They called him Johnnie
Public perception was against us – but I agreed to help…
They called him John Wesley in the backwoods of Alabama.
Back home in Nebraska, they called him a fugitive.
Now two decades later, he goes by the name his parents gave him. Dennis Lewchuk. The name he made famous with a left-handed guitar and infamous by stabbing another man to save his own life.
But he’ll still answer to Johnnie while standing behind the cash register of the Stereo City he opened with two of his sons in Chattanooga, Tennessee, just behind the Wendy’s along Interstate 75. And he’ll tell you about his Elvis impersonation, the best custom speakers for a 1967 Cadillac and how he dodged the law for 14 years.
“When I’m up north, it’s Denny,” he said in between ringing up customers.
“But I’ll always be Johnnie in the south.”
The making of a music legend
Dennis was born at a Norfolk hospital in July 1946 and went home to a chicken coop.
His parents had fixed up an old one-room brood house on First Street, not far from the Norfolk sale barn. In the winter months, Dennis said, he would curl up under a blanket on the floor in front of a wood-burning stove.
He was the oldest of four kids, three boys and a girl. His dad, Frank, filled his children’s bellies with squirrel, dove, rabbit and catfish.
“I got tired of eating rabbits and squirrels. Mama and Grandma would say if you don’t eat it, then you aren’t hungry,” Dennis said.
When meat was scarce, they ate ketchup sandwiches for lunch.
On the weekends, his dad took him to work on a cousin’s farm near Foster. On their way home one evening, they stopped to hear Bud Van Fleet playing a steel guitar in the back of the Shady Inn.
“He was like Hank Williams Sr., old-school country,” Dennis said by phone from Chattanooga.
The teenage Dennis ended up on stage singing “North of Alaska.”
And he liked it. The stage. The attention. The applause.
His mom, Burnetta, bought him his first guitar for $19 from Woolworths with money she had saved up working at Hested’s discount store.
He played dive bars, concert halls, recording studios and fields from Denver to Billings to Nashville throughout the 1960s and ’70s. The Dennis Lewchuk Show packed the Red Bull lounge in Norfolk six nights a week, drawing bigger crowds than any national act, said Doug Speidel, a former owner of the music hall and now owner of the Slumberland in Norfolk.
It got him girls, too. Dennis married young. The first time around 20, to a young woman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. The marriage lasted only a few years and produced a son, Dennis James Lewchuk, who now lives in Norfolk.
He married twice more, and divorced twice more, before meeting Joy Renee Welfl from Yankton, South Dakota.
She was 15, the middle of three girls, and the only one to graduate high school.
Her mom took her to see the band, and she fell in love with Dennis. She liked his smile. He had a big heart, and an even bigger personality.
He saw her as a kid, but Joy went to every show she could, often driving hours with friends or her mom.
“You could say I was kind of his girlfriend, along with all the other girls,” she said.
When she turned 18, she moved to Norfolk. He proposed in about the same way he would have asked whether she wanted to get a hamburger. Their engagement lasted a week, and a judge performed the ceremony.
Less than a year later, during the early-morning hours of Dec. 22, 1979, Joy was home doing chores and 6 months pregnant.
Dennis walked through the front door of their trailer house covered in blood.
The Lewchuk reputation
The name Lewchuk came with a reputation.
Some of the Lewchuk brothers might have deserved it more than others, said Jim Casey, a Norfolk musician and founder of the Nebraska Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It’s not clear how much truth there is to the stories about the Lewchuks, and how much exaggeration or misplaced blame.
“The Lewchuks, even if they didn’t do something, they got blamed for it,” Casey said. “But they were behind a whole lot of what did go on.”
Like the story of the Lewchuk who chained a cow carcass to the back of his motorcycle then dragged it down Main Street.
Or the night three off-duty lawmen wearing black went out to where Dennis’ younger brother was staying and knocked the snot out of him.
“He and his brothers had built up really such an unfounded reputation around Norfolk and this whole area here, I could mention his name up in South Dakota and they still remember him — that he shot the lights out at a ballroom up there.”
Dennis and the man he stabbed, James Warner, told different stories about what happened.
James had been on a tear that night, witnesses would testify during the June 1980 trial. At the Brass Rail bar, he bragged about his karate skills, pushed a woman and tried to gouge out the eyes of two men.
