Harford woman seeking redemption dies trying to save a man in floodwaters

After meeting a backpacker along U.S. 1 in Harford County a couple of months ago, Melissa Lehew invited the Rhode Island man to move into her Darlington home, to give him respite on his journey south.

That was just her way, her friends and family said, to leap with her heart, without regard for the consequences.

The same big-hearted impulse led to the 34-year-old’s death when she pleaded with her boyfriend to pull his truck over in a storm last Friday evening so they could try to rescue a stranded driver amid fast-rising floodwaters on a Churchville road.

“We have to do something,” Kyle Bowman recalled Lehew urging him.

Bowman said he backed his truck into the water, taking care not to go too deep, and tied a rope to the bumper, the water up to his hips. The rope wasn’t long enough to reach the stranded driver and before Bowman could get back to his truck, the rushing water knocked him and Lehew off their feet, slamming them against a guardrail. Bowman said he worked his way over to Lehew, who was clutching desperately to a telephone pole.

“I was trying, but I couldn’t pull her up,” Bowman, 31, of Churchville told The Baltimore Sun. “She couldn’t hold on. The water washed her away.

“I knew she was gone. I thought I was going to go, too. One slip and I was going to go, too.”

Seconds later, the water washed the car — with Daniel Samis, 67, of Abingdon inside — over the bridge into Broad Run. Rescue crews would recover his body Saturday morning. Bowman found Lehew’s body Monday afternoon in a nearby quarry lake along with a search party of family and friends.

To Bowman, Lehew died a heroine on the road to redemption. But she had not fully conquered her demons — she’d lost custody of her children and sobriety from alcohol was an ongoing battle for her, Bowman said.

Online court records show Lehew faced multiple legal troubles. She faced upcoming hearings on probation violations for a 2017 misdemeanor trespassing conviction and a 2017 misdemeanor child neglect conviction for which she was sentenced to four and a half years in jail with all but nine months suspended. She pleaded guilty in May 2015 to driving under the influence of alcohol.

In August, Harford County officials filed a petition for child support against Lehew.

Lehew and Bowman met in early June at a sobriety meeting as they both worked to overcome addiction, he said. Bowman spoke that night about putting his relationship with God first in his life, and said his words connected with Lehew, a mother of four and a deeply religious woman who joined Mount Zion Church in Bel Air over the summer. She described herself online as a “sinner … saved by the grace of God” and regularly posted videos of herself singing hymns for her more than 4,700 Facebook friends.

“Religion was kind of her guidepost for life,” said Bowman, adding that Lehew felt that the months she recently served in jail were a “wake-up call” for her to make changes in her life.

The Rev. Craig McLaughlin, pastor of Mount Zion, said Lehew worshiped weekly at the church since she joined several months ago. She volunteered regularly to help give care to the elderly in the community and was trying to establish a volleyball team, he said.

“She was walking through huge challenges, but we saw that light come on and get brighter,” said McLaughlin, who said Lehew was open with the church community about leaning on her faith along her path to sobriety. “She knew she needed God and she knew she wasn’t going to make it without God’s help and she was seeking God’s help.”

Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of “Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol,” said addiction recovery is “attainable and sustainable.” But achieving sobriety is not “for the faint of heart,” especially in a culture where drinking is so prevalent and normalized. It can take a person repeated attempts to break the cycle, she said.

“It takes a real determination, and some would say blessings from the skies above to stay sober, but millions do,” said Dowsett Johnston, who is a recovering alcoholic. “Many recover in church basements, invisible to the public. We are highly unaware of the level to which we’re rubbing shoulders at the grocery store or in the office with people who have been on that path. But we are coming out of the closet, and I think we will see a recovery revolution.”

Evidence shows that women become addicted much faster than men, and with less alcohol consumption, Dowsett Johnston said. Alcoholism also receives less attention — despite its deadly consequences — than other substance abuse, and as a result receives less devotion to finding solutions than it deserves, she said.

“We normalize binge drinking in our culture, in the movies and on television,” Dowsett Johnston said.

“Pinking of the market” for alcohol from Skinny Girl Cocktails to calling a glass of wine “Mommy juice,” shows the intense advertising and branding to attract women to alcohol, Dowsett Johnston said. It is similar, she said, to past cigarette campaigns for brands, such as “Virginia Slims,” that targeted women.

“We see wine as a food group,” she said. “We don’t see wine as a drug. Women are catching up to men in their drinking habits.”

Bowman said Lehew’s past led to estranged and damaged relationships with family.

Some of the family trouble played out on a Go Fund Me page Bowman set up to raise $10,000 to help pay for “her final expenses” with any extra money going to a trust fund for her children. Some family members took issue with his attempts to raise money, saying the family had already paid for her funeral expenses. About $1,000 had been pledged before the campaign was closed late Wednesday.

An online obituary for an Essex funeral home listed her interment as private and did not provide details. It said she is survived by four children, a father and stepmother, and a brother and sister. Family members couldn’t be reached for comment.

Lehew dreamed of regaining custody of her children, Bowman said.

She was so committed to building a new life, McLaughlin said, that she recently rebranded herself as “Elizabeth,” inspired by a mid-century missionary of the same name, in an attempt to shed the associations with her given name, “Melissa.”

Her idealism led her to reject legal representation for some court challenges in the past, Bowman said, because she felt lawyers could unfairly sway the judicial process. And she was especially moved to help people facing homelessness.

“She was trying to start over and do everything the right way,” Bowman said. “She wanted to spread love to anyone she could and spread the Christian word.”

Lehew’s cousin, Jennifer Ragan of Aberdeen, said Lehew left “love bags” around her house, stuffed with toiletries, canned food and items like flashlights and matches to hand out to homeless or struggling people she would encounter. She wanted to live the faith she believed in, and in her faith Ragan said Lehew found complete forgiveness and a fresh start.

Ragan said she is not surprised that Lehew lost her life while trying to save another’s.

“Her last act was for someone else,” said Ragan, who is in the process of adopting Lehew’s youngest daughter. “I can’t stress enough what a beautiful soul she had. It was tormented, and now it is at peace.”

On Monday, Ragan was with Bowman and the search party when they found Lehew’s body. She said she was wading up to her hips in the creek bed, clearing debris from the bridges and hoping they would find Lehew injured and waiting for help.

Lehew always felt closest to God along the riverside, Ragan said, and she loved the area where she came to finally rest.

Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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This story was featured in The Sun's Alexa Flash Briefing on Sept. 6, 2018.

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