The Elizabeth Ratliff Murder

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Michael Peterson


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The 1985
Elizabeth Ratliff

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Than Fiction:
Trial Commentary

Peterson Case


"My wife had an accident... She fell down the stairs."
-- Michael Peterson's 9-1-1 call on December 9, 2001

"These are blunt trauma injuries to the head, subsequent to an assault -- that would be a homicide."
-- Dr. Deborah Radisch

Peterson Stair

"The court does agree with the state. The 404(b) evidence is admissible to show the defendant's motive for the commission of the crime the defendant is charged with in this case -- that the defendant had the intent, the knowledge -- that he had a common scheme or plan involved in the alleged murder in this case, and of course -- absence of accident."
-- Judge Orlando Hudson

Ratliff Stair

"There's been an accident. Liz fell down the stairs and died."
-- Michael Peterson's phone call to Margaret Blair -- Nov. 25, 1985

"Miss Ratliff died from blunt trauma to the head ... from a homicidal assault."
-- Dr. Gleckman

Born in 1942 and reared with two sisters on a farm in Rhode Island, Elizabeth McKee was a serious, artistic child. She sang and played an acoustic guitar, and spoke French and German during her 17 years teaching the children of military families.

In Graefenhausen, Germany, Liz and Mike Peterson's first wife, Patricia, became close friends and taught elementary school at Rhein-Main Air Force Base. The Petersons had moved there in the early 1970s, after Mike Peterson left the Marine Corps and began writing novels about his experiences in Vietnam.

Captain George Ratliff, an Air Force navigator, married Liz McKee in 1981. Their daughter Margaret was born that same year, and two years later, their second daughter, Martha, was born.

George Ratliff died under mysterious and unknown circumstances in 1983.

Liz Ratliff also died under mysterious circumstances. On November 25, 1985, she was found dead at the bottom of her staircase surrounded by pools of blood. Margaret and Martha lived with Michael Peterson but were never adopted by him.

When Elizabeth Ratliff's body was exhumed from a Texas grave and autopsied by the North Carolina medical examiner's office in 2003, it was determined she had been murdered. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head.

From D.A. Freda Black's closing argument
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."

How Many Staircases?