Woman sues sheriff, cites lack of protection

Charleston County Sheriff’s Office Detective David Owen was at the West Ashley house on Jan. 26, 2011, where Ronald David Ratliff had been found dead in the attic the previous day. He had shot and wounded his estranged wife, then killed himself.

Melissity Q. Hayes sat at the kitchen table in her West Ashley home and turned on the television to watch news reports about the nightmare she was still living.

Her mother had been shot dead by Hayes’ estranged husband, Ronald David Ratliff, who was on the run. She worried that she could be next.

Then, as she sat there, Ratliff shot twice from the attic, striking her in the neck before killing himself.

Hayes holds the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office partly responsible for what happened. She contends that the Sheriff’s Office, which was supposed to be protecting her from her estranged husband, could have prevented the shooting, according to court documents.

Hayes recently filed a suit alleging that the Sheriff’s Office was negligent while she was under its protective custody. She maintains that deputies knew Ratliff had problems with substance abuse, that he had been violent toward Hayes and her family, and that he was armed and had access to her home.

Despite that, the suit claims, the Sheriff’s Office did not staff enough deputies at Hayes’ home and did not take the correct steps to keep the fugitive away from her.

“Evidence will show the Sheriff’s Office took complete control of the situation and negligently performed their duties and as a result Melissity Hayes has a bullet in her spine,” said her attorney, David Marvel.

Sheriff’s Maj. Jim Brady called the episode a sad situation that occurred with a tragic and difficult ending. Brady referred all specific questions about the suit to the attorney representing the agency, Sandy Senn.

“The sheriff and his deputies spent much time and manpower trying to keep Mrs. Hayes safe, and they are understandably upset that their efforts to protect her weren’t enough,” Senn said.

Ratliff’s suicide was the end of a tumultuous relationship that went on between 1990 and 2011. The last straw was on Sept. 20, 2010, when Hayes went to a divorce attorney. Later that night, Ratliff threatened to kill her and the rest of her family.

He was arrested and taken to jail. A judge granted Hayes’ request for a restraining order, and he spent 119 days in jail. Ratliff was released on Jan. 18, 2011, after pleading guilty to assault and battery and receiving a sentence of time he had served.

Hayes’ parents traveled from their home in Florida to their daughter, in fear of Ratliff’s release, the suit’s documents stated. Four days later, Ratliff sneaked into the Debbenshire Road home and shot and killed his estranged mother-in-law, 65-year-old Linda Hayes, authorities said.

Ratliff also tried killing Hayes’ father, Richard Hayes, but the gun jammed and he ran off, the suit’s complaint stated.

While investigators searched for Ratliff, Hayes spent a few days in a secured location with a security detail. She was allowed to return to her home with deputies on Jan. 25, 2011. Meanwhile, investigators surrounded Ratliff’s white van, found abandoned on James Island.

After deputies searched the home and let her and her family inside, Ratliff shot Hayes from the attic, then fatally shot himself.

Ratliff had spent three days in that attic, according to the court documents. Buried under the attic insulation and armed with a gun, he waited for Hayes until he had the chance to shoot her, Sheriff’s Office authorities have said.

A security detail failed to search the attic before allowing Hayes and her family into the house, the suit alleges. Deputies had reason to believe he could be in the attic, according to Marvel.

Senn argued that “law enforcement officers cannot always prevent a determined and vengeful murderer.” She said an estranged husband is to blame. “But he is not here to defend the lawsuit,” Senn said.

Following the shooting, Sheriff Al Cannon was questioned about the handling of Hayes’ security detail. He said he felt all along that the Sheriff’s Office was making all the right moves.

“But it would be ludicrous for me to not be concerned about how this ultimately played out,” he had said.

Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.