By Carly Sauvageau
In the fall of 2021, I began looking into what happened to Sonny Wayne Lewis. The now nine-year-old case is one that is difficult to get people to talk about. People were reluctant to talk about a case that was old or just didn’t have the public records to provide.
City records of the dispatch call to 911 expired after six months and video footage taken by the surveillance camera in the Walmart parking lot, which is located on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony where Lewis was shot, I was told, had been taken by investigators.
For several months, I attempted to call the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Reno office, but was sent to their media line that is operated out of Las Vegas and drops calls after a certain point in a taped recording. I later sent a fax, but have not gotten a response so far.
Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Tribal Chairman Arlan Melendez was happy to talk about laws surrounding the colony and how that relates to federal and state law enforcement, but he did not want to get into the details of the case.
This is typical for an unsolved case, said Ronald Glensor, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Reno. It is seen as unprofessional for an agency to comment on a case that has been handed off to someone else. An unsolved case is not a closed case; therefore evidence can still be sensitive in regard to an investigation.
Glensor also said that most homicide cases that don’t have enough evidence to convict are marked as unsolved rather than closed. Unlike an assault or another lesser crime, a homicide case is usually left open for more information to come in.
For several months, I did not have much to go on. But in late November I began to get my Freedom of Information Act requests answered by the FBI and was able to talk to Sheri Potts, Lewis’s mother, who shared with me the information she had collected over the years.
For the past eight years on the anniversary of her son’s death, Potts has held an annual walk to the site where he was shot. This upcoming memorial will be the ninth time Potts makes that walk. There, those who attend also participate in a prayer circle.
This scene of remembrance, love, and spirituality was a very different sight on Jan. 27, 2013.
Shooting in a Walmart parking lot
Sonny Wayne Lewis was out for the first time in a long time, according to his aunt, Shanelle Shaw. The 25-year-old had gone out with some friends to the casinos downtown and they had decided to go to the Walmart at 2425 East Second Street around 12:30 a.m.
According to the FBI’s investigative report, Lewis was with one man and two women. They were outside and walking toward the doors of the Walmart when Lewis was shot near Row 7 of the parking lot and collapsed. The people with Lewis began yelling for help and eventually were assisted by an off-duty REMSA worker.
Richard Neil, a Walmart employee who was working on the night of Lewis’s death, spoke with Potts on Aug. 2, 2016, more than three years after the incident. Potts shared with me the recording of her conversation with Neil.
According to Neil’s account, at 12:45 a.m. he heard a loud bang and figured it was a gunshot. Neil said this was a common occurrence at this Walmart. He said he then saw a man and two women dragging another man past Row 6, near the bus stop in the parking lot, to a vehicle. Neil said he went to investigate the situation and saw that the man the group was carrying, Lewis, had a gunshot wound to the chest and he was unresponsive. Neil said he began CPR on Lewis and told the others to call REMSA.
A young, thin woman with short hair–the off-duty REMSA worker–assisted Neil in performing CPR. Neil said fluid and blood was coming out of Lewis’ chest cavity and Neil blocked the hole with his hand and continued CPR with one hand. Lewis slipped in and out of consciousness.
Five minutes into the effort, Neil said that a Tribal police officer who has since left the force, asked Neil if he had the situation covered. Neil confirmed he did. With that, Neil said the officer then turned and walked fifty feet away.
As other agencies showed up, they stayed outside of the perimeter, which, according to Neil, is standard procedure. Among the chaos, Neil said the REMSA worker eventually disappeared. Meanwhile, Neil continued CPR.
According to Neil, Lewis came to consciousness one last time and Neil reassured him he was going to be okay. Lewis let out a sigh and lost consciousness once again. Neil continued CPR until a REMSA EMT tapped him on the shoulder and took Lewis onto a gurney and put him in what Neil described as the REMSA bus.
Alexia Jobson, REMSA’s public relations manager, said it was thirteen minutes before the REMSA bus left the scene’s perimeter that night based on records of the emergency response. In unsafe or chaotic situations, or in situations where emergency personnel may have to stabilize the patient, it can take some time, according to Jobson.
Neil, in his 2016 interview with Potts, said he had to stay in the perimeter for two hours. Throughout this time, several agencies including the Reno Police Department, Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Tribal Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation came to the perimeter, he said. In the two hours he was there, Neil said no one interviewed him about what happened.
Later, the Walmart store manager and FBI agents reviewed the Walmart parking lot surveillance tape and said that the person who shot Lewis was a six-foot-five, 300-pound bald white man, with several tattoos.
It was two weeks before Neil was interviewed by the FBI.
A family looks for answers
Lewis was taken by REMSA to Renown Hospital. His family was awakened with the news and rushed to the hospital where they were told that Lewis had died from his injuries.
Potts, who said she was not informed of the status of the homicide investigation throughout the case, began her own investigation. She said she submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the FBI only to get pages filled with redacted information and tried to talk to multiple authorities only to be ignored.
She met with the Tribal officer who had been on the scene that night. He had also seen surveillance footage of the happenings at the stoplight located near the entrance to the Walmart parking lot. According to Potts, the officer told her that a man had talked to the group in the car Lewis was in and directed them into the Walmart parking lot.
Eventually, the FBI turned the case over to the U.S. Attorney, which deemed it an unsolved case. I later asked Trisha Young with the U.S. Attorney’s Office what had deemed the case unsolvable, but she said they could not comment on the case due to the lack of public records.
Tribal homicides go unsolved
Lewis was Paiute-Shoshone, a member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony killed on Tribal land, which is, unfortunately, not an uncommon case among Native Americans.
While it can vary from colony to colony, on the Tribal land in Reno, cases like this are often handled by Tribal police then given to the FBI. Tribal colonies are treated as independent governing entities and cases aren’t treated the same as a criminal case that happens off Tribal land. Where a case that happens in the city of Reno goes to the Reno Police Department and is handled directly, in most cases, the FBI often steps in on Tribal cases of homicide.
Often they go unsolved.
Shaw, Lewis’s aunt, said that this is not the first death that she has been affected by on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and that many others have experienced loss from homicide. While this is a problem in Reno, it is also a problem nationally.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, 83% of Native American and Alaska Native adults have experienced violence in their lifetime. The victimization rate among Native American men is 1.3% higher than white men. Native Americans are also more likely to experience violence perpetrated by someone outside of their race, an uncommon statistic among other races.
I was told by Glensor that cases involving Native Americans on tribal land become very complicated due to the governing status of colonies. After nine years, it was difficult to find information on this case. It was also difficult to get those in authority to talk about the case, or in some cases they were completely inaccessible to interview.
As the U.S. Attorney has no public record, the dispatch call is lost.
Much of the case remains unknown, which is not uncommon, and for now that’s the way it will remain.