The autopsy of a woman exhumed from a Texas grave in the murder investigation of Mike Peterson concluded that her death in 1985 in Germany was a result of a "homicidal assault" and not an accident as authorities had previously determined.
An autopsy on the body of Elizabeth Ann McKee Ratliff, 43, was performed by the state medical examiner's office April 16 at the request of Durham District Attorney Jim Hardin, who contends that Ratliff's death is similar to that of Peterson's wife, Kathleen, who was found dead Dec. 9, 2001, in the couple's home in Durham.
Mike Peterson is charged with killing Kathleen Peterson, who, like Ratliff, was found at the bottom of a flight of steps. Both women had deep lacerations to the back of their heads. But Ratliff's death was ruled an accident by German officials and was never investigated as a crime.
If found guilty of first-degree murder, Mike Peterson, 59, a novelist and former newspaper columnist, could be sentenced to life in prison. His trial is scheduled to begin Monday.
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According to the autopsy conducted by Dr. Deborah L. Radisch, a state pathologist, Ratliff's death was "inconsistent with a fall down a set of stairs" because of the severity and number of lacerations -- seven -- found on her head.
"Rather they are indicative of multiple blunt force impacts, either from blows to the head caused by a blunt object or by the head being forcibly struck against a hard surface," Radisch wrote. "It is further my opinion that these injuries were incurred while Mrs. Ratliff was alive and are of sufficient severity to have caused her death."
Radisch also noted that "the intracranial hemorrhages noted at the first autopsy were primarily the result of blunt trauma rather than any underlying natural disease process."
Ratliff's autopsy results were released over the objections of Mike Peterson's attorneys, David Rudolf and Thomas Maher.
Rudolf questioned the language used in the report, saying the conclusion by Dr. Aaron Gleckman, a neuropathologist, that Ratliff's death was "clearly from a homicidal assault" was improper and "inflammatory." He also said that because half of Ratliff's brain was missing, it was difficult to reach any conclusions.
"Dr. Gleckman wrote a report that was misleading," Rudolf said. "Dr. Gleckman is not God. He can offer opinion as to certain injuries, but he can't say what happened or what didn't happen 18 years ago."
Rudolf also tried to address the widely held notion that Mike Peterson was the last person to see Ratliff alive. He said the family's nanny, Barbara Malagnino, brought a couple to Ratliff's home after discovering the body. When the couple arrived, Ratliff's body was covered with a coat and the nanny's boyfriend, Salvatore Malagnino, was at the house.
That scenario contradicts earlier reports that Barbara Malagnino discovered the body and called Mike and Patricia Peterson. Rudolf's version is the first mention of a second couple or of Malagnino's boyfriend -- now her husband -- being in the house.
Rudolf also said Malagnino reported that the body was still warm when she found it at 7:30 a.m.
"Bodies don't stay warm for seven, eight, eight and a half hours," Rudolf said.
"There is an assumption that Mike Peterson was the last person to see Elizabeth Ratliff alive, and there isn't a scintilla of evidence in the file that establishes that."
Monday's development contradicts everything that had previously been accepted about Ratliff's death, which German police never considered suspicious.
Last year, the German prosecutor's office that handled the case said police concluded Ratliff died of a small brain hemorrhage. "Because it was a natural death, no further investigations were done," the prosecutor in Darmstadt, Germany, wrote to The News & Observer.
The prosecutor's office said Ratliff spent the evening of Nov. 24, 1985, with Mike Peterson and his first wife and returned home. The next morning, the nanny found Ratliff's body on the stairs in her home, a German police report said.
A doctor who examined the body in the hospital determined that Ratliff died of natural causes, and her body was turned over to U.S. military police, the letter says. The military conducted its own investigation, according to the prosecutor.
In May, Dr. Larry A. Barnes, the U.S. Army doctor who conducted the autopsy in Germany, told The N&O that he would not have performed it if authorities had suspected foul play, since he was not a forensic pathologist.
However, the case was reviewed by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in 1986, and the chief of the Division of Forensics Pathology concluded that Ratliff died due to "spontaneous intracranial hemorrhages." The institute further found that the death was natural.
Peterson and his first wife said in interviews last year that they rushed to Ratliff's house and found her dead on a short flight of stairs. They said she suffered from von Willebrand Disease, an inherited bleeding disorder that is rarely fatal on its own but can exacerbate other health problems.
To get the details of Ratliff's death before a jury, Hardin must show that she didn't die of natural causes, that she was likely murdered and that Peterson was the cause of her death. Rudolf said if the evidence is allowed in, both sides will be trying two murder cases instead of one.
RATLIFF'S CONNECTION TO PETERSON
Elizabeth Ratliff and Patricia Peterson, Michael Peterson's first wife, became friends in 1972 at a U.S. military base in Germany where both taught school. In the 1980s, Ratliff married an Air Force officer, and the couples were neighbors in the town of Graefenhausen.
Capt. George Ratliff, Elizabeth's husband, died of a heart attack during the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983, Mike Peterson says. In her will, Elizabeth Ratliff named the Petersons legal guardians of her daughters, ages 4 and 2, and directed that her $44,000 estate go to their support and education; Mike Peterson raised them alone after he and his first wife separated.