Debbie Lewis wants closure.
She wants to turn the page, as much as she can, on Feb. 22, 2012 — a horrible day for her family. She wants to make sure that no other mom and dad, and sister and brother have to struggle through the initial pain of having a family member abused, first by an attacker and later by the justice system.
That is why Ms. Lewis put on a dark business suit on Wednesday afternoon, March 5, and traveled to the Rhode Island Statehouse. Inside a wood-paneled committee room, the longtime Barrington resident and mother of three told legislators why they needed to change Rhode Island General Law 11-37-4 “sexual assault.” She explained in detail why three words — “element of surprise” — needed to be added to the language of the law.
“I did this because what one man’s actions did to my son and to our family… this shouldn’t happen to anyone,” she said during an interview. “I’m doing this so it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
On an unusually warm day in Feb. 2012, Ms. Lewis’ son decided to go for a bike ride. He planned to ride his bike from his home in Hampden Meadows to the parking area along the Veterans Parkway in East Providence and snap some photographs of the Providence skyline. He enjoyed taking photographs and knew that the warm, clear weather would make for a nice picture.
He called a few friends, but they passed on the offer. “They were just being lazy,” he said. Undeterred, he hopped onto his bike and started pedaling toward the East Bay Bike Path. He was 17 years old and had covered the distance to the Veterans Parkway pull-off multiple times in the past. He had no reason to think this trip would be different.
But it was.
Shortly after Debbie’s son reached his destination, a 55-year-old East Providence resident — a man recently convicted of molesting an 8-year-old boy — approached the Barrington teenager and started talking about coyotes in the wooded area nearby. Then, without warning, the man reached out and grabbed the boys’ crotch. And then in a flash he was gone, retreating to his car.
Before the man could pull away from the lot, Ms. Lewis’ son, still confused about what had just happened, glanced at the car’s license plate and recited the numbers.
“It was JE-142 or JE-192,” he said during an interview last week. “I can still remember it.”
The Lewis family reported the crime to local police and a short while later, East Providence officers had arrested the man. He was sent to the ACI for violating conditions of his parole, and Ms. Lewis imagined it would be a matter of time before he was convicted of second degree sexual assault against her son.
But a few months into the case she received bad news: the charge was being dismissed. Officials told her that a loophole in the law was allowing the suspect to walk free.
In an interview last week, Ms. Lewis unfolded a piece of paper printed out with RIGL 11-37-4. It was marked heavily with blue marker, a circle around the statement “The accused uses force or coercion” and a hand-drawn asterisk nearby with the words “element of surprise” added to that phrase.
“It’s because my son froze,” she said, referring to the loophole. “That’s why the case was dismissed. ”
The Lewis family struggled following the assault.
Ms. Lewis said her son withdrew from the rest of the family and became angry, very angry. She said her son had been a quiet boy who enjoyed spending time with his friends and siblings. She said he had laughed and joked, but that stopped after the incident.
She told her son to see a therapist, but the visits failed. His heart, his mind, his thoughts were elsewhere.
The Barrington teenager — he is now 19 — said he focused constantly on what had happened. He said he would relive each decision he made that day, wondering what would have happened if one of his friends had been with him, if he had taken the ride at a different time of day.
He withdrew from his family.
During his first year of college at Syracuse, he started seeing images of his attacker everywhere. He thought relocating to a different environment, spending time with different people, focusing on his school work would help, but it did not.
“At Syracuse, it all came back to me again,” he said.
Ms. Lewis said there were days when she felt, honestly believed, that her son, the affectionate boy she had known for the 17 years prior to the attack, had died on Feb. 22, 2012. She felt that the child molester from East Providence had killed the boy she knew and loved.
“That moment changed a 17-year-old’s life forever and it changed this family,” she said.
Ms. Lewis threw herself into changing the law. She contacted Rep. Jan Malik, who represents people in Hampden Meadows and parts of Warren. She also spoke with officials at the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office.
Ms. Lewis was called to testify last year on behalf of the law change, but was soured after learning that with her son’s case not fully completed, the legislature would not pass the bill. This year she returned to the effort, determined to see it through.
“I see her compassion with this,” Rep. Malik said. “I back her 100 percent. It’s that determination. She’s got the eye of the tiger. She doesn’t want this to happen to other people.”
Rep. Malik said he is inspired by Ms. Lewis and her story.
“I’m not going to let this die until I get it passed,” Rep. Malik said of the bill.
Following Ms. Lewis’ recent testimony, Rep. Malik asked if she and her son would pose for a quick photo with him. She initially denied the request; she said her son does not want his name or likeness printed up in press releases or news articles.
Rep. Malik interrupted, explaining that the photo was for him only. He said he would never share it.
“I wanted something I could look at that would remind me why I started doing this in the first place,” he said. “To help people.”
Ms. Lewis’ son has since transferred to a college in Boston. He is studying civil engineering and has earned 4.0 GPA. He has a girlfriend and said she is helping him deal with his past and move on to his future.
During a recent break from school he traveled home to Barrington. He said he spent much of the week relaxing and catching up with his family. He said his mom’s efforts to change RIGL 11-37-4 have made him proud and helped heal some of the wounds from two years ago.
“She’s a great a mom. That’s just how she is,” he said.
Ms. Lewis said she loved having her son home.
“I feel closer with him now than I’ve ever felt.”