Elizabeth Ratliff’s Mysterious Staircase Death in Germany

Elizabeth Ratliff was found lying at the bottom of her staircase surrounded by pools of blood in her home in Grafenhausen, a small town just outside of Frankfurt, Germany on November 25, 1985, in an apparent fall accident.


Elizabeth Ann McKee was a DoD teacher in Germany. She was married to George Ratliff, a Captain in the Air Force from Texas, and had recently become a mother at 39 years during the European winter of 1981.

After giving birth to Martha in 1983, her second and youngest daughter, Elizabeth’s happiness quickly erode as she learned the news that her husband was killed during a secret mission in Panama.

Elizabeth was a military widow who was raising two daughters on her own after her husband, an Army soldier, died in a training accident. George Ratliff died under mysterious and unknown circumstances. Elizabeth went into a long period of mourning following her husband’s death in October 1983

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Ratliff lived with her two daughters and with a nanny, who often stayed in the residence. On November 25, 1985, Mrs. Ratliff was found dead in her residence by her nanny. Mrs. Ratliff was at the bottom of a flight of stairs and had suffered several lacerations to the head. German doctors responded to the scene and determined that Mrs. Ratliff died of natural causes, which in turn caused her to fall. An army CID investigator came to the scene and found nothing inconsistent with the finding of a natural death. A subsequent autopsy confirmed that the death had been caused by intracranial bleeding, which in turn caused the fall.

In Graefenhausen, Germany, Liz and Mike Peterson’s first wife, Patricia, became close friends and taught elementary school at Rhein-Main Air Force Base. They all quickly formed a friendship and Elizabeth, and her two daughters spent a lot of time with the Petersons.

Even with the support of friends and family, she was grappling with depression and immerse in sadness. Due to the proximity she and her deceased husband had with the Petersons, both stated on their wills that, if something happened, their girls would go to their friends Michael and Patricia Peterson.

Thomas and Cheryl Appel-Schumacher were friends with Mrs. Ratliff. Mrs. Appel-Schumacher taught at the same school as Mrs. Ratliff and considered her a good friend. Mrs. Appel- Schumacher testified that the Petersons were very close friends with Mrs. Ratliff, and that Michael Peterson had helped Mrs. Ratliff after the death of her husband.

Mrs. Appel-Schumacher married in the United States during the summer of 1985, and the couple returned to Germany. Mrs. Ratliff planned a surprise party for the couple for the Saturday before Thanksgiving. On the Thursday before the party, Mrs. Ratliff looked pale and said that she had severe headaches and had a medical appointment for the next week.

In her last weekend alive, Liz participated in a party dedicated to her soon to be married friend, Cheryl Appel Schumacher, and on Sunday, she spent the last hours of her life with the Peterson family until she was left at her house at approximately 9:00 p.m. Mike and his wife at the time had dined with Elizabeth the night before she found dead at the foot of her staircase.

Barbara Malagnino worked as a nanny for Mrs. Ratliff. She had a room at the residence, but also stayed at an apartment some nights. Malagnino testified that she saw the Petersons every day, and said “it was like one big family.” Malagnino spent the weekend with the Ratliffs, but spent Sunday night at her apartment. Mrs. Ratliff planned on spending the day with her daughters, and then taking her car in to be left for service. Michael Peterson was to bring Mrs. Ratliff home from dropping off her car. Malagnino took a taxi to the house on Monday morning and noticed that lights were on in the house.

When she entered the house, Mrs. Ratliff was laying on the bottom of the steps. Malagnino did not recognize her and ran upstairs. She found the telephone in Mrs. Ratliff’s bedroom, where Mrs. Ratliff would put it every night before going to sleep. She was unable to call the Petersons and ran down the stairs. Mrs. Ratliff was in a pool of blood and felt warm. Malagnino ran to the Petersons’. Mrs. Peterson answered the door, and Defendant came out of the upstairs in his boxers and tshirt. The Petersons returned to the house with her. She then took the girls out of the house. After Mrs. Ratliff’s death, Michael Peterson assisted by handling the payment of bills and things of that nature.

Michael Peterson was not a suspect in the 1985 death of Ratliff because it was determined an accident.

Ratliff’s original autopsy stated that she died of a brain hemorrhage from her staircase fall.

Elizabeth Ratliff’s Home Staircase

Was Elizabeth Ratliff’s Death an Accident or Homicide?

