Location Allen Correctional Institution
Offenses Aggravated Murder, Aggravated Robbery, Felonious Assault
Sentence Min/Max 38 YEARS/LIFE
Date Admitted 09/20/1988
Next Eligibility Hearing Date 10/30/2023
In May of 1988, Lewis Thomas and James Mills planned and executed an armed bank robbery. This was not the first time they had committed such a crime. According to Mills, he and Thomas had previously committed an armed robbery together in which Thomas was caught. Thomas was convicted in 1975 of armed bank robbery and a federal court sentenced him to 10 years in the penitentiary. Once he got out, he hooked back up with Mills so they could resume their criminal partnership.

On Saturday May 21, Thomas and Mills hatched a plan to rob the First Ohio Savings Bank, a small, regional bank located in a strip mall. That Monday morning, the bank was pretty busy for the first couple hours. There were three tellers working behind the counter: Mike Johnson, Sonya Lester and Katherine Kamphaus. The head teller, a 28 year old woman named Marsha Burger, was working at her desk immediately behind the counter.

By 11:00 am, the morning rush had died down and there was only one, elderly customer inside, sitting on a couch near the counter area. Katherine Kamphaus was getting ready to go on break and Marsha was going to cover for her. At the same time, two cars pulled into the parking lot driven by Mills and Thomas. Both men got out of their vehicles and approached the bank. Marsha and Katherine were talking at Marsha’s desk when Mills burst through the door with a revolver in his hand. He immediately ran towards the counter and fired a shot at the tellers behind the counter. Fortunately for them the shot was a little low and struck the counter just inches below the teller window.

Marsha and Katherine both fell to the floor and hid under desks. Sonya Lester fell to the floor and curled up in the fetal position, her eyes squeezed shut and her hands pressed against her ears. Mike Johnson fell to the floor and began crawling toward one of the manager’s offices. Mills continued to advance and without breaking stride leapt over the counter. He pistol whipped the crawling Mike Johnson in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious and driving him to the floor.

Right on Mills’ heels, Thomas rushed into the bank with an Intratec 9mm pistol with a 30 round magazine. Having heard the shot before he entered, his first concern was to make sure Mills had not been injured. When he saw Mills was alright and Mike was lying on the floor, he assumed that Mills had killed the teller. Thomas circled the bank to make sure there were no hidden dangers before he took up his position standing guard at the front door.

Mills grabbed Sonya and dragged her over to a small vault and ordered her to open it. Sonya was new to the bank, terrified and unfamiliar with how to open the vault. While Mills pressed the barrel of his revolver to her head, she tried frantically to open the vault, but could not. She pleaded for someone to help her and Marsha responded.

Marsha left the relative safety of her hiding place under her desk and retrieved the vault key from a drawer. Marsha was also terrified and fumbled with the key and the combination as she tried to open the vault. Mills yelled at her to hurry up and open the vault. Marsha told him, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m going as fast as I can.” These were the last words she would ever speak.
While she was trying to open the vault, Officer James Heller of the St. Bernard Police Department, responding to a silent alarm, arrived on the scene. He observed Thomas, crouched low at the front door, with the semi-automatic weapon in his hands. At that point, Marsha got the vault open and Mills discovered it did not contain money, but just bank paperwork. Thomas saw Officer Heller arrive and yelled to Mills that their time was up and they had to leave. As Mills began moving toward the front door, Marsha scrambled back under her desk hoping it would protect her.

Mills was already at the gate that separated the counter area from the front of the bank when he stopped, turned around, and headed back towards Marsha’s desk. Without a word, he fired a single shot into Marsha’s chest. The shot went through her right lung, through the pericardium, through her pulmonary artery, through her aorta, bisected her heart, and passed through her left lung before exiting through her back. She was dead before she hit the floor.

Thomas waited at the front door for Mills to join him, then he opened the door and the two exited the bank. Mills rushed out, firing shots at Officer Heller as he ran. Officer Heller had been watching the armed lookout, Thomas, but the hail of bullets shifted his attention and he returned fire at Mills who ducked behind a pillar. Officer Heller then looked back to Thomas who was only 30 feet away and had his 9mm pointed at the officer’s stomach. Officer Heller believed he was about to die, but the weapon did not fire. A firearms examiner testified that the weapon was fully functional, but speculated that either Thomas had accidentally engaged the safety or had not chambered a round. Either way, Thomas would subsequently tell detectives that he tried to shoot, but the weapon malfunctioned.

Mills then reappeared from behind the pillar and continued firing at Officer Heller. Thomas took this opportunity to run. Mills managed to reach his car and escape, but was later apprehended. Thomas was seen running through a residential neighborhood carrying a gun. A police K9 unit was used to locate him, and the 9mm weapon was discovered in the same vicinity. He was taken into custody and indicted for Aggravated Murder with a death penalty specification.

His case was tried to a three judge panel who found him guilty of the Aggravated Murder, but not the death penalty specification. Thomas was also found guilty of Aggravated Robbery, three counts of Felonious Assault and two firearms specifications. Thomas was sentenced to 20 years to LIFE on the Aggravated Murder, 15-25 years on the Aggravated Robbery, 12-15 years on the three Felonious Assault charges, and to two 3 year firearms specifications. The Aggravated Murder sentence was run consecutively to one of the Felonious Assault sentences and the two firearms specifications for an aggregate sentence of 38 years to LIFE. Thomas has not yet served the minimum portion of that sentence.

Thomas knew Mills. The two of them had planned and committed armed robbery before this event. He believed that Mills had killed Mike Johnson when he entered the bank, and he continued to watch Mills’ back as he searched for money. After Mills killed Marsha for no reason, he waited at the door for him so the two could confront the police together. Thomas tried to kill Officer Heller, but fortunately did not succeed. Thomas deserves every day of the LIFE sentence he received and to let him out before he has even served the minimum sentence would be an insult to Marsha’s memory. The Hamilton County Prosecutors Office strongly opposes early release for Lewis Thomas.


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