bloodstains and he had a cut on his wrist.

At 13:51 hours I advised Mr. Lewis that his manager J.W. Whitten had arrived but would not be allowed to enter the residence until the investigation was completed. Mr. Lewis commented we need to “find out who killed — how she died,” so funeral arrangements can be made.

So McCauley was the first to report that Jerry Lee’s robe was spotted with blood. Surely, McCauley must have seen, as well, the blood on Shawn Lewis, on her hand, on her hair, on clothes and a bra in another room, on a lamp, in a spot on the carpet. He must have seen the film of dirt on her, and the bruises on her arms and hip, maybe her broken fingernails with something that looked like dried blood underneath. None of this was in his report. But it didn’t matter much. For McCauley’s report never made it into the investigative file, never left the sheriff’s department until after the grand jury had decided no crime had occurred.

Shawn hadn’t been a great fan of the Killer’s, not until that first night in his suite. She was tiny in her mother’s womb when his “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” threatened to knock Elvis himself off the throne of rock & roll. At forty-five, Jerry Lee was still riveting — a star, and he seemed to like her. He’d make funny faces and twist his head around, trying to understand her funny Yankee way of talking. Then he’d understand and try to mimic, and everybody’d laugh — Jerry, too. Of course, girls were never a problem for the Killer. They were always around. Often, Jerry left the details of his trysting to others; now, in February 1981, it was Pam who issued another invitation, this time with a free ticket to Memphis: “Jerry was gettin’ ready to go to Europe, and I figured it was a good time to bring Shawn down. Because I figured he’d take her with him. Which he did . . . . “

Clever girl! Pam Brewer is twenty-six now, and although she’s split up with J.W. Whitten, she still lives in Memphis. She talks in a molasses drawl (well, a girl’s got to fit in!) about Shawn’s springtime trip to Europe.

“He bought a beautiful gold watch for her. I don’t know how many thousands he spent on it. It was his first gift to her . . . . They’d send her out, and she’d get herself a bunch of beautiful suits, and she’d come back and just look at herself in the mirror, because she couldn’t believe that was her in all those beautiful things . . . .

“How could you not get taken by it? I was in heaven all the time I was, uh, involved.”

It was heaven — most of the time. Then there were the times Jerry was speeding so bad after a show: He couldn’t come down, and he’d bully Shawn to stay up with him. God, they never slept. And then it was kind of disgusting when Jerry would stick that big needle with the Talwin narcotic right into his stomach. He said his stomach was killing him, and no wonder, the way he lived.

It was better, sort of, back in Nesbit, Mississippi, in the big brick house — at least you could relax. There was the pool shaped like a piano, and the lake out back with the Jet Ski, a sort of kicky little snowmobile for the water. Shawn loved the sun, and she’d lie out there all afternoon, before Jerry woke up. Then at night, they’d go to Hernando’s Hide-A-Way, Jerry’s home club, fifteen miles north, up in Memphis. They’d roll in about midnight, and Jerry Lee would sort of dance to his table, announcing: “The Killer is here.” They’d always drink, or have a pipe or two back in a little office by the bandstand. Sometimes, Hernando’s owner, Kenny Rodgers, would get up to the mike, straighten his pearly tie under the vest of his gray business suit and announce: “Ladies an’ gennlemen! The greates’ ennataina inna worl’ . . . the Killa . . . Jerra Lee!” And then Jerry’d screw around for hours, while the house band wilted behind him, and Jerry would work to his own private rhythms, singing a snatch of this or that, cutting off songs in midverse, making the whole club dance to his tune. That could get ugly, too, like the time some patrons left the floor in disgust when Jerry Lee cut off another song. “You stupid ignorant sonsabitches,” Jerry Lee screamed from the piano bench. “You got a $20,000 show here, and y’all walkin’ off from the Killer!”

Shawn said she knew how to handle him. For one thing, you just had to pay attention. Shawn said she knew, too, how to handle other women. A friend and former DB’s girl, Beverly Lithgow, says: “Shawn told about one of the first times they went out to dinner down there near Memphis, and this girl came over to the table and asked for Jerry Lee’s autograph. So he gave it to her. She came back again and started talking with him. So the third time she came back, Shawn finally just grabbed her by the hair and pulled her down, and said, ‘He’s with me tonight. Leave him alone.’ Shawn said Jerry Lee loved it because she was so forceful.”

One night, he shot his bass player in the chest (he lived to sue). On another, the Killer tried to crash his car into the gates of Graceland, drunkenly waving a pistol and threatening to blow Elvis away.

She had spunk—”She wasn’t a pansy,” says Bev — enough to leave him when her younger sister, Shelley, came down to visit, and Jerry started showing his moods. Shelley, 20, drove down with their brother, Thomas, and his friend, Dave Lipke. Jerry Lee got jealous; he thought Shelley was bringing a young man for Shawn. Then he got mad, according to Shelley, and started knocking Shawn around. Shelley says the real problem was Jerry Lee’s insistence that she and Shawn have sex with him.

