‘Gentle giant’ should get 55 years for killing Taco Bell co-worker with 9 shots, jury says

Defendant Joshua Ratliff sits Wednesday in a Hardin Circuit Courtroom in Elizabethtown during his murder trial for the death of Ryan Birse in February 2016.
Defendant Joshua Ratliff sits Wednesday in a Hardin Circuit Courtroom in Elizabethtown during his murder trial for the death of Ryan Birse in February 2016.

The same jurors who found Joshua Ratliff guilty of murder but mentally ill decided Thursday that he should serve 55 years in prison.

The jurors made the decision after listening to his parents’ appeal for mercy balanced by tearful testimony from the family scarred by the shooting death of Ryan Birse.

In the sentencing phase of the trial Thursday, Jerry and Toni Ratliff each took the stand describing their son as someone who was gentle but mentally and spiritually tormented.

Ratliff, 28, of Elizabethtown, was convicted Wednesday of killing co-worker Ryan Birse, 22, on Feb. 25, 2016, at a KFC-Taco Bell restaurant in Elizabethtown.

The jury returned a sentence of 50 years for murder and five years for first-degree fleeing and evading, and two counts of wanton endangerment. Ratliff will receive mental health care while in prison. Sentencing is set for May 23.

Jerry Ratliff had been estranged from his son at times after his divorce. He told his son’s attorney, Wesley Durham, and jurors that Joshua came to live with him in November 2015. He described his son as withdrawn and said he didn’t seem to have the capability of adequately expressing his emotions. His face seemed blank most of the time.

“He had an oddity about him,” Jerry said.

He wiped away tears as he said he thought his son was spiritually tormented. Joshua would have conversations in his room with someone else even though he was alone.

Joshua stayed awake for days on end because “the voice” wouldn’t allow him any peace. Eventually, he would collapse from exhaustion, Jerry said.

He said his son would fill his life with music, video games and cartoons — things that took him away from reality. Regardless, Jerry never witnessed the demeanor of his son as anything but gentle.

“I’ve never seen my son angry,” he said. “He never made a threat about anyone. He was a big fella but had a heart of gold.”

Before stepping off the stand, he looked over at Birse’s family, sitting behind Commonwealth’s Attorney Shane Young. He apologized and asked them to forgive his son.

Toni Ratliff also offered her apologies to the Birse family, saying she prays daily for them.

She agreed with her ex-husband’s assessment that Joshua had difficulty relating to people. She said he was highly intelligent and taught himself computer programming and other languages.

Joshua sat almost motionless — not even looking at a small television monitor on the table in front of him — as his mother spoke.

“He was a good kid,” Toni said. “I never had any trouble with him. He was a gentle giant.”

But she said he was plagued with anxieties and hallucinations. According to testimony, Joshua was hospitalized in 2012 for delusions and schizophrenia: fantasies and voices that Joshua claimed were speaking to him.

Ryan Birse’s mother, Karen Rea, told jurors through tears that she remembers her son as a child playing with his favorite toy car in the pew of his grandfather’s church and having to hush Ryan as he was making the roaring sound of an engine.

She also spoke of his struggle with Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder in the autism spectrum. She spoke, too, about his struggles to keep his grades up in high school, but she also mentioned his victories, including graduating from diesel college in Tennessee.

He was happy, and all he wanted to do in life with was to be a farmer, help his grandpa and work on cars, she said.

As photos that Rea selected were displayed on a television screen in front of the jury, she told the jury that he enjoyed listening to the same genre of music she did.

The family will deal with Ryan’s death for the rest of their lives, she said.

She said the last words Ryan spoke to her: were “I’m going to work. I love you. Let’s have pizza tonight.” He gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek before walking out the door.

Ryan’s father, Tim Birse, became emotional before sitting down at the witness stand.

He said his son loved hockey, going to church and pestering his sister. He said he never will be able to forget the night he was told of Ryan’s death.

“I hate to tell you this, but your son was murdered tonight,” Tim said, remembering the words of Kenneth Spangenberger, the Hardin County chief deputy coroner. “I was in shock — couldn’t believe it — didn’t want to believe it.”

He broke down as did other members of the family.

In his closing statement, Durham reminded jurors of his client’s schizophrenia and mental torment, and that he had never been in any kind of trouble before.

“The real Josh is a good person,” he said. “He had a psychotic episode that ended tragically Feb. 25, 2016.”

Young, the commonwealth’s attorney, told jurors he didn’t thinkthe killing was committed because of mental illness. He said it happened because Ratliff was angry with his co-worker.

“There are no winners here,” Young said.