Sunday, March 16, 1975

Officer Clarence Ratliff - Grand Rapids PD

In 1975, Officer Ratliff broke into the home of his [first] ex-wife. Ratliff proceeded to pistol whip her, "causing at least three lacerations" in the back of her head.

Ratliff was suspended from the department for five days for the assault.

On October 19, 1998 Officer Clarence Ratliff murdered his second ex-wife, Judge Carol Irons.

Officer Clarence Ratliff's assault of first wife, while on duty [1975]

Officer Clarence Ratliff's murder of ex-wife Judge Carol Irons [1988]

Officer Clarence Ratliff shot at Officer John Den Boer after killing Judge Irons [1988]

Officer Clarence Ratliff shot at Officer Daniel Ostopowicz after killing Judge Irons [1988]

Officer Clarence Ratliff sentenced for murder of Judge Carol Irons [1989]

Clarence Ratliff's sentence confirmed [1991]

Judge Irons' murderer requests to be freed from prison [2011]

Judge Irons' murderer, Clarence Ratliff dies in prison [2011]

JOE SWICKARD Free Press Staff Writer
May 8, 1989
Detroit Free Press
(MI)GRAND RAPIDS --The marriage of Clarence Ratliff and Carol Irons began with vows of love on the Hall of Justice lawn. It ended four years later inside the same courthouse with a single 9mm slug to the base of Irons' neck.

"The only difference between this and any other domestic homicide is the place and the players," said defense lawyer Grant Gruel. "It's not often that a cop marries a judge and then kills her in her chambers."

For two weeks, Grand Rapids has been transfixed by the first-degree murder trial of Ratliff -- "Rat" to his friends, a hard-drinking police officer and Marine Corps Reserve gunnery sergeant -- in the Oct. 19, 1988, shooting of District Judge Irons -- a sharp-tongued advocate of liberal causes and the first woman jurist ever elected in Kent County.

If the 1984 courthouse lawn wedding of the burly cop and the petite, 4-foot-8 judge seemed the stuff of television movies, the trial is a sorry tale of withered dreams and bitterness ending in a drunken, bloody killing.

"What led up to this tragedy is a good divorce case, but not an excuse to kill someone," said state Assistant Attorney General Mark Blumer, who is prosecuting the case because of the Kent County prosecutor's ties to Irons and Ratliff. "All that has been put out as excuses is really motive for murder."

The gist of the case, which Kent Circuit Judge Dennis Kolenda said will go to the jury Wednesday, is that Ratliff got off duty at 7 a.m. that Oct. 19, spent the morning drinking shots of Jim Beam bourbon, and then killed his estranged wife. He exchanged shots with other officers before surrendering.

Ratliff's blood-alcohol level five hours after the shooting was 0.14 percent, well above the 0.10 percent threshold for a drunken driving charge.

Blumer contends that Ratliff, 53, drank to get the nerve to kill, but chickened out at the last moment in his plan to die in a shoot-out.

But Gruel counters that Ratliff, too drunk to form a plan -- a necessary element of first-degree murder -- killed Irons in an instant of unthinking anger after years of galling frustration.

Ratliff, testifying Thursday, said he recalled only scattered impressions of the fatal meeting.

He recalled in greater detail the five-year courtship between two people hurt by earlier failed marriages.

"I didn't want to go through a divorce again," Ratliff said.

Not mentioned in the trial is a 1975 incident from his first divorce. While in uniform, Ratliff broke into the home of his estranged wife, Olga, and pistol-whipped her before being taken out by other officers. He said he planned to kill her and himself, but lost his nerve, according to prosecution arguments in the court without the jury present.

Judge Kolenda barred testimony of the incident because it was too old and prejudicial, despite Blumer's argument of the "startling similarities."

Of his marriage to Irons, Ratliff said, "It seemed like we had a lot of fun the first couple of years."

His bachelor, roughing-it hunting cabin in Stanwood on the Muskegon River was remodeled and improved into a comfortable weekend cottage for them.

But there was a chill of change and suspicion.

Irons' brother, Peter, a recovering alcoholic, said his sister stopped drinking and broke the old social routine of drinking with Ratliff and his pals. Ratliff continued drinking. He and Irons took separate vacations.

