Cold Case Mendocino: Lewis Compton Fled Police, Abandoned His Vehicle, and Disappeared into the Lost Coast
Lewis was born on June 6, 1974, in Oroville, California. According to his wife Helen, he moved to Fort Bragg when he was 12 and “ended up living with his grandmother Bonita Vanderpool who ran the Orca Inn on the bluff between Fort Bragg and Westport.” Helen remembers hearing that Lewis was “well-liked and charismatic in high school”. Lewis became acquainted with Helen because she “worked for his grandmother at Orca Inn.” Their courtship began when “he came to visit his dad who lived next door to me where I was living up Branscomb Road in Westport”.
In 1994, Lewis and Helen were living in Westport and gave birth to their son. They relocated to Amarillo, Texas in February 1996. Lewis’s mother Jackie Matthews lived there and with the birth of their first child, the couple hoped for more job opportunities, better schools, and the potential of homeownership.
In Amarillo, the couple found their hopes become a reality. They were married on New Years’ Eve 1997. Lewis and Helen had a daughter in 2004. Helen reflected, “we found good jobs, he started a business and we bought our first home.”
Lewis supported his family by working as a painter. He was superbly talented at custom home paintwork and his work was featured in the March 2009 edition of Amarillo Style Magazine. An article about an Amarillo “home with flair” describes how “the look and feel of the home itself, its walls and its woodwork and just about everything that is artistic and painted comes from Lewis Compton. The homeowner goes on to praise Lewis as “the one person that really ends up being so talented to work with in creating each home and its palette.”
The Compton family’s stability began to deteriorate when Lewis’s mental health began to decline. In June 2010, Lewis was detained at a mental health facility for a “suicidal outcry”. In January 2017, he voluntarily sought treatment at Amarillo’s Behavioral Health Clinic at the Pavilion stating the reason for his visit: “I don’t want to live anymore.” Lewis described his symptoms on an intake form as “arguing with people in my head, anger, more anger, yelling at the wall”. He was diagnosed having “major depressive disorder with auditory hallucinations.”
According to his mother Jackie Matthews, “He started thinking his boss was a demon” and found it “hard to find work”. Helen characterized Lewis as “agitated” and mentally being in “a paranoid place where he thought people were trying to harm him.” As Lewis’ mental health suffered, Helen commented that “he was very strong because he managed to maintain employment and provide for his family to the end even though he was clearly in misery and struggling deeply.”
With Lewis’s mental health declining, the family decided to return to Mendocino County’s coast. Helen explained,“We thought maybe we missed home a little and thought with what we had, we could start something here and enjoy the coast we loved and that’s where it all went downhill fast.”
Upon returning to the coast in June 2018, Lewis and Helen had been unable to sell their property in Texas and found their housing in Westport had fallen through. Helen recounts that “we were supposed to end up selling the property in Texas and have a lease-option (purchase) on the property up Howard Creek in Westport. It was supposed to be vacant in June but drug on into November.” The landlord of the home had agreed to a sweat equity arrangement based on Lewis restoring the property but “pulled out last minute”. The Compton family found themselves thrust into financial turmoil “having a payment in Texas and rent in California.”
Lewis’s mental illness was aggravated by drug abuse. His aunt, Debbie Womack-Withrow, said her nephew was a known drinker and methamphetamine user whose behavior became increasingly erratic. His family eventually found a home in Westport but Lewis’s health continued to decline.
On November 13, 2018, Lewis was driving his green Jeep Grand Cherokee on Highway 1 north of Fort Bragg. According to a Narrative Report prepared by California Highway Patrol Officer Anabel Sanchez Coral that was obtained through a records request, “at approximately 1112 hours, I received a call from Ukiah CHP dispatch of a hit and run traffic collision…Upon my arrival, California State Parks Officers Pelikan and Stone were on the scene… the victim/property owner and Witness #1 were on scene.” The narrative describes how the property owner had flagged down the State Park Officers after they watched a Jeep Grand Cherokee collide with a fence, animal feeder, and gate and then fled the scene. Officer Sanchez Corral ascertained Lewis was the owner of the vehicle based on a Department of Motor Vehicles records check using a license plate that had been torn off the vehicle. As Officer Sanchez Corral investigated and interviewed the property owner, Lewis returned to the scene and the vehicle now had “two occupants”.
Chuck Linker, a resident of Westport and a long time friend of the Compton family, was the other occupant. He was at his home that morning when Lewis drove up the driveway. After speaking with Lewis, Chuck decided to give him a ride home because “he seemed too messed up to drive. He was drunk and had been up all night.”
