The mysterious death of Shawn, wife of Jerry Lee Lewis

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Shawn Stevens was 23-years-old when she met rock n’ roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis in February of 1981. To give you a background of Jerry’s love life, in total, he was married 7 times & he had 6 children. Jerry was born in 1935 & met his first wife, Dorothy Barton in 1952; the two married when he was only 16 & they got divorced the following year.  Within days of their divorce being finalized, he married his second wife Jane Mitchum; they were married until 1957 & had two kids together. In 1973, when their son was 19, he died after flipping his Jeep on a country road. The following year, when he was 22-years-old, he married his third cousin, 13-year-old and 7th grader, Myra Gale Brown. His career took a hit because of the marriage; at the time, he was traveling to England to establish his British fan base. When fans found out about his marriage, the tour was canceled after only a few shows & newspapers had headlines reading ‘Cradle Snatcher.’ 

Myra & Jerry had two children together; a son, Steve Allen & a daughter, Phoebe. When Steve Allen was three, he tragically drowned. Myra recalled that in their thirteen years of marriage, they had only spent three nights at home alone; he toured the rest of the time. One night, she woke to find that Jerry & some of the band were still drinking in the other room. A fight started so Myra called the police; Jerry knocked her to the ground & threatened to kill her if she ever did it again.

On another occasion, he came home from a tour at 3am & demanded to know where his dinner was, despite his arrival being a surprise. He hit Myra in the head three times, startling her from sleep & when she lifted her arms to stop the blows, she accidentally struck him. He beat her face black & blue, hitting her with her own fists as seven-year old Phoebe watched & said, “look, your mama’s gone crazy. She’s hitting herself in the face.” The two divorced in 1970 after she could no longer handle his drug use & abuse.

Jerry Lee earned the nickname The Killer in the late 1950s because of his performance & showmanship while playing the piano; banging the keys with his fists & elbows, kicking the piano stool & climbing on top of the instrument & setting it on fire. Other sources say it’s because he tried to strangle a teacher with his necktie & another says it was from a figure of speech, “I’ll see you there later, killer.”  He embraced the name; one night, celebrating his 41st birthday, he played around with his revolver, firing a bullet into the chest of his bass player who lived to sue him. Another time he crashed his car through the gates of Graceland, drunk, waving a gun, threatening to blow Elvis away; he was promptly arrested.

One year after divorcing Myra, Jerry Lee moved on to marry his fourth wife, Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate in 1971; the two had a daughter together. Through their 11 years of marriage, they only lived in the same house together for two weeks. She moved to a house in Tennessee that Jerry paid for & they would occasionally see each other. Court records showed that Jaren indicated that Jerry had a violent temper when he drank & used drugs, choking her, beating  her up, knocking her down the stairs & threatening her life. During their divorce, Jaren called Jerry for financial assistance for her & their young child & he allegedly went into a rage, saying, “you are not going to be around very long anyway, and if you don’t get off my back and leave me alone, you will end up at the bottom of the lake at the farm with chains on you.  On June 8, 1982, Jaren was found at the bottom of a Memphis swimming pool, dead of a mysterious accident, just before her final settlement. 

Jaren & Jerry

This is where our story began, with Shawn Stevens meeting Jerry Lee. When the two met, Shawn was working as a cocktail waitress at DB’s, a fancy nightclub within the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dearborn, Michigan. Amongst her co-workers, she earned the nickname, “Little Buzz” because she was always buzzing around half buzzed. An article indicated that drugs weren’t a big problem, maybe a hit or two from a joint or a shot from a bottle of schnapps.

Shawn was having a great time, she was young & the musicians at the club would take her & her friends out to after parties. One of the DB’s waitresses, Shawn’s friend Pam Brewer, started dating JW Whitten, the road manager for the Jerry Lee Lewis band. Pam had flown out to Memphis to spend time with J.W. Whitten & when she came back the next year, her life had changed completely. She was engaged & traveling on Learjets & going on shopping sprees in a limo. 

In 1981, Jerry Lee traveled to Michigan to perform for the week at the Dearborn Hyatt & he quickly picked Shawn out of the crowd. The first time Shawn saw Jerry, her thoughts went to her mother who was divorced, “Mom, he’s a lone man, and he’s about your age. You ought to come & meet him.” Meanwhile, in the background, Pam was trying to form a connection with Jerry & Shawn, saying, “I always thought Shawn would be good for Jerry. She was so cute & petite & he likes little women. And she was so much fun to be with. I introduced them. I thought she was flexible enough to understand his moods.” 

