On paper, Johnny Lewis’ acting career was looking up.
The 28-year-old actor had spent two seasons playing Kip “Half Sack” Epps on the popular “Sons of Anarchy” motorcycle-gang drama and was steadily landing movie roles.
But behind the scenes, Lewis was unraveling.
He was arrested three times this year, drowning in drugs and mental health issues, according to court records and those who knew him. The problems culminated Wednesday in a bizarre altercation in Los Feliz, where police say the actor fatally bludgeoned his 81-year-old landlady and attacked a painter and a neighbor before falling to his death.
Los Angeles police detectives are still trying to piece together what happened at the sprawling hillside home of 81-year-old Catherine Davis. Neighbors described Davis as a kind-hearted friend who rented out parts of her two-story home to actors and others in Hollywood. Davis advertised her home as the “Writer’s Villa,” “set up for creative people. It is located in the Los Feliz Hills, in the same range of foothills as the famous Hollywood sign.”
Lewis had rented a room once before from Davis, though officials are not sure how long he had lived there. What is clear is that Lewis’ latest arrival came after several arrests and jail stints.
Lewis had been released from Los Angeles County jail five days prior to the slaying, following a series of criminal cases that dated back to January. Sources familiar with the cases said there were multiple attempts by family and authorities to help Lewis with drug abuse and mental illness.
A probation report tied to one of his cases spoke of Lewis’ struggles. “There are significant issues which should be addressed,” the report states. “Obviously, defendant’s behavior is out of control and needs counseling afforded by a professional.”
The first arrest came Jan. 3, when Lewis broke into a Northridge town home and beat two men with an empty Perrier bottle. Lewis had once lived at the same complex.
One of the victims, who asked not to be identified, said he found Lewis in an upstairs room that morning. Lewis, who was wearing only pajama bottoms, told one of the men that he’d seen an intruder and was checking to see if everything was OK.
When the man and his brother-in-law tried to get Lewis to leave, he attacked, biting them and beating their heads with the bottle, court records show.
“My brother-in-law hit him in the head many times,” the man told The Times. “He didn’t even blink.”
Lewis was arrested and later released on bail. He was again taken into custody Feb. 10, accused of punching a man in the face at a Santa Monica yogurt shop.
The third arrest would come eight days later, when he tried to break into a Santa Monica home, a crime that was thwarted after a woman saw him and began screaming.
Lewis was released on bail in March but failed to appear in court and was arrested on a bench warrant later that month. He was in custody until May 23, when Judge Mark E. Windham ordered that Lewis spend 30 days in an outpatient program for mental health issues and substance abuse.
He went to Ridgeview Ranch in Altadena, where he completed a month of treatment.
By Aug. 17, judges had ruled in both the assault and burglary cases that Lewis had fulfilled his sentences and he was put on probation. What happened next is not entirely clear, but Lewis eventually found himself back in county jail. He was released Sept. 21 for reasons that are also not clear.
Five days later he was at the Spanish-style home in Los Feliz, where he rented a room from Davis.
The owner of the home next to Davis’ said Lewis approached him Wednesday morning and introduced himself as “John,” a new neighbor. Lewis left but returned about 15 minutes later and hopped a front-yard fence and began attacking a painter working at the neighbor’s home.
The neighbor said his wife ran to help and started screaming for help. The neighbor joined the fray, but he said Lewis was not phased by the blows he took. It was like “hitting him with a fly swatter,” added the neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous because he was concerned about his safety.
The three managed to shake Lewis and rushed into the house, throwing their bodies against the door as Lewis struggled to get inside. When police arrived, he was dead in Davis’ driveway after apparently falling from a roof or balcony.
Davis’ body was discovered in her home. Her cat had also been killed.
Davis died of blunt head trauma but had also been strangled, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office said.
Lewis’ attorney, Jonathan Mandel, said court officers and the defendant’s family did everything they could to get him into a long-term treatment facility. He added that Lewis repeatedly resisted those efforts. Nonetheless, he said, nothing in Lewis’ past would have indicated this kind of outcome.
“Nobody could have predicted this,” Mandel said. “This was so extreme.”
“Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter described Lewis as " an extremely talented guy, who unfortunately had lost his way.”
“i wish i could say that i was shocked by the events last night, but i was not” Sutter tweeted Thursday. “i am deeply sorry that an innocent life had to be thrown in his destructive path.”
Times staff writer Jeff Gottlieb contributed to this report.