SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) - Wes Lewison spent two hellish mid-May days in an Orange County Jail cell, sharing space with a gang member named Monster, a man who claimed to be Jesus, and someone he really couldn’t stand - his co-defendant, Greg Roberts.
A few days earlier, Lewison and Roberts had been arrested together for bank robbery. Both men were captured on camera; Roberts inside the bank, passing a note to a teller and walking out with money, and Lewison driving the alleged getaway car. Both men were taken into custody at Los Angeles International Airport.
But Lewison, 51, a long-time executive with no criminal convictions, insisted he knew nothing of the robbery.
And as they sat together in jail, Lewison felt outrage that Roberts, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, seemed so nonchalant about the crime. While Roberts struck yoga poses on his bunk and brazenly went back for seconds in chow hall, Lewison simmered.
“At one point, I simply growled at him, ‘How could you do this to me? You stole my life,’” Lewison told the Orange County Register recently (https://bit.ly/2fBVAB8), while sipping sparkling water on the patio of his ocean-view Huntington Beach condominium.
“He shrugged like it was no big deal,” Lewison added. “(He) said, ‘You’ll get out. You’re innocent.’”
Roberts, lanky and bespectacled, confirmed Lewison’s account.
“Wes is an upstanding man,” Roberts said during a recent interview at Orange County Jail. “If he says he is innocent, then he is innocent.”
Prosecutors decided not to file charges against Lewison, though they did go after Roberts.
“The hurdle is proving the charges beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Michelle Van Der Linden, spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. “If the prosecutor cannot do that, charges are not filed.”
So the case against Lewison seems dead.
The mystery isn’t.
By all accounts, Roberts, 47, is a bright man.
In his LinkedIn resume, Roberts says he studied computer engineering at prestigious Carnegie Mellon. (Roberts doesn’t say he left with no degree.) He also says he co-founded several tech start-ups, including dSky, a San Francisco company specializing in virtual reality.
On his blog, which hasn’t been updated lately, Roberts describes himself as a “a serial entrepreneur, world traveler, a fast bartender, a tough cowboy, a proud parent and a triathlete.”
Lewison knew much of this. He and Roberts have known each other professionally for more than 20 years, with Lewison once working as a salesman for at least one Roberts-launched venture and, most recently, as an adviser to dSky.
Still, Lewison says he didn’t know about one chapter of Roberts’ background.
Two years ago, in Chapel Hill, N.C., Roberts was arrested on suspicion of common law robbery after a heist at a SunTrust Bank. After prosecutors determined the evidence against Roberts was questionable - and after he paid restitution of $1,470 - the charges against him were dropped.
But the episode may have fit a pattern.
“I was unaware of that Greg Roberts,” Lewison said. “I only knew the genius programmer.”
The programmer side of Roberts’ background is why Lewison wasn’t surprised on May 9 when he received a text from Roberts saying Roberts had been offered a job leading a German technology company.
“It was his area of expertise,” Lewison said. “He was super-excited, and I was excited for him.”
Roberts asked Lewison to fly with him to Munich to help smooth out the deal. Lewison didn’t commit, but he expressed interest. All expenses would be paid, and Lewison hoped he also might land some work because the company needed marketing help in California.
“I was to look the part at being successful,” Lewison said. “Because Greg was very nerdy.”
But Roberts unexpectedly arrived in Los Angeles the next day. He texted Lewison that he needed to be picked up at the airport and taken to a meeting with an attorney to talk about the Munich job.
However, at LAX, Lewison learned that the initial meeting with a lawyer was scrapped; the lawyer was on maternity leave. Instead, as they drove the 405 in Lewison’s SUV, they had an impromptu conference call with another attorney.
After that call, Lewison said, Roberts began acting strangely. He told Lewison he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten and said he hadn’t slept for a couple days.
Still, even as Roberts’ agitation grew when they passed freeway exits where they might find a restaurant, Lewison drove to a place where they could work as they ate, a restaurant at the Meadowlark Golf Club in Huntington Beach.
Soon, Roberts seemed happy enough, with his laptop open and a series of Bloody Marys in hand. It was about 10 a.m.
“He is manic at this point,” Lewison said of Roberts. “He asks me if I seriously would go to Munich. I tell him to let Munich agree to terms first and then we plan the trip.”
But Roberts didn’t want to wait. He started checking for flights out of LAX and fired off an email to the German company telling them he was coming.
Then Roberts received an email from the company - they’d agreed to his terms.
“Greg is bouncing off the walls, excited,” Lewison said.
“And, now, I’m in for the adventure.”
After booking the flight, Roberts made an unexpected request: He’d sent his driver’s license to a nearby UPS store; would Lewison take him there to pick it up?
Lewison knew the store well. It was next to a Bank of America where he’d once been a customer.
“Being completely unaware of Greg’s intentions, I parked in front of the UPS,” Lewison said. “This is almost directly in front of the bank’s doors, under the main cameras, and with all the ATM cameras pointing at me.”
Lewison, in hindsight, said he’s particularly frustrated by one other detail - an armed guard was standing just outside the bank.
“We could have been shot and killed,” Lewison said.
After they parked, Lewison got on his cell phone to talk with his son.
Lewison didn’t notice that after Roberts climbed out of the vehicle, wearing a sport coat, sunglasses and a Panama hat, he walked into the bank, not the UPS store. There, according to photos later used as evidence in the case, Roberts passed a note to a teller and who quickly handed over an undisclosed amount of cash.
