Carnesville — Keith Ratliff was living his dream. Part computer geek, part self-professed “gun nut,” Ratliff helped shoot an offbeat and wildly popular series of videos on Youtube called “FPSRussia” that featured a Georgia boy with a fake Russian accent shooting and blowing stuff up.
Ratliff and partner Kyle Lamar Myers, aka “Dmitri Potapoff” in the show, also branched into the world of weaponry, setting up a business to develop, test and market custom-made guns, including one advertised as a “super compact full auto carbine PSD special ops weapon.” And in recent months, Ratliff had stepped from behind his camera to jump into the white-hot issue of gun control, arguing an armed populace was a safe populace.
He even shot a video contending that ordinary citizens should be able to own “true military arms, real assault weapons” to defend themselves “from all enemies no matter where they rise from.”
But despite his formidable arsenal, Ratliff was unable to protect himself from an assassin’s bullet. On Jan. 3, the 32-year-old father of three was found dead in his office, killed by a single bullet to the head. His SUV, with a holster on the driver’s seat, boxes of bullets in the cargo area and a “Don’t Tread on Me” tag on the front still sat in front a week after his death.
Authorities are calling the killing a homicide, but have said little else about the circumstances of the crime or their investigation.
Ratliff was seen the evening of Jan. 2 by the gravel road outside his office talking with a man, said a neighbor who did not want to be identified. Nobody seemed to have heard the shot that killed him and if they did, nobody would have thought much of it because Ratliff often fired weapons at his property, as did many of his neighbors.
Levi Fox, who lives next door, said the killing has made everyone edgy. “We’re locking our doors more and keeping our guns closer,” he said.
Ratliff’s death touched off a firestorm of impassioned Internet chatter, from those who claiming that pro-gun advocates are being targeted by the government to those noting the irony of a zealous gun seller dying from a gun shot wound.
Initially, investigators did not think any of Ratliff’s many weapons were taken, since there were numerous firearms at his house when his body was found, said GBI spokesman John Bankhead. But investigators now believe robbery is one motive.
Ratliff always carried a pistol, so the killer must have made him feel comfortable, said a relative who did not want his name used. “It couldn’t be random,” he said. “It doesn’t add up otherwise.”
Myers could not be reached for comment, but last week posted a short statement on their company’s Facebook page: “As many of you already know I lost a close friend this week, I ask only that you show respect to the situation for the family’s sake,” Myers said in the statement.
Fox recalled Ratliff as a friendly man who liked to talk about guns. Ratliff and his partner worked on guns in their shop and fired them in a makeshift range they built there, he said. On New Year’s Eve, he recalled that Ratliff let a neighbor fire an Uzi.
Ratliff’s partner, Myers, was the front man for the videos they put on YouTube, vignettes where the Dmitri character, played with a wink and a Boris Badenov accent, demonstrated firepower reserved for a firefight with the Taliban. One clip called “50 Cal. machine gun versus 250 watermelons” featured Dmitri driving through town in an armored personnel carrier with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on top. Another video had him roasting a pig carcass with a flamethrower.
F.S.P. stands for “first person shooter” in video game parlance. Myers, according to stories on Internet gaming sites, graduated from making videos about computer games to ones demonstrating real firepower.
Ratliff, a Kentucky native, met up with Myers and they made a good team, said his father, Dick Ratliff.
“He got into Soldier of Fortune (magazine) and then met Kyle; he loved what he did,” said his father. “He shared a lot of his plans with us. At first you’d think he was blowing smoke. But then it would come to fruition.”
“He wasn’t going to work in the factory like dad,” said the elder Ratliff. “He was going to go out and hustle. One week he’s down in Texas hunting out of a helicopter, the next he’s in Montana checking out some guns.”
His father paused before continuing: “That’s the saddest thing. A lot of the things he had set out to do were clicking.”
FPSRussia was recently listed as the 11th most subscribed YouTube channel with almost 3.5 million fans and more than half a billion video views. Those who create popular channels can earn revenue from YouTube from ads that run with the videos, but it’s unknown how much Ratliff and Myers made from their channel.
Ratliff drove a Land Rover Discovery and, according to Franklin County tax records, his company last year bought an 8,000-square-foot building that had been in foreclosure.
To add to their revenue stream, Ratliff and Myers last year incorporated FPS Industries Global LLC, touting it as “A World Leader in Military Technologies.” The name belied the fact that the headquarters was an office on a country road 80 miles north of Atlanta.
A video released in August has Ratliff showing off his Carnesville facility, starting the tour with the milling machines, a lathe and the “assembly station.” The video shows a shot of the front parking area and ends up with him opening a vault filled with his arsenal.
“You want to buy good guns?” he asks on the video. “They’re getting ready to start hitting the market from FPS Industries.”
Ratliff and FPS Industries Global were licensed by the ATF and in July given a “manufacturer of destructive devices” permit, according to ATF special agent Richard T. Coes of the Atlanta field office.
Some of Ratliff’s plans, however, have stalled. In October, Ratliff visited Joe Parker to offer to buy his 42-acre farm nearby, where Parker held an annual shooting event.
“He had all these plans, to build a house here and a building there,” said Parker. “We had a handshake deal, but he never got back to me. He just blew away.”
Fears that the Obama administration might move to curtail gun rights spurred Ratliff to hit the Internet advocating for wider gun ownership. In one video, he said there was too much bureaucracy required for ordinary citizens to own powerful firepower.
“You’ve got to have all that paperwork just to get started,” Ratliff said into the camera, flapping through several sheets of paper. “That limits who can own true military assault arms. I can own them. Most of you can’t. That should be illegal. Every one of you should be able to own an assault weapon of your choice because that’s what the Second Amendment is about. It’s about owning weaponry to allow you to defend oneself from all enemy, no matter where they arise from.”
The week before he died, his company Facebook site noted: “Now I lay down to sleep, beside my bed a Glock I keep, if I should awake & find you inside, the coroner’s van will be your next ride!”
Ratliff will be buried Monday.