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CASE:Move to Murder DATE:1931
The Ratley Parallel

An important reason for writing my Cold Case Jury books is because I have doubts about an unsolved crime, or one in which the verdict is open to doubt, and want to know what you think. I'm also interested in unearthing similar, more recent murders to see if they can shed new light on the older ones. I have now found an American case that mirrors certain aspects of the Wallace murder but, unfortunately, I stumbled across it in early December 2018, too late to be included in Move to Murder. So, consider this article a new exhibit to the book.

In January 2007, 29-year-old Effie Ratley was attacked while she slept at the home of her husband's parents in Bryceville, Florida. Her bloodied body was discovered by her husband Michael, who was so distraught that his parents had to complete the emergency call. Effie was rushed to hospital but had suffered irreparable neurological injuries. Her life support machine was switched off four days later.

On the night of the murder, her husband had been sleeping on the couch in the next room, watching over their newborn son, something he often did on weekends so his wife could get some sleep. He said was awoken by a loud noise from the bathroom and when he walked into the bedroom to check on his wife he found her unconscious and badly injured. The bedroom window was wide open and the fly screen had been removed and discarded on the ground below, presumably by an intruder. Michael had called the police only the night before when he was attacked by an assailant in an outbuilding on the property.

It appeared someone was targeting the Ratleys, but detectives were not convinced. Effie was described as "having no enemies in the world" and someone who "made friends with everyone she met" but she had been violently struck on the head seven times, evidence of a personal attack. Also, an intruder would have brought some external evidence into the room as he clambered through the window, but there no sign of soil, dirt or dust anywhere. In fact, the dust on the window sill had not even been disturbed and there were no footprints in the frost leading to the window. There was no evidence to suggest that a murderer had entered from the outside, and suspicion fell on those inside, especially the husband.

His friends and family spoke of Michael Ratley as caring and gentle and someone who always went out of his way to help others. Indeed, he was something of a local hero. Only the month before, he had pulled his wife and infant from the inferno that had engulfed his trailer home. The fire had started by an electrical short and was deemed to be accidental. The loss of the trailer meant Michael and his family moved in with his parents.

From the bloody crime scene, investigators concluded the killer would have been covered in blood. Forensic scientists tested the bathrobe Michael was wearing on the night of the murder but found nothing. The whole house was searched for a murder weapon, blood transfer and foreign fingerprints or any evidence of an intruder. Again, nothing.

Already we can discern several striking parallels to the Wallace case. Effie Ratley and Julia Wallace were both described as "having no enemies in the world" yet both were violently killed by repeated blows to the head. Both attacks were deemed to be personal, although it should be stressed that John MacFall's testimony that Julia Wallace was struck eleven times is highly dubious [1]. In both cases no murder weapon was found in the house and there was circumstantial evidence that there was an intruder: inside the Ratley residence the window screen had been removed while in the Wallace case a cabinet door and coins were left on the kitchen floor. And in both cases there was evidence from the night before that someone else might be involved: with Ratley murder there was the alleged attack on Michael, with Wallace it was the Qualtrough call.

But with the Ratley case there was a breakthrough. Detectives found incriminating evidence stashed in a secret compartment under the rear seat of Michael's truck. There was a hammer, a box cutter, a pair of industrial gloves, a pair of latex gloves, bloodied paper towels and a piece of burnt electrical wire. When confronted with the evidence, Ratley was shocked. He claimed he always left his truck unlocked and the items had been planted to frame him.

Ratley Stash

Forensic analysis of the hammer revealed it was the murder weapon. The blood on the pair of industrial gloves and the paper towels were from the victim. And although Michael Ratley's DNA was not found on the heavy-duty gloves, it was discovered on the inside of the latex gloves. Perhaps most damning of all, the burnt electrical wire forensically matched the wiring in the burnt trailer. It all pointed to the husband.

Detectives believed that Ratley had attempted to kill his wife a month earlier by setting fire to their trailer, but the plan failed when neighbours rushed to the scene, forcing him to break a window and rescue his wife. In addition, the police alleged the attack on Michael the night before the murder was staged to make it appear that someone else wanted him and his wife dead. On the night of the murder, they believed Ratley stripped naked wearing only gloves. The latex gloves were worn inside the industrial pair to prevent any of his DNA transferring to the latter, which would have tied him directly to the murder. He silently entered the bedroom where his wife was sleeping and violently attacked her with the claw hammer. He then rubbed down his body using the paper towels to remove the blood splatter. He dressed in his bathrobe, nipped outside to hide the hammer, gloves and paper towels in his truck. Presumably, Ratley intended to dispose of all the items when an opportunity arose later.

