The Staircase true story reveals that Michael Peterson and Kathleen Atwater, a telecommunications executive, were introduced to each other by Michael's adopted daughters, Margaret and Martha, who were playmates of Kathleen's daughter, Caitlin. Kathleen and Caitlin lived down the street in Durham, North Carolina. By that time in the mid-1980s, Michael's marriage to his first wife, Patricia Peterson, was in shambles. Michael and Patricia divorced in 1987 and Kathleen and her daughter Caitlin moved in with Michael and his children. According to public record, Michael and Kathleen purchased their mansion in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Durham for $600,000 in 1992. They married five years later in 1997 and lived in the home until Kathleen Peterson's death in December 2001. -Esquire
According to Michael, they did. In 2006, Michael commented, "We lived together for 14 years, and we were happy every one of those years" (ABC News). Son Todd Peterson said that on the surface, his parents seemed like they were the perfect couple. However, underneath, that wasn't the case. In a 2021 video, Todd said that Kathleen once told Michael that she believed that people have three major romantic relationships during their lives as they age, and she indicated that she was currently in her second, implying that she and Michael would not remain together much longer.
Yes. In researching The Staircase fact vs. fiction, we confirmed that on the night of December 9, 2001, Michael claimed that his wife, Kathleen Peterson, fell down the service stairs of their North Carolina mansion. He called 911, telling the dispatcher, "My wife had an accident. She's still breathing. She fell down the stairs." Minutes later, he called 911 a second time and stated that his wife was dead. He was later criticized for not answering all of the dispatcher's questions, which some say further points to his guilt in Kathleen Peterson's murder. -Esquire
Yes. Peterson's high-profile murder trial that began on July 1, 2003 was the subject of French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's Netflix docuseries The Staircase, which began filming shortly after Peterson's 2001 arrest and followed him until his Alford plea in 2017. Following his wife Kathleen Peterson's death, he pled not guilty to the charge of first-degree murder.
Like in the HBO Max miniseries, The Staircase true story confirms that Peterson said he was outside by the pool smoking a pipe and didn't come back inside until 2:40 a.m., at which time he discovered his wife Kathleen at the bottom of the service staircase.
When the police arrived on the scene at the Petersons' mansion in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina, they noted that the blood around Kathleen Peterson's dead body was mostly dry, indicating that she had been lying there for some time. District Attorney (now Judge) Jim Hardin said that her body had been there for roughly two hours (NBC).
Yes. The medical examiner, Deborah Radisch, concluded that Kathleen Peterson's injuries revealed that she had been bludgeoned to death and had sustained seven deep lacerations to the top and back of her scalp. The prosecution asserted that the murder weapon was a missing blow poke, a fireplace tool similar to a metal fire iron except that a blow poke is hollow so that you can blow through it to send oxygen to precise points of the fire. It had been a gift from Kathleen's sister, Candace Zamperini, and had not been found in the Petersons' home during the investigation. This was the prosecution's theory, but the defense argued that a bludgeoning of that type would have produced skull fractures and brain injuries.
The defense attempted to discredit the prosecution's blow poke theory by producing a blow poke during the trial. They claimed that Michael's son, Clayton Peterson, found it in the garage and that the police had overlooked it. It was reportedly covered in cobwebs and dust and had been unmoved for too long to have been the murder weapon. Later, Kathleen's sister, Candace, said that the blow poke produced by the defense was not the one she had gifted the Petersons, which was still missing. It is possible that the claw-like hook at the end of a blow poke could have torn into Kathleen Peterson's scalp without causing fractures to her skull, which are normally associated with a bludgeoning. The bruises on her wrists and hands could have occurred as she was trying to shield herself from the blow poke or a similar murder weapon.
This was the main motive that the prosecution argued. They claimed that Michael committed Kathleen Peterson's murder after she confronted him about approximately 2,000 images of naked men that she found on his computer, in addition to email correspondence with a 26-year-old male prostitute who Peterson had arranged to meet. The prosecutor suggested that Kathleen had found the photos and emails accidentally (NBC). Michael claimed that his wife had been aware of his extramarital affairs with men, an assertion Kathleen's sister disputed. A secondary motive argued by the prosecution was Kathleen's $1.4 million life insurance policy.
This is one of the motives put forward in the HBO Max miniseries, as it was in real life. According to Michael's son, Todd Peterson, his father was indeed broke at the time of Kathleen's death. He said that his father's books "were getting rejected left and right" and weren't bringing in much money. Todd said that while his father did have good news about a possible movie, the chance it was actually going to happen was very slim. Kathleen had a $1.4 million life insurance policy that Michael stood to benefit from.
