Family's 'unbearable' loss at heart of Central Kentucky trial

Ryan Birse
Ryan Birse

It was a typical Thursday night of watching TV, that February evening almost 13 months ago.

Then there was a knock on the back door of Karen Bischoff Rea’s Elizabethtown home. Seconds later, life as she had known for more than 22 years was over.

Her son, Ryan, the oldest of her two children, had been shot and killed at work.

Rea said as the one-year mark of the Feb. 25 shooting passed recently, the events of that night — the words, tears, sadness, numbness and disbelief — returned.

“The anniversary – which I really don’t like calling it that – was rough,” Rea said. “Every thought, almost every sound seemed to come back.”

“I actually still get a little jumpy, especially if we have a repair person come to the back door and knock,” she added. “(It) sounds silly, but some days are a little better than others.”

Birse, 22, was shot nine times in the back as he worked at a KFC-Taco Bell on Buffalo Creek Drive in Elizabethtown. He died minutes after the shooting.

Jury selection begins Wednesday in the murder trial of Joshua Ratliff, 28, a fellow employee accused of killing Birse. Authorities say surveillance video shows Ratliff committing the crime.

Rea said she plans to attend each day of the trial.

“I would love to walk past (Ryan’s) room and see him in his chair playing a hockey game,” Rea said.

Birse, who was born in Canada, enjoyed hockey and was a fan of the NHL’s Nashville Predators, Rea said. He also enjoyed cars and had a good sense of humor, she said.

“He was very funny and animated, with his big, thousand-watt smile,” Rea said. “Ryan was generous, and he loved his family. He liked hanging out with his Papaw and Mamaw. I miss him trying to coax his dogs, Paisley and Sara, in his room at night with Doritos or whatever he was eating.

“... Not having Ryan with us has been a tremendous sadness in our lives,” she added. “It is basically a giant void that will never be filled.”

Ratliff is charged with murder and could spend life in prison, if found guilty.

There have been two competency hearings for Ratliff — in August and February — and he has been deemed not mentally competent to stand trial by Dr. Douglas D. Ruth, a psychiatrist from Lexington, who was hired by the defense. Each time, Circuit Judge Ken Howard ruled Ratliff competent to understand the trial process.

Defense attorney C. Wesley Durham filed court documents in late March 2016 to use insanity as Ratliff’s defense. According to the filings, Ratliff has been receiving care for mental illnesses since 2009 and has had two psychiatric hospitalizations prior to the shooting.

Authorities say following the shooting, Ratliff left the restaurant and drove away in a 2004 black Ford Explorer. He was arrested on Interstate 65 at the 91-mile marker about 30 minutes after the shooting was reported.

Ratliff’s only prior criminal history was a pair of speeding tickets.

“The loss of a child at any age is unbearable, (but) actually having my son taken from me has left me at times numb,” Rea said. “... On the flip side, having a strong faith in Christ has seen me through so many dark days and more to come.”

Rea said she feels sympathy for Ratliff’s parents, Jerry and Toni Ratliff, who in many ways also lost a child the same evening.

“That is something my mom and I talked about before,” Rea said. “Knowing the heartbreak and the ramifications of what happened, it affects them, too.”