By Liz Shepherd
WARSAW — A North Webster man will serve seven years in prison after he struck and killed a construction worker in Syracuse while operating a vehicle with drugs in his system.
Joshua Edward Ratliff, 34, 7232 E. CR 650N, North Webster, was charged with causing death when operating a motor vehicle with a schedule I or II controlled substance in the body, a level 4 felony; and operating a vehicle while intoxicated, a class A misdemeanor.
Ratliff was sentenced in Kosciusko Superior Court Three on Wednesday, Dec. 2, with Judge David Cates presiding in Judge Joe Sutton’s absence.
On July 26, 2019, Benjamin Fisher, 29, Plymouth; and a coworker, Laura McCollister, South Bend, were removing road construction signs along SR 13 in a utility pole project area north of East Waco Drive in Syracuse. Fisher and McCollister were loading the signs into a 2019 Chevrolet Silverado pickup, which was parked facing south along the west side of SR 13.
Ratliff was driving a 2000 Ford F150 traveling south on SR 13.
According to court documents, McCollister said after she and Fisher picked up a “Flagger Ahead” sign, she went to the passenger side of the pickup truck and had just put one foot inside the vehicle when she heard Fisher yell, “Laura, move!”
McCollister said she stepped back out of the truck and was pushed by the truck, then rolled down an embankment. When she looked up, she saw Fisher on the ground in front of the truck.
According to Ratliff, Fisher had stepped back away from the pickup truck as Ratliff was passing it. Ratliff said he was traveling at about 40 mph when his vehicle struck Fisher. Ratliff submitted to a blood test at the scene and was taken to Kosciusko Community Hospital for a blood draw. Results of the test showed that Ratliff was operating a vehicle with a controlled substance, methamphetamine, in his blood.
A witness said he was traveling south on SR 13 and saw Fisher leaning into the bed of the pickup truck. The witness said he then saw Fisher put something into the back of the pickup and walk toward the driver’s door of the vehicle. The witness was able to get into the opposite lane of travel to avoid colliding with Fisher. Once he was past the pickup truck, the witness said he heard a loud noise and when he looked back, he saw that Fisher had been struck.
During court proceedings, Fisher’s mother, Jo Fisher, gave an emotional testimony that reflected on her son’s life and who he was as a person. Several members of Fisher’s family were in court, adorned in bright green hoodies with “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” on the front and “Can You See Me Now?” on the back.
“Your one act of negligence created insurmountable pain and suffering,” said Jo to Ratliff during her testimony. “Ben was a proactive member of our community. He had innovative ideas and he was a survivor of abuse. I am so humbled to have been his mother.”
In 2019, Fisher ran as a GOP candidate for Plymouth mayor; in court, Jo said her son had planned to run for the position again.
“He was a man of true wisdom, intelligence and character,” said Jo. “No monetary amount can ever replace him.”
Jo also recounted a vehicle accident that Fisher had survived at the age of 13; however, Fisher’s oldest brother, Joshua, did not survive the tragedy.
“My son went through unbearable trials,” said Jo. “But he never turned to drugs or alcohol. Yet Joshua Ratliff still continued to drive and use drugs after this incident. You had no respect for anyone in the community by doing what you did. I’m making it my duty to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Defense Attorney Jack Birch called three witnesses on Ratliff’s behalf to speak about his character. All three noted that drug usage is not in Ratliff’s character.
Bill Rensberger, Ratliff’s wife’s stepfather, said he was shocked when he learned Ratliff had been operating a vehicle with methamphetamine in his system.
“I know Josh to be a good person,” said Rensberger. “He’s always been the driver whenever we would go anywhere because he’s the best driver. I’ve never seen him use drugs.”
“Josh has a soft heart, he’s a teddy bear,” said Scott Cornell, a retired police officer who’s known Ratliff for almost 15 years. Cornell said frequent drug use is not a part of who Ratliff is.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Sobek recommended that Ratliff serve prison time for his actions.
“The best thing he could’ve done was not drive while he had methamphetamine in his system,” said Sobek. “There are consequences for our choices. One of the last things that Ben Fisher did on this earth was shout out to his coworker to save her. This loss is incalculable.”
“This was a horrific accident,” said Defense Attorney Jack Birch. “But it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that this was an accident. Josh did not contest any of this and pled guilty to all charges.”
“If there’s anything I could do to bring him back, I would,” said Ratliff. “I never in a million years would’ve thought I would ever hurt somebody. Since this, I’ve had nightmares upon nightmares. Using drugs will take you to a dark place very fast.”
Ratliff also apologized to Fisher’s family for his actions.
For causing death while operating a motor vehicle with a schedule I or II controlled substance in the body, Judge David Cates sentenced Ratliff to six years in the Indiana Department of Corrections; Cates also sentenced Ratliff to one year at DoC for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Both charges will be served consecutively.
“If it was in my power to fix this and bring him back, I would,” said Cates. “But we unfortunately can’t bring Benjamin back.”
Ratliff has 127 days of jail time credit in this case; Cates recommended Ratliff complete the Recovery While Incarcerated program as part of his sentence.