MOORESVILLE, Ind. — Ronli Ratliff wasn’t necessarily supposed to be at her little-used family home at 5354 East Dayhuff Road overnight on April 14, 2004.
The water line at her apartment in Mooresville had broken, and the 24-year-old woman wanted to practice her brush stroke for painting at the house.
“She called me about 9 o’clock wanting to know where the art supplies were, so I told her,” said Ronli’s mother, Sandra Allen. “That was the last time I talked to her.”
Ratliff had worked in banking off-and-on, said Allen, and was committed to spending the rest of her life in Morgan County.
“She wouldn’t leave mom, and I wouldn’t leave her,” said Sandra. “She was searching in life. She just hadn’t really found her focus yet. She basically just got there. She’d enrolled recently in some art classes, thought she found her purpose and where she wanted to go in life.”
Allen and her husband owned an auto body shop and towing company in Mooresville the night her daughter was murdered.
“At the body shop and wrecker service we have radios. It came across the radio that there was a fire at our house,” said Allen. “I was terrified because I know she’s there, and I’m not hearing anything else, just the fire.”
Darrell Brown was a member of the Mooresville Fire Department and responded to the scene that day.
“One of the crews found her pretty quickly, I recall,” he said. “The fire was just limited to the origin and the area where the victim was found.”
Investigators have never released Ratliff’s cause of death.
“I have no idea why anyone would want to hurt her,” said Allen. “If it was towards her, a break in, I have no idea, and that’s why we need to know. Was it something against us and our business? Its just…”
Allen’s voice trailed off in search of answers.
Several miles away, in a sheriff’s office conference room, a cold case team of five retired investigators and an administrative assistant gathered on a Sunday afternoon to talk about a homicide that has haunted Morgan County for 18 years.
“She was a good kid,” said Dan Riffle, who retired from the Martinsville Police Department to take up the investigation into Ratliff’s murder. “Whoever did this needs to be punished. Needs to be held accountable and needs to be punished because if he’s done it once, he’s gonna do it again, if he hasn’t done it again already.”
Retired FBI agent John Gray is confident investigators know who the killer is.
“I think we’ve talked to the killer, in my opinion, throughout the investigation. They have been interviewed,” he said. “My key guy, if you will, is living homeless in Speedway until we indict him and arrest him for the murder itself. He’s long been a suspect, he’s still into narcotics.”
Gray said he’s ready to bring suspects, persons of interest and witnesses in for more intensive questioning.
“I am working with the prosecutor to consider a grand jury with some of the information that we’ve developed. The individuals involved in that, the targets of that grand jury, still reside even in Indiana, and one removed himself to Tennessee with his family immediately after the murder.”
Investigators have tracked vehicles spotted at the scene of the killing, cellphone calls, computer searches and interviewed witnesses who claim to know what happened, including one man who quit talking once the questions hit too close to home.
“He was basically cooperative until the time frame that we were interested in,” said Gray, “and then suddenly he has amnesia and can’t remember what he took part in.”
“This whole investigation has been like this giant oak tree. Every time you interview somebody, a new name pops up or a new group of names pop up or a new rumor pops up,” said Riffle. ”As far as anybody who has been eliminated, there’s only been a couple, Ronli’s parents, and I don’t think they were involved.”
Brown, the retired firefighter, said in 18 years, memories fade, witnesses die, people want to forget.
“They have moved on with their life. That life that they may have been living at that time in the past, that’s a ghost in the fog that they’d just as soon forget, and they’re not gonna offer that up unless we ask them.”
“A lot of people are reluctant to talk to us because they think this is a drug case,” said Gray, “that they’re going to jail for narcotics, and we consistently tell them, ‘This is a homicide case, and we’re interested in the homicide. The statute of limitations has run on the drug part of this part of it.’ But people tell us that they’re afraid because their former dealers will come after them. ‘Who’s coming after you?’”
Riffel said the hard drive of one computer found in the home has been analyzed, and another is being examined by Indiana State Police.
“We assume she was searching dating websites, and there was a piece of paper in front of that computer that was collected as evidence, and she had written down a name and an address. I have researched that name and address and came up with that individual, and that individual has moved something like 47 times within the last few years,” said Riffel. “There were some other things in that computer that I found that was strange for her to research, and that research was done days prior to the homicide.”
Former Beech Grove Police Chief Rich Witmer has looked at the Ratliff case files for six years.
“I do definitely think this case is solvable,” he said.
Speaking publicly for the first time about her daughter’s death, Allen said she has faith that investigators are making progress in solving the murder.
“I’m really thankful that the cold case team has come on because without that we wouldn’t have anything. With them on it, that gives me a little relief that we don’t have to concentrate on her death every day. We can concentrate on her life and let them handle that.”
Allen is mystified how such a small community can keep such a horrendous secret for nearly two decades.
“I don’t know if she invited someone in. I just don’t know. Because we are such a small town, you would think after 18 years there would be some kind of gossip, or somebody would know something and not be able to hold it this long. I know the torment I’ve lived with the last 18 years, so I hope whoever did this, I hope their torment is 10 times more than what I’ve even had to, or even 100 times more.
“We’re a small town, and everybody knew what everybody was doing, so why doesn’t anybody know what happened here?”
Anyone with information regarding the 2004 murder of Ronli Ratliff is requested to call Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana at 317-262-TIPS to qualify for a reward or the Morgan County Sheriffs Office at 765-342-5544.