Tommy Dotson, Convicted By The Testimony Of The Self-Confessed
Account by Kermetta Dotson
Edited by Peter Centorcelli, JD Staff
On September 18, 1999 Chad Ratliff was last seen alive in the company of
Curtis Murphy, a morphine drug buddy. Eight days later, Steve Akers found his
body and promptly reported his grisly discovery to the police. The coroner of
Pike County, Charles Morris and the head detective, Keith Justice, secured
the scene and sent the body to be autopsied. The autopsy revealed Chad
Ratliff suffered no other injury except a single gunshot wound to the head.
That same day an article appeared in the newspaper about Chad's disappearance
and his mother's concern for his well-being. The article told how Tommy
Dotson had threatened Chad about money owed to Tommy. It also mentioned that
Chad was last seen in the company of Curtis Murphy. The police had two
ready-made suspects they called in for questioning.
During his questioning, the police asked Tommy Dotson if they could search
his van. Tommy readily agreed to the request. The police turned up some
bloody paper towels and some drug paraphernalia. Tommy claimed the towels
were from a nosebleed he had earlier; police testing confirmed the blood was
his and not Chad's. Tommy was allowed to leave but was told drug charges
would be pending.
Curtis never made it to the police station for his questioning. On the way,
he was pulled over and arrested for driving with a suspended license.
Detective Justice went to the Pike County Detention Center to question him.
At first Curtis admitted nothing. Under further questioning, Curtis admitted
to being there but implicated Tommy Dotson as the murderer. Curtis said he
and Chad had gone to the hospital, where Chad signed out ten needles from the
pharmacy. They ate dinner and stopped in the parking lot of a nightclub to
shoot morphine. While driving home, Chad got a page and pulled over to return
Curtis said Chad told him it was Tommy Dotson and they were going to meet him
at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken for a drug exchange. The KFC proved no
good because Chad said there was a police officer at the restaurant next
door. According to Curtis, the three of them went to a remote road off the
main highway called Cedar Creek, the place where Chad's body would be
discovered. Curtis claimed his car couldn't make it all the way up the hill
so they left it and continued to the top in Tommy's van. Curtis then said an
argument broke out between Chad and Tommy over the money owed to Tommy.
Chad started firing, Curtis ran to his car down the hill. He claims Tommy
tossed him a gun and Curtis shot at Chad in the van. (Police were unable to
find any bullet holes in Tommy's van.) Curtis says that Tommy shot Chad in
the head, dragged him from the van and put two more shots, point-blank,
into Chad's chest. (The autopsy only uncovered a single head wound.) Curtis
took Detective Justice to the scene of the shooting and was taken back to
The police issued a warrant for Tommy and at 3:40 A.M. on September 27, 1999
Tommy was arrested for the murder of Chad Ratliff. Tommy refused to speak
without an attorney present. Curtis, by his own admission present at the
murder, was released on September 27, 1999 at 2:30 P.M. He was asked to come
back and answer some more questions. Curtis returned to the police station
with his girlfriend Angie. While questioning the two of them, police decided
it seemed they had fabricated a story about Curtis' whereabouts on September
18, 1999. Police questioned them separately. Detective Justice got Curtis to
admit that he had told Angie to say Tommy had done the shooting. Detective
Justice asked Curtis to go to the room where Angie was being questioned and
have her tell the truth about what she knew. Curtis went and tried to make
sure Angie didn't waver from their earlier story. Angie became confused and
refused to answer any more questions. Two detectives continued questioning
Curtis until he also became confused and asked to be excused from further
questioning that day. Even though police knew Curtis was present at the
shooting and even though police suspected him of lying and even though police
thought it was apparent his girlfriend was lying for him, Curtis and Angie
were allowed to leave.
Curtis came back on September 28th and was questioned about drug dealing in
the area. No further questions about the murder were asked and Curtis was
once again allowed to leave. Meanwhile, Tommy Dotson was being questioned
with his attorney, Robbie Wright, present. Tommy maintained his innocence,
saying he and his wife had gone grocery shopping on September 18th and then
went home to prepare dinner for company. Tommy's mother-in-law and her
boyfriend came over that evening. Tommy suggested getting the video from the
grocery store but this was never done.
Tommy Dotson implicated Curtis. Tommy said Chad would make sexual advances on
Angie and she was angry because Curtis never did anything about it. Tommy's
attorney told police that Randy Sparks had called and told him Curtis had
killed Chad. Randy said he heard this from Curtis at a party they both
attended. Police tried to contact Randy Sparks but were unable to reach him.
