A year after ‘gun nut’ was shot dead, no answers

A year later, a dead man’s Land Rover still sits outside a brick office building on a quiet rural road. The vehicle is still littered with holsters, ammunition and personal items and remains where he left it the day he was murdered.

The state of the unmoved vehicle pretty much resembles the state of the unsolved investigation into the mysterious slaying of Keith Ratliff, a self-proclaimed “gun nut” who was found shot to death in the factory he had set up to assemble custom firearms. Ratliff was better known as the behind-the-scenes gun guy for the offbeat and insanely popular Internet video series called “FPSRussia,” where Kyle Lamar Myers, a Georgia boy with an over-the-top Soviet accent, shoots and blows stuff up.

Ratliff, a 32-year-old, was found at his desk Jan. 3, 2013 with a small bullet hole in the side of his head, surrounded by some of the formidable cache of weapons he owned. Friends and family said he often had large sums of cash on hand. Authorities did not think any weapons are missing, would not discuss money and would not go into a motive. Those close to him are certain it was not random and, in fact, believe it was someone the always-armed Ratliff trusted. Otherwise, they reasoned, how could the killer get close enough to shoot him in the side of the head?

“He constantly checked the doors to see if they were locked,” said his ex-wife Kelli Ratliff. “He went to bed with a gun at his side.”

Last January, the victim’s father, Dick Ratliff, said Georgia Bureau of Investigation investigators told him they were “pressed with all the weirdness of the situation and they want to get to the bottom of it.”

“The investigation has been exhaustive,” GBI agent Mike Ayers said recently. “This is a case where we’re waiting for the right piece of information to come along.”

There have been numerous lab tests, scores of interviews, trips out of state, and investigation into Ratliff’s lifestyle, associates and business practices but still no arrests.

Franklin County Sheriff Stevie Thomas said the county, with 22,000 residents, usually sees one murder a year. But none as vexing as this.

“There’s a lot of questions,” said Thomas, shaking his head. “We haven’t found any evidence that would put anyone in jail.”

In late March, agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives searched the home and family farm of Kyle Myers, Ratliff’s partner and star of the FPSRussia videos. At the time, ATF spokesman Richard Coes told the Athens Banner-Herald that Myers “was known to use explosives and I don’t know if it was done with malicious intent.” He added, “The claim is that he was using explosives and getting paid for it via YouTube.”

Federal authorities have been tight-lipped about the investigation, only saying there is an “ongoing criminal investigation.” The affidavits for search warrants have been sealed.

Kelli Ratliff said her ex-husband had been dead 12 to 15 hours when he was found by Myers early in the evening of Jan. 3. She said Myers, who took her through the murder scene months later, didn’t see much blood and thought Ratliff had been struck with an object, not shot.

Myers has remained publicly quiet since and did not respond to a message seeking comment. But a friend, Kitty Wandel, who was at Myers’ Carnesville home this week and also when the agents searched, said investigators took computer hard drives and other items but returned them quickly.

“I was glad (they did it), if it helps them find out who did this,” she said.

Shortly after the raid by about 40 law enforcement agents, Myers, who stars as the gregarious and heavily armed Dmitri Potapoff, tweeted, “Well it’s been a fun week, I’m glad they didn’t shoot.”

Those who knew Ratliff say he was hardworking, thought big and was not afraid the tell someone exactly what he thought. He was “a redneck from Kentucky who ran his mouth,” said Kelli Ratliff. He’d been married three times and was getting divorced from his third wife and, Kelli said, getting back with his second wife, her. He had three children, had at least one business dispute that required legal action and dove into the heated issue of gun control by making a video to criticize the government for strict licensing of “assault weapons.”

His killing came just three weeks after the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary and Ratliff’s murder became an international story with the Internet crackling with conspiracies including one that said government hit squads offed him. Sheriff Thomas concedes investigators have sifted through some “far-fetched” tips.

Ratliff was described as polite but he had a rough edge to him, said Derek Rayborn, a close friend. “We’d go out for a bar fight for something to do,” he said with a laugh.

He was a computer and gun enthusiast who family members said worked for Soldier of Fortune magazine. A couple of years ago, Kelli said Ratliff had come across an FPSRussia video where Myers got pepper sprayed before trying to shoot a Kel Tec Sub 2000. “He said, ‘I’m going to work for this guy,’ ” she recalled. “He was so excited. When he set his mind to it, he researched and then did it.”

Within a year he had moved to Georgia, partnered with Myers and was helping create the videos that wowed millions. Ratliff had a specialized federal firearms permits and had access to get the heavy-duty firepower that drew Internet hits.

Wandel said she and Myers came up with ideas for videos and then with Ratliff’s expertise, “we could make that concept real regardless of it being driving a tank through a (White Castle) drive-through or using a weapon that few have managed to get their hands on. Kyle is amazing in front of a camera and highly skilled with firearms as well as entertaining, but when it came to management or business side he needed help, and that’s what we did and we couldn’t have done it without Keith.”

At the time of Ratliff’s killing FPSRussia (stands for “first person shooter”) was listed as the 11th most subscribed YouTube channel, with 3.5 million fans and half a billion views. The show has largely been on hiatus the past year but Wandel said a new video is coming out any day.

The two men created FPS Industries Global, the gun-manufacturing company down a gravel road in Carnesville.

They also were trying to create a show on an Internet channel that was a behind-the-scenes look at how their operation worked. Ratliff had previously set up a company in Las Vegas but there was a falling out and attorney Josian Passalacqua said he was called in to negotiate a settlement.

Rayborn understands how Ratliff’s hard-charging business style could get him crosswise with someone. “I could see Keith getting someone in a contract he didn’t like,” he said. “He could make people screw themselves before they knew they were screwed. He was smooth.”

There was also a herky-jerky manner about him. About a year before his death, he hired Passalacqua in a legal battle with a woman concerning custody of his third child. While he was drawing up the paperwork, the attorney said, Ratliff called to say he was marrying the woman. But three weeks later, he was divorcing her. The two had reached a settlement right before Ratliff was killed. It remains unsigned and is part of the reason his SUV sits unclaimed.

His second wife doesn’t think his death is due to government hit squads or even business dealings or love interests. She said it could be something as stupid as an accident, gunplay gone bad.

“When the boys got together they acted a fool; I don’t know how many times I saw a picture of them with a gun pointed at each other,” Kelli said, adding “I feel I’m just grasping at straws.

“I just know that somebody knows something. And some day they’ll slip up.”