Chesapeake man pleads guilty to vehicular manslaughter

Published 10:02 am Thursday, March 11, 2010

As the family of his victim sat crying in the gallery behind him, James V. Ratliff Jr., Wednesday pleaded guilty in Lawrence County Common Pleas Court to causing the death of a man who was once his friend.

Ratliff, 41, of 48 Private Drive 4015, Chesapeake, pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated vehicular manslaughter in the death of Wendell “Buck” Bryant, 50, of Willow Wood, as well as to charges of driving under the influence of alcohol and failure to stop after an accident.

Authorities said Ratliff was driving on State Route 217 on Oct. 9, 2009, with Bryant and another man as passengers in his 1987 Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck. The vehicle left the road and struck a utility pole.

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Ratliff fled the scene without notifying anyone about what had happened. He left Bryant injured and still in the vehicle.

Vanessa Bryant, Buck Bryant’s widow, made a tearful address to the court and more specifically to Ratliff as other members of the family sat sobbing near her in the courtroom.

“I want James to know how badly he has hurt my family,” Vanessa Bryant said. Turning to Ratliff, she continued, “You’ve taken away my husband, my friend, the father of my child. He will never be able to see her graduate, get married, see his first grandchild.”

Vanessa Bryant described her husband as the love of her life and added, “You can’t get enough time for it (her husband’s death). You’ve taken him away from me and he’s not coming back.”

One of Buck Bryant’s sisters also spoke Wednesday, telling how the death of her brother had affected the family.

Assistant Lawrence County Prosecutor Mack Anderson described the death of Bryant as a “horrible, tragic incident. The people were friends. This is a classic example of what can happen when a person is driving a vehicle under the influence of alcohol.”

Mike Davenport, Ratliff’s attorney, agreed, adding that Ratliff was remorseful for what had happened.

“Mr. Ratliff is aware of the gravity of his situation. He has, obviously, lost a close friend in this matter. He is admitting his guilt and accepts responsibility for what he has done,” Davenport said.

Asked if he had anything to say, Ratliff replied, “No sir.”

Judge D. Scott Bowling pointed out that Ratliff could consider himself fortunate to only get a seven-year prison sentence for what he had done. Under Levitical (Old Testament) law, the Bryant family could have demanded an eye for an eye, so to speak.

“You’re not under that old law and in the eyes of this family the law is probably lenient,” Bowling said. “They will suffer until the day they die. You will suffer, too. I trust that at the end of these seven years you will come out of prison and become a productive citizen and give something back to the community you live in, something of worth and value. I trust that’s the outcome.”

In cases such as these, local hands are tied somewhat in handing down a sentence. State law would only allow for a maximum eight-year prison sentence given the circumstances of this incident. Anderson said one year was knocked off the outcome because Ratliff pleaded guilty, thus sparing the Bryant family the agony of a trial. Buck Bryant’s daughter, Jessica Bryant, said later she was feeling “mostly anger and hate” for what had happened and doesn’t think Ratliff was punished enough.

“He didn’t deserve to get off that easily. He left him (her father) there,” Jessica Bryant said. “I think the most difficult part of that was James and Daddy were supposed to be very good friends. Friends just don’t do that to other friends, hurt people the way he has hurt me, my mom, my dad’s siblings.”