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Woman's death in Germany 18 years ago enters novelist's murder trial

By John Springer

Cheryl Appel-Schumacher of Germany is unable to hold back tears as she recalls the last time she saw Elizabeth Ratliff during Monday’s trial of Michael Peterson.
Cheryl Appel-Schumacher of Germany is unable to hold back tears as she recalls the last time she saw Elizabeth Ratliff during Monday’s trial of Michael Peterson.

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DURHAM, North Carolina (Court TV) -- Author Michael Peterson is charged with killing his wife in their home here 18 months ago, but it was the death of a neighbor in Germany 18 years ago that took center stage at Peterson's first-degree murder trial Monday.

Elizabeth Ratliff, a 43-year-old widow who taught second grade at a U.S. Department of Defense School, was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs on November 25, 1985. Ratliff, a close Peterson friend, was thought to have died from a fall down a set of stairs until Peterson's wife Kathleen died in a similar manner in December 2001.

Despite a large amount of blood, witness Cheryl Appel-Schumacher testified Monday, Ratliff's death didn't pique the interest of German and U.S. investigators, and they left the house without the body and without taking any photographs.

Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. will rule on whether the similarities between Ratliff's death and Kathleen Peterson's are sufficiently similar that jurors should hear the evidence.

Occasionally wiping tears from her eyes, Appel-Schumacher testified about the large amount of blood she and her husband cleaned up after Ratliff's body was moved. Appel-Schumacher said the blood was mostly on a wall adjacent to the staircase and it stretched from the top landing to the bottom.

"There was blood splatter all over those walls. How much, I can't say," Appel-Schumacher testified outside the jury's presence. "The blood was all the way up the staircase."

Authorities ruled Ratliff's death to be of natural causes, concluding that a cerebral hemorrhage caused her to fall and strike her head. Appel-Schumacher recalled that Ratliff had a severe headache four days before she died, severe enough that she made an appointment to see a doctor the following week.

Michael Peterson and his first wife, Patricia Peterson, were among the many people who filled the foyer that Monday morning 18 years ago, the witness testified. Michael Peterson took charge of all the details, and friends of Elizabeth Ratliff were grateful that he did, she said.

Ratliff's two young daughters ended up living with Michael Peterson, and he raised them in North Carolina with his two sons from his first marriage. They call him "Dad" and have supported him without wavering since the second woman they called "Mom" -- Kathleen Peterson -- was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs.

Defendant Michael Peterson listens during recent testimony by a blood spatter expert.
Defendant Michael Peterson listens during recent testimony by a blood spatter expert.

Prosecutors say the similarities are too many to be coincidental. At their request, Ratliff's body was exhumed in Texas in April. The North Carolina medical examiner performed a second autopsy and concluded that Ratliff was beaten to death and that the German authorities missed the signs.

The defense maintains that the deaths are only similar on the surface, and Peterson plans to prove that to the judge -- and the jury, if he rules against them -- if necessary.

During her testimony, Appel-Schumacher told Hudson that Ratliff was happily married to George Ratliff, who died in a secret military operation overseas in 1983, and was devastated when he died. She was not close to her sisters, Appel-Schumacher said on cross-examination, and thought it would be good for the girls to live with the Petersons in Europe if anything ever happened to her.

Although Ratliff lost a lot of weight and mourned her husband's death deeply, Appel-Schumacher said Ratliff's mood lifted during 1985. She was very happy while planning a party she threw for Appel-Schumacher and her new husband two nights before she died, the witness recalled.

"She hadn't gotten to the point where she was seeing other men?" defense lawyer Thomas Maher asked.

"She wasn't actively dating, if that's the question,"  Appel-Schumacher said.

"And you never saw any kind of indication that she had any kind of romantic relationship with Michael Peterson?" he continued.

"No," the witness replied.

Appel-Schumacher will return to the stand for more questions from the defense when the hearing continues Wednesday at 3 p.m.

Earlier Monday, jurors heard testimony from a blood spatter expert who examined blood stains in the stairwell where Kathleen Peterson died.

Repeating testimony the judge heard Thursday and Friday without the jury being present, witness Peter "Duane" Deaver said he concluded that Kathleen Peterson was beaten with a blunt object and was struck a minimum of four times.

"My opinion is that this is the scene of a beating, that this scene is not unlike many scenes I've been to," Deaver concluded.

He also said that the person wearing a pair of bloody shorts and bloody sneakers -- both belonging to Michael Peterson -- had to be present in the stairwell or just outside when Kathleen Peterson's head or a pool of her blood were hit with great force.

The defense will cross-examine Deaver Tuesday.

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