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In Baltimore, mother family remain bitter about widow THE REGGIE LEWIS TRAGEDY: A YEAR LATER

September 11, 1994|By Ken Rosenthal and Mike Preston | Ken Rosenthal and Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff researcher Dee Lyons contributed to this article.

On the bus ride to Lewis' wake, Lynette "Cookie" Dozier could contain herself no longer. Dozier, Lewis' aunt, never had liked Harris-Lewis. And, on a bus full of grieving relatives from both families, she lashed out.

"I'll hang her by her neck," Dozier said.

Dozier, 39, the younger sister of Lewis' mother, denies making that comment, but other family members recall the incident vividly. It captured the rift between Lewis' wife and his Baltimore relatives.

The rift was never more evident than at Lewis' funeral. His relatives wanted the funeral to be in his native Baltimore, but Harris-Lewis decided it would be in his adopted Boston.

Ritch and Harris-Lewis did not speak at the services.

"We were just going through the motions," Ritch says.

A memorial service was held for Lewis in Baltimore three days after the funeral, but Harris-Lewis did not attend.

"She was afraid somebody here would get her, do something to her," Ritch says.

Family members say Harris-Lewis was overprotective, distancing Lewis from his family and persuading him that all his relatives wanted was money.

Ritch says two other relatives from her side of the family also sought financial help from Lewis, but no one on his father's side did. Andrew Brandt, Lewis' agent from 1987 to 1991, saw nothing unusual in the family's requests.

"I did not view Reggie's family as leech-like or sucking him for money," says Brandt, now a law professor at American and Catholic universities.

"I never got that sense. What he did was on his own. It wasn't a huge amount. It was benevolent."

Lewis' half-brother, Jon Ritch, 25, says he understood Harris-Lewis' concern that his mother would pester Lewis for money to feed her addiction. But other family members contend that was only part of the problem.

"I have observed from the outside, but anyone raised in a right way knows she hasn't treated us fairly," says Lewis' uncle, Mack Lewis, 75, a boxing trainer and manager who is a member of the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame.

"We're a very close family, and when Reggie used to come to Baltimore, all his uncles and friends would come over to his house or to his games. Then we stopped because of her. The reason for the alienation is monetary. She wants to keep it all to herself.

"She is selfish, that's what she is, nasty."

Jon Ritch tries to see both sides.

He's one of the few Baltimore relatives who still speaks to Harris-Lewis, but he recalls an incident that took place the day before the funeral, when he was screening calls for her at the Lewis home in Dedham, Mass.

Ritch recalls Harris-Lewis saying: " 'Here are all these people who feel they didn't have to go through me to get to Reggie. Now look at them.'

"It was very cold for someone to say something like that the day before her husband's funeral," says Jon Ritch, who works as a chemical processor for Barre-National. "She's real cold. It's such a power thing to her. She wants control of everything."

Addiction problem

Ritch's cocaine addiction played no small part in her dispute with Harris-Lewis.

"Donna always held that over Peggy's head," recalls Lewis' aunt, Lynette Dozier, a secretary for the state department of health and mental hygiene for the past 21 years.

"She would tell Reggie that once a drug addict, always a drug addict, that Peggy wasn't right and would never change."

Ritch says she didn't discuss her addiction with Lewis until shortly before she began her recovery. She says, however, that Lewis knew about her problem much earlier; he told her that Harris-Lewis detected it first.

Ritch says the first two times she asked Lewis for money, it was because all of her income was going to cocaine and her utilities had been turned off. Lewis honored her requests for $900 and $1,100.

At the time, Ritch was working for Sweetheart Cup. She earned $11.43 an hour when she quit after 10 years on Nov. 20, 1991, to enter a drug-rehabilitation center in New York, with Reggie and Donna saying they would pay the bill.

The plan, Ritch says, was for her to complete the program at the center, then work for the Reggie Lewis Foundation. But she says she was rejected by the center because she had suffered two heart failures, the first in 1963, the second in 1990.

"I was like, 'What the hell am I going to do?' " Ritch recalls. "Donna screamed on the phone, 'Why did you quit your job before you heard from the doctors?' But they said once they got the medical records, I could start the program."

Now, Ritch was furious with Harris-Lewis -- and, by extension, with her son.

"He said, 'Ma, find yourself another program, and I'll take care of you,' " Ritch says. "I told him I didn't want him taking care of nothing, I would handle it myself."

Ritch says she proceeded to go on a "bender" that lasted virtually all of December. But on Jan. 17, she entered a center in Wilmington, Del., working in a factory warehouse to pay for her room and board. Her stay lasted three months. She says Harris-Lewis wanted her to remain at least a year.

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