Elizabeth Ratliff’s Mysterious Staircase Death in Germany

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

The events leading to Elizabeth Ratliff’s tragic death in November of 1985 would be examined by a lot of people fanatized by the Kathleen Peterson case in Durham, North Carolina, bolted to find a connection between the deaths. The two deceased women not only died in a similar fashion, but they looked eerily alike.

Left: Kathleen Peterson; Right: Elizabeth Ratliff

Initially. Elizabeth’s death was deemed an accidental death but when Michael Peterson’s new wife Kathleen Hunt Peterson was found dead at the bottom of her stairs in their home in Durham, North Carolina, investigators gave Elizabeth’s death a second look.

Cheryl Appel-Schumacher, Ratliff’s friend, described the scene at Ratliff’s house the night of her death. She said she cleaned blood off the walls and the floor and said the amount of blood surprised her and others.

The Durham District Attorney ordered the exhumation of Elizabeth Ratliff’s body in Texas in an effort to re-examine her body to determine cause of death. Ignoring a huge conflict of interest, Deborah Radisch — who previously ruled Kathleen’s death was a homicide — performed the second autopsy in company of Dr. Aaron Gleckman.

Dr. Radisch and Dr. Gleckman performed a second autopsy on Mrs. Ratliff. There were seven lacerations on the head, which had been glued and sewn prior to internment. There was also a linear fracture at the base of the skull, and bruising of the left hand, wrist, near the left eye and upper back. The brain, and other organs, had been placed in the chest cavity. By the time of the second autopsy, only half the brain remained, sectioned into pieces in a peculiar manner. Dr. Gleckman noted different areas of hemorrhages in the brain, including in the epidural space, the subdural space, and the subarachnoid space.

Dr. Gleckman testified that he did not see the blood in the ventricles observed by Dr. Barnes. Dr. Gleckman agreed that a vascular anomaly can cause headaches, and that intracranial bleeding can be caused by a stroke as well as by blunt force trauma. Although Dr. Gleckman’s examination of the brain did not reveal any indication that any given injury was other than accidental, based upon the number and location of the lacerations he concluded that the injuries were inflicted during an assault. Dr. Radisch concurred in this conclusion. Rigor, which increases over time, is a means of estimating time of death. Dr. Radisch agreed that, had Mrs. Ratliff died the evening before she was found, one would expect to see significant rigor examining the body the next morning. No rigor was reported.

Dr Leestma examined the remaining portions of the brain and testified that he disagreed that there was not sufficient evidence of a stroke. As with Dr. Barnes, Dr. Leestma saw evidence of herniation, and of vascular malformation. When examination of the brain reveals intraventricular hemorrhage, there is a significant chance of a rupture or a vascular malformation, and a lesser chance of traumatic injury to the brain. Dr. Leestma testified that there was a very likely that Elizabeth Ratliff died from a stroke.

The claims posited by Elizabeth’s closest circle were heard in Court, filled with flashbacks of that day and contradicting testimonies of who cleaned the blood.

Michael Peterson’s Attorney David Rudolf stated, “We found the Army CID agent who went to the scene in Germany and said there was no blood. He testified to that in court during the trial, under oath, and we put his contemporaneous report into evidence.”

Army Investigator Steve Lyons testified that:

  • He had 9 years of experience on detective work at the time of her death.
  • He saw no evidence of a struggle or blood on the walls or stairs—just around the body.
  • His examination of the scene describes nothing more than an accident.

The prosecution could not explain the rigor mortis issue, could not establish a motive, and certainly could not build a viable case against Michael for Liz’s murder.

Following Peterson’s conviction in the 2003 trial for his wife’s murder, Elizabeth’s family lawyered up and the prosecutors in Germany decided to reopen the investigation, but after careful review of the case, the new German prosecutors concluded, as did the investigators who arrived at the house that day in November 1985, that the facts of the case did not merit charges.

Page 3: Prosecutors in Durham, North Carolina Try to Link Mike Peterson to Elizabeth Ratliff’s Death