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Crime News

Who Was Elizabeth Ratliff, Found Dead At The Bottom Of A Staircase 16 Years Before Kathleen Peterson Was?

She was the first woman in Michael Peterson's life found dead at the bottom of a staircase, and featured in the aptly titled Netflix series "The Staircase." 

By Gina Tron

Netflix’s new series “The Staircase” chronicles the trial of author Michael Peterson, whose wife Kathleen was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her Durham, North Carolina home in November 2001.

A quick recap for those who aren’t familiar with the case: He was convicted of first-degree murder in 2003 and  spent nearly a decade behind bars. He was granted a new trial in 2011, which was scheduled to begin in May 2017. But, in February, just months before the scheduled retrial, Peterson submitted an Alford plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to time already served and freed from prison.

The Netflix series, originally a documentary produced by a French company, examines his original trial. Three episodes in, drops a major bombshell: Peterson was the last person to see another woman who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in Germany in 1985. Her name was Elizabeth Ratliff (shown above in the blue shirt) and she died at the age of 43.

Who was she?

She was a recent widow

Her husband, George Ratliff, died shortly before her in a secret military operation overseas in 1983, according to CourtTV. The two were buried side by side after Ratlitt died.

She was a teacher

Ratliff taught second grade at a U.S. Department of Defense School.

She hung out with Peterson every evening

Since her husband's death, Peterson would come over to visit her every evening after dinner, according to "The Staircase." Peterson and friends maintained that their friendship was purely platonic. Often, he'd help with the dishes or read to Ratliff's two young daughters before returning home, according to the documentary series. They were 2 and 1 years old when Ratliff died. 

She looked like Peterson’s first wife

Regina Green, an old family friend of Peterson pointed out in "The Staircase" how much Ratliff and Peterson’s first wife Patricia looked alike.

She was found dead at the bottom of a staircase

Ratliff was found tilted sideways at the bottom of a wooden staircase inside her home, according to "The Staircase."

First, her death was ruled natural

After her death, German officials concluded that Ratliff died of a cerebral hemorrhage which led to her falling down the stairs. Just like with Peterson’s wife Kathleen, she suffered lacerations to the head which were attributed to her fall. Just four days before her death, she was complaining of severe headaches. She even scheduled a doctor's appointment out of concern, and had an appointment the next week.

There was a substantial amount of blood around the staircase

Witness Cheryl Appel-Schumacher testified during Peterson’s 2003 trial that the blood reached all the way up the staircase. It took weeks for all the blood to be cleaned up, according to "The Staircase."

Her death was eventually ruled a homicide

As Peterson was being investigated for the staircase death of his wife in the early 2000s, Ratliff’s body was exhumed in Texas in 2003. The North Carolina medical examiner performed an autopsy and concluded that she died from blunt force injuries and that it was the result of a homicide. Peterson's lawyers took issue with the examiner's assessment. 

"Prosecutors spent thousands of dollars transporting her boy 12,000 miles from Bay City, Texas to Chapel Hill," Defense Attorney David Rudolf said on "The Staircase." He said they wanted the same medical examiner who claimed that Peterson's wife wasn't accidental to perform the autopsy rather than a neutral pathologist in Texas as he suggested. 

Peterson raised her children

Both Peterson and his wife raised his two daughters, Margaret and Martha, as if they were their own. Peterson lived next door to Ratliff when she died. As seen on “The Staircase,” both girls publicly supported Peterson during his trial and became inconsolable when he was convicted. They believe their adopted father is innocent of killing both of their moms, according to the documentary.

[Photo: Netflix screengrab]

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