Workplace Murder in Kentucky: The Painful Loss of Ryan Birse
The Workplace Violence Prevention Institute (WVPI) has always endeavored to include victims voices in our research and educational activities.
I've communicated with too many victims who have suffered the injustice of workplace violence. I've also had the privilege of speaking with relatives of several workers who were murdered by their colleagues.
The first family member who ever contacted me was Mr. Tim Birse. One day during late summer 2016 I came home from work and found the following email from Mr. Birse, reprinted with his permission.
Prior to receiving Mr. Birse's email, I had researched and written about 22 year old Ryan's vicious murder on Thursday evening, February 25, 2016 at the KFC/Taco Bell restaurant in Elizabethtown, Kentucky where he worked.
Tim Birse sent me this his favorite photograph of Ryan as a boy, taken during a father/son fishing trip.
After I wrote back, Mr. Birse agreed to talk to me on the telephone. A few days later, I called him at his home in Ontario, Canada. We spoke for almost an hour that first night.
Mr. Birse described his son's murder. Ryan was working behind the counter when an older co-worker who was not scheduled to work suddenly entered the building, walked up to Ryan who was busy packing chicken and shot him nine times at close range in front of a restaurant filled with stunned co-workers and patrons. Then he took off.
Tim also informed me that Ryan's murder had apparently and horrifically been caught on videotape.
"I still don't know why he killed my son," Mr. Birse quietly and heart-wrenchingly told me. He repeated that solemn statement a few times during our initial conversation and again in the two or three more calls we had in the months that followed.
He went into more detail about Ryan. Mr. Birse talked about Ryan's goals, achievements and interests. By all accounts, Ryan was growing into a fine young man and a respectable member of his community.
Ryan loved and was close to his family. Ryan was a sports enthusiast who was passionate about hockey. He was also great with cars. In fact, Ryan had lived in Nashville and attended an automotive school there for a period of time following his high school graduation.
When his studies in Tennessee were completed, Ryan who had been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome as a youngster returned home to Kentucky and was hoping to land a job in his chosen field.
In the meantime and like so many other young adults across the United States, Ryan was working in the fast food industry at a job he'd landed at that KFC/Taco Bell Restaurant in Elizabethtown.
Sports fan Ryan was growing into a well-rounded young man who was a whiz in repairing automobiles.
Mr. Birse related bittersweet memories about his son. He told me about his final trip from Canada to spend time with Ryan as well as his daughter Rachael mere days before the tragedy.
You could hear the pride in Mr. Birse's voice when he explained how he walked into the KFC/Taco Bell and saw his son. Mr. Birse locked eyes with Ryan who was behind the counter working diligently on his job tasks.
Ryan broke out in a huge smile at the sight of his father.
Mr. Birse told me he was so proud of his beloved son- as proud as all parents are when they realize their children are operating as responsible young adults in the world.
How could Mr. Birse have known that a few days later after his return to Canada from Kentucky that he would get a call from the coroner's office that would change the course of his life and that of his entire family's forever?
"It's a call no parent should get," is how Mr .Birse described that awful call and the details that were related to him. His son was dead, murdered by a 27 year old co-worker named Joshua Ratliff.
In 2017 a jury found Ratliff guilty but mentally ill. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison, 50 years for killing Ryan plus five more for fleeing the scene and evading the authorities following the shooting.
During Ratliff's trial, a coworker Deandre Gaines testified that Birse and Ratliff had exchanged words just two days before the murder after Birse instructed Ratliff to cease touching chicken after taking his hands out of the dishwater. Perhaps he'd held a grudge against the younger Ryan. He'd talked about retaliation to law enforcement following his arrest.
Whatever his motive, it made no sense whatsoever and his actions left such pain in their wake.
Rachael holding a photograph of Ryan.
Through Mr. Birse I had the honor of getting introduced to other family members including Ryan's mother, Karen Bischoff Rea and his sister Rachael.
Then during the summer of 2017, I got to meet both along with Ryan's stepfather and a family friend when they traveled to Florida from Kentucky.
Like Tim, Karen and Rachael shared memories of Ryan. Karen recalled the night of the murder. Ryan left for work and not long after there was a knock on the door. It was completely heartbreaking.
It was obvious that Ryan was deeply loved by his family and his loss was devastating. to all. During our time together, I became very impressed with Rachael, a bright, vivacious, highly intelligent and soon-to-be high school senior.
Rachael adored her brother and missed him terribly. She told me she had attended Ratliff's murder trial. She also inquired about the WVPI.
Rachael Birse (right) & Kathleen
Rachael asked me how she might get involved with the WVPI and kept in touch in the weeks after our in-person meeting.
Since then, we talked and texted more and she participated in a telephonic WVPI planning and educational session and took minutes for the meeting directly from her high school. Her school's principal was completely supportive and accommodating..
Rachael was excused from her least favorite class (math) in order to attend our meeting. It was a busy conference with participants calling in from Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Rachel herself from Kentucky.
Among other items on the agenda, Susan Hosage, a talented Human Resources practitioner presented the many significant ways that Employee Assistance Programs play in helping to mitigate the risk of workplace violence.
A day or so following that meeting, Rachael and I spoke one-on-one. I was anxious to learn what she thought of the WVPI and what she learned since we began communicating the beginning of 2017.
Rachel asked many inquisitive questions and made some great points about workplace violence and prevention. It was obvious she absorbed and understood much of what had been discussed during the meeting.
Rachael has great leadership skills and we are thrilled she decided to participate in our project. She's a lovely young lady with a bright future ahead of her.
On occasion as I engage in various activities relative to the WVPI, someone will say "Kathleen: If a person is out to get another person whether it's to bully or to murder and they're motivated...there's not much that can be done. They'll do what they set out to do."
That may be true. In my research I've learned of co-workers and former co-workers filled with hate and who have perpetrated awful acts of violence including murder sometimes months even years post-termination. It numbs the mind.
But that part of me who believes if we can save one life through the WVPI's education initiatives and prevention strategies all the work I've done since 1995 in the field of employee safety, am currently doing, and will ever do will be well worth it.
The parent of another child murdered by a co-worker recently told me "I believe the WVPI will save not one but many lives." I think she's right.
After Tim Birse told me how his son grinned broadly when he saw his father entering the restaurant where he worked, I wrote an article "Ryan With the Big Smile on his Face."
Read it here:
In memory of Ryan Birse: A fine, beloved young man whose life was senselessly cut short by a ruthless act of workplace violence.