Jurors Hear About Elizabeth Ratliff’s Death In Mike Peterson Trial
The prosecution in Michael Peterson’s trial scored a major victory when Judge Orlando Hudson ruled that evidence about a death 18 years ago was admissible. Prosecutors believe Mike Peterson may have killed his wife and his friend.
Elizabeth Ratliff, a friend of Mike Peterson, was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell in Germany in 1985.
Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell at the couple’s home on December 9, 2001.
Prosecutors believed details of Elizabeth Ratliff’s death were similar to those of Kathleen Peterson’s death.
Prosecutor David Saacks said Ratliff’s death clearly proved a lack of an accident in Kathleen Peterson’s death. He said he found as many as 30 similarities between the deaths of the two women.
“You have here now this defendant that is involved in a case where two women are found dead at the bottom of a stairway dead,” he said.
“They are both found at the bottom of the stairway [with] large amounts of blood present. There is spatter high up on the wall next to the stairway. The blood is dry on the wall.”
Defense attorneys did not want the Ratliff evidence to be heard by the jury. Defense attorney Tom Maher said the information would unfairly prejudice jurors against Mike Peterson. Mike Peterson has said that Ratliff died from natural causes.
After hearing both sides, Judge Hudson ruled that the information about Ratliff’s death was admissible in the trial. After Judge Hudson’s decision, Rosemary Kelloway, Ratliff’s sister, said a silent prayer. Meanwhile, Ratliff’s daughters, Margaret and Martha, who stood by Mike Peterson throughout the trial, showed little emotion.
Jurors then heard testimony of Cheryl Appel-Schumacher, Ratliff’s friend. Appel-Schumacher told jurors about how she cleaned the area after Elizabeth’s death and how much blood was present.
“There was a lot of blood in the whole foyer area,” she said.
From District Attorney Freda Black’s Closing Argument on October 3, 2003
“Why did the State take up the time, trouble, effort… of exhuming the body of Elizabeth Ratliff? You know it began with Margaret Blair and Rosemary Calloway.
When they first heard of how Kathleen was found that she was deceased, they did contact Art Holland because something didn’t add up — again. And that was before they even knew all the rest of the details. Now yesterday, Mr. Rudolf made fun of the similarities between the two cases. He made fun of each one individually. You cannot take them individually. You have to compare the totality of the circumstances to the totality of the circumstances in this case.”
Both victims found at the bottom of the stairway
Large amount of blood present at both scenes
Both victims are female
Both victims in mid 40’s
Both victims had a close, personal relationship with the defendant
Both reported severe headaches before death
The time of day was similar
They both had social lives with Mr. Peterson
Peterson was the last known person to see both of them alive
No evidence of forced entry
No evidence of property taken
The defendant was the one that reported to authorities that the death was by accidental fall
Both die due to head wounds
Same number of scalp lacerations
Same general location of scalp lacerations
Both victims had defensive wounds
Both places blood spatter was high up on the wall
The defendant was in charge of their effects afterwards
He was in charge of each estate
He received money and goods after each death
There were no eye witnesses to either death
No weapon was recovered after the death.
“Now each one of these individually, Mr. Rudolf made fun of, but I argue to you that you have to take them in totality. Totality. And these were the things that Rosemary and Margaret didn’t even know. And what then was discovered? Well, once Dr. Radisch did that autopsy, their suspicions were confirmed. She did in fact die as the result of a homicide. And once this was discovered—now you know why this was presented to you.
Do you really believe that lightning strikes twice in the same place? Do you? Do you really believe that this was a huge coincidence? Maybe you do.
This defendant knew the blueprint of how to make this type of situation look like an accidental fall, because it had worked—one time—and he tried to make it work again.”
Elizabeth Ratliff’s Time of Death
According to Michael Peterson’s Attorney David Rudolf, the biggest flaw in the prosecution’s theory regarding Elizabeth’s death was the timeline and moreover that no one observed rigor mortis when they arrived on the scene. The neighbor, Karin Hamn, testified that she saw Michael hurrying away from her house at 12:50 a.m. on November 25th. When the nanny arrived at 7:15 a.m., she claims the body was still warm, which doesn’t stack up – or does it?
Attorney David Rudolph: I’ve looked into this and the first thing to say is rigor mortis only gives an estimate of time of death. Usually, it begins 2 to 6 hours after death but there are factors which delay this: ambient temperature, body mass and loss of blood being a few factors which affect the process. The cooler the temperature, the slower the onset and development of rigor mortis. Smaller bodies cool more quickly and loss of blood will also hasten this cooling process. So, Elizabeth, who weighed less than 120 pounds, lost blood and died in a hallway in Germany in the winter would most likely not develop rigor mortis quickly; in fact, she would likely be at the lower end of the scale in terms of how long it would take for rigor to set in. Not only that but even when it begins, it starts with small muscles such as eyelids, neck fingers and then spreads slowly, taking up to 12 hours to progress throughout the body.
Barbara, the nanny arrived at 7:15 a.m. If Elizabeth died after midnight, with Michael leaving at 12:50 a.m. as testified by her neighbor, then her body would have been dead for approximately 7 hours. If rigor began say after 5-6 hours (lower end of scale), then it is likely that it would be in the early stages, where the body would still feel warm to the touch and only small organs have been affected (stage 1 or 2). There are three stages to rigor mortis. Stage 1: warm but not stiff, dead up to three hours. Stage 2: warm + stiffness, dead up to eight hours. Stage 3: cold and stiff, dead up to 36 hours.
If Elizabeth died at around midnight, this would be another potential eerie coincidence linking her death to that of Kathleen Peterson whose time of death was most likely sometime around midnight, because we know red neurons take around two hours to develop.
Mysterious Staircase Deaths
Elizabeth Ratliff’s Mysterious Staircase Death in Germany
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