They never tried again.
On October 3, 1999 Donnie Estepp, an inmate, said he had information about
Chad's murder. Donnie said Tommy told him on the way to another court
proceeding that he had killed Chad. (Donnie would later say that Tommy told
him in the weight room.) Donnie said Tommy had taken pills and money from
Chad after he shot him. (Chad's body still wore expensive jewelry when it was
That same day, Gail McCoy, Kim McCoy and Clifford McCoy went to the police
station with information about the murder. They said Curtis and Angie came to
Gail's house on September 18th at around 9 P.M. According to Gail, Curtis and
Angie were acting very nervous. Curtis finally said, "Should I tell them,
Angela?" Angie said to go ahead and Curtis told the McCoys he had killed
Chad. Since Curtis wasn't in custody, police paid to have the McCoys stay at
a hotel. Police went to get a warrant to arrest Curtis but the Commonwealth's
attorney told them they couldn't get the warrant unless they released Tommy.
The police didn't arrest Curtis.
On October 4, 1999 Curtis was once again brought in for questioning. Curtis
agreed to have his home searched for the murder weapon. No gun was found.
At 10:30 A.M. on October 6, 1999 Angie went back to the police station to
give another statement. This time she admitted Curtis had told her and the
McCoys that he had killed Chad and was going to frame Tommy Dotson. Angie
also told police she and Curtis had taken the gun over to Curtis'
grandmother's house. Curtis gave the gun, which belonged to his grandmother,
to his mother, telling her to break it down and dispose of it. With the help
of Curtis' mother, police recovered the gun. The gun was shown to be the
murder weapon and Curtis was arrested for the murder of Chad Ratliff at 2:30
P.M. (The Commonwealth's attorney made no provision about releasing Tommy
this time.) In a videotaped confession, Curtis admitted to shooting Chad. Two
days before Tommy's trial, Curtis plea-bargained to a manslaughter charge.
Tommy Dotson's trial was a farce from the outset. The presiding judge was a
close friend of Chad Ratliff's father and should have removed himself from
the trial. Of the three alibi witnesses -- Tommy's wife, his mother-in-law
and her boyfriend -- only Tommy's wife testified. Tommy's attorney, Robbie
Wright, felt the others' testimony wouldn't help Tommy and the prosecution
would claim they were lying. As it turned out, the prosecution claimed the
reason they didn't testify was because they weren't the kind of people who
would lie on the stand and Tommy's wife would lie to protect her husband. The
defense called an inmate who had shared a cell with Curtis. This inmate
claimed Curtis offered him $2,000 to testify against Tommy. The state's
attorney dismissed his testimony by saying he was a convict so he couldn't be
trusted. The state had no such concerns about Donnie Estepp's truthfulness.
Due to Curtis' plea bargain, the McCoys were only allowed to testify about
having a conversation with Curtis the night of the murder but not the content
of the conversation, which was ruled hearsay. (Even though a first person
conversation with the suspect should have been allowed as evidence.) The
state's attorney dismissed the McCoys by saying anyone who would have Curtis
as a friend couldn't be trusted.
After the trial, it was discovered a 911 call had been made on September 18,
1999 from an unidentified man. The caller said he knew Curtis had killed Chad
and loaded the body in his car to dump elsewhere. Police decided it was
probably Randy Sparks but never interviewed him. The police also declined to
search Curtis' car even though they had reason to believe it was used to
transport a dead Chad Ratliff. The police never investigated Tommy's alibi,
which could have been confirmed with the grocery store's video. No physical
evidence linked Tommy to the crime. Only the words of Curtis, a self
confessed murderer, and Donnie, a convict, even placed Tommy at the scene.
Now protected by the double jeopardy laws, Curtis has admitted Tommy had
nothing to do with the murder. Curtis believed he would be able to avoid a
life sentence if he had an accomplice he could blame. He has even agreed to
testify if a retrial is ordered. Donnie has admitted Curtis had given him
$500 to implicate Tommy.
Enough evidence exists to cast a serious doubt on Tommy Dotson's conviction.
The potential bias of the presiding judge and the apparent errors of Tommy's
representation should, at the very least, entitle Tommy to a new trial. It's
time for the state of Kentucky to stop worrying about saving face and to
begin serving justice.
172 Division St.
Pikeville, Ky. 41501