Buried under attic insulation and armed with a gun and granola bars, Ronald David Ratliff lay silently over an air conditioning vent, waiting for his estranged wife to pass within shooting range.
At 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, Melissity Hayes sat down at the kitchen table with some relatives beneath the vent. Ratliff opened fire, blasting a round into his wife's right shoulder as her stunned family members looked on helplessly.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon described that scene Wednesday as he tried to explain how Ratliff eluded an intensive manhunt for three days before returning to the very house in West Ashley where he allegedly killed Hayes' mother Saturday.
"I'm really sick about how this evolved," Cannon said.
Investigators still are attempting to piece together a timeline of events and chart Ratliff's movements while on the run. Some questions may never be answered because Ratliff killed himself after wounding his wife, authorities said.
He died of a gunshot wound to the neck, county Coroner Rae Wooten said. No suicide note has been recovered, she said.
As for Hayes, she has been released from a hospital, but doctors did not remove the bullet, Cannon said.
Cannon said it is unclear how long Ratliff had been in the house or how he got in, though he may have had a key. There were no signs of forced entry. It was clear, though, that he was waiting for Hayes and her family to return home, Cannon said.
Ratliff had come prepared with a pillow, a .380-caliber pistol, granola bars and other food, Cannon said. He then pulled up the insulation and hid between the joists until his moment came, he said.
"How he did that without falling through the ceiling, I don't know," the sheriff said, adding that Ratliff weighed more than 200 pounds.
No deputies were stationed at the Hayes house in West Ashley after the fatal shooting Saturday of his 65-year-old mother-in-law, Linda K. Hayes, Cannon said. That's because information from the family indicated it was likely that Ratliff would go elsewhere, possibly Florida, instead of returning, Cannon said.
"The decision as to whether we should have placed people (at the house) is one we will agonize on and give a lot of thought to," he said.
Cannon said that the Sheriff's Office felt all along that it was making the right moves. "But it would be ludicrous for me to not be concerned about how this ultimately played out," he said.
Cannon said he met with Hayes' father, Richard Hayes, at the house Wednesday and explained what investigators had found. On Tuesday, Cannon said, Hayes thanked the Sheriff's Office for all it had done, but added that deputies had "dropped the ball with the attic." Hayes apologized for the comment after learning more about what had transpired, Cannon said.
Hayes did not return a phone call seeking comment. Family members were at the house Wednesday, removing clothes and other personal items with help from detectives.
Deputies had stayed with the family since Saturday's shooting, watching over them at an area motel, Cannon said. The sheriff said the family wanted to return to the Debbenshire Drive home Tuesday morning, and deputies saw no reason not to let them do that.
Three detectives searched the house, including the attic, before the family was allowed inside, but they didn't see Ratliff. Cannon said the attic was dark, full of duct work and other material, and it would have been difficult to see Ratliff in his hiding place. A detective was stationed outside the home when the shooting occurred.
Cannon initially reported that the gunman arrived at the house about 4 p.m. and fired two shots through a window. He said Wednesday that account was based primarily on statements from two witnesses, who thought the shots had come from outside.
It was only when deputies entered the house and saw blood dripping from the vent that they suspected otherwise.
Ratliff was so well ensconced, emergency workers had to remove a section of the ceiling to free his body, Cannon said. It appears Ratliff shot himself shortly after firing at his wife, Cannon said.
Deputies recovered a .380-caliber handgun, which is the same caliber used in Saturday's shooting, but they have not determined if it is the same gun, Cannon said.
Ratliff also had what was described as a "fairly significant amount" of money with him while on the run, Cannon said, because shortly after being released from jail on Jan. 18 he received his share of a settlement from an accident.
Authorities do not know where Ratliff was between Saturday and Tuesday. His van was discovered off Sol Legare Road on James Island around 1 p.m. Tuesday, but the sheriff said he didn't know of anything significant found in the vehicle.
Cannon said it appears that the van was left at the spot Tuesday, as a surveillance camera at a nearby store recorded a similar looking vehicle about 9 a.m. Investigators don't know if Ratliff left it there or had help from someone else.
Authorities, along with a SWAT team, swarmed the area around Sol Legare Road after learning of the van. They were still searching the area when word came that shots had been fired on Debbenshire Drive.
The family conflict began in September, when Hayes reported being attacked by Ratliff.
He originally was charged with criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature, but the charge was reduced to second-degree assault and battery as part of a plea bargain.
Ratliff was released from the Charleston County jail on Jan. 18 after getting a three-year prison sentence, of which all but 119 days was suspended. He had spent 119 days waiting for trial, so he was released with the condition of one year of probation with substance-abuse counseling.
Ratliff stayed at a West Ashley motel after getting out of jail, but he didn't return there after Linda Hayes' killing, Cannon said. He left behind a cell phone in the room but no real clues as to his whereabouts, he said.
Cannon said Ratliff's "level of commitment" to getting back at his wife was highly unusual. "I have been around this business a long time, and this is not something we would have expected."
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556. Reach Andy Paras at 937-5589.