Dennis showed up at the Norfolk bar at about midnight after having visited a couple of other drinking holes. The two men left together in Dennis’ car.
Doug Speidel, a musician who played in the same circles as Dennis, said his friend was helping the bar out by getting a drunk and dangerous man to leave without trouble.
Dennis said they planned to head to his house for a drink. He had built a bar onto the side of his trailer for after-hour parties. According to court records, James said they planned to smoke marijuana.
Dennis said that while he drove, James kept up a string of obnoxious comments. Then he hit Dennis with a karate chop to the neck, pulled him to the floor and started choking him. The car went into a ditch and flipped. Dennis said he couldn’t breathe. He knew James was going to kill him. Joy had given him a Buck knife for Christmas. He pulled it from his belt.
He swung wildly, trying to get James off him, according to his version of events. James, wounded, climbed out of the car and ran.
But James told the court he was sitting in the car, listening to Dennis brag about the Jokers Wild motorcycle gang, to which one of his brothers belonged.
James testified that without warning, Dennis hit him in the left arm, that he tried to grab Dennis’ arm but missed and Dennis hit him in the head. James said he saw blood and realized Dennis had a knife. He tried to escape, he said, feeling blows continue to come over his right shoulder; and Dennis yelled: “Why won’t you die, you son of a bitch.”
The car went off the road; James escaped.
He needed as many as 500 stitches to close 25 cuts, including two chest wounds, court records show.
Dennis’ first trial ended in a hung jury. He was retried a few months later about 40 miles east in Cuming County. This time, Judge Richard Garden banned witnesses from testifying about James’ violent and aggressive behavior that night at the Brass Rail.
“There went the legs out from underneath me,” Dennis said.
The 34-year-old was convicted of first-degree assault.
“I lost it all.”
His attorney told him to be prepared to spend the next couple of decades in prison.
Popping the question
During the first trial, Joy had faith in her man and the system.
The second trial was a nightmare. Dennis was convicted, and a couple of weeks later, awaiting sentencing, he asked Joy to go on the run. He wouldn’t rot in prison for having defended himself.
They had been married a little more than a year. She was 19 and the mother of a 6-month-old baby named Frankie, after his grandpa.
“There was no hesitation,” she said. “I was young … I loved him.”
They got fake IDs from a friend of Dennis’ sister and sold everything they owned except an old station wagon, an antique wood burner, his band’s touring trailer and his guitar. They hit the road in the middle of the night with a fresh coat of black paint on the trailer and about $10,000 in their pockets.
They drove. No destination. No plan.
“I headed south and I never looked back,” he said.
They lived cheap and camped at night.
Around Knoxville, Tennessee, Joy talked him into paying for a motel room for the night. Dennis sat down to watch the gunslinger John Wesley Hardin firing lead at Wyatt Earp in a black-and-white western.
The outlaw name called to him.
The next morning, Johnnie, Pam and Frankie Wesley checked out of the motel and kept going south.
Johnnie, Pam, Frankie and Elvis
They drove until they hit the coast and stopped for a time in Pensacola, Florida.
They got a motel room, passed time playing cards, watching football and game shows. They took Frankie to the beach to go fishing.
Even living cheap, the money went quick.
Johnnie, restless and bored, went out to a bar, leaving Pam and Frankie in the room.
That’s where he met Elvis, or at least an impersonator. They compared sneers and hip gyrations over a couple beers.
The King’s band happened to need a guitar player. Johnnie was terrified someone would recognize him, but his family needed money and music was all he knew.
He grew his beard out and played, staying as far from the limelight as he could while standing onstage with a man wearing a sequined jumpsuit.
One night after a show, Johnnie, his nerves raw, asked Elvis where he would go if he wanted to live a simple life, a place where you could leave fame behind and disappear.
North Carolina, Elvis responded. Plenty of beautiful open space and people who like their privacy.
After about three months in Pensacola, the Wesley family headed toward the Blue Ridge Mountains.
They stopped at a KOA campground and threw up a tent for the night. It was cold, and Frankie was sick.
Pam put her foot down. She was tired of running, tired of sleeping in tents.
The next morning, they drove by a small sign advertising a basement apartment in the tiny town of Ocoee, Tennessee, in the shadow of the Cherokee National Forest.
