By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal Corinth Bureau
CORINTH – It has taken more than three decades for 39-year-old Kim Ratliff to share publicly the traumatic event that shaped the course of his life.
Less than two weeks before his 7th birthday, Ratliff witnessed his mother’s death at the hands of his stepfather.
Though Darryl McDonald claimed self-defense and was acquitted of 42-year-old Bertha McDonald’s murder, the details of the night of April 28, 1980, are as clear as ever in Ratliff’s mind.
“She came home from her job on second shift and got us up,” Ratliff recalled. “She was taking us to his mother, the only person who could talk to him.
“She said ‘Run, he’s got the gun,’ and my sister ran out the laundry room door. Mama and I ducked into the living room and hid behind a curio cabinet. When she heard the door slam she thought he had gone outside too, but when she went in the hall he was there. He hit her in the head with the gun and threw her on the floor. He shot once in the air, then he shot her.”
Ratliff was standing right there when it happened.
As the nation focuses on domestic violence awareness this month, Ratliff – pastor of St. Mark Baptist Church in Corinth and projects coordinator for Corinth community planning and development – urges all women who live in an abusive household to get out and into a safe place as soon as possible.
Ratliff’s memories of life with Darryl McDonald include scenes of arguments between him and Bertha McDonald, his hitting and slapping her, and even his placing her in a tub of water fully clothed.
“She would say, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’” Ratliff said. “When she was at work, he’d have his buddies in the house drinking and smoking, and clear them out before she got home. That night she came in and decided she’d had enough.”
The fateful day came less than two weeks after Bertha McDonald sat down Kim and his 15-year-old sister Rena Ratliff and apologized for placing them in that situation, promising she would get them out.
“I want to tell women going through this, don’t make the assumption that you’re going to get out of it safely,” he said. “If you decide to get out, do it right then.”
Witnessing the shooting wasn’t the worst Kim Ratliff endured that night.
He watched Darryl McDonald drag his mother’s body through the dining room and into the kitchen, watched him smear his mother’s hand in her own blood then take that hand and smear the blood on the refrigerator door.
“He had me call his mom and told me to tell her my Mama had killed herself, but what came out was ‘Darryl killed Mama,’” Ratliff said.
From there Darryl McDonald dragged his wife’s body to the car and propped her up in the front seat, with Ratliff sitting behind trying to wake her up. They drove to Magnolia Hospital, where she was pronounced dead before being removed from the vehicle. Darryl McDonald claimed self-defense, saying he and his wife had been wrestling for the gun when it went off.
Darryl McDonald was placed in custody and later charged with murder, was tried and acquitted.
“I testified as the only witness, but they said I was not a credible witness,” Ratliff said. “They tried to prove me retarded and did things in court to prove I was not credible enough.”
Ratliff’s sister had made it across the street to neighbors when their mother was shot, and their two brothers did not live with them. Gary Ratliff had joined the military when Kim was 5 years old, and William Gregory “Greg” Ratliff was in a period of teenage rebellion, at that time living with their grandmother.
Ratliff spoke with his siblings, but each wanted him to speak on behalf of the family. “I was so much younger they all worried about how all of this would affect me,” he said.
It certainly shaped his life, Ratliff said. He went through his own period of teen rebellion.
However, the great-aunt and uncle who took him and Rena in – Laura Bell and Robert Settle – “were the foundation of our lives after that,” he said.
“Aunt Laura never had children, so Mama became her daughter, too,” Ratliff said. “Mama always said that if anything happened to her, she wanted Aunt Laura to finish raising us.”
Aunt Laura was a retired educator and Uncle Robert was a retired school custodian. He died when Ratliff was 10.
“That was two major figures to die in my life,” Ratliff recalled. “I almost thought I would die when he did.”
Though divorced from their mother, Ratliff’s father – William “Bud” Ratliff – was very present in his children’s lives until he died almost a decade ago.
“He honored Mama’s desire for our aunt and uncle to raise us, but he was there every single day and on weekends,” Ratliff said.
With firm guidance and support from his great-aunt, father and other family members, Ratliff found his vocational calling, completing his bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership, and then a master’s degree in Christian studies. He’ll soon complete another degree in pastoral counseling.
In 1995, he married Anjanette Connor of Tupelo, and they have a son, Thomas Christian, 11.
“Women with children in abusive households need to think about what would happen to their children if something happened to them, the children’s weddings they’ll miss, grandchildren’s births, future Christmases, graduations,” Ratliff said, emotion clogging his voice. “My Mama can rest knowing that I’m all right, but I wouldn’t want any other child to go through that.”