5 Things To Know About The Mysterious Staircase Death of Kathleen Peterson
In 2003, Michael Peterson went to jail for life without the possibility of parole for the murder of his wife, Kathleen — but that was just the beginning of the story.
Michael Iver Peterson — “Mike” to his friends — is a 78-year-old novelist and decorated military veteran who once ran for mayor of Durham, North Carolina. But in 2003, he went to jail for life without the possibility of parole, a result of being convicted of the 2001 murder of his wife, Kathleen Peterson.
In February 2017, Peterson walked free from that conviction, after years of investigations, trials, intense media attention, wild controversies, and a decade and a half behind bars.
The Peterson killing, sometimes referred to as “The Staircase Murder,” has made headlines, becoming the topic of popular media programming, including the upcoming HBO Max limited series The Staircase, premiering on May 5, 2022.
The saga is packed with twists, turns, exposed secrets, colorful characters, and conflicting theories. Here are some things to know about the case everyone seems to be talking about.
The Body At The Bottom Of The Staircase
At 2:40 A.M. on Dec. 9, 2001, Mike Peterson, then 58, called 911 to report that his wife Kathleen, 48, had fallen down a set of “15, 20” steps inside the couple’s home. He said he’d been sitting out by the backyard pool and came in to see Kathleen dead.
Peterson said his wife had been drinking liquor and possibly took a Valium, so she must have tripped. The toxicology report seemed to back up that idea: Kathleen’s blood alcohol was .07, close to exceeding the legal limit for driving.
However, Kathleen’s autopsy report also made clear that she’d endured severe head-and-neck trauma consistent with being intentionally and furiously beaten by a blunt object, and that she actually died after bleeding out for more than 90 minutes.
Initially, Kathleen’s children supported Peterson’s claims that he was just outside contemplating material for the next book he was writing when he stumbled upon their mom’s horrific accident. Their support did a 180, though, as Mike’s secrets emerged during the investigation.
Secrets, Fake Military Honors, Another Body, And Another Staircase
After the coroner’s statement, police arrested Mike Peterson and charged him with murder. As prosecutors built a case against him, some shocking details emerged.
First, Peterson was bisexual and led a “secret life.” The DA would claim that Kathleen found out her husband was having an affair with a man, and Mike killed her in anger to shut her up. The defense countered that Mike was open about his sexual orientation and that Kathleen was okay with it.
In addition, Peterson lied about his war record. Since he wrote military fiction, Peterson’s status as an honorably discharged Marine and wounded Vietnam veteran added significant credibility to his novels.
Peterson, however, wanted extra glory. He claimed he won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Valor, and two Purple Hearts, one of which he got from being sprayed by shrapnel after his buddy stepped on a landmine. Of all those, he could only verify a single Purple Heart, and he later admitted he got it after a car accident while away from combat in Japan.
The most interesting piece of information, however, was that Mike Peterson was the last person to see yet another woman alive who also died after suffering head injuries and falling down a staircase.
In 1985, Mike and his first wife, Patricia, were in Germany and had dinner at the home of their friend, Elizabeth Ratliff. Afterward, Kathleen departed, and Mike stuck around to help put Ratliff’s two daughters to bed. A housekeeper found Ratliff dead at the foot of the stairs the next morning. The Petersons subsequently adopted the two little Ratcliff girls.
During the Kathleen Peterson trial, Elizabeth Ratliff’s body was exhumed and re-examined. In opposition to initial examinations in 1985, this time medical experts determined that Ratliff’s death was a homicide.
The prosecution team didn’t explicitly accuse Peterson of killing Ratcliff in court, but they did introduce the murder as evidence that he would know how to “fake” an accident almost exactly like the one that killed his wife.
The Owl Theory
Following one of the longest trials in North Carolina history, a jury convicted Mike Peterson for the murder of Kathleen Peterson in October 2003. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Peterson repeatedly appealed the verdict and motioned for a new trial unsuccessfully until 2009 when T. Lawrence Pollard, an attorney who lived near the Petersons, noticed that the trial’s court papers included mention of a feather.
Pollard, who had not been involved in any of the initial legal proceedings, theorized that Kathleen had possibly been attacked by an owl before taking her fatal tumble, which could explain all the head-and-neck damage.
After initial mockery, the owl theory proved to be no laughing matter. Owl attacks apparently occurred in the Petersons’s neighborhood regularly. Microscopic owl feathers, a tree limb splinter, and cedar needles turned up in a clump of Kathleen’s hair that had been torn out by the roots. Her scalp wounds were shaped like predatory bird talons. Blood smears and spatter patterns indicated she bled outside first and then slammed a door shut.
Dr. Patrick T. Retig, a University of Minnesota professor of veterinary medicine, and Kate Davis, a wildlife expert who runs Raptors of the Rockies, both wrote that Kathleen’s injuries could have absolutely been the work of a large bird of prey, in particular a Barred Owl.
Mike Peterson Cops A Plea Deal
Although no new trial resulted from the owl theory, attorney T. Lawrence Pollard did take up Mike Peterson’s case and worked with the novelist’s attorneys to expose prosecutorial flaws from the original trial — a task that proved shockingly fruitful.
Since the 2003 conviction of Peterson, District Attorney Michael Nifong was disbarred and imprisoned for misconduct in the Duke Lacrosse case and State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) analyst Duane Deaver had been fired for falsifying evidence in 34 cases.
These facts, and other findings of incompetence and/or corruption, led in 2011 to Peterson being released from jail and placed under house arrest during arguments for a new trial. In 2014, Peterson had numerous restrictions lifted. The state then granted him a new trial, which was slated to begin in May 2017.
On February 24, 2017, Mike Peterson entered an involuntary manslaughter Alford plea, meaning that he didn’t admit he did it, but he conceded that a jury would likely result in finding him guilty. Since he had already served more time than any potential sentence, Peterson is now a free man, but he remains on the record as a convicted felon.
Mike Peterson In Pop Culture
From the beginning, the mysterious circumstances surrounding Kathleen's death captivated the media and entertainment worlds — domestically and abroad. There was the 2004 eight-part French documentary series Soupçons (“Suspicions”), an ID three-part docu-series called An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase, and multiple takes from podcasters.
Now, HBO Max is giving the case the scripted treatment in a true crime limited series starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette. The first three episodes of The Staircase premiere on May 5, 2022, with subsequent episodes coming out weekly.