They stayed there about two years in the early 1980s, but they couldn’t get steady jobs without Social Security cards.
They made a friend who worked as a manager at an IGA supermarket and would call when the store threw out its old meat. The first couple of times were the hardest for Pam.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m actually doing this,’” she said. “It’s in the Dumpster. That’s nasty.”
Don’t worry, Johnnie would tell her. It’s still clean inside the packaging.
“He would pick me up and in I would go. He made me do the dirty work,” she said.
She pulled out expired but edible hamburger, cheese and pork chops.
They had three more children: Johnnie, Jennie and Angel. During her first pregnancy there, Pam stayed away from the doctor. She didn’t want to have to answer awkward questions, and they didn’t have insurance. When she was about seven months along, powerful cramps doubled her over while she was working in the vegetable garden. A friend connected her with an obstetrician who didn’t pry into her past and took payments. She was working too hard, the doctor told her. Take it easy.
Then Pam and Johnnie discovered flea markets. They began hitting garage sales, buying anything they could fix and flip: phones, Jesus clocks, answering machines, speakers, bikes, belt sanders. Pam sold homemade candles. They bought a school bus and converted it to a camper.
They moved to a small house down a dirt road near Mentone, a village with a population of fewer than 500 people and the highest elevation of any incorporated town in Alabama. It’s perched on the side of Lookout Mountain, part of the southern Appalachian Plateau.
Pam and Johnnie kept out of the spotlight and drove the speed limit. Johnnie dug a hole under their porch in case he needed to hide out.
A friend made a fake birth certificate for Frankie with the last name Wesley on it so they could enroll him in school.
They went to T-ball games and Pam baked cupcakes for school parties.
From time to time, Johnnie would get an itch. He’d pull out his guitar, find a bar or Legion Hall as far from civilization as possible and belt out a few songs.
Whenever he saw a police cruiser in his rearview mirror or an officer walked through the flea market, he would tell his kids he loved them. Just in case.
They would give him back a puzzled look and say, “I love you, too. What’s the matter, Daddy?”
In high school, Frankie became a football star and popular. He liked to keep his hair neat and wear Levis.
Johnnie’s oldest son, Dennis James Lewchuk, still lived in Nebraska and visited a few times but kept their secret.
Johnnie and Pam’s children never knew their dad was a wanted man, although Frankie once found the guitar in the trunk of his dad’s car. The guitar strap had “The Dennis Lewchuk Show” embossed on it.
They lived that way until fall 1994.
That morning, their dogs, a couple of chow chows, wouldn’t stop barking.
Johnnie looked out the window but didn’t see anything. He thought: Must be a deer or raccoon in the yard.
He was fixing a waffle iron to resell when he heard the school bus pulling up to drop off the kids. Johnnie grabbed a camera; he wanted a photo of his youngest girl, Angel, coming home from kindergarten.
But when he stepped off the porch, he saw a handful of men wearing suits and uniforms in the front yard.
One was a deputy sheriff, Jimmy Philips.
Two decades later, Philips said nothing surprises him anymore. But at the time, he was shocked when the FBI called to say someone had recognized Johnnie Wesley on a wanted poster at the post office.
“He was like a pillar of the community. People liked him. He fit right in.”
That day in the yard, Johnnie said, Philips stood up for him and told the FBI to let him go back in the house and kiss his children goodbye.
“As I remember, he tried to crawl out the back window,” Philips said.
But officers were waiting out back, too. They slapped handcuffs on his wrists; and he again became Dennis Lewchuk.
Joy paid his bail with a $5,000 loan from her father.
As soon as he got home to Mentone, Dennis took his dog and two oldest children on a two-week fishing trip.
It looked like he might run again, but he came back. Joy told him they couldn’t uproot their life again, not with four growing children. The kids needed Social Security numbers and Frankie was a year from wondering why he couldn’t get a driver’s license.
Doug Speidel, Dennis’ old friend back in Norfolk, put him in touch with Omaha attorney Dave Domina, who had lived in Norfolk during the 1970s and ’80s.
“I knew he (Dennis) had a reputation in Norfolk, but I always thought he was hurt by the misdeeds of his brothers and not such a bad person himself,” Domina said.