“I knew what he wanted, and I wouldn’t do it,” Shelley says. “He made us leave, but he didn’t actually tell us to go. He made Shawn tell us. So she said, ‘Well, if you’re leaving, so am I.’

“It was really crazy. Jerry Lee was wild. He ended up accusing us of stealing his Jet Ski. But the Jet Ski is big, like a snowmobile. I mean, I only had a Camaro. And he saw us drive away. He parted the curtains. We saw him looking through the bars on his window. I kept saying, ‘Duck! Duck!’ We all thought he was going to shoot us.”

Later, Shawn called Jerry Lee to calm him. But Jerry wouldn’t be pacified. Shawn said he sounded “jealous, sort of sick . . . .” As it turned out, it was more than sort of: Within weeks, by July 4th, 1981, the Killer was in a hospital bed with most of his stomach gone and a less than even chance of living. The jealousy was real, too: Shawn had called Jerry Lee from Texas, where she and Shelley wound up living with the love of Shawn’s young life, Scott.

Charlie Ward, the Hernando, Mississippi, city policeman who drove the ambulance truck, already had used the radio once to try to call in the coroner. But Jack McCauley said things might get too public. He decreed radio silence. McCauley used the phone from Jerry Lee’s kitchen to start planning with Sheriff Dink Sowell, who was just as eager to keep matters at a decorous hush. His first order of the day: a deputy to man the gates at the base of the driveway to keep the damn press away.

Sheriff Sowell didn’t need any noise while he was trying to retire in peace and keep a hand on the department with the election of his chosen successor, his chief deputy, James Albert “Big Dog” Riley. There were too many rumors already about James Albert and that Hernando’s Hide-A-Way crowd. You could talk to any of Big Dog’s opponents in the hot Democratic primary and collect hellacious stories about James Albert up there on the stage of that honky-tonk, with his hand out for help from that drink-and-drug crowd. As one prominent citizen of Hernando, the DeSoto county seat, put it: “What you got up there is one of two things — either drug money or Memphis money, and we don’t want either one in our county.” So, from his office at the jail, Sowell must have had another requisite in mind, although it didn’t need saying: Big Dog Riley, sheriff-to-be, had to stay well away from this case.

Anyway, with McCauley at the scene, it was better than having Big Dog. McCauley was James Albert Riley’s main man, a sort of spokesman who kept Big Dog from shooting his feet in candidate forums and interviews. After all, McCauley was a college man, and Big Dog maybe finished eighth grade. So Sheriff Sowell and Deputy McCauley understood without much talking the program they’d have to arrange. They decided to turn all investigation over to the Mississippi Highway Patrol and get the whole damn thing out of the county.

There was one legal nicety: The body was there in DeSoto County, and Charlie Ward’s radio call had failed to raise the coroner. Sowell arranged for a justice of the peace, Whitley Perryman, to fill in. Of course, Justice Perryman knew the house. He’d signed out plenty of papers for that address on Malone Road. Justice Perryman went up to Jerry Lee’s for the signatures; the Killer never had to go to the judge. Even when Jerry Lee faced charges of assault and possession of a deadly weapon, Jerry Lee just forfeited bond, and Perryman considered the matter closed.

So when Whitley got the call, at about 1:15, he went on over. As Perryman walked into the den, the Killer was sitting with his feet up in his favorite recliner chair. Jerry Lee shifted forward in the chair, and Perryman grinned, shook hands and said, “Aw, don’t stand up for me. I’m just a little ol’ judge.”

Justice Perryman’s eyes crinkle behind his horn-rims with something like amusement as he tells of his role as acting coroner: “Yuh, I talked to Jerry Lee. I just asked him: ‘Jerry Lee, have any reason why she mighta died?’ He just said she’d taken some sleepin’ pills.”

Justice Perryman knew his duty: He was supposed to hold a coroner’s inquest, to convene a jury of six citizens to take testimony and determine the cause of death. But the investigators assured him there would be an autopsy, so why go to all the trouble of calling a coroner’s jury?

Perryman barely looked in at the body. Even so, it seemed to him that Shawn hadn’t slept in the guest bed: She’d been placed in it, maybe after death. “Right away, it dawned on me,” he says, with his smile growing fuller, “that if I was married to a girl, I’d want her to sleep with me.” But the justice never made that remark at Jerry Lee’s house, or in his report. Nothing that official. It almost seemed a matter between friends. After all, the justice had been up to the house for social occasions several times.

And McCauley was surely friendlier than his brusque air of command indicated. For those stories about sheriff-to-be James Albert Riley were true: He had appeared onstage at Hernando’s Hide-A-Way, after a meeting in the nightclub’s back office with owner Kenny Rodgers and Jerry Lee Lewis. And as McCauley must have known, the Killer (through manager J. W. Whitten) was the largest single contributor to James Albert Riley’s campaign. The latest contribution, the latest $500 payment, had been recorded a day before Shawn died, although the records of that transaction later disappeared from the courthouse files.

