News Column

New home, new job ... before a bullet ended it all

July 13, 2014

By Rosemary Regina Sobol, Chicago Tribune

July 13--Wil Lewis and his wife had lived in Chicago for about a year and had moved about two weeks ago to a home on Greenview Avenue in Rogers Park, a neighborhood they considered "safe enough," his family said.

The 28-year-old Wisconsin native, a photographer by trade, was scheduled to start a new job Monday, a prospect he was "very excited" about, family said.

But, about 3:20 p.m. Saturday afternoon, that all changed. Lewis was on a North Side street when a man walked up to him and started firing shots, police said. Lewis was hit in the back and died within an hour at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston. According to the Cook County medical examiner's office, he died of a gunshot wound to the back.

"We're just numb," said his father, Joseph Lewis, of Virginia, who was reached by telephone. "I'm operating on two hours of sleep and so is my wife. There's not a lot anybody can say. It doesn't make a lot of sense.

"Somebody basically shot him dead. They felt it was a case of mistaken identity. Wil was not in the wrong."

Lewis, of the 6600 block of North Greenview Avenue, was shot to death in the 1300 block of West Devon Avenue Saturday afternoon less than half a mile from his home, according to police, his family and authorities. That's on the border between the city's Edgewater and Rogers Park neighborhoods.

The shooter fled the scene on foot, police said. Witnesses at the scene said Lewis was standing at the bus stop before he was shot, but that has not been confirmed with police.

Police were questioning three persons of interest in the shooting and the gunman's vehicle may have been recovered, according to police, citing preliminary information.

The motive for the shooting was unclear although police said there were some gang overtones. But, according to police, Lewis wasn't the intended target.

Paul Humpal, Lewis' father-in-law, said a police officer knocked on his door late Saturday night in Wisconsin to tell him the bad news. "They're sure he is not the intended target," Humpal said the police told him.

Wil Lewis was born in Guatemala and was adopted when he was 7, said his father.

"He came with really no educational background at all. He only spoke street Spanish, nothing formal. He couldn't read or write. So growing up we were tri-lingual -- English, Spanish and charades," Lewis said, laughing.

Their family spent some time in California, but Wil mainly grew up in Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin'sDoor County. For his freshman and sophomore years, he attended Sturgeon Bay High School, where his father was the high school principal. When his father got another job at Kaukauna (Wis.) High School, he transferred there and graduated in 2005.

"He was a drummer for the choir, some track and wrestling ... he tried a little bit of everything,"' Joseph Lewis said. During college, he was a fine arts major with an emphasis in photography, said his father.

"He was a good guy with a great sense of humor. He loved to tease and joke around,"' said his father, who last spoke with his son the day before he died, on July 11, his parents' wedding anniversary.

Wil Lewis, was an "incredibly talented" photographer, said his sister-in-law, who did not want to be identified. She lives in Wisconsin and was the one to call her sister late last night to tell her of her husband's death.

"He was basically right by home," she said. "It's likely he was just out doing errands ... the thing is we don't know."

"He was a wonderful uncle ... my kids absolutely adored him. He was incredibly loving, very generous and very helpful."

Humpal, who has four daughters, had called his oldest daughter, who then had to call Lewis' wife. She was in Madison, Wis., when her husband was shot, helping to host a birthday party for her 5-year-old nephew, Humpal's grandson.

"She is devastated," Humpal said. "She doesn't know what she's going to do without him."

Humpal said Lewis and his daughter, 30, met while both were students at the Milwaukee Institute of Art about eight years ago. They had moved to Chicago about a year ago when the wife had gotten a job at Leo Burnett as an art director.

Before the big city move, the couple worked together at Kohl's in Menomonee Falls, Wis., where Lewis worked as a freelance photographer taking pictures for their catalog, mostly clothing, said Humpal.

"He was just really excited about the fact that he had a fulltime job with all the benefits. He had worked really hard at a couple of different places. It was just coming to fruition," said his father.

Humpal had recently had helped the couple move into their new home. Their new place was a "little less" in rent and more room. Near Loyola University's Lakeshore campus and close to a high school, they figured it was safe place to start their new life.

"Before they picked it, they were considering different areas. They figured it should be safe enough," Humpal said of the neighborhood. "Apparently not."

Next month, Aug. 18 was to be their second wedding anniversary.

"They were definitely hopeful" for their future, Humpal said. "I have no idea what we will do without him. She doesn't either."

"You cannot take days or moments or minutes for granted," said Joseph Lewis. "You need to share your feelings for one another and you need to hug those people a lot. You need to let people know that you love them because you don't ever know when something like this happens. You cannot take anything for granted."

"There are no words. You can't fix it. It's a reminder that life is very short and you should tell your loved ones all the time that you love them," said Wil Lewis' sister-in-law, who was with her sister. Lewis' wife, who was too upset to talk, did not want her name used out of fear for her safety, her sister said.

"My sister wants people to know that he was somebody who was very kind and he had a generous, enormous heart. He was a beautiful person and one of the most creative people she knows."

In an email dated Sunday to constituents, Ald. Joe Moore (49), said he was on Devon Avenue about a block from the shooting when he heard gunfire.

"I looked up to see the assailant, who appeared to be a teenager, continue to fire his weapon at a group of fleeing youths. It is something I will never forget," Moore said.

He said he was told by police that they believe the shooting was a result of a gang dispute in another neighborhood that spilled over. He said he and his wife helped a local resident clean the bloodshed from the sidewalk.

"This shooting is a tragedy. Not because it was witnessed by the alderman, but because yet another life has been extinguished in a seemingly never-ending cycle of senseless violence. What makes this even more tragic, is that the murder appeared to be at the hands of a boy who may have been younger than my own 17-year-old son."

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rsobol@tribune.com -- Twitter: @RosemarySobol1

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(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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