PC woman faces charge in arson case

By David Angier News Herald Writer 747-5077 / dangier@pcnh.com

A county judge released a Panama City woman from jail Monday, pending the outcome of her arson charge. Patrice S. Lewis, 51, was charged Sunday night with arson. She’s accused of setting fire to one of her husband’s shirts inside a closet of their master bathroom.

"She admitted to this officer that she was mad at her husband and set the fire," State Fire Marshal’s investigator Lt. Les Nelson wrote in his arrest report.

The husband is Panama City Port Authority Deputy Director Charles Lewis.

Patrice Lewis was released from the Bay County Jail Monday on a conditional release bond.

The fire, at 1210 W. Beach Drive, started around 5:20 p.m. and burned through the rear portion of the roof before firefighters got it under control. The blaze caused smoke and heat damage throughout the residence.

Arson, depending on how the State Attorney’s Office pursues it, can be either a first-degree felony punishable by as much as 30 years in prison, or a second-degree felony punishable by 15 years in prison.

State Attorney Jim Appleman said the case would be handled by another prosecutor’s office, because Patrice Lewis is the sister-in-law of Assistant State Attorney Bill Lewis.

"To make sure there is no appearance of impropriety," Appleman said, "we’re asking the governor to assign this case to another state attorney’s office."

Around the time that Patrice Lewis was preparing to go before a judge for her first appearance, State Fire Marshal’s investigator Jimmy Ruthven was combing through a damaged house around the corner from the Lewis’ residence.

Panama City Battalion Fire Chief Daniel Snapp said firefighters were called to 1001 Buena Vista Blvd. about 5 a.m. They found smoke and flames coming out of a bedroom window and got the blaze under control in about 10 minutes.

Homeowner Alex Mathis and his son Robert Mathis were able to get out without injury, but two dogs died inside. Another family dog escaped the blaze.

Fire Chief Gary Wells said this was the third fire at the residence in five years. He said a blaze in 1998 was caused by a cigarette. Another fire in 2000 was started by an electrical short.

Wells said the house showed some signs of damage from those fires, as well as extensive smoke and heat damage from Monday’s blaze.

Mathis told investigators he saw smoke coming from his bedroom before he and his son made their way out, Wells said.

Ruthven said the fire was under investigation and declined to discuss his findings in detail. He said the residence may not be salvageable and had $150,000 in damage.