Three local homicides from 2002 were the subject of “Buried Alive,” a Vanity Fair Confidential TV show that aired Monday night on true-crime channel Investigation Discovery.
Locals will remember the names Forrest “Butch” Bowyer, 54; Brett Bowyer, 12; Thurman Ray Ratliff, 68; and Katherine Combs Ratliff, 62. The latter three were killed within three weeks of each other.
The documentary-style TV show on one of Discovery’s featured channels featured the Ratliff’s daughter, Katrina Ryan, telling the story of her parents’ murders that occurred on Jan. 30, 2002, in Opelika.
Pulitzer Prize winning author Buzz Bissinger, who wrote “Friday Night Lights” and was identified as a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, narrates the episode.
It started off with Ryan describing a normal morning in which she always called her mom at 8 a.m. That morning there was no answer, she said.
After several calls and no answers, Ryan drove to her parents’ house. She found the back door broken, her father lying face down in the den and dead with blood all over his shirt and her mother dead in the bedroom. They had been shot multiple times.
Lee County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Van Jackson said during the episode it was obvious the suspects were looking for something, but they had missed about $87,000 in cash.
After learning their main suspect was in jail at the time, authorities had no leads.
Fast forward more than two weeks. On Sunday, Feb. 17, 2002, Butch Bowyer of Phenix City was preparing his son for another week of school. Bowyer has never spoken about the events from that night with the media and wasn’t interviewed for this TV show.
Now-Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor, who was an investigator at the time, and Investigator Tom Franklin tell the story along with Bissinger.
Butch Bowyer told authorities he answered a knock at his door at 10 p.m. when he found two men with badges and a warrant who said he was under arrest for drug possession. The men handcuffed him and walked him to a white Crown Victoria. He stopped them and asked what he should do about his son who was inside.
Franklin said they went back in and handcuffed Brett, but Butch knew something was wrong when they drove past the Phenix City Police Department and out to where U.S. 431 was being constructed.
After asking him about a safe which they thought had $100,000 in it, Butch said he didn’t have a safe but did have some cash. They loaded them back in the car, went back to the house and Butch gave them a box with more than $40,000 in cash, but told them he didn’t have anymore money.
They drove back to 431 where they already had dug a grave. That’s when one man slit Butch’s neck “from ear to ear,” Bissinger said, and the other man shot Brett multiple times in the head after the young boy pleaded for his father’s life.
Brett was thrown in the grave, and after Butch’s throat again was sliced open, he was tossed in before the two men put dirt on top of them.
Miraculously, Butch wasn’t dead and dug himself and his son out. A motorist pulled up and called 911. Russell County Sgt. Darryl Powell was the first to arrive. He said during the show Butch wouldn’t leave the scene via ambulance until they found his son.
Butch described the vehicle to investigators and told them they had his keys. Phenix City Police were alerted and kept an eye on the house. A white Crown Victoria was stopped with Michael Carruth in less than 30 minutes, they said during the TV show.
In the vehicle they found handcuffs, shackles and a narcotics officer hat. There was blood on Carruth’s shoes and pants.
Russell County District Attorney Kenneth Davis during the show said Carruth was “cold” and denied involvement, but his demeanor changed when they told him Butch was alive.
Butch also told authorities he recognized one suspect: Jimmy Brooks Jr., the son of a repossession man Butch ocassionally employed at his used car lot. In less than 12 hours, Brooks was brought in for questioning and confessed to shooting Brett. He also told authorities Carruth slit Butch’s throat.
Brooks said Carruth, who was a bondsman, posted his bond for him, and he felt like he owed him. The two were going to build an underground hydroponic marijuana system, Taylor said during the show.
During the interrogation Brooks also confessed to being involved in the Ratliffs’ homicide. They had a list of people in the area they believed kept large sums of money, he told officials. But for that crime, a third man was involved. Enter, James Gary, who already was in the Russell County Jail. Gary told investigators Carruth also bailed him out.
Carruth drove Gary and Brooks to the Opelika home, they told officials.
Davis said the trial for Carruth was different since he still had not confessed, but the blood from his pants was from Butch Bowyer, tests confirmed.
Carruth was found guilty and sentenced to death in 2003. Four months later, Brooks also was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Gary was found guilty in 2005 and sentenced to life without parole.
“This was just about money,” Davis said.
Carruth and Brooks remain on death row.