Stashing the latex gloves in the same place as the bloodied outer pair negated the whole purpose of wearing them. Worse, Ratley had not bothered to dispose of the wiring from the trailer fire, undermining his later defence that the murder items had been planted by someone wanting to frame him. These were two careless mistakes by someone who had otherwise planned carefully for his wife's murder. Had the police not thoroughly searched his truck, he might have even got away with it.

At his trial, the defence stressed that an unidentified person was responsible for the murder - the individual whose DNA was also on found on the hammer [2]. And there were other similarities to the trial of William Wallace: the prosecution offered no motive for the crime [3] and the defence emphasised that attacks were out of character for the accused. And like Wallace, Ratley was found guilty by the jury.

So, how does this case bear on our thinking on the Wallace case? In the Ratley case we have:

1. An apparently motiveless but violent attack on a wife

2. The victim was bludgeoned to death

3. No murder weapon was found at the scene

4. No blood was found on the prime suspect

5. There were signs someone else entered the house

6. The prime suspect was at the crime scene around the time of the murder

And we know that:

7) The killer was the husband who attacked naked, used towels to remove blood stains from his body, staged the crime scene, and hid incriminating evidence nearby.

Points (1) to (6) are also true in the murder of Julia Wallace. Hence, by an argument from analogy, we might also tentatively conclude something similar to (7) in the Wallace case. In particular, it provides an intriguing possibility of how Wallace might have cleaned up. In my book, I followed both the prosecution and author James Murphy in suggesting that William Wallace would have washed upstairs in the bathroom to wipe the blood from his body, but what if he used a towel to rub himself down in the front room? If he wore gloves as well as the infamous mackintosh, only his feet, lower legs and head would have been exposed to potential blood splatter. Rubbing his body down would take little time, and timing is a critical factor in the Wallace case. Indeed, it goes some way to neutralising one of the strongest arguments against Wallace's guilt.

So, the Ratley case provides some support for Wallace proponents, but not surprisingly the dissimilarities between the two cases are also revealing and insightful. If Wallace committed the crime in a similar way then a pair of bloodied gloves, towel and murder weapon would have to be hidden somewhere. Although in many murders the weapon is never found, a common feature to such cases is that there was plenty of time for disposal before the police arrived at the scene or caught up with the suspect. This was not the case for Ratley, and it is highly significant that he hid incriminating evidence only yards from the crime scene and it was discovered.

Wallace also had limited time and opportunities to dispose of incriminating evidence. He could have disposed of the weapon and any other items (not necessarily together):

(a) in his house

(b) near his house

(c) along his route to the first tram stop

(d) in the vicinity of Menlove Gardens.

All but the first carried a risk of being seen. The police suspected Wallace from the outset and were strongly motivated to find any incriminating evidence - they stripped his house, searched the areas along his route including the drains - but discovered nothing. Could Wallace have hidden these items in an urban area so that they not only evaded the extensive searches at the time but also inadvertent discovery later?

Another similarity is that Ratley and Wallace both protested their innocence. Many murderers do, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of their guilt, but they rarely point the finger specifically at someone else. Ratley did not, but Wallace was convinced his former colleague Gordon Parry was the killer. This is surprising because, if guilty, Wallace had no need to name anyone because he already had a foolproof scapegoat: his creation, the elusive Mr Qualtrough [4].

I believe the Ratley murder provides an interesting parallel to the Wallace case, but does it affect anyone's view at all? Please let me know your thoughts.

Antony M. Brown, December 2018

Notes:

[1] MacFall's autopsy report clearly states his opinion that three to four blows were struck (see Exhbit 3, Move to Murder). In court, he stated that it was 11 blows as a result of frenzy. And who would be moved to such rage or personal attack other than the husband? It was highly prejudicial, and formed one of the 10 grounds for Wallace's appeal.

[2] The DNA on the hammer might have come from someone unconnected with the crime e.g. a store worker where the hammer was purchased.

[3] Police found gay pornographic magazines and videos in Michael Ratley's possession. Detectives mooted that the arrival of his newborn son trapped Ratley in an unsuitable marriage and, with a hefty life assurance policy payable on his wife's death, decided murder was the best way to end it. In the Wallace case, no motive was conjectured.

[4] If guilty, Wallace only needed to suggest that Qualtrough forced Julia to reveal the location of the cash box before silencing her. This would avoid an otherwise awkward flaw in his plan - Qualtrough must have known its location and few people did. The most obvious staged robbery for Wallace was to simply empty his wife's handbag on the kitchen table and remove any cash.