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Lawrence escapee caught in Limestone
Man hid in swamp, found at former cellmate's home

By Holly Hollman 340-2445

TANNER — A shooting house in a Limestone County swamp helped a Lawrence County escapee avoid capture Monday night.

How he landed in custody Tuesday evening is a true country tale.

This story of Billy Wayne Short starts in March 2006 when authorities chased him into a wooded Lawrence County area called Chicken Foot. Short, 35, of 117 Douglas St., Hartselle, was driving a truck stolen from Jefferson County.

During a standoff, Short allegedly threatened to shoot his female passenger. He eventually gave up and went to jail.

While serving time in the Lawrence County Jail on a theft charge, Short met an Athens man serving time for charges related to driving under the influence, illegal possession of prohibited liquor and driving with a revoked license.

Limestone County Sheriff's Department Chief Investigator Stanley McNatt identified the Athens man as James Gregory Ratliff, 49, of 16883 Zehner Road.

"They were locked up together in December," McNatt said. "They were in the same cell block for about two weeks."

February escape

In February, while on work detail, Short escaped. His whereabouts were unknown until a Limestone deputy spotted him Monday evening. Short was driving a vehicle in Swan Creek Community, a mobile home park on U.S. 31 in Tanner.

"He bailed out of the car and took off running," Limestone Sheriff Mike Blakely said.

McNatt said Short was driving Ratliff's mother's car. Ratliff was a passenger and did not run. Limestone charged Ratliff with hindering the apprehension of an escapee, a misdemeanor.

McNatt said Short had been staying with Ratliff for three to four days. Ratliff had gotten out of jail in Lawrence County earlier this month, McNatt said.

Meanwhile, the hunt for Short ensued. He ran east across a field, through a creek and into a swamp, Mitchell said.

Mitchell and Athens police assisted in the search, and Limestone used its helicopter and search dogs from Limestone Correctional Facility.

Blakely said a farmer had fertilized the field Short ran through, which kept the beagles from quickly picking up Short's scent.

McNatt said Short found a shooting house used for hunting in the swamp and hid.

"He said he was feverishly running because he thought the dogs were going to overtake him at one point," McNatt said. "He said the dogs ran all around him, and he thought about giving up."

But authorities ended the search at about midnight.

"The little fellows were wore out," Mitchell said of the beagles. "They ran for about six hours."

After authorities left, Short walked to Belle Mina. McNatt said the department received calls from residents who saw someone fitting Short's description.

"He knew we were looking for him in Belle Mina, so he stayed out of sight," McNatt said.

At 2 p.m., Short flagged down a motorist and got a ride to Athens. To explain his soggy, muddy appearance, Short told the male driver he had gotten drunk and then got lost in the woods, McNatt said.

Mitchell said Short was unaware Ratliff was in custody and had the driver take him to Ratliff's home.

"He took a shower and laid down," McNatt said.

The driver didn't realize he had helped an escaped inmate until acquaintances in Belle Mina told him the law had been in town searching for Short.

"He called our department and said, 'I may have given a ride to your escapee,' " McNatt said.

Authorities rushed to Ratliff's home at 3:10 p.m. and found him hiding under a bed.

Ratliff is in Limestone's jail in lieu of $1,000 bond.

Short faces a felony escape charge in Lawrence County, and Limestone has a warrant on him for failure to pay child support.

Staff Writer Seth Burkett contributed to this story.

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