In February of 1981, there was a party in his suite; Jerry Lee played the piano & sang. Shawn felt confident that night, she was wearing her jeans, cowboy boots & a little white rabbit jacket. When Jerry Lee sang at the piano that night, Shawn felt like he was singing just for her. From there, Jerry Lee quickly charmed Shawn, buying her extravagant gifts & taking her to his house in Nesbit, Mississippi with a pool shaped as a piano & Jet Skis for the lake. 

Things weren’t always good though, after shows Jerry Lee was “speeding so bad” & he would bully Shawn into staying up with him. Shawn also had to deal with other women paying very close attention to Jerry Lee; despite her 5’4”, 107# frame, she was able to hold her own. On one particular evening out, a woman came over for Jerry Lee’s autograph & after a third time to their table, Shawn grabbed her by the hair, pulled her down & said, “He’s with me tonight. Leave him alone.” Jerry Lee loved the forceful, spunky side of Shawn. 

When Shawn’s younger sister Shelley came down for a visit, she noticed that Jerry Lee was very moody. Shelley drove down with their brother, Thomas, & his friend Dave Lipke. Jerry Lee was not happy with the arrangement since he felt that Shelley brought Dave to hook up with Shawn. Shelley said that Jerry Lee got mad & started knocking Shawn around. Shelley said the visit was crazy; Jerry Lee was insisting that both Shawn & Shelley have sex with him which she refused to do. He also accused her of stealing his Jet Ski; she explained that she drove a small Camaro & there was no way she could have stolen it. Because Shelley refused to have sex with Jerry Lee, he made Shawn tell the group that they had to leave; Shawn left with them. 

When Shawn called Jerry Lee to calm the situation, she said he sounded jealous and sort of sick. Within weeks, around July 4, 1981, Jerry Lee was hospitalized & had surgery to remove most of his stomach; hard living, drugs & alcohol had taken a toll on his body. By that time, Shawn had gone to Texas with Shelley & reunited with her childhood love, Scott. 

When Jerry Lee left the hospital, he started calling Shawn, hoping to reunite. By the end of the summer of 1981, Shawn, Shelley & Scott were heading back home to Michigan from Texas. Jerry Lee told Shawn that he wanted her & he would give her anything. In 1982, Jerry had a show booked in Michigan & Shawn, her mother & her brother & sisters met him at his plane. Shawn rode with Jerry in his limo & just like that, he was back in her life. He told her that as soon as he was free from Jaren, he wanted to marry her. 

Soon after, Jaren’s body was found in the swimming pool & Jerry got his wish to be free. He pressed Shawn for an answer about getting back together. He went off to tour in Europe & wanted an answer by the time he got back in the spring of 1983. Her family remembers telling her that she could try it & if she wasn’t happy, she could get a divorce. Shawn made the announcement that she was going to go to Europe & marry Jerry Lee.

A friend from DB’s, Janice, remembers Shawn saying, “Well, I’m going to go for it. I’m not crazy about the man, but I’ve never had this kind of life.” When Janice said that they’d probably have kids together, Shawn said, “There’s no way I’m having kids with that old creep. I’m just going to stay married for as long as I can and then I’m  getting the hell out.”

Scott, Shawn’s first love, recalls that only two days before Shawn was set to marry Jerry Lee, she called him & said, “If you’d just say the words, I’d come back.” At this point, Scott was a factory worker in Livonia, Michigan & said he couldn’t forgive her for going off with Jerry Lee. “Everybody knew about it and there’s no way I could take her back.”

She also spoke with her boss, Mike from DB’s asking for his opinion about what she should do & he said, “You’re free, white & twenty. Go for it. Just make sure you got some money & a plane ticket home.” They were married on June 7, 1983 when Shawn was 25-years-old & Jerry was 47. He later said, “None of us ever gave the marriage more than six months to a year. But none of us ever expected her to end up in a pine box.” In total, they were married 77 days before Shawn was found dead. 

After the wedding, Shawn didn’t call her family & complain of issues in the marriage but she did talk to a friend & compared married life with Jerry Lee to prison. She said he was extremely jealous & she felt like she was being watched all the time. One day, she excitedly called home to tell her family that she’d gotten a Lhasa apso, but the next time they spoke, she told them they’d given the dog away because Jerry was jealous of it.

