These three stories outline the harrowing toll exacted by murder-suicides in Mississippi
(Photo by Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty Images)
Domestic violence has spiked by at least 20% all over the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Women of color are those most affected. A particularly dreadful aspect of domestic violence is that all too often, it ends in the murder of the victim and the suicide of the abuser. Outside Washington, D.C., the Violence Policy Center, which uses official figures from the U.S. Department of Justice, reports that in this country, murder-suicide happens 11 times a week.
That number is shocking, but even more appalling is the fact that it is probably too low. Not every police department reports their crime statistics to the Justice Department, as they are supposed to do, especially in Mississippi. In summer 2021, drawing on press reports, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting (MCIR) is compiling its own database of incidents of murder-suicide nationwide. These cases almost always involve a woman murdered by a man, who then kills himself.
What do these cases look like in Mississippi? Here are three instances in a state where hunting is very popular, and guns are widely accessible.
Pretty, lively Pheonecia Ratliff, 26, was on her way to the life she wanted. She was scheduled to graduate from historically black Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, in December 2020. She planned to quit her two jobs, at Subway and Walmart in Canton, where she lived with her mother and three of her four siblings, and find a job in early childhood education. She loved children and had a baby daughter, Jordyn, who was only 1.
But Pheonecia’s ex-boyfriend and Jordyn’s father, Jamarquis Black, wanted custody, and said he would “end it” for Pheonecia if he didn’t get it. She went to the police. In late April 2020, Jamarquis was arrested and jailed for stalking and domestic violence. Police confiscated his gun. But he bailed out, and almost immediately drove to Pheonecia’s family home in Canton and kidnapped her at gunpoint. When her younger sister Alexandria tried to stop him, he shot her in the thigh and drove away with Pheonecia. After leading police on an all-night chase across Mississippi, he killed her and then himself.
Jamarquis was a typical domestic violence offender: He wanted complete control, and he found a way to get it from beyond the grave. Before shooting Pheonecia and himself, he persuaded Pheonecia’s mother, Suzanne Ratliff, to turn baby Jordyn over to his aunt and his mother. Suzanne assumed that if she cooperated, he would release Pheonecia.
More than a year after Pheonecia’s death, Suzanne has only enjoyed a couple of brief glimpses of her granddaughter, who lives two hours away with Jamarquis’ mother. Suzanne weeps as she describes how Jamarquis’ mother would not allow Jordyn to attend her mother’s funeral, or a memorial Suzanne organized on May 15, 2021, the first anniversary of Pheonecia’s death.
Besides her grief, Suzanne must deal with a court battle to secure joint custody of her granddaughter. Meanwhile, Alexandria and her siblings also have lost Pheonecia and their baby niece. At some point, Jordyn will find out that the mother of her mother’s killer has kept her away from her family.
There was an earlier case of murder-suicide in May 2017, south of Canton in Bogue Chitto and Brookhaven. Willie Cory Godbolt did not succeed in killing his estranged wife, his intended victim, or himself. His wife Sheena managed to escape through a first-floor window with their young son and daughter, and police captured him before he could commit “suicide by cop,” as he had planned. But he did inflict awful collateral damage, killing eight other people, including two boys, aged 12 and 18, and a police officer.
This case qualifies as a mass shooting. While mass shootings are popularly associated with schools or open spaces like arenas, the fact is that most take place at home. The case also is a rare example of murder-suicide in which the perpetrator and the victim are still alive. Cory Godbolt is now on death row at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, and may be able to provide some unique insights into the state of mind of men who commit these terrible crimes.
What is life like now for Sheena Godbolt and her two children, who are now teenagers? They had to move away from the town where Cory tried to kill her, because people blamed her for his eight murders. Her son and daughter had to enroll in new schools, where no one would tease them or shun them because of their father’s crimes.
A third case also took place in Brookhaven, which is considered Mississippi’s murder capital, in summer 2018, a year after Cory Godbolt’s mass shooting. The Brookhaven case involves an aspect of domestic violence ending in murder-suicide that hasn’t been covered at all: murder-suicide in older couples. Often such cases are attributed to terminal illness in one or both partners, and viewed romantically as a way to avoid a beloved’s suffering or having to live alone, without a loved companion.
On Memorial Day 2018, a couple in their early sixties invited their two children and their five young grandchildren to their Brookhaven home for a family barbecue. Afterwards, the children reported that there were no signs of tension between their parents. The next day, the older couple were found in their home. The husband had shot his wife and then killed himself.
No neighbor or family friend who knew the couple could remember any conflict between them, which might have been a sign that the husband was very controlling. The husband and wife were in good health; neither was suffering any sort of life-threatening illness. How did the children decide to bury their parents, when one had killed the other? How are their own children coping with this awful loss of their grandparents?
To complement and illustrate the new database of murder-suicide, MCIR will answer these questions, and provide the perspective of experts on trauma and resilience. MCIR will publish three stories on the psychological effects on survivors, especially children, in these three instances of domestic violence that ended in murder-suicide here in Mississippi. MCIR also will present an illustration of the new database.
Ann Marie Cunningham is reporter in residence at Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting in Jackson, Mississippi. She is covering domestic violence against women of color during the pandemic.