Cold Case Mendocino: Lewis Compton Fled Police, Abandoned His Vehicle, and Disappeared into the Lost Coast

Lewis Compton

Helen’s “favorite photo of Lewis”. He loved Horned Toads. [Photos provided by the family]

Lewis Compton returned to Fort Bragg, California with his family in June 2018. They had been living in Amarillo, Texas since 1996 and according to his wife Helen “we missed the ocean and forests” and “Lewis was getting stressed out” so they decided it was “time to get away from Texas and start over”. Four months after returning to the Mendocino County coast, Lewis drove his Jeep Cherokee into a fence along Highway 1 and fled the scene when law enforcement attempted to arrest him. He sped north, a California Highway Patrolman pursued, and when Lewis lost sight of his pursuer, he abandoned his Jeep, escaped into the woods, and has not been seen or heard from since.

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”.

Lewis Compton

Lewis and his son riding ATVs before the Compton family moved to Amarillo, Texas.

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.”

house paint by Lewis Compton

A sample of Lewis’ paintwork featured in the magazine Amarillo Style.

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.”

Lewis Compton

Lewis’s grandmother took this photo of him dressed up for a high school dance.

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”.

Lewis Compton

Lewis Compton shortly before his disappearance. 

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”.

Lewis Compton

Lewis’ wife, Helen, drove to the mile marker that the green Jeep Grand Cherokee was towed from and took this photo.

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.”

Lewis Compton

Lewis with his two children.

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 Compton

Lewis fishing with his favorite dog Jack.

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.”

Lewis Compton

An X-Ray of Lewis’s ankles. Helen included this photograph because “if he is ever found, this identifies him”.

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.

UPDATE: Man Searching for Missing Schoolmate Who Was Featured on This Website Stumbled on Human Remains Yesterday

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30 comments

  • Just plain sad. His mental issues had to be made worse by drinking and doing meth. Nothing ever good came from drinking, doing meth, and staying up all night. (Did anyone ever say, “Gee, I wish I had drunk more alcohol and snorted more meth last night?”) Not a good combination. He seemed mired in suicidal thoughts at the end.

    • Why is the most recent, most identifiable picture of the missing man buried in the middle of the very long piece?

      Seems like it ought to be first.

  • Great read. One would hope Lewis gets the help he needs to be a husband and father if he is ever located.

  • Search and Recuse may be a bunch of seniors, which I doubt, they did use search dogs in 2018. How about not searching because he was “possibly armed.”

  • So there was no real search of the area he disappeared into, even after all this time? Not even family?

  • Maybe Search and Rescue should be made up of physically able people, just sayin. Sounds lame as hell.

    • No doubt. Has anyone looked for him since then??? Doesn’t sound like there was much of an effort made.

    • I would not send any search and rescue after him either! Sad to say but…. a mentally deranged guy on meth with a gun who ran away and hid from the cops after causing an accident while driving drunk?! That is not a job for search and rescue people!

    • Are you volunteering? Those folks don’t get paid.

      • What is your point?
        Search and Rescue is just as the name implies. If they don’t want to Search and Rescue even a year after the fact because they are too old, then don’t belong to Search and Rescue.

  • It’s time to bring in the cadaver dogs to search the radius. If he could have gotten back to contact his wife and kids he would have by now. Inference, he could not.

  • Being in that area it could be possible that when it got dark he fell over a cliff and needed help or attacked by a mountain lion a bear. And nobody ever tried to look for this young man. Shame one you folks that get paid to use every resource at their disposal. What if it was there own child.

  • Too much stress. He decided his child was better off without him. There are a million little subcultural communities where a vagrant guy can drown his sorrows in this area. He’s probably not dead.

    • 🕯🌳I’ll second that, common sense. 🖖👁👁🇺🇸

    • No, I knew this guy.. he’s not hiding in some subculture place.. there are none of those in this area.. it’s empty and desolate. I have plenty of experience and knowledge of the area.. if they truly believed he was a fugitive they would have sent officers to look for him. This is precisely the area Aaron bassler was running around in.. however Lewis would have snuck in the back way and checked in with his family if he could..

      • I don’t know whether to hope you’re right or not, but there are quite a few places to take cover in the area where they found the Cherokee. If the officer thought he might have a gun, she wouldn’t have looked very hard. He could have been sitting behind a tree right near the road and she wouldn’t have seen him. Then just flagged someone down, saying his truck was broken or out of gas, and been in Leggett or Fort Bragg in no time.

        OR taken off for the structures down either Cottaneva Creek or Hardy Creek, maybe done himself in or maybe just waited for the heat to cool off or maybe just went full-blown paranoid and didn’t have ANY plan.

        I just know it is EXTREMELY common for people with bad mental health issues to both have terrible problems with substance abuse AND [lovingly] conclude that their children are better off without them. We may think it’s cowardice to abandon them, but it’s NOT cowardice at all. It’s love.

        That kind of heavy stress would certainly have beset him with the auditory hallucinations and whatever was left in him to fight them would definitely have chosen oblivion — suicide, either fast or slow, but the body still — automatic pilot — tries to prevent it and the drugs and/or booze usually wins the coin toss.

        If I were you, I’d start out by calling the head forester at MRC for both permission to be on their land AND to enlist the help of their staff in your search.

      • @ski – if they think he is a fugitive they are not going to expend resources on searching the woods for a guy who drove his car through a fence while drunk. Additionally, if they thought he could be armed they aren’t going to take the risk of going after him for a dui and hit and run that only resulted in property damage. They likely just figured he’d show up eventually and they would arrest him peacefully.

  • The ravines are such steep terrain, Rocky, heavily wooded, lots of mountain lion and bear in that particular area, if it’s where I am picturing.
    This guy most likely found himself in a slippery slope and judging by the look of the hardware in his ankles, may have been injured and unable to escape his fate.
    This is sad, considering his state of mind, the risk of safety for anyone who would want to search for him is too high.
    He may never be recovered and certainly must have perished.
    My heart goes out to his children, his wife, and those who loved him dearly. I’m sorry for your loss.😓

  • Going to spend some time looking for this guy. I grew up with him and always considered him pretty stand up. He was a pretty good guy down deep. I know he had his issues and I never interacted with him after he moved to Texas.. I too am familiar with this area. I got some pals that are as well.. will be in the area to help bring whatever closure for his family as we can.

  • Good for you Ski Saunders. What a stand up guy. Be careful and I hope your able to come to some conclusion at least for the family.

  • A very thorough and well researched article written in a beautifully clear style.

    One spooky coincidence. The family was going to buy property “up Howard Creek”. It was from the DeNoyer property on Howard Creek that two elderly men disappeared — Donald Cavanaugh in 2005 and David Neely in 2006.

  • I’m not good at recognizing people from photos at any distance. That said I did see someone who looked like him walking the street in Redway this past week.

  • Ya hear stories like this now and then, many not ending well. Though some do end well. Considering his mental state, he could be wandering the city. Skid row is filled with people who’ve snapped, the ones screaming at the voices in their heads. There’s definitely the chance that he’s out there. Hopefully if California ever gets a handle on the homeless they’ll find him

  • ryan Joseph conlan

    I don’t think he was going to leave his infant daughter under any circumstances. I am available for search and rescue ski I have four years initial attack fire crew experience and very experienced woodsman but not familiar with that area

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