When Roberts got back into the SUV, Lewison noticed only that he slipped an envelope into his coat pocket and that he seemed excited about the trip. Nothing, Lewison said, seemed unusual.
Lewison drove slowly as they left the bank, passing a grocery he sometimes frequents and stopping at a crosswalk to let a pedestrian pass. The pace made it easier for bank security cameras to take pictures of Lewison’s vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe with personalized license plate “Bazboll” and several Los Angeles Angels’ stickers.
As they drove north on the 405, heading to the airport, Roberts climbed into the back seat and changed from the sports coat into casual clothing. He also started singing along with the radio.
“He was commenting on all of the song lyrics, as if the universe was using the radio to speak to him.”
At LAX, Lewison dropped Roberts at a terminal and parked the Tahoe. He soon caught up with Roberts inside the terminal, where he was sitting at a bar, eating pizza and sipping a martini. Lewison ordered a Perrier, but stepped away to call his wife and tell her about the spur-of-the-moment trip to Munich.
When Lewison returned, Roberts was in hurry to get to the gate to board their Air Berlin flight.
And there was something else; Roberts no longer had the Panama hat. Lewison jokingly chided Roberts, saying traveling with him was like traveling with a small child.
“You’ve already lost your hat?” Lewison asked Roberts.
Roberts smiled. “What hat?”
Both men stopped to use the restroom. When they exited, they were greeted by about a dozen agents from the FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
Lewison, who described the phalanx of officers as “like a movie,” stood still, not knowing why they were there. Roberts, however, started running, only to be tackled by officers after a brief chase. Roberts kept struggling, even on the ground, and eventually was hogtied before being carried away by the officers.
The incident didn’t go unnoticed. Lewison said travelers gathered to watch.
“Everyone had their cell phones out.”
Lewison said he eventually was taken to what he describes as an interview room in airport police headquarters. There, he said, he was handcuffed to a chair, though he still didn’t know why he was being detained.
“The only thing that I could think of was that Greg could have used a stolen credit card to buy the flights, and that any minute I was going to be let go,” he said. “This was all just a big mistake.”
Lewison didn’t ask for a lawyer. Then, after two hours of answering questions from federal officers, Huntington Beach Police detectives arrived and took over the interrogation.
They showed him a photo of Roberts, wearing the sports coat and the Panama hat.
“I asked what the hell could he could have done in a UPS store?” said Lewison, who initially believed the photo was taken inside that business.
“They said it wasn’t the UPS store, it was the bank next door,” Lewison said. “I was in shock.”
But he also had a clue about why he was being asked so many detailed questions about his day with Roberts.
The next morning, Roberts and Lewison were transferred from a city jail in Huntington Beach to the Orange County Jail. Bail was set at $1 million each, with the crime and the fact they were caught at the airport driving up the number. Lewison, who believed he was on the verge of release, didn’t see a need to post.
The men also were put in a cell with violent offenders. Lewison soon grew frustrated that his sometime business partner was, in his new environment, viewed as his partner in crime.
Roberts “was always around me and would try to look at me and talk to me,” Lewison said. “I was so angry it was all I could do not to choke him.”
Roberts irritated other prisoners, too. Though chow hall in jail is an orchestrated, by-the-numbers routine, Roberts cut in line for a second helping of food - a flagrant and potentially grim violation of prisoner etiquette.
“This,” Lewison said, “was a huge no-no.”
During his second morning in jail, after a breakfast of burned eggs, Lewison was placed in a concrete room with several other prisoners awaiting arraignment. He passed the time by talking with a gang member who called himself “Monster,” who offered a tutorial on the rules and punishments associated with daily life behind bars.
“I was not happy about what I was learning,” he said.
Eventually a deputy called out Lewison and Monster by name, along with two other inmates. All four were sent back to their jail dorm. Lewison was not arraigned, but he was puzzled.
“It turns out the District Attorney had reviewed my file and decided not to press charges . But I was not told that,” he said. “I asked a guard what had happened and he said, ‘You were rejected. So you’re either coming back to court or you’re going home; I don’t know which.’”
Back in the dorm, Lewison heard a commotion in the TV room. A news account the arrest of Lewison and Roberts at the airport was being aired, and other prisoners were taking notice.
“A new level of hell (was) born,” Lewison said of the brief moment of publicity. “My life as I knew it was gone.”
He was released that night.
Since getting out of jail, Lewison has struggled to find steady work, and he believes potential employers are wary after reading news stories detailing his arrest.
“It has destroyed my professional reputation,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time until somebody Googles me.”
Lewison is optimistic his life will improve, but worries the damage may be irreparable.
“Like a police officer told me, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
Roberts, 47, contacted recently at Orange County Jail, declined to discuss details of the robbery, other than to say he wasn’t motivated by money.
He also wouldn’t discuss his relationship with Lewison, though he did confirm that Lewison didn’t know about the robbery.
Roberts also confirmed that he did plead guilty to a crime. That plea was entered Aug. 11, when Roberts admitted to second-degree robbery. He was sentenced to a year in jail.
When asked how he was faring in jail, Roberts answered without words. He raised his glasses and pointed to his left eye. It was black and blue.
Information from: The Orange County Register, https://www.ocregister.com
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.