Former West Covina Mayor Mike Spence, once a rising conservative political star who openly struggled with drug addiction, was found dead at an Inland Empire motel Thursday night, according to authorities.
The 52-year-old Spence rose to political fame as an outspoken critic of government assistance programs and taxes. A cause of death was still pending Friday, but an initial investigation indicates it could be due, in part, to a drug overdose.
Ontario Police Det. Fred Alvarez said Spence was found after police were alerted by staff to an unresponsive man in one of the rooms at the Folk Inn Ontario Airport on Vineyard Avenue. Paramedics found the man was not breathing and declared him dead at the scene.
Alvarez declined to say whether officers found drug paraphernalia inside the three-star hotel room typically used by tourists.
West Covina leaders and community and conservative activists mourned his loss Friday.
“We never thought he was shy about stating what he believed. When people learned what he was hiding, we were shocked but hopeful for Mike,” said Robert Parry, a former publisher of the West Covina Guardian, who first got to know Spence in elementary school.
Parry said the community and California will miss Spence’s voice, but above all else it is family who will feel the loss. “We are thinking of his wife and two kids.”
Spence, who served for decades on the West Covina school board and City Council, openly battled addiction. He failed to be reelected to the council in November after being stripped of the honorary title of mayor five months earlier, following an incident in which he was found unconscious in a Costa Mesa Holiday Inn Express with controlled substances in the room.
A woman who told a 911 operator she was Spence’s friend informed the dispatcher he was overdosing on heroin and described a syringe in the room.
Orange County prosecutors opted to not charge Spence. In the aftermath, Spence said he felt that he had been discriminated against as an addict when the incident was made public.
Spence announced he would step down as mayor in June but remained a councilman.
The incident was hardly his first involving drugs, and he openly discussed his battle with addiction.
In 2016, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence stemming from a crash that left him seriously injured. Investigators said at the time that methamphetamine was discovered in Spence’s system after he crashed a rental car. He received three years of probation and was ordered to participate in a drug and alcohol program.
Born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, Spence garnered a reputation for sticking to his conservative fiscal views. As school board president in the 1990s, he contended that subsidized school breakfasts were anti-family.
“I realize what I’m saying isn’t politically correct,” Spence said at the time. “But for the last 40 years, we have spent bazillions on anti-poverty and anti-hunger programs, and it hasn’t helped,” he said in opposing a move by colleagues to introduce a reduced-price breakfast program.
In 2015 as a city coucilman, Spence pushed for a state audit of city financial books that subsequently revealed years of misspending and collections with little proper approval or oversight.