Mystery Solved

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, February 27, 2011

When police told him about the necklace, he knew the searchingand guessing and praying were over.

He knew they’d found Gen.

In his mind, Clinton’s Caby Byrne ran through all the things hismissing sister, Brookhaven’s Virginia Ratliff, was fond of wearingat the time of her disappearance in February 2008.

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Sitting in a restaurant in Jackson Friday, he listened carefullyto his cell phone as Assistant Brookhaven Police Chief Nolan Jonesran through the items investigators recovered from the remains.Byrne checked them off with uncertainty – tennis shoes, rings andother assorted jewelry.

Anyone could have worn those things. But no one else had thatnecklace.

“The one thing above everything else was, we knew her as Gen,G-E-N. Her necklace had those letters. When I told Nolan about thatnecklace, he said, ‘I’ve got that in my hand,'” Byrne said. “Itbecame pretty obvious it was her.”

That’s how Byrne, 77, came to know where his big sister had beensince the 83-year-old went missing on Feb. 28, 2008. That’s how oneof the saddest tales ever told in the Homeseekers Paradise ended,when one wise old policeman closed his fingers around the mystery’skey, finally identifying a scene and remains that dogs and planesand helicopters never found.

Ratliff left her home in the Halbert Heights area that dayalmost three years ago allegedly to drive to Jackson to see herhusband, Charles “Ploochie” Ratliff, at the VA medical center. Shehad not been behind the wheel for years and suffered from dementia.No one ever saw her again.

Ploochie died last summer and he and his wife were memorializedtogether.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department discovered VirginiaRatliff’s skeletal remains near her lost vehicle Friday morning,hidden in a muddy bottom surrounded by thick woods and weeds morethan 300 feet west of the intersection of Highway 28 and Highway33.

Authorities said it appears she was traveling west on Highway 28when she ran through the intersection a few miles south of Fayette,charging across onto a short gravel driveway, missing a collisionwith a mobile home and plunging into the woods ahead.

The vehicle was discovered with the driver’s door open, andRatliff’s remains found about 50 feet up the hill to the east asthough she tried to climb back out to the intersection for help.For reasons unknown, she never made it.

Jefferson County Sheriff Peter Walker said the scene wasdiscovered Thursday by a nearby resident who had recently purchasedthe property after he began cutting a trail through the woods toinspect his new grounds.

Walker said the landowner called authorities and read the tag,but read it incorrectly. On Friday morning, Walker sent deputieswho identified the white 1999 Mercury Grand Marquis and tag number- 987-LIH – as Ratliff’s. Walker called BPD before traveling to thesite himself, and he and his men found Ratliff’s remains.

“As we were backing out, we saw tennis shoes on the ground. Fromthe tennis shoes, we saw a skull,” the sheriff said. “It appearsshe left the vehicle pretty quickly and tried to get out of thearea. She was a pretty old lady, and she just didn’t make it.”

Walker said no foul play is expected in Ratliff’s death. It isnot known whether she sustained life-threatening injuries in thecrash or simply fell and couldn’t get up, succumbing to the winterelements.

Motorists run the stop sign and hit the edge of the woods at theintersection often, Walker said. Authorities don’t know what thearea looked like three years ago – how thick the woods were or howmany mobile homes were present. He was not alarmed that none of themany nearby residents ever found Ratliff’s car or body.

“The people in this area are not woodsmen. They go to work, comehome and leave again. The body went missing in February, and Iguess no one was out moving around,” he said.

Ratliff’s discovery has allowed an entire community – an entireregion – to breathe easy again. Byrne said his sister’s discoveryhas given him finality, though he avoids the word “closure.”

“You don’t ever close something like this,” he said. “There’snot one way you can sort of mentally say, ‘I’m not going to thinkabout this any more.’ I think we’ve got all the answers we’reprobably going to get in this lifetime.”

It’s also a welcome end for Jones, who’s been Brookhaven’s leadofficer on the case since Day One. He’s been carrying a lot ofinformation he can finally let go of.

“That tag number, 987-LIH. That’s been stuck in my head foryears,” he said.

Brookhaven Police Chief Pap Henderson said Ratliff’s discoverybrings peace to far more than cops and family members, but to aregion of concerned citizens. He’s relieved that darker theories onher disappearance have been disproven.

“There’s a lot of things that were going through people’s minds- someone had taken her, found her, abused her, killed her. You’rereally glad to be able to show it was unfortunate, but it was justnatural,” Henderson said.

Michelle Ratliff, 58, has only one regret about the discovery ofher aunt’s remains – that Ploochie wasn’t alive to see his wifefound.

“Uncle Ploochie died of a broken heart. It was one of his fearsthat he would pass away and not have anybody beside him,” she said.”I’m relieved now she can be buried like the lady that shewas.”

Ratliff’s discovery has also left her nephew, 71-year-old ClydeAllgood, with a gentler mind. But he can’t help but think about the”ifs.”

He disputes the popular theory that his aunt left home that dayheaded to Jackson. He maintains she was headed to his house outHighway 550, and he wonders what could have been done to keep herfrom passing by his road, connecting with Highway 28 at UnionChurch and driving on to her death some 15 miles later.

“She never drove on the interstate. I drove her and UnclePloochie both every time for six or seven years,” Allgood said.”Uncle Ploochie said, ‘Mamma’ – that’s what he called her – ‘Go getSonny and get him to bring you to Jackson.’ That’s me. I’mSonny.

“That’s what I think, but nobody knows but God.”