Created on Friday, 22 March 2013 Written by MAC CORDELL, Marysville Journal-Tribune Staff Writer
Microphone catches suspect's wishes before sentencing on heroin charges
MARYSVILLE — A man's conversation with his attorney offered a nearly unique view into the thought process of a man headed to prison.
Lawrence A. Ratleff Jr., 55, of 401 W. Brown Ave., Apartment 6, Bellefontaine, was moments away from pleading guilty to two counts of trafficking in heroin. He discussed process with attorney Lawrence Wilkins. Judge Don Fraser warned the men that their conversation was on the record and told them how to keep it private.
“The record is still on gentleman, so if you want to talk privately, please push the red button,” Fraser told the man and his attorney.
The men acknowledged the information, but did not turn off their microphones. Ratleff, one day into trial, decided to change his plea from not guilty to guilty, in exchange for an eight-year prison sentence and the state's promise to drop several other drug charges.
“I thought we had a chance, but the cards were stacked against us,” said Ratleff.
Defense attorney Lawrence A. Wilkins said he thought he had a chance until the trial began. He told the man's family after the first day of testimony, six witnesses, that he thought the man was in trouble with the jury. Members of the defendant's family stood and wept in the courtroom as Ratleff signed the deal.
It was for those family members he was signing it he said.
“I am doing this because I don't want my kids to suffer anymore,” Ratleff told his attorney. “They can't do 16 years. I can't do 16 years. I'd rather have them see me in eight years than see me in 16 years.”
His family was at a center of his mind when his attorney began talking to him about trying to negotiate a place to serve his sentence.
“Tell me where you want to go and we can talk to somebody,” Wilkins told his client as they discussed prison options.
The attorney suggested Hocking Correctional Facility in Nelsonville.
“It's further away, but it's easier time for you,” said Wilkins.
“That's too far for my kids to travel,” Ratleff said.
He said he wanted to go to a prison close. He said he had done time in Madison Correctional Institution and wouldn't mind going back. He also suggested London Correctional Institution and Allen Oakwood Correctional Facility in Lima.
“Somewhere close where my kids can come to see me,” Ratleff told his attorney. He said his children promised to bring grandchildren to visit.
The defendant said he specifically did not want the correctional facilities in Noble or Belmont counties because they are too far away.
“Somewhere in the vicinity,” he stressed.
Ratleff then made another request for his attorney to consider.
“I want to go somewhere I can get a TV and stuff though,” he said.
Ratleff asked about the possibility of “good time,” a practice no longer used in Ohio, which allowed inmates with good behavior to earn an early release.
“So there is no sense in me getting into any programs or anything,” Ratleff told his attorney. “I mean, for good time, there is no sense in it.”
Later, from the bench, Fraser addressed the issue.
“You can sit and rot, if that's what you choose to do, or you can better yourself by taking advantage of the programming that's available in the prison system, “ said Fraser.
He said the prison system was changing and those behaving well and attempting to better themselves would be grouped together and would likely have an easier time in prison.
During his conversation with his attorney, Ratleff explained his thought process.
“I was hoping the whole long time they would come down and they were set on this eight (years) and they didn't budge from it,” the defendant said. “I'm not going to let my family suffer for 16 years trying to take care of me. It's going to be bad enough, financially, that they are going to have to take care of me for seven and a half (his eight year sentence minus his time already served) because they've got kids and stuff too.”
He then added, “I might not even live seven and a half years, but I've got a better chance to live seven and a half than to live 16.”
Fraser told the man he made the right decision taking the plea agreement.
“Know that if you had been found guilty of this offense, the sentence would have been far greater than what you are going to receive this morning,” said Fraser.
The defendant lamented being caught with heroin in Union County.
“Anywhere but Union County. Anywhere but Union County, this wouldn't have happened,” said Ratleff. “It wouldn't have happened in Columbus, Dayton. It wouldn't have.”
The judge said that wasn't necessarily true. Fraser explained that the amount of heroin in Ratleff's possession — more than 100 doses on at least two occasions — was “significant enough to make any court sit up and pay attention to what's going on and sentence accordingly.”
He did say, “What we want to do is send a message that if you come to Union County and commit these type of crimes, this is what's going to happen to you.”
Wilikins explained that his client had a drug problem, but cleaned up his life.
“For the past 12 years he has been deeply committed to the community,” said Wilkins. “He has tried everything to better himself and his life.”
He then said, “unfortunately Mr. Ratleff, the last two years has dealt with a serious illness and death of his daughter, which has had a profound impact on him.”
Ratleff said he had been on prescription medication, but “it was cheaper for me to get the heroin than the medication.”
He began regularly using heroin again.
“In my relapse, I made a lot of mistakes,” Ratleff said.
Those mistakes got him caught on U.S. 33 on multiple occasions. The Union County Multi-Agency Drug Enforcement Task Force began investigating Ratleff. On Oct. 24 and Nov. 6, a vehicle he was in was pulled over. On both occasions, there were more than 100 units of heroin in the car. Ratleff had taken $800 to Columbus and purchased the drugs for resale.
“I'm sorry,” Ratleff told the court. “I apologize to my kids, to my family, to the court for the situation I am in.”
He collapsed and cried on the table in front of him.
Fraser said he was sympathetic to the things Ratleff had been through, but “not sympathetic to people who traffic in heroin.”
“There is never an excuse, in my opinion, for selling heroin,” said Fraser. “You are well aware what that type of addiction causes to other people and what kind of havoc it wreaks on our community and upon our families and individuals.”