It looked like the end of the road for the Killer, back in the summer of ’81, with half his guts turned to useless rot by hard living, booze and drugs. In Memphis’ Methodist Hospital, Jerry Lee felt like he’d sunk to the bottom of the devil’s own hellhole.

Later, he would talk about how he saw his errors, how he made his peace with God and made a pact with the Lord to devote his life and talent to the Lord’s work, evermore — if the Lord would just allow a bit more. In interviews after he was spared, Jerry Lee called it “the turning point in my life.”

But he’d made that turn again and again since he was a boy in Ferriday, Louisiana. By day, he’d play gospel piano for the faithful in the Texas Street Assembly of God — then he’d sneak off to a tonk on the black side of town to revel in the devil’s music. He even went off to a Bible institute in Texas, but he got thrown out for playing the devil’s own boogie-woogie beat. He interrupted the recording session for “Great Balls of Fire” with the drunken insistence that the song was too sinful. But when the record sold 10,000 copies a day, he forgot his old vows to use the money to build a church to the Lord.

Of course, he was young then—just twenty-two—and he thought he’d have plenty of time to fulfill his pact with God. In 1958, Jerry Lee was packing houses coast to coast; he was Top Ten on the pop, country and R & B charts, all at once; he was acclaimed in his first movie. With Elvis facing two years in the army, the Killer bade fair to take the crown. He was guaranteed $10,000 a night, his singles were million sellers, he was booked for a triumphal tour of England . . . .

Then, in London, he introduced to the world his bride, his cousin, Myra Gale Brown. Jerry Lee told reporters who gawked at the little girl that she was fifteen. It didn’t take Fleet Street long to discover that Myra was actually thirteen, that Jerry had swept her out of seventh grade, spirited her off to Hernando, Mississippi, and married her, somewhat before he divorced his second wife, Jane Mitcham. CRADLE SNATCHER , the headlines roared, as Jerry Lee knocked DeGaulle’s takeover in France off the front pages. The promoters canceled the tour. GET OUT, LEWIS! the newspapers demanded. Jerry Lee responded: “I think my divorce is a matter for God.”

Here was another pattern: In matters of the heart, Jerry Lee recognized God’s rules or none at all. From those he married, he demanded a superhuman innocence, in accordance with the pentecostal teachings of the Assembly of God.

He married first when he was sixteen, to a girl named Dorothy Barton, a preacher’s daughter whom he soon abandoned to long nights with his mother and sister in Ferriday, while he played his first club dates. The next year, he met Jane Mitcham, whose brothers came calling with horsewhips and pistols when she let it be known that she was pregnant. Jerry Lee got married again: At seventeen, he was a bigamist; at nineteen, he was a father, to Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr. Jane wanted him to stop staying out all night. “After all,” she’d say, “you’re a father.” But that wasn’t in the pattern. He’d take off, sending his little sister to spy on Jane, branding her a liar and a whore.

In thirteen years as Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis, Myra Gale counted three nights at home alone with Jerry Lee. For the rest, the Killer was touring, usually, since the scandal, for a few hundred dollars a date. Disc jockeys banned his records, television wouldn’t touch him. Yet his slender earnings had to support his mother and sister, who were always “guests” in Myra’s home, and sometimes his hell-raising daddy, the band, his coterie of managers and, of course, Myra Gale, their son, Steve Allen Lewis, and later their daughter, Phoebe Allen Lewis. Myra Gale was too young to know there was anything unusual about her marriage. After all, she’d gone off to start married life with her possessions packed in the only sizable container she had: her doll house.

“Myra never knew who would walk in the door in the guise of Jerry Lee Lewis,” she wrote in her 1982 book, Great Balls of Fire. “The man she usually met was the Killer, the lean, mean honky-tonk pianist wired from weeks on the long road, depleted by pills as the road became endless, still on his way back up the ladder. He usually arrived unannounced in the middle of the night, wanting a hot meal and hot sex.”

And he usually arrived with recriminations. That fit the pattern, too. One morning, she awoke to find Jerry and some of the band still drinking in another room of the house. There was a fight, and Myra called the cops. Jerry Lee knocked her to the floor and threatened to kill her if she ever made that mistake again.

Once, Jerry surprised her at three a.m. and complained that there was no supper ready: He “entered their bedroom and thumped Myra three times on the noggin to demand why she didn’t arise to serve her master. Startled from her sleep, she lifted her arms to ward off his blow and struck him. He grabbed her fists and beat her face black and blue. ‘Look, Phoebe,’ Jerry said to their seven-year-old, ‘your mamma’s gone crazy. She’s hittin’ herself in the face.'”

That was the pattern of patterns: He needed great love from his women, demanded it in slavish motherlodes — and sometimes got it. Yet no woman was good enough. How could he trust them?

Violence and trouble seemed to hang over him li