The plan was for the family to come to Jerry Lee’s concert on August 28th in Nashville, Michigan; even Shawn’s grandpa who was too ill to attend the wedding planned to attend the concert.  Too excited to wait to see her sister, she invited her down to Mississippi in mid-August. During their visit, they all stayed up until the early morning hours after a night out dancing. When Shelley, Shawn’s sister woke up at 2pm the next day, she found that Jerry was still up & drinking in his den. His sister, Linda Gail & her children were also visiting at the house that day. She & Shawn sat out in the sun by the pool until Jerry came out, slurring his words, telling Shelley that  she needed to pack up & go. He then hit her on the thigh & slapped her across the face. When Shawn got up to defend her sister, Jerry backhanded her across the face & then he just walked off toward the house.

Shelley was stunned & told Shawn that she was going to the police. Shawn told her that it would be a bad idea since Jerry Lee was friendly with the police & somehow she would end up in trouble. Shawn went into the house & tried to diffuse the situation; Jerry knocked her across the room & his sister, Linda Gail, grabbed her kids & left. He then threw a set of car keys, hitting Shawn in the face. She told him that she was going to leave with her sister & he grabbed her by the robe, dragged her down the hall & said, “You’re my wife. I’ll kill you before you leave me.” Shelley left the house on foot, hitchhiking until she could get to a payphone to call her father. 

When Shelley got back to Detroit, she called her mom & told her what happened. Her mom mentioned that there’s two sides to every story & maybe something happened that she didn’t know about. She told Shelley that when they were together, they could call Shawn & talk about it. Before they could call her, the phone rang at 3:30 am on August 23rd, the day before Shawn died.  She told her mom that she was going to leave Jerry Lee. Because it was the middle of the night, her mom said they could just talk the next day. Shawn replied, “I don’t know if I can. Whatever you do, make sure nobody calls for me here.” Her mom asked her to call her the next day, but by then, Shawn was dead. That same night, Shawn also called her Scott, her ex-boyfriend’s sister; she asked her to meet her at Jerry’s concert in Michigan on August 28th; she asked her repeatedly, ensuring she would come. She also asked about Scott, wondering if he still loved her. The phone went dead while Shawn was mid-sentence.

Meanwhile, that same night, Jerry Lee was found sitting in his Cadillac, stuck in a ditch off an exit ramp on the freeway leading to Memphis. Two deputies arrived at the scene; Jerry Lee was taken home & his car was towed. He was never screened for intoxication nor was the incident recorded in the sheriff’s department’s logs.

The following day on the afternoon of August 24, 1983, only a couple of months after the two were married, an ambulance was called to the Jerry Lee Lewis residence. Area paramedics knew Jerry Lee’s residence well; a call for an unresponsive or passed out person was not uncommon. Paramedic Sonny Daniels approached a spotless bedroom & found a body on the bed, turned slightly away, toward the wall, the covers drawn up to her neck. Lottie Jackson, the housekeeper, stood by, she had been the one to find Shawn unresponsive in the bed. As Sonny checked Shawn’s neck for her carotid pulse, none could be felt though her skin still retained its body warmth. Her eyes were checked & found dilated.

The second paramedic, Matthew Snyder, had just started with the Hernando, Mississippi ambulance team, newly out of Emergency Medical Technician school. As they inspected Shawn’s slender wrist, they noted a slew of bruises on her forearm that appeared to be from a strong grip. Dried blood stained the web of her hand. 

Lottie, who had worked for Jerry Lee for more than ten years, since before he had moved to Mississippi from Memphis, cried as she moved down the hall toward Jerry Lee’s door that held iron bars in place. Jerry Lee opened the door in response to the knock almost immediately, wearing a bathrobe. They told Jerry Lee that Shawn was dead & noticed bright red scratches on the back of his hand as they spoke. 

Jerry Lee walked down the hall toward the room that held Shawn’s body; he grabbed her wrist as if to feel for a pulse himself, dropped it & stared at her body. A deputy sheriff, 48-year-old Jack McCauley, responded to the home. No one understood why Jack worked in law enforcement, knowing that he was rich from developments. Sonny, the paramedic, recalls that Jack McCauley came into the room & took over; he doesn’t remember him introducing himself to Jerry Lee which made him think that they may have known each other. 

Jerry Lee & Jack went down to the den for over an hour before anyone else responded to the scene to investigate. No report regarding their conversation was ever filed; the report he did write up indicated that he came to the residence just behind the ambulance at 12:30pm on August 24, 1983. He reported that he was delayed on the driveway by two employees from Goldsmith’s department store who had come to the house to hang drapes. He indicated he was told by paramedic Matthew Snyder that a female subject was dead in one of the bedrooms. 

