Saturday, May 31, 2003

Domestic killing charge upgraded

Grand jury decides woman planned to kill

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rhonda Ricketts told a 911 dispatcher that she was beaten.
Enquirer file

LEBANON - A woman who gained support from battered women's advocates after she claimed she fatally shot her ex-husband May 13 in self-defense now faces an upgraded charge of aggravated murder.

A Warren County grand jury indicted Rhonda Ricketts on Friday after hearing nearly two hours of testimony from witnesses, including Ricketts' 18-year-old daughter, Stephanie, and 16-year-old son, Jeremy, who have turned against their mother since the slaying.

Police originally charged Ricketts with murder, meaning they had reason to believe that she purposely killed her ex-husband. The aggravated murder indictment alleges she planned to kill him.

Ricketts, who claimed in a call to 911 that she shot her ex-husband, Steve Ricketts, after he struck her in the face, is expected to use a battered women's defense.

"He's been beating on me. ... And then, he hit me again and I couldn't take any more," Ricketts told the 911 dispatcher.

Steve Ricketts was shot once in the back while lying in bed at his Silverwood Farms Drive home, police said. Investigators charge that Ricketts fired the .38-caliber, five-shot revolver four times, and theorize that the first bullet struck and killed her ex-husband.

County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel said the grand jury indicted Ricketts on the increased charge because its members felt she had planned her ex-husband's slaying. Hutzel said Ricketts' case did not qualify for the death penalty under the law.

Rhonda Ricketts faces 20 years to life in prison if she is convicted. She remains in the Warren County Jail in lieu of $500,000 bail and is expected to be arraigned on June 20.

"I wish it could be more," Stephanie Ricketts said of the potential prison term.

She and other siblings have disputed their mother'sclaim that she was a victim of domestic violence. But a half-brother from Rhonda Ricketts' first marriage has said his stepfather beat his mother throughout their marriage. Ricketts had a black eye when she was arrested in the slaying.

Ricketts' lawyer, Jeff Kirby, who is a board member of the Abuse, Rape and Crisis Shelter of Warren County, said the indictment doesn't affect his plans to use the battered women's defense. He will first have to show that his client suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder before he can use the defense.

"The very evidence that supports the contention of aggravated murder is the same evidence that supports the assertive steps the battered woman takes to be released from her captor," Kirby said.

"If a prisoner of war in Iraq knew tomorrow that he would be executed and took positive steps today to be get away from his captors, people would call him a hero. If a battered women does that, she is a premeditating, cold, calculated killer, which I don't believe fits this case."

Kirby, who was hired by some of Ricketts' family members, said he would try to get Ricketts' bail lowered before her arraignment so she can be released from jail. Janet Hoffman, the shelter's executive director, said advocates have talked about raising the money, but the amount of the current bail is prohibitive.

Ricketts, 50 and a mother of four, told police that she bought the gun she used to kill her ex-husband the day before the slaying to protect herself when she moved out of the house.

Investigators said Steve Ricketts, a 45-year-old foreman who often worked double shifts at AK Steel, had allowed his ex-wife back into his home late last year in an attempt to reconcile and to keep an eye on Jeremy. He evicted her within days of the shooting because the relationship had soured, police said.

Stephanie, who graduates from Lebanon High School today, told the Enquirer earlier that her parents were arguing about the eviction just before her father's death. She said her mother gave her $50 and sent her on a trip to Middletown to buy flats of flowers and lunch.

The teen returned just more than an hour later to find her father dead and her mother in police custody.


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