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Guilty plea in fatal fire gets woman probation

The 66-year-old accepts a deal that makes her guilty of manslaughter, not murder.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 31, 2001


LARGO -- A woman accused of setting a fire that killed a resident of a downtown St. Petersburg apartment building pleaded guilty last week to a reduced manslaughter charge.

Patricia A. Miller, 66, was initially charged with first-degree murder. But prosecutors and her public defenders negotiated a plea agreement Thursday. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley sentenced Miller to 15 years' probation.

Miller, who suffers from mental and physical ailments, also was ordered to undergo treatment for an indefinite period at Jacaranda Manor nursing home, where she is locked up and cannot leave without a court order.

Investigators said Miller started the fire that killed tenant Regina Tomlin, 36, a nurse. The fire also destroyed the Hunt Apartments on Third Avenue N.

Miller had argued with someone else at the apartment building before the blaze and set the fire in retaliation, police said. But her lawyers were prepared to argue that the fire was started by accident.

Miller, who is legally blind, did not live at the apartment building.

Prosecutor Bob Lewis, who handled the case, said prosecutors agreed to a plea for a number of reasons, including the agreement of the victim's mother.

He also said expert witnesses differed on the cause of the blaze.

"Both sides were concerned with what the result of a trial might be," said Lewis.

Assistant Public Defender Robert Gardner, who represented Miller, said the woman has been the subject of abuse on the street.

"She's just an easy target. I think both for her and the community, her placement is probably beneficial for all," he said.

If she had been convicted of first-degree murder, Miller would have faced life in prison without parole.

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