Suspect Arrested on Multiple Charges
By Will Johnson
PALESTINE – The first day of August turned into an ordinary Saturday evening as a 49-year-old Palestine woman took her two grandchildren shopping for school supplies.
Wandering the aisles of the Palestine Walmart, she stopped to check her phone to see if she needed anything further. What happened next was almost like a passage from a James Patterson novel, except it wasn’t.
A man approached the woman with what she thought was a spray bottle and then dumped the contents of said bottle over the top of her head. At first, she thought it might be a practical joke of some kind but when the liquid began to burn her skin and ran into her eyes, she knew this was no prank.
The Palestine Police Department was immediately notified and after the victim was provided first-aid by Walmart employees, the female victim was transported to the Palestine Regional ER by ambulance for medical treatment.
On Monday, Aug. 3, information provided by the Palestine Police indicated, “The victim did not know the suspect, who fled the scene following the assault. While the Officers were investigating the incident, the suspect, later identified as Willie James Lewis, 37 of Oakwood, returned to the scene. Lewis then followed an officer to the front of the store and attacked the officer from behind using a shopping cart. Officers were able to take Lewis into custody following a struggle. The officer was treated and released at the scene. Prior to assaulting the Officer, Lewis had also damaged a patrol vehicle that was parked outside of the store.
Earlier this week, the female victim of the crime spoke with The Messenger and recounted the terrifying incident in further detail. The victim requested anonymity and for the purposes of this interview, she has been given the pseudonym of Joanna.
“I was shopping for school supplies with my 10-year-old granddaughter and my two-year-old granddaughter. The two-year-old was in the basket and the 10-year-old was walking around beside me, helping to get the school supplies,” Joanna said.
“From the corner of my eye, I saw a guy approaching me. It looked like he was about to squirt me with water or some other type of liquid. I couldn’t really tell what it was. As he got closer to me, it appeared like he had a dish soap container with a squirt top. He started squirting a cloudy, white substance on top of my head,” she said.
Joanna explained while this was happening, she turned fully around and questioned, “What are you doing?” and “What is that?”
“He had a look of hatred for me on his face,” she continued, “especially as he continued to empty the bottle on my head. He stood in front of me and opened up his shirt to reveal another shirt with the Rebel flag on it. He just had a look of hate in his eyes and then – he just walked away.”
As Lewis walked away, Joanna said the liquid ran into her eyes and completely blinded her. “Here I am with two kids and I can’t even see. I began screaming for my granddaughter and told her to get help,” she said.
Joanna fought back tears as she recalled, “My granddaughter was a hero by going to get help, hollering at people in Walmart to come help me. A couple of Walmart employees came and took me to an eye-wash station to help wash my eyes out. Later, I was transported by ambulance to the hospital.”
A significant amount of chatter on social media indicated Lewis was wearing a face covering with a slogan on it when the incident occurred. Joanna was specifically asked if this was true.
“I believe he was wearing a mask when he approached me. Whether or not there was any type of wording on it, I don’t remember. The police told me when he was apprehended, he didn’t have a mask with him,” she said.
Joanna was also asked if she felt this was a hate crime.
“I feel like it was a hate crime because he targeted me because of the color of my skin. I think he randomly targeted me because I was a woman with kids and thought I would make a good victim,” she said.
Joanna was further asked if she had seen security footage of the arrest of Lewis. She replied she had not but indicated officials had told her what happened.
She said she was told when Lewis attempted to leave the store, he probably could have slipped away unnoticed because a description had not yet been provided to law enforcement “… but he chose to take a shopping cart and ram it into the back of a police officer’s legs in the Walmart entry. Another police officer then tried to subdue him and while they were struggling, some guy who was driving by, jumped out of his truck to help subdue him. They now knew he (Lewis) had done something.”
Concerning her grandchildren, Joanna said, “Because this guy had incapacitated me, I had to leave two vulnerable children who were very scared and worried, especially my 10-year-old granddaughter. She thought I was going to die. She was very scared. She was hyperventilating, however, she did really well in helping to take care of her little sister and doing what she had to do in getting me help. Walmart employees helped with the grandkids. My boyfriend was also called and they stayed with the kids until he could get there and the mother of the two kids arrived.”
As the conversation continued, Joanna said, “My first thought was is this some kind of practical joke? Are they just playing? When he poured it over my head, I thought to myself, is this some kind of terrorist act? Is this happening just to me or is it happening to several people in the store? It was very scary because I didn’t know why he targeted me or what the purpose was. When it hit my eyes, I thought I was blinded and I would never be able to see again. I don’t know what this guy poured on me but I could feel my face burning. I had a mask on which may have actually helped prevent additional burns to my face. I literally didn’t know – until we got to the eyewash station – if I would ever be able to see again.”
The effects of the attack are still lingering, Joanna added. She said she was still having trouble with her eyes with dryness and blurry vision. She also has burns on her chest and stomach where the liquid soaked through her clothes. She said her scalp still feels raw from the liquid and despite taking numerous showers since the incident, Joanna said when she is outdoors, the sun causes an unusually intense burning sensation.
“My oldest granddaughter is having trouble sleeping and eating. She is continuously worried about me and my well-being. She wants to talk to me constantly, just to make sure I’m ok. She seems pretty traumatized by this incident,” Joanna said as a tear rolled down her cheek.
When asked if she wanted to continue, at first she seemed unsure. Joanna paused for moment to collect her thoughts, however, and then plowed ahead.
“Sometimes when I leave work late at night, I know I need to look around, check out the surroundings and make sure no one is lingering around. But, when I was at Walmart in the middle of the day in the school supply aisle, I figured I would be safe. I think women and especially women who have kids with them need to be aware that there are people out in the world who are full of hate and have nothing better to do than to hurt someone. We just need to be a little more vigilant and aware of our surroundings, whether we are in a store or outside. We just need to be a little more careful right now because there are a lot of people who are upset with what is going on with the protests and COVID-19. We need to be aware people are on edge and may act out on their beliefs with violence. We think we are in a safety bubble because we are in East Texas and a small town – like things like this can’t happen here – but the truth is, we aren’t safe. We need to be more aware of our surroundings,” Joanna said.
“I don’t know why this guy targeted me. I don’t know him. There is no reason for the world to be so full of hate, right now. We need to learn how to get along with each other and we don’t need so much animosity,” she said. “We, as a country, need to turn to God. Only He can remove hatred and jealousy from our hearts and replace them with His peace and love.”
Before concluding the interview, Joanna expressed her appreciation to the Walmart employees who came to her aid, as well as Palestine Regional Medical Center EMTs and ER staff, the Palestine Police Department, her boyfriend, family, friends, co-workers, church family and everyone else who have been supportive of her during this time.
“I’m thankful I wasn’t hurt worse and I’m very grateful the kids were relatively uninjured. Even though I was a victim of crime,” she asserted, “I don’t consider myself a victim. I’m not going to let this random act of violence – of random hate – I’m not going to allow this to make me fearful. I will have faith over fear. I have faith in God that he will get me through anything. I’m not going to allow this guy to take that away from me.
After his apprehension, Lewis was transported to the Anderson County Jail where he was booked into custody on the following charges: Assault on a Public Servant, Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon, Endangering a Child, Criminal Mischief >$2,500<$30,000 and two Palestine Municipal Court warrants. Lewis is currently being held in the Anderson County Jail with bonds totaling $165,000. The motives behind the attack are still under investigation.
Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.