Ratliff said he was getting needled by his fellow cops because Irons would pick up his paycheck, and that his wife blistered him in arguments with her sharp tongue and quick mind. He also said he was suffering sexual dysfunction.

He suspected a class reunion she attended in Georgia in 1987 was a rendezvous with an old boyfriend. He said he verified it through telephone bills.

That year, Ratliff bugged their home telephone line before going to Utah for his summer of active military duty with the Marines.

Ratliff said the wiretap showed "that Carol and John (her old boyfriend) were lovers while we still were married." Taped conversations were "explicit . . . telling what they would do when they got together again," he said.

Ratliff said he later retreated to the cabin and "drank a lot."

The tapes continued to roll and in late August he discovered she was planning a trip to Niagara Falls to see her old boyfriend again.

Irons filed for divorce in early 1988 and, according to Ratliff, agreed to make the payments on the cottage.

The morning of Oct. 19, 1988, was rainy as he got off duty from the overnight shift, and Ratliff said he decided to wait before tackling the 53-mile drive to the cabin, where he had been living.

He was wearing jeans, a motorcycle jacket and a 9mm semiautomatic pistol.

He hit a bar where several other off-duty cops and sheriff's deputies were gathered about 7:30 a.m. Soon they were buying each other rounds.

Either just before or just after going to a second bar -- the exact scenario is unclear -- Ratliff stopped by his lawyer's office to check on the divorce.

There he saw a letter from Irons' lawyer saying Irons would not pay for the cabin after the divorce and wanted him to buy out her interest.

Prosecutor Blumer said Ratliff knew he would lose the cabin without Irons' salary and decided to settle accounts for good.

But Ratliff insisted he had no plan: "I think I was upset but I told my attorney go ahead and process the papers. I just wanted to get it over with."

There was a stop at a third bar, which Ratliff said he doesn't recall, but by noon he was in Irons' chambers.

"I have the impression or feeling that we had an argument," he said. It was "slowed down, slow motion like waiting for an accident to happen," he said. "I was looking at me and I was holding a gun on her."

At 12:07 p.m., Irons hit an alarm button and told the police dispatcher that her husband was drunk and had a gun to her head "even as we speak."

Ratliff said "the gun went off," but he does not remember shooting.

Clutching her neck as an artery pumped jets of blood, Irons bolted into the hallway, followed by Ratliff. Officers yanked Irons aside and exchanged shots with Ratliff before he retreated into the chambers.

On the stand, Ratliff said it was a flashback to his SWAT team training: "All I could think of was here come the good guys after the bad guy."

He surrendered in a few minutes, saying, "I just couldn't take the bitch anymore," a sheriff's deputy said. Ratliff testified he does not remember making the statement.

Outside court, Peter Irons said he is distressed by Ratliff's defense: "My sister is being put on trial and not able to defend herself."

Defense lawyer Gruel said he is exploring her personality "as an issue because it's a stress factor in what happened."

The key to understanding Ratliff, Gruel said, is seeing him as "the Marlboro Man, a John Wayne-type guy who finally broke."

The drinking and stress should reduce the murder to a lesser charge or an acquittal, Gruel said.

Peter Irons disagrees.

"I have a problem with the idea that a person who drives while intoxicated goes to jail but a person who shoots his wife is exonerated," he said. "As a recovering alcoholic, I always understood I was still responsible for what I did when I was drunk. I expect the same of Ratliff."

LISA PERLMAN Associated Press
April 25, 1989
Detroit Free Press
(MI)GRAND RAPIDS -- One floor above the office where District Judge Carol Irons was shot to death, jury selection began Monday in the murder trial of her estranged husband, a 21-year veteran of the Grand Rapids Police Department.

Clarence Ratliff is charged with one count of first-degree murder in the Oct. 19 death of Irons and two counts of assault with intent to murder for allegedly shooting at fellow officers who came to her aid. If convicted as charged, Ratliff would face life in prison without parole.

Security was tight in the Kent County Hall of Justice courtroom where Assistant Attorney General Mark Blumer, who is prosecuting the case, and defense attorney Grant Gruel began questioning 187 potential jurors.

Though jury selection is going on in the same building where the slaying occurred, the trial will be moved to the nearby Gerald R. Ford federal building, where Kent County Circuit Judge Dennis Kolenda will preside.

