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Crime Story of the Year: Arrest made in 21-year-old murder cold case

Crime Story of the Year: Arrest made in 21-year-old murder cold case

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The most shocking crime development of this year was an arrest being made in relation to a multiple-decade Council Bluffs cold-case homicide.

In mid-October, the Council Bluffs Police Department announced that 52-year-old Matt Kennedy was arrested in connection with the death of his step-sister, Kimberly Ratliff, who in January 1999 was found inside of her vehicle brutally murdered in the 1400 block of West Broadway.

Kennedy at the time of his arrest was a resident of Fairfield, Montana, but was living in Council Bluffs at the time of the murder. He was taken into custody and held in Teton County Jail prior to being extradited back to Iowa, according to Pottawattamie County Attorney Matt Wilber. He remains in custody in Pottawattamie County Jail awaiting a Dec. 21 arraignment.

Kennedy is charged with first-degree murder.

Wilber said making headway on the case after all these years is a big deal, but noted that tons of work must be done to ensure its ready to present to the court and a jury if no plea is reached.

“Obviously it’s a huge deal,” Wilber said of charges being filed. “But I feel like it’s a baby step as well, because putting together enough for probable cause and putting together a case that you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, those are two vastly different tasks.

“The police have done a very good job of getting this case to the point we have it now, but now the challenge is for us to be able to put the evidence out in such a way that a jury can hopefully understand what it’s showing.”

Advancement in DNA analysis is what ultimately led to charges being filed. According to an arrest affidavit, through this advancement, items collected from the original crime scene were submitted in 2014 to the Iowa State DCI Laboratory for evaluation. In 2017, the lab informed local law enforcement that an unknown male DNA profile was discovered on one of the items.

The item, court records show, was of a personal nature to Ratliff that only she and the suspect(s) would have been in contact with.

“With this new information it was appropriate to attempt to identify the DNA by comparing it to known profiles of individuals who may have had access to the victim during the 4- to 6-hour window we believe this incident occurred,” Council Bluffs Police Department Detective Ronald Branigan said in his written statement.

Included in the list was Kennedy, who was the last known person to see Ratliff alive, according to the affidavit.

In late August, known DNA samples of six men were submitted to the DCI lab for comparison to the unknown male DNA profile. On Sept. 15, the department determined the unknown DNA profile was consistent with Kennedy.

“With the elimination of the other known DNA samples it was determined that only Matt Kennedy, one other male individual and one female could have had contact with Kimberly on the night she was murdered,” Branigan wrote.

On Sept. 25, court records show additional items of evidence were submitted to the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) Human DNA Identification Laboratory for testing. On Oct. 7, police learned additional DNA was found on a second item in a location the suspect likely would have touched during the assault of Ratliff.

DNA results led to the elimination of a second male subject, leaving Kennedy as the remaining suspect, according to the affidavit.

Wilber when asked if there were any additional persons of interest at this time said “I’m not going to be able to comment on that.”

On the morning of Jan. 12, 1999, Ratliff was discovered inside her white 1988 Plymouth Sundance, which had been abandoned in the 1400 block of West Broadway. After being missing for about three-and-a-half days, the 22-year-old’s body was found by a Peoples Natural Gas employee who was clearing snow from the sidewalk bordering the business’ Council Bluffs offices, according to World-Herald archives.

Ratliff’s body was found sprawled across the front seat, her throat slashed, according to archive reports.

She was last seen alive when she got off work from Airlite Plastics Co., an Omaha business, around 11:30 on a Friday evening. Her mother, Joyce Kennedy, and Matt Kennedy both worked for the company at the time as well.

Prior to her death, Ratliff lived with her mother and stepfather, Les Kennedy, near Third Street and 16th Avenue. Ratliff was a 1995 graduate of Lewis Central High School and took courses at the Nebraska College of Business to become a paralegal but dropped out after about a year, according to archive stories.

Murder trials, Wilber said, are often lengthy under normal circumstances. And with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and both the prosecution and defense having to wade through thousands of pages of evidence building their cases, he noted any trial action in the next few months is highly unlikely.

However, the defendant does have a constitutional right to a speedy trial, meaning Wilber and his team are working diligently to get their ducks in a row.

“Iowa has a 90-day speedy trial law, which is sort of suspended right now due to COVID,” Wilber said. “But, if they start opening things back up for jury trials, the defense will really get to drive the train on scheduling a lot more than we will.

“So, we will have to be prepared to try it fairly quickly with the understanding that we are all in the same boat — the prosecution and the defense. We all have to go through all of this information, so I’m not really anticipating a trial in the next few months, but one never knows.”

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