The report read:

Upon entering a small bedroom on the east side of the residence, Mr Lewis was bending over the bed where a white female was lying partially covered by a bedspread. She was clad in a negligee.. When I first arrived, Mr Lews’ speech was heavily slurred, but he was alert and coherent. I telephoned the sheriff’s office & requested a justice of the peace if the coroner could not be located, and an investigator. The latter was requested because there was no visible causes of death and because Mr Lewis’ bathrobe contained apparent bloodstains & he had a cut on his wrist.

At 1351 hours I advised Mr Lewis that his manager J.W. Whitten had arrived but would not be allowed to enter the residence until the investigation was completed. Mr Lewis commented we need to “find out who killed – how she died,” so funeral  arrangements can be made. 

In addition to blood being found on Shawn’s hand & Jerry Lee’s robe, there was also blood on Shawn’s hair, clothes, a bra in another room, a lamp & a spot on the carpet. Glass was broken, still on the floor with the larger shards removed. There was a film of dirt on her body, her fingernails were broken & dried blood appeared to be underneath her nails. Bruising was evident, not only on her forearms as the paramedics noticed, but also on her hip. None of this information made it into the police report. McCauley’s report never made it into the investigative file.

As the coroner was called to the house, the home phone was used rather than the radio to avoid publicity & to keep the press at bay. McCauley called Sherriff Dink Sowell & the first order of the day  was to have a deputy man the gates at the bottom of the driveway. The coroner was not able to come to the house so the justice of peace was called to verify that a death had occurred. Justice Perryman, who had previously been to Jerry Lee’s home for several social occasions, asked Jerry Lee if there was any reason why Shawn would have died & he told him that she had taken sleeping pills. In Justice Perryman’s very brief review of the body, he did note that it was likely that Shawn hadn’t slept in the guest bed & had possibly been placed there after she died. This was not noted in his report. 

A new sheriff had recently been elected, James Albert Riley; Jerry Lee just happened to be one of the largest single contributors to his campaign. A $500 payment from Jerry Lee had been recorded just one day before Shawn died although the records of that transaction later disappeared from the courthouse files. When the new sheriff’s campaign money was questioned, the response was that they wanted the best man for sheriff.  

As investigators remained at the house, Jerry Lee stayed in his den until Shawn’s body was being removed from the house. As her body was coming out on a stretcher, he asked if he could look at her; after a few seconds, he turned away & didn’t say anything. Those there said that he looked normal & appeared to be in good shape.

Shawn’s body was taken to Memphis for a private autopsy which was done by the same doctor who determined that Elvis died from heart failure, Dr Jerry Francisco; Jerry paid $2800 to have it done & the information would never be released into a public file.

The chief investigator for Shawn’s death was Jay Clark & the second in charge was Creekmore Wright; the report they drafted read:

Ambulance arrived at the scene at approximately 12:52pm. Victim was located in front bedroom lying in the bed with cover up to neck. The bed was very neat & did not appear to be slept in. There was by visual inspection blood, or what appeared to be blood, on the web of the left hand. There were also bruises on the lower left arm and upper right  thigh. Victim was clothed in a blue nightgown. There  were no other items near the victim’s body.

As with the previous report, this one also did not mention the blood on Jerry Lee’s robe & slippers as well as various items throughout the house. Reporters were told that Jerry Lee awoke that day just after noon when Goldsmith’s arrived to hang the drapes. He asked Lottie to wake Shawn & that’s when they found her dead. The detective declined to offer a theory about her cause of death. The sheriff indicated that the search turned up no non-prescription drugs or an unusual amount of prescription medicine. In the end, the list of drugs collected from the house filled three single-spaced pages on a crime-lab list, at least one hypodermic syringe was found as well & there was no way to tell if the drugs were illegal or prescription. The Mississippi state crime lab didn’t finish testing the drugs for months & by the time the case went to a grand jury, they were still far from complete.

Jerry’s side of the story was that the night before Shawn died, they were watching TV together when she went into the bathroom. When she came out, she told him that she’d taken sleeping pills. He said he was concerned & asked her how many & she said it wasn’t that many. When he tried to wake her the next day, he was unable to  & noticed that her lips were blue. He smashed the wall with his hand & that’s where  the blood came from. He said he carried her, walking up & down the hall, shaking her until he finally laid her down on the guest bed. Many references reported that Jerry Lee said they had been fighting that night though they fought most every night.

The employees from Goldsmith’s said that when they arrived with the drapes, they knocked on the door for a half hour until Lottie arrived at 12:20pm to let them in. As she fiddled with her key in the lock, Jerry Lee opened the door. Lottie headed to the master bedroom to wake Shawn. She quickly came back down, asked the men from Goldsmith’s to wait in the den & she & Jerry spoke in the master bedroom for thirty minutes before the ambulance came and fifteen minutes before the ambulance was even called. 