When Nanny Barbara Malagnino found the body of Elizabeth at 7:15 a.m., friends of Liz—including the Petersons—the Polizei, and the Criminal Investigation Division of the Military Police (CIDI) began to gather around the packed house.

Steven Lyons was a Special Agent with the United States Army Criminal Investigation Command. When an American associated with the military died off base, the CID would assist the German authorities. Agent Lyons responded to the Ratliff residence, with an interpreter, to assist the German police. There were “too many people for a scene of that type.” Mrs. Ratliff’s body was still at the scene.

German police informed Lyons that the death was natural, due to a cerebral hemorrhage, and Lyons examined the scene to see if there was anything inconsistent with this determination. Lyons walked up the staircase, and did not see any blood other than the blood on the landing where Mrs. Ratliff lay. Lyons took names of persons present, and recalled speaking to one male who relayed the same information relayed by the German police regarding the cause of death. Lyons’ examination disclosed nothing that was inconsistent with a natural death.

An army doctor performed a spinal tab on the scene and confirmed there was an hemorrhage on the brain: “I was sitting here directly observing when the German medical examiner took the spinal tap and held the contents up so that he could view [it],” said Patricia Peterson. “Even from this distance I could see that it did not look clear, and that’s when he made the statement, right there by her body in my presence, that she had died of a cerebral hemorrage.”

Liz’s body was transported to the 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt for an autopsy under Army auspices. Dr. Larry Barnes, a board certified anatomic and clinical pathologist, performed the original autopsy of Mrs. Ratliff. Dr. Barnes did not have specific training in forensic pathology.

Dr. Barnes, relying on his contemporaneous report, explained that Mrs. Ratliff had von Willebrands disease, a bleeding disorder, and had been complaining of headaches. There were no signs of struggle at the scene, and German medical personnel found bloody spinal fluid consistent with intracranial bleeding, with subsequent scalp lacerations sustained during a fall on the stairs.

Dr. Barnes performed an examination of head lacerations, and then examined the brain. There were multiple lacerations, some to the skull, on the back of the head. Cerebellar lobes showed herniation, consistent with pressure caused by intracranial hemorrhage. The ventricles of the brain were filled with blood. Dr. Barnes considered whether death was due to trauma from falling on the stairs, but determined that the death was natural, due to intracranial bleeding due to an aneurysm or similar mechanism.

  • No blood around the nose, mouth, or ears.
  • The cover of the brain has hemorrhage. Blood fills all over in the ventricles and the spinal canal.
  • Sections from the area of hemorrhage at the cerebellar, brain stem junction (slide 1) show hemorrhage and tissue destruction. There is early consolidation of the hemorrhage but not clot formation is seen.
  • The tentorium is hemorrhagic. The cerebellar lobes show indentation consistent with herniation. Tissue destruction is present when the corebellar(sic) hemispheres join the brain stem.

This correlated with what the German Police had gathered indicating no signs of a struggle. Dr. Barnes concluded that the death was natural. Further, a request for review was made in June 1986 by Dr. Michael Clark, Ph.D. in Forensic Pathologist, and chief forensic neuropathologist of the Armed Forces institute (AFIP).

Dr. Clark’s reputation was unimpeachable, and he concurred with Dr. Barnes assessment, classifying Elizabeth’s death as “sudden unsuspected death due to a spontaneous intercranial hemorrhage, complicating by von Willebrand’s disease—natural.”

Margaret Blair, Mrs. Ratliff’s sister, lived in the United States in 1985. After Mrs. Ratliff died, she learned that the will designated the Petersons as guardians of the two girls. Mrs. Blair was not surprised that her sister chose the Petersons as guardians as her sister had spoken of the relationship with the Petersons.

Mrs. Blair learned of her sister’s death from a telephone call from Michael Peterson. After hearing what happened, Mrs. Blair was in shock and testified that it was possible that Peterson explained that there had been a stroke. The girls visited with the aunt as they were growing up, but Michael Peterson would not agree to give up the guardianship that the Ratliffs’ had entrusted to him.

No intent to reopen the investigation was attempted by the people who claimed to be suspicious about Elizabeth’s death — even though they were well connected in the military circle.

Their time would come 18 years later, when Durham, North Carolina’s Judge Orlando Hudson decided the tragedy that happened in Germany was pertinent to the Michael Peterson Trial and ruled the prosecution could exhume Elizabeth Ratliff’s body.

Page 2: Was There a Connection Between the Deaths of Elizabeth Ratliff and Kathleen Peterson?