BITHLO, Fla. — Two years ago today, 17-year-old Lewis Helmick died, yet the mystery surrounding the teen’s death lives on as his case grows cold.
- Lewis Helmick, 17, died in an apparent hit-and-run, officials say
- Case closed, but could reopen, after leads exhausted 6 mos. after crash
- Lewis' best friend Nathan Francheshi also died in apparent hit-and-run
- Have info? Call Florida Highway Patrol or Crimeline.
“I lost it. I can’t believe that happened to him. I still can’t believe it," said his mother, Georgiana Helmick. “My oldest son came to the house and told me Lewis is at the hospital. I wanted to go see him. He says, 'He’s gone.'"
But the events that led up to the December 2017 hit-and-run still plague those who live in the community, as the question of what exactly happened to the teen hangs in the air like a cloud.
“I just want to know what happened to him," Georgiana said.
Painting the Picture
Like his mother, Lewis grew up in Bithlo, located off State Road 50 in east Orange County. His mother said he was a good child, outgoing and friendly. "Lewie," as his friends would call him, would "tell it like it is" and could rattle off the name of every radio station or game.
Lewis loved going to the beach, fishing, skateboarding, and playing football. In fact, he dreamed of one day being a football player.
“He used to tell me when he was a kid, ‘Mom, I’m going to buy you a mansion. And I’m going to take care of you ‘til you die,'" she recalled. "You would never think you’d bury, cremate your son or child before you die.”
But even his colorful self-portrait at the age of 12, which still hangs at his former school of Orange County Academy, painted the picture of troubles. The short blurb typed on the back of the portrait alluded to abuse.
For a year, the Helmicks lived without power in their trailer. Small fights between Georgiana and her son led him to Titusville to stay with his father and grandmother for a time, as Lewis left the community school in Bithlo.
“(He) lived in some tough circumstances, faced some challenges, did some bad things," said Tim McKinney, whose nonprofit United Global Outreach helps run the school. "Still, no one should be killed at 17.”
On December 16, 2017, Lewis's mother said that her son returned to her Bithlo home with three friends, before heading to another person's home for a sleepover.
“He told me he loved me, said he’d be over tomorrow. I didn’t see him anymore," she said, tears pooling in her eyes.
The Night He Died
Investigators gathered that the crash happened around 11:30 p.m., on a dimly-lit stretch of Story Partin Road in Bithlo.
But it wasn't until sometime later that first responders found his body, face down, bars of Xanex in his pocket. Orange County Fire Rescue transported Lewis to Florida Hospital East, where he was pronounced dead around 1 a.m.
It was an apparent hit-and-run, the case quickly turned over to Florida Highway Patrol to continue the investigation.
“With a case like this, it’s basically starting from scratch," said Lt. Mark Castleberry, with Florida Highway Patrol. “You’ve got to put a vehicle there, a driver there, all the components there to help tell this story. And that’s what our investigators are tasked with.”
They later tracked down a 1997 white Chevrolet van, owned by Edwin Augusto Perez, which they believed was involved in the accident. They also spoke to countless witnesses, some of whom they determined to be passengers in the van.
But all roads led to dead-ends, with investigators unable to place a driver behind the wheel.
“People we’ve listed in this (incident) report were in the vehicle, but again it goes back to having enough concrete evidence to say not only were you in the vehicle, but this was our driver, and having enough to make those charges," Castleberry explained.
Rumors began to swirl about other possible scenarios.
"I heard some stories about my son — that he was breaking (into) a house," Georgiana said. “I heard he got jumped. I heard he got beat to death, and they took his body to the fire station and dropped him off there. And I heard a man ran him over. I’ve heard so many stories."
“At some point during the process, (there were) discussions of a bat being involved in this man’s death. Just like any investigation, we consider any and all pieces of evidence," Lt. Castleberry said.
Investigators indeed found a bat, turning it over to FDLE for testing.
But the medical examiner could not determine a link to the teen's death. They also noted that despite meth, cocaine, and bath salts being found in Lewis’s system, they did not find a clear pattern injury indicating the teen had been beaten prior to being run over.
Lewis's cause of death was ruled vehicular homicide, due to massive blunt force injuries. Six months after the crash, Florida Highway Patrol investigators had exhausted all leads. They closed the case, noting it could only be reopened with additional information.
Memory Lives On
Following her son's death, Georgiana Helmick spiraled.
The woman said that her trailer burned down, mementos and photos disappearing in a cloud of smoke.
Her loss was compounded by the unknowns of that night and by the location where investigators found her son's body: Lewis was born at the fire station on Story Partin Road and died there, too.
But there was another cruel twist.
Lewis's best friend, 15-year-old Nathan Francheschi, died a year and a half earlier, just one block away. It was another hit-and-run death in Bithlo left unsolved.
“I was doing heroin … I felt like I had nobody," she said. "My son was my best friend. I felt like I lost everything."
Two years later, Georgiana's now clean, but prays for justice. The knot in her stomach won't go away, she said.
“I wasn’t the perfect mom, I’ve been through a lot. But I love my son," Georgiana said. “Being a parent is hard. You want to watch over your kid, make sure they do everything right and make sure they don’t hang out with the wrong kids. My son was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Lewis's former classmates and teachers at Orange County Academy also still talk about the teen. "R.I.P. Lewis" is scribbled in yellow chalk on the outdoor blackboard.
“Whenever his name is spoken ... there’s this moment of silence," said Andrea DiBartolomeo, a teacher at the school. "Everyone, even to this day, is super sad whenever his name is mentioned. It devastated the community."
A memorial with faded wreaths, a purple cross and black, Nike slide sandals marks the spot where he died. Spray painted hearts and flowers cover the asphalt, alongside the sentence, "You are still loved," written in loopy cursive.
DiBartolomeo said that she believes purple might have been the teen's favorite color, as it's the color most often grab when they draw something in his honor.
For Lt. Mark Castleberry, Lewis's story and the investigation that followed has not left his mind.
“That’s the son of a mother left on the side of the road to die. Anytime you deal with circumstances like that, it pulls you," he said.
“When you have that many occupants in a vehicle, somebody knows something. It’s about being compassionate, being a human. Doing what’s decent,” Castleberry added.
If you have any information on the death of Lewis Helmick and Nathan Francheschi, call Florida Highway Patrol or Crimeline at 1-800-423-TIPS. You can remain anonymous.