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Exclusive: Jacksonville Fire Department grapples with safety, integrity concerns after JFRD officer accused of stalking another

The story a JFRD Captain told police investigators is 'not accurate,' according to the only person to see him after his alleged hit-and-run.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — New information in the case of a Jacksonville firefighter accused of stalking his ex and fleeing a car crash reveals how his burgeoning legal troubles are impacting the agency, inside and out.

Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department Capt. Christopher Lewis has pleaded not guilty to charges he received in February alleging that he violated a restraining order issued for alleged harassment and threats of gun violence.

Lewis also pleaded not guilty to fleeing a February car crash that police say caused at least $30,000 worth of damage to a fence and shed.

Lewis is currently on limited administrative duty, and not fighting fires. But the charges against him have created both an image and a management problem for JFRD, in part because the woman who obtained the restraining order is also an officer with JFRD, something not previously reported. 

That woman spoke exclusively to First Coast News, as did the woman Lewis contacted following his off-duty wreck, who says he told her to conceal material facts about the incident.

The combustible circumstances have fire officials attempting to balance the safety concerns raised in the restraining order with Lewis’ due process rights and the optics of his pending criminal charges.

“Chris is very good when it comes to going in burning buildings,” a former JFRD officer told First Coast News. “But with the allegations put forth, of the stalking, things that are illegal and unethical, that is a problem.”

Lewis declined to comment for this story, as did JFRD, citing an active investigation. But current firefighters also worry the allegations against him are giving the agency “a black eye.”

A high ranking JFRD officer who has worked alongside Lewis since he joined the agency said because the stalking allegations involve a fellow officer, they are first and foremost a workplace safety issue. But he also wonders about the message it sends.

“[Lewis’] integrity is in question, his stability is in question,” he told First Coast News. “We go into peoples’ homes. We’re entrusted with their lives. We’re entrusted with their property and their well-being. We need to be trusted by the public.”

"He was annihilated"

The first call came around midnight on Feb. 1. Kara Pemberthy ignored it. She didn’t answer the second call either, but picked up the third. She says it was her ex-boyfriend Chris Lewis, calling from his watch.

“He just said that he had been in an accident, and he needed me to come get him,” Pemberthy told First Coast News in her first interview about that night.

That’s not what Lewis told investigators when he was finally located 13 hours later. Lewis said he’d walked to Pemberthy’s house because he was on his way there before he crashed. 

“I was heading to [Kara’s] house,” he told police in a recorded interview the following morning. “That’s where I was going in the first place last night … Just getting to her house. She knew I was coming.”

Not so, according to Pemberthy. They’d broken up the week before. “We weren't speaking at the time. So I was kind of surprised that he even wanted me to help him at that moment.”

RELATED: Homeowner wants accountability after JFRD employee destroys shed, fence then leaves

Pemberthy (who initially asked not to be identified, but later gave First Coast News permission to use her name and picture) agreed to come get him. 

“He was bleeding from his hands and like a little bit on his face,” she said, adding: “He was annihilated.”

Officers never asked Pemberthy if she’d had plans with Lewis that night. Nor did they ask her – or, surprisingly, him – if he’d been drinking.

Asked why that question went unasked, JSO said in a statement that “detectives were not able to locate and speak to [Lewis] for several hours … [so] the detective did not have the requirements necessary to begin a DUI investigation.”

Lewis told investigators he was at a "firefighter function" before the accident. According to police reports, Lewis' crash was related to 911 calls "that came in regarding reckless and drunk driving."  

Pemberthy had no doubt about his level of intoxication. 

“I knew that was Drunk Chris,” she said. “It wasn't Sober Chris.”

She says she cleaned him up and put him to bed in her guest room, and the next morning, he gave her instructions. “He told me to say that he went to my house, that he walked there and knocked on the door. And he told me to say that he wasn't drinking. From that point on, it literally was just kind of like, make sure that he's protected at all cost.”

Pemberthy admits she was “bothered” by being asked to lie, but felt pressure to do so. “It seemed to me like it would completely ruin his career, and that I was the person who was going to help him save that.”

Some inside the agency think Lewis, who had a DUI in 2010 according to JFRD records, may have benefitted from the influence of his father, Roger Lewis Sr. The former union chief was well-connected and politically active, credited with marshalling support to help elect former Mayor John Peyton. Firefighters say that relationship surrounded Lewis Jr. like “an aura,” a perception of preferential treatment embodied in his station nickname: “Soup.”

“I believe it [stands for] “Son of Union President,” explains Randy Wyse, who became union chief after defeating Lewis’ dad in an election. Despite the nickname, Wyse insists Lewis doesn’t get special treatment.

“That nickname was back when his dad was union president, his dad isn’t union president anymore, and he's treated like any other member.” Wyse acknowledges he went to Lewis’ house the morning after the accident, and sat with him while police interviewed him, but says that is not proof of preferential treatment.  

“First off, they couldn’t find him,” Wyse said. “His dad, he didn’t know where he was, they were looking for him.”

Wyse said he went to Lewis’ house after speaking to his dad to try to locate him -- something he would do for any member.

“If I'm in a position where I can try to – using this as an example --  help finding [someone or] anything like that? Absolutely. I'll do it for anybody.”

"Chris is Protected"

It wasn’t until the alleged hit-and-run crash started generating headlines that Pemberthy learned of Lewis’ other legal issues, including a February restraining order filed by a former girlfriend, also a JFRD officer.

In her injunction request, the JFRD officer filed pictures with the court and shared them with First Coast News, showing injuries she says she got during a fight with Lewis while the two were vacationing in Las Vegas, and a damaged door frame and closet in the home they once shared, which she says he caused.

In her court filing, she cites “a downward spiral of alcohol-fueled instability,” including communications in which Lewis threatens to hurt himself or to force her to hurt him, as in this series of emails she said she received in February:

“That’s how I wanna go. You’re gonna f****** shoot me.”

“ I want you to f****** kill me. You are going to.”

“I’m going to make you kill me.

“F*** you, load your gun”

Lewis didn’t appear at a scheduled court hearing Wednesday, at which the crash and the stalking violation charges were combined into a single case. The restraining order will remain in place until at least October. In the interim, JFRD must ensure the court's no contact order is maintained in the workplace, which means limiting Lewis’ work week to 40 hours instead of 56, and keeping him on administrative duties.

The JFRD officer who filed the restraining order isn’t sure if her department will ultimately punish him for his actions. “I think Chris is protected, until I’m proven otherwise,” she said. But she says her goal is not to see him penalized.

“I don’t want him to go to jail or even lose his job,” she said. “I want him to get treatment and help.”

Pemberthy agrees. She contacted police herself on April 13 after she says his behavior grew menacing. “He started to have threatening behavior towards me, saying how I'm ‘about to find out who he is.’ And he's ‘going to show me what a monster he's going to be.’ At that point I felt like I needed help.”

But she also isn’t interested in seeing him locked up or fired.

“I don't know what that help looks like for him,” she says, “but it needs to happen.”

RELATED: JFRD captain accused in hit and run crash was never asked if he was drinking night of accident

RELATED: JFRD captain facing allegations of stalking, hit-and-run has previous discipline for DUI

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