Yes. Michael Peterson was connected to the 1985 death of Elizabeth Ratliff, an elementary school teacher who taught military children on Rhein-Main Air Force base in West Germany. Michael Peterson and his first wife, Patricia Peterson, were living in West Germany at the time. Patricia was Elizabeth's coworker at the elementary school and the Petersons were also Elizabeth's neighbors. They had befriended Elizabeth and her husband, Captain George Ratliff, before he lost his life in a covert overseas military operation in 1983. Following her husband's death, Elizabeth became reliant on the Petersons. She'd join them for dinner and Michael would help her with various chores.
In researching The Staircase true story, we learned that in late November 1985, Elizabeth and the Petersons had dinner at Elizabeth's home. Michael Peterson stayed behind afterward to help her clean up and put her girls, Margaret and Martha, to bed (NBC). The next morning, the girls' nanny found Elizabeth's body at the bottom of the stairs. Michael claimed that she was fine when he left the night before. An initial autopsy ruled her death an "accident." The coroner concluded that Elizabeth, 42, died from an intracerebral hemorrhage stemming from a blood clot disorder. The hemorrhage caused her to fall down the stairs. Elizabeth's daughters, Margaret and Martha Ratliff, were adopted by the Petersons and they moved back to the United States with Michael, settling in North Carolina.
Yes. In exploring how accurate is The Staircase on HBO Max, we confirmed that Peterson has never admitted to killing his wife Kathleen. After his sentencing, he commented, "I didn't do anything. I'm innocent. I did not believe until the jury clerk read the sentence that I would be convicted." -Esquire
Yes. In 2009, the "Owl Theory" was introduced by a former neighbor of Michael Peterson, Durham attorney T. Lawrence Pollard, in an attempt to prove that Michael wasn't responsible for his wife Kathleen Peterson's death. Pollard had not previously been involved in the case. The National Audubon Society explained that according to the theory, a Barred Owl, which is common in the area, became entangled in Kathleen's hair and its talons are what caused the lacerations to Kathleen's scalp. The Owl Theory would explain why Kathleen had sustained no fractures to her skull or brain damage. Barred Owl attacks are not uncommon and there had been other attacks in the area. They typically dive-bomb a person's head and face.
Further supporting the owl theory is the fact that pine needles were found stuck to one of Kathleen's hands and both hands had some of her own hair in them. Also found in the hair in her hand was a sliver of wood from a tree limb. Reportedly, the forensic examination revealed that her left hand contained three microscopic owl feathers. Defense attorney Mary Jude Darrow said that while it does appear that Kathleen Peterson's injuries could have been made by an owl's talons, "I would hate to risk my client's life or future on that argument." The Owl Theory was never heard in court and no motion for a new trial was filed because of it.
Yes. The true story confirms that he dated Sophie Brunet, who is portrayed by Juliette Binoche in HBO's The Staircase series. Brunet told Vanity Fair that the HBO Max miniseries depicts them as beginning their relationship earlier than they did in real life. In addition, she says that her editorial decisions were not affected by the relationship.
While they all initially believed he was innocent, Kathleen's biological daughter, Caitlin Atwater, changed her mind after reading her mother's autopsy report. She filed a wrongful death claim against Michael Peterson in October 2002. After attempting to declare bankruptcy, to which Caitlin filed an objection, Peterson settled the wrongful death suit in February 2007 for $25 million. Caitlin is portrayed by Olivia DeJonge in The Staircase HBO Max miniseries. Kathleen's sister, Candace Zamperini, changed her mind about his innocence after learning of his bisexuality.
More recently, Michael Peterson's son, Todd Peterson, released a video in December 2021 in which he states that he changed his mind about his father's innocence. Todd says that his father is not only responsible for Kathleen Peterson and Elizabeth Ratliff's deaths, he is also responsible for the death of Patricia Peterson, Todd's mother and his father's first wife who passed away in July 2021 after suffering a massive heart attack. Though they had divorced decades ago, Michael and Patricia had been living together in an apartment for the two years up until her death. Patricia was known for being supportive of Michael and believing he was innocent.
Todd says that his father saw that Patricia was having a heart attack and waited three hours without calling for an ambulance. Todd dialed 911 within minutes of arriving on the scene. "My mom would be alive today if it weren't for my father," he said. He claims that his father killed his mother for financial reasons, as he had done with Kathleen.
Since his release from prison in 2017, he has written two independently published books about his case, Behind the Staircase (2019) and Beyond the Staircase (2020), donating all of the profits to charity. According to his lawyer, David Rudolf, Peterson lives in Durham, North Carolina in a ground-floor apartment with no stairs. -Esquire