At the funeral home, mortician Danny Phillips noted traces of blood in Shawn’s hair & under her broken fingernails. He told reporters that  the bruises on Shawn’s arm had fingernail indentations above them, indicating that someone had grabbed her roughly. He also told them that her neck had discoloration.

As the family got the call of Shawn’s death on August 24th, they struggled to understand what happened. Shawn’s mom hoped to come down to Memphis to see her daughter’s body but she was told the autopsy was underway. Shawn’s friend put the family in touch with a Michigan lawyer. 

In the meantime, the autopsy report came back with no indication for foul play & cause of death was pulmonary edema due to fluid being found in Shawn’s lungs. The toxicology report would take longer. It was determined that blood was found in the house after Jerry Lee cut his finger on glass. The bruises found on Shawn were described as superficial, the kind anyone could have. When the toxicology report was released, it showed that the fluid in Shawn’s lungs was a result of an overdose of methadone, a synthetic narcotic typically used to wean addicts off of heroin. They indicated that it could have been suicide or an accident & the news reports were out, clearing Jerry Lee of any wrongdoing.

There were still so many unanswered questions: If Shawn took sleeping pills while watching TV & went to bed, why was there a film or dirt on her body? If Jerry had just placed her on the bed, how did she get under the covers? Why would a woman who was making plans to meet her family and friends & promising to call them soon suddenly commit suicide and swallow what the autopsy report would have considered 10-15 tablets. As to why it appeared that her body was placed in the neat bed, it was deduced that she had been up and about that day & just laid down on the bed. The conclusion was that there were no indications of violence. After the Detroit Free Press interviewed Shawn’s family, the abuse in the relationship was brought to light & to the public. 

When Shawn’s family’s Michigan lawyer got a copy of the autopsy report, he showed it to another medical examiner from Detroit who felt that it seemed incomplete & left a lot of questions unanswered. Pulmonary edema is a very non–specific finding that could be caused by drowning, strangulation, asphyxiation, trauma to the head, drug overdose. These possibilities could have been tested though weren’t or just hadn’t been reported. The obvious bruises from Shawn’s body weren’t even on the autopsy report, no analysis was done from the blood found on her body, no mention of the condition of her fingernails or the blood that appeared to be underneath.  

The report indicated that Shawn’s stomach contained 725mL fluid or 25oz though the report doesn’t specify what the fluid was from; could it have been lake water or pool water? The mortician remembers seeing a puncture wound under Shawn’s armpit that could have been from a hypodermic needle; the autopsy report described it as two small abrasions. At least one hypodermic needle was found at the house. 

When Shawn’s family arrived for the viewing at the funeral home in Memphis, Jerry Lee wasn’t there. Her father recited the rosary for Shawn & tucked the cross into her folded hands. When Jerry Lee arrived the next day, he noticed the cross & questioned why it was there. It was explained that it was a symbol for Shawn’s family’s Catholic faith & he took the cross from her hands & ordered the casket closed for the night.

The funeral was held the next day & Shawn’s family sat & noted that the entire service revolved around Jerry Lee & barely a word was said about Shawn. She was laid to rest in the Lewis family graveyard. By the next day, Jerry Lee was back out at the clubs with two women at his side. One witness said they were dancers from a strip club.

A grand jury met for three hours after hearing three witnesses; two policemen & Francisco, who did the autopsy. Lottie Jackson & the two paramedics were not called to the stand nor was Jerry Lee. They found no probable cause of a crime being committed.

Nearly a month after the grand-jury verdict, a supplemental report was added to the file, indicating that on the afternoon of Shawn’s death,  police found Lottie locked in the master bedroom as the investigation began. When she finally responded, they found her cleaning the room & stripping the bed. 

A year later Jerry went on to marry wife number six, Kerrie McCarver & in 2012 he married his seventh wife, Judith Brown. Jerry Lee Lewis died on October 28, 2022 at age 87.


  1. ati: That Time Jerry Lee Lewis Married Myra Gale Brown, His 13-Year-Old Cousin
  2. SK Pop: Why was Jerry Lee Lewis nicknamed the Killer? Rock & Roll pioneer dies aged 87
  3. The Stacks Reader: The Strange & Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis
  4. Vulture: Jerry Lee Lewis Was an SOB Right to the End
  5. Hollywood Life: Jerry Lee Lewis’ Wife: Everything To Know About The Late Singer’s 7 Spouses
  6. The Guardian: Jerry Lee Lewis: ‘I worry about whether I’m going to heaven or hell’

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