Thursday, May 15, 2003

'Battered wife' charged in shooting

Controversial defense likely in ex-husband's death

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rhonda Ricketts in Warren County sheriff's booking photo.
LEBANON - Rhonda Ricketts told police she shot her ex-husband, Steve, after she endured the last of his many punches. The chilling details in her 911 call to police are expected to provide the basis of her defense against murder charges.

Police don't dispute that she had a fresh black eye and bruises on her legs - some dark and recent, others yellow and fading, they said - to show that something was wrong in the couple's two-story suburban home on Silverwood Farms Drive.

On Wednesday, as they filed a murder charge against Ricketts and she remained jailed in lieu of $500,000 bail, a lead detective said he's anticipating the defense: Battered Women's Syndrome.

[IMAGE] Crime scene tape surrounds the Ricketts home in Lebanon.
(Enquirer photo)
| ZOOM |
"That's what she is indicating all the way through, is that she is a battered wife," Lebanon Sgt. Fred Jacobs said of the Ricketts case.

"Anticipating that defense, it's going to be extremely tough," he said. "The defense starts from when she makes the 911 call."

It's a controversial defense that's been used for women who kill abusive men in the absence of imminent danger. The theory spurred then-Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste to grant clemency in 1990 to 26 women convicted of killing or attempting to kill a husband, ex-husband, boyfriend or father.

The defense was the underlying factor that saved a Butler County woman in 2000 from being prosecuted in the slaying of her husband of 52 years.

In her call Tuesday afternoon to 911, Ricketts confessed to killing her 45-year-old ex-husband, a man police said was an elder at his apostolic church in Middletown.

911 CALL
Excerpts from the tape recording of Rhonda Ricketts' call:

Dispatcher: 911. What's your emergency?

Ricketts: (sobbing) My husband, he poked me in my face and I shot him.

D: You shot him?

R: Yes, he's been beating on me so when I was washing the car, went up to see if he wanted something to eat, and he slapped me in my face so hard my head's pounding. So I had a gun, and I shot him.

D: Are you at 452 Silverwood?

R: Yeah, I think he's dead.

D: Okay, your name is Ricketts?

R: I think he's dead. I didn't mean to ...

D: All right. I'll have somebody there in just a few minutes.

• • •

R: I only bought it because he told me I had to move out, and I was scared to be by myself. I was moving out this weekend. And then he hit me again, and I couldn't take any more.

D: I'll have somebody there in just a couple minutes.

R: I didn't mean to ... I was just gonna scare him, then he rolled over toward me and my finger pulled it, and I couldn't stop.

• • •

D: Where did you shoot him?

R: I ... in the back, I think. And then he came after me, and I didn't know what to do. I was afraid he was gonna choke me again or hit me again and so I shot him again.

• • •

D: I've got the squad there ... coming now. They should be there at any second.

R: I feel like I'm gonna faint, my head hurts so bad where he hit me.

D: I understand. The squad's gonna be there, just a little time. I have officers on the way to help you, too.

R: I didn't mean to ...

D: I understand. Things can get upset.

R: I didn't mean to, I love my husband very much ...

(Exchange continued until officers arrived.)

R: (screaming) I killed my ... oh my God ... oh God ... what have I done?

She repeatedly told a Lebanon dispatcher that she didn't mean to kill the man police said she had tried to reconcile with since last June. Despite a divorce in 2001, she still referred to him as her husband.

But, this time, Steve Ricketts had smacked her, Ricketts said, so hard that her head was pounding. And, all she had done was ask him if he wanted something to eat, she said, while he was still in bed. Police said he had worked a double shift.

Ricketts said she pulled out a gun - a .38-caliber five-shot revolver - to scare him. She said she bought it the day before to protect herself because she was afraid to be alone, and he had told her to move out. She kept the gun in a lockbox in the trunk of her car, which she said she had been washing.

But Ricketts said she couldn't stop herself when her finger squeezed the trigger. The bullet struck Steve Ricketts, maybe in the back, she told the dispatcher.

"He came after me again, and I didn't know what to do. I was afraid he was gonna choke me again or hit me again and so I shot him again," Ricketts sobbed.

Steve Ricketts was dead.

She added: "I just lost control. He beat me so much that my legs are blue."

Lebanon police say there were no reports of domestic violence involving the couple, who had married in 1983 and have two children, a 16-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter.

Only once did officers make a run to the house where they observed the couple in an argument, police said. At the time, they were responding because someone at the house called 911 to report that they thought Ricketts was having a heart attack.

"I can't find anything where we had any type of call where either one of them said the other one was being physically abusive," Jacobs said.

But Janet Hoffman, executive director of the Abuse and Rape Crisis Shelter of Warren County, said that's not unusual. Some women don't report domestic violence. They stay with the abusive partner for economic reasons, or because they have children, or because they see no way out.

Hoffman said it's a common misconception that people in nice neighborhoods - like the Ricketts - don't experience domestic violence. They just might be less likely to report it because of the social stigma, she said.

The battered-women's defense has had mixed results locally.

In one Tristate case, Josie Whitaker, then 68, told police she fatally shot her husband, William, 70, on July 31, 2000, in their Hanover Township home. She said he threatened to kill her and sexually assaulted her. A Butler County grand jury declined to indict after her lawyers presented evidence that she had been battered throughout their marriage.

However, in another Butler County case two years earlier, Sherry Mariana was convicted of involuntary manslaughter even though her lawyers argued that a lifetime of abuse from her father, brother and succession of boyfriends, including Herman Colwell Jr., prompted her to fatally shoot Colwell on Dec. 21, 1997. Mariana was released from prison last year.

For now, police are still trying to determine exactly what went on in the Ricketts' home leading up to the shooting. And, they are still waiting to hear from the Montgomery County coroner on how many times Steve Ricketts was shot.

Ricketts fired the revolver four times, but not all of them hit Steve Ricketts, Jacobs said. A bullet was found in the attic and two bullets went through the exterior of the house from the master bedroom.

Police are trying to piece together when Ricketts got the gun out of a lockbox in her car trunk and took it up to the bedroom.

Meanwhile, Ricketts sits in her cell at the Warren County Jail on a suicide watch and with the prospect of spending 15 years to life in prison. She will be arraigned today, and evidence could be presented to a judge to decide whether the case should go to a grand jury.

Janice Morse and Michael D. Clark contributed to this story.


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