Unaware that Lewis had just fled the scene of a hit and run, Chuck drove directly back in the direction of the scene. As soon as Chuck was near the gathering of law enforcement, “CHP comes walking towards the vehicle and Lewis is telling me to back up. The CHP got us out of the car and we’re leaning on the car.” Officer Sanchez Corral “says your Lewis, I already know that from the license plate in the field.” At this point, “Lewis wasn’t being cooperative and refused to give her his name.” During a moment while Officer Sanchez Corral was distracted, “Lewis asked me if I still had the keys to the car. I handed them over and he jumped in the driver’s seat.” After the officer directed Lewis to exit the vehicle, he yelled that “she could go ahead and shoot me, you’d be doing me favor.” He quickly accelerated the vehicle, “the officer tried to grab his arm through the open window, and he sped off north on Highway 1.
California Highway Patrol Public Information Officer Chad Ramsey described how Officer Sanchez Corral pursued “just a few minutes after he took off…letting him get a big jump off on her. She then found the vehicle abandoned and they never located the party.”
An Incident Detail Report obtained through a record request from the California Highway Patrol provides chronological insights into law enforcement’s interactions and pursuit of Lewis that day. Officer Sanchez Corral approached Lewis’s vehicle as it returned to the scene of the crash at 12:42 p.m. She was “unable to understand” Lewis and characterized him as “in distress”. A Code 3 was issued at 12:51 p.m. (respond as quickly as possible) and by 12:52 p.m., Officer Sanchez Corral was pursuing Lewis north on Highway 1.
At this point, there are several mentions of Lewis being “possibly armed”. This possibility was corroborated by Lewis’s aunt Debbie Womack-Withrow, who said he often had a gun with him. Air patrol was requested at 12:54 p.m. Lewis was described as last seen wearing a long-sleeved sweater and jeans. At 1:06 p.m., the Jeep Grand Cherokee was found empty on North Highway 1 at mile marker 85.74 [Roughly between Hardy Creek and Rockport] and officers deduced Lewis bailed on foot. By 1:31 pm, CHP suspended the search for Lewis with his location still unknown.
Lewis’s wife Helen was out of town when this incident occurred and was not contacted by law enforcement regarding her husband’s actions or disappearance. She explained, “I came home, my car was gone, my husband was gone and I had an overwhelming feeling I was never going to see him again.” Helen found the Jeep Grand Cherokee when the proprietor of the Westport Store told her he saw it “go by on a tow truck”.
She would report Lewis missing to Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office approximately one week after coming home and finding her car and husband gone. When Helen contacted MCSO to report Lewis missing, “They said to me he is not missing, he is a fugitive.” When asked why she did not report her husband’s disappearance immediately, Helen explained, “Even though I had a bad feeling, I just thought he was somewhere. I was just so stressed out and depressed about everything I didn’t even really know what to do.”
Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) has provided minimal information to Lewis’s family about the continued investigation into his disappearance. Several family members reported that they requested Mendocino County Search and Rescue personnel be dispatched to the site where Lewis abandoned the vehicle but were told that the members of search and rescue were “senior citizens” and would not be able to navigate the difficult terrain. Helen was last contacted by MCSO around Christmas 2018 “when someone called and asked me if anyone had heard from him yet. I said no and the man said the case was going to be given to another department at that point.”Cold Case Mendocino left several voicemails and wrote several emails to MCSO’s public information officer regarding the investigation into Lewis’s disappearance and we have received no response at this point.
Lewis’s disappearance has left his family speculating as to what has become of him. Several of his family members have characterized him as a capable outdoorsman who was knowledgeable of the woods and roads of Usal Beach, the Lost Coast’s southern terminus close to where the Jeep Grand Cherokee was discovered. His mother theorized he could have “ran into the woods hoping to hide out from the cops until things calmed down.” Lewis’s wife Helen has never located his hunting rifle and suggested he could have had the rifle and brought it into the woods with him. Lewis’s aunt Debbie Womack-Winthrow knows the love Lewis had for his daughter and he would “never choose to be away from her.”
Helen Compton remembers a husband who “liked fishing, he was a painter, he painted watercolors and he could match colors and textures just by looking at it.” She remembers a husband who was dedicated to his daughter and desperately wanted to be the father and husband that his family needed.
Lewis Compton is approximately 5’ 8’’ and weighs approximately 160 pounds. He has brown hair and brown eyes. He was 46 years old when he was last seen and would now be 47 years old. He was last seen wearing a long-sleeved sweater and jeans. If you know anything about the whereabouts of Lewis Compton, reporting options include emailing us at [email protected], or messaging us via Facebook, or calling in a tip at (707)560-1543.