Domina wanted to meet Dennis before taking the case. He flew to Alabama and stayed in their home. He went with them to the flea market and spoke with about 200 people there.
“It became clear to me he was a valuable member of that community and respected, although humble (of means), for being a good person,” Domina said.
When Dennis flew out of Chattanooga to face trial in Nebraska, Joy said, the family sobbed at the airport. It was left to Joy to calm the kids and keep their spirits up.
On Dec. 16, 1994, when Dennis was set to be sentenced for the 1979 stabbing, his supporters filled two chartered buses for the drive from Mentone to Nebraska to testify as character witnesses on his behalf. Hundreds more wrote letters, and thousands signed a petition asking for leniency.
“I wonder how many Nebraskans could get two busloads of people to support them by going to a criminal sentencing in northwest Alabama,” Domina said.
They failed to sway the judge, who gave Dennis five to 10 years in prison.
Domina appealed and, nearly a year later, the Nebraska Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial.
The Appeals Court said the original judge in the case erred in excluding testimony about James Warner’s violent and aggressive actions before he got in the car the night of the stabbing.
Madison County Attorney Joseph Smith declined to refile charges. Too much time had passed and he could no longer find some of the witnesses, including Warner.
Dennis spent 16 months in the Nebraska State Penitentiary for failing to appear at his original sentencing. He had a guitar to keep him company. He wrote songs and sang them into a recorder, mailing the tapes to his family.
A free man
He walked out of prison on May 26, 1996.
“I just took a big breath, and I said, ‘I can’t believe this happened to me. I’m free.’”
An old friend who lived in Lincoln picked him up at the prison. He spent the next couple of weeks catching up with friends, visiting Norfolk and a few other towns, which didn’t sit well with Joy.
She had spent the past year and a half holding the family together and had written him a letter every day he was in prison.
She and the children had sat down at the table and stared at his empty chair as they ate dinner.
Money had always been tight, and with him locked up she was running the flea market business on her own. Then the man who owned their home sold it, and she had to move the kids to a smaller, ramshackle house.
It took Joy 18 months to get the names on Johnnie’s, Jennie’s and Angel’s birth certificates changed to Lewchuk, and to get the entire family’s Social Security numbers sorted out.
“I think I got done with all that mess about a week before he came home,” she said.
When Dennis flew back to Chattanooga, their pastor gave him a ride to the house. They drove up the lane in the church van, honking the horn.
His kids ran to meet him. They hugged and cried. Joy hugged him, then yelled at him for not coming home sooner.
Frankie wrote an essay about how he felt when he saw his dad again and submitted it to a radio show. It won him a spot on the National Public Radio program “Radio Diaries.”
The producers gave him a tape recorder, and he made an audio diary that was broadcast on national radio in 1997. He updated the story in 2013 with a piece about his own troubles with the law and trying to regain his family’s trust after getting off methamphetamine.
Frankie has two babies of his own now, girls he named Autumn Rain and Aubrey Crimson. Aubrey’s middle name comes from Crimson Tide, Alabama’s football team.
His sister, Angel, has a baby girl too, Kynlee James.
“They are my pride and joy, all of them spoiled rotten of course,” said their grandma, who still goes by Pam.
Dennis said he sold the movie rights to his story. The movie never got made, but he still got to spend the $1,000 signing bonus.
Looking back, he says getting caught was the best thing that happened to him since the night of the fight. He believes it was the town postmaster who turned him in. Dennis was mad at first, but later went into the post office to thank him.
He got his life back. He got a driver’s license and went back to school to get a GED.
In 2001, he was inducted into the Nebraska Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Today, he still lives in the backwoods of Alabama, near Valley Head, and heats his home with wood. He has a long beard, ZZ-Top style, and wears Carhartt coveralls.
He is busy this time of year at Stereo City, as customers flush with tax return money buy audio equipment and have it installed in their cars.
Nearly 35 years after going on the run with her husband, Pam says she’d do it again.
“I don’t regret it because I have my four beautiful children I have today,” she said.
“The only thing I regret about this whole thing is I didn’t get to see my parents for all those years.”
These days, she runs a booth in an indoor flea market next to the Stereo City.
Dennis still plays his left-handed guitar, mostly sitting on his front porch, but occasionally in the back of an Alabama bar.
And these days, he goes by Pops.