Gruel has said he will argue Ratliff was so mentally diminished by alcohol and the strain of the couple's impending divorce that he could not form the intent to kill necessary to support a first-degree murder charge.

On the day of the slaying, police said, Ratliff, who worked in the adjoining police department, waved his way through security see his wife.

Irons had told her closest friends of death threats, telephone tapping, harassment and extortion attempts, police said they learned later.

Five years ago Irons, 40, a tough, respected judge involved in domestic violence programs and a supporter of minority rights, married Ratliff, a patrol officer who seemed her opposite.

Ratliff, 53, was active in the Marine reserves and an avid hunter who enjoyed his cabin along the Muskegon River. He reportedly drank heavily, prompting his former supervisor, Lt. Frank Woronko, to call him "a regular Jekyll and Hyde."

Ratliff, whom friends described as a jealous man, reportedly disapproved of many of his wife's friends and the issues for which she fought. After Irons filed for divorce and harassment reportedly escalated, attorney Diann Landers, a close friend of Irons, considered filing an injunction to keep Ratliff away. Irons refused, fearing it would cost her husband his job.

That was believed the same reason why Ratliff's first wife, Olga, didn't file charges when he reportedly broke into her home in 1975 and struck her in the back of the head repeatedly with a handgun while their divorce was pending. Ratliff was suspended for five days at that time, Police Chief William Hegarty said.

Probe Uncovers Threats Before Slaying of Judge
Argus-Press, Owosso MI
Wednesday, October 26, 1988
Grand Rapids [AP]- Evidence of death threats, wiretaps and extortion has been uncovered as police investigate the shooting death of District Judge Carol S. Irons, allegedly slain by her police officer husband.

Irons confided in close friends that her estranged husband threatened to kill her, but didn't tell police because she apparently feared provoking him and ruining his career, according to Irons' divorce attorney and personal friend.

In search of Officer Clarence D. Ratliff's home after the Oct. 12 slaying in Irons' chambers, police found a pipe bomb and other potential bomb-making ingredients such as impact explosives, blasting caps and detonation cord, according to warrants returned to Grand Rapids District Court on Monday.

Court documents said Ratliff, a former member of the department's bomb squad, had reportedly threatened to kill Irons' former boyfriend with a car bomb.

Ratliff apparently had used the pipe bomb for training purposes with other officers, Police Chief William Hegarty said at a news conference Tuesday.

Hegarty wouldn't say if it was against departmental policy for officers to bring such devices home. He said the bomb wasn't strong enough to destroy property.

Irons, 40, told her friend and attorney Diann Landers about the threats in June, Landers told the Grand Rapids Press Monday.

Landers, who was handling Irons' divorce from Ratliff, said she considered filing an injunction to keep Ratliff from harassing her client, but Irons refused to go to police because she feared it could cost her husband his job.

Hegarty said similar concerns apparently kept Ratliff's first wife from filing assault charges against him after he allegedly broke into her home in 1975 and struck her repeatedly on the back of the head with a handgun, causing at least three lacerations. The couple were going through a divorce at the time.

Ratliff, 53, was suspended from the department without pay for five days afterwards.

Hegarty said had been no other disciplinary problems with Ratliff, a 21-year veteran of the department, until last week's shootings.

After a brief exchange of gunfire with police in the courthouse, Ratliff surrendered. He remains in the Ottawa County Jail on a murder charged.

He is suspended without pay from the department and Hegarty said he has recommended to the city manager that Ratliff be fired.

Hegarty said police had no knowledge before Irons' death that she had been threatened, but that since the shooting a number of individuals had come forward.

Ratliff also allegedly made several tapes after wiretapping Irons' home telephone and "has in his possession tapes or statements made by Carol Irons and a second party that would be detrimental to her reputation as a judge and a candidate for public office," police said in court documents.

Hegarty said the department had not yet reviewed all the tapes, but that some involved pending or closed criminal matters.

Ratliff also wanted Irons to give him money or assume some of his debts as part of the divorce settlement, Landers said.

"There was some pressure, extortion, to attempt to get a better settlement," Landers told The Press.

Also Tuesday, Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth said he would hand prosecution of Ratliff's case over to the state Attorney General's office because he and many members of his staff knew Irons personally.

Irons, the first woman elected to the bench in Kent County, was running unopposed for re-election Nov. 8. There will be a write-in campaign to elect a new judge.

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