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Man linked to slaying found dead in garage

For days, neighbors wondered why sheriff's investigators kept mingling around Patrick Lewis.

Detectives had come by the carload, staying for hours and talking to Lewis in his front yard and his living room. One night, they even impounded his blue Chevrolet Suburban.

But not until Lewis was found dead in his garage Saturday did his neighbors learn why investigators had been there last week. Turns out, Lewis was a suspect in the slaying of a young woman whose body was left near the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

St. Petersburg police detectives found evidence suggesting Lewis had committed suicide by inhaling gas fumes through a hose disconnected from his clothes dryer. They also found other wounds on his torso, and they said an autopsy would help determine his cause of death.

"You would always see him outside, trimming trees and working in the yard," said Wanda Lawson, who lives behind Lewis. "I've never heard of any problems. I never knew of anything anyway."

With Lewis' death Saturday, Pinellas County sheriff's detectives say they expect to close their investigation into the slaying of 22-year-old Charelle Ratliff. Her nude body was found Monday, hidden by a tree near the shoreline of Tampa Bay.

She had been bludgeoned, and a plastic bag was wrapped around her head. Investigators thought the bag may have kept blood from staining whatever automobile was used to dump her.

After a maintenance worker discovered her body, investigators did not know who the woman was. They released an artist's sketch, hoping the public would recognize her.

On Wednesday, investigators say, the 42-year-old Lewis phoned the Sheriff's Office to say he knew somebody who matched a newspaper's description of the dead woman. He gave investigators Ratliff's name, and they were able to confirm her identity by matching her fingerprints.

But investigators still did not know who or why the woman was slain. So they began questioning Lewis at his home, said sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha.

Lewis indicated he met Ratliff when working in Brooklyn, N.Y., three years ago, Pasha said. He also indicated "she smoked crack cocaine and that he moved her down here to Florida in August of last year," Pasha said.

Lewis told detectives that he'd tried to get Ratliff into drug treatment programs, but Ratliff wouldn't cooperate. She'd been living with him at 1571 Pinellas Point Drive S until she recently moved out.

When he was questioned by investigators for more than 12 hours Wednesday, Lewis said he had not seen Ratliff in three days. "There was some long discussion," Pasha said, "but he didn't admit to anything."

Lewis agreed to let investigators seize his Chevy Suburban, and he agreed to take a polygraph examination Thursday. But when investigators went to pick him up for the exam, Lewis was not home.

Neighbors say the house remained unlit Friday. The windows were closed, and the shades were pulled down.

Coming home from a plant auction shortly after midnight, Major and Nancy King smelled gas in the neighborhood. But they said they thought little of it.

Until Saturday morning.

Lewis' parents had stopped by the house in hopes of taking him to lunch when they found him near the dryer in the garage. The parents declined comment later.

"From what I understand, there were notes in the house," said Pasha, the sheriff's spokeswoman. "I know there was more than one."

Whether the notes contained a murder confession was unclear Saturday, but Pasha said Lewis earlier apologized to investigators for "what" he had done, even though he insisted he didn't kill Ratliff. "That's as far as we got with him before he disappeared. We were still working him," Pasha said.

"The case isn't absolutely closed yet, but they do feel like this was the person who killed her," Pasha said. "They believe this was the guy."

At least one neighbor said Lewis, an unemployed construction worker who planned to start a new job in Georgia next week, had talked about having problems with a young woman who would not leave him alone. The neighbor said Lewis didn't want police to arrest the woman but did mention getting a court order to keep her away.

Indeed, computerized court records show that two restraining orders were issued against Ratliff in recent months. The records also show that Ratliff was released Sept. 28 from the Pinellas County Jail on charges of possessing crack cocaine and carrying a concealed weapon.

Despite the restraining orders, neighbors said Lewis had complained about the woman breaking into his house. "He was afraid to leave his house unlocked, even if he was out back, doing yard work," said the neighbor who declined to be identified because he feared Ratliff's friends or family might retaliate against him. "That's the kind of girl she was."