1985 death of teacher now ruled homicide

By JESSICA IÑIGO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 28, 2003

DARMSTADT, Germany — German prosecutors have reopened the 17-year-old investigation into the death of a Rhein-Main DODDS teacher whose death was initially determined to be from natural causes.

Ger Neuber, a state prosecutor in Darmstadt, said a new autopsy report released in North Carolina was the deciding factor to reopen the case.

The autopsy report found that Elizabeth Ratliff had died in 1985 from “blunt force trauma to the head” by a “homicidal attack,” rather than of a brain hemorrhage while climbing the stairs of her home in Gräfenhausen.

Ratliff, a Department of Defense Dependents Schools second-grade teacher at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, was found dead Nov. 27, 1985. She was 43 years old and was widowed with two young daughters at the time of her death.

Her body was exhumed and re-examined in April in connection with a recent murder charge against Mike Peterson, Ratliff’s neighbor at the time of her death.

Peterson is on trial in Durham, N.C., for the December 2001 slaying of his wife, Kathleen, whose death was similar to Ratliff’s. Authorities believe he was the last person with both women before they died.

The two women were found dead at the bottom of their home stairwells and both suffered blows to the head not consistent to falling down stairs, according to autopsy reports.

Ratliff left her estate and custody of her two children to Mike Peterson. He has been raising Ratliff’s daughters since her death, but has not adopted them and he has denied Ratliff’s family the opportunity to adopt them.

Peterson was not a suspect in the 1985 death of Ratliff because it was determined an accident. The nanny had found her dead.

Neuber said Darmstadt prosecutors would continue to work with U.S. officials. In the more recent death, Peterson called police and said his wife fell down the stairs after taking a toxic combination of alcohol and tranquilizers.

Peterson — an author — was Ratliff’s neighbor when he and his first wife lived in Germany in the 1980s.

Karin Hamm, another neighbor who lives in Gräfenhausen, told WRAL Channel 5 News from North Carolina through an interpreter that she had seen Peterson leaving Ratliff’s home late the night she died. She said he appeared to be in a hurry.

Ratliff’s sister, Rosemary Kelloway of West Warwick, R.I., said in a phone interview Thursday night that her family is overjoyed to hear the case has been reopened. She said recent news has affected their 92-year-old mother, Elizabeth McKee, the most.

“She was angry that all these years we thought it was an accident,” Kelloway said. “She has taken it the worst. When my sister called to let her know the case was reopened, she was so glad. Now, we just hope the German authorities go forward and get to the truth.”

Another sister, Margaret M. Blair, said, “I know my sister would stand for truth and justice and so it must be.”

Kelloway and Blair have been subpoenaed by North Carolina to testify in the Peterson case.

The opening statements will begin Monday and will also air on the Court TV channel in the United States.