All Research

The Staircase: History vs. Hollywood


Colin Firth
Born: September 10, 1960
Grayshott, Hampshire, England, UK

Michael Peterson
Born: October 23, 1943
Birthplace: Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Bio: Novelist and Convicted Murderer

Toni Collette
Born: November 1, 1972
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Kathleen Peterson
Born: February 21, 1953
Birthplace: Greensboro, North Carolina, USA
Death: December 9, 2001, Durham, North Carolina, USA (lacerations to skull)
Bio: Michael Peterson's Second Wife

Olivia DeJonge
Born: April 30, 1998
Melbourne, Australia

Caitlin Atwater
Born: April 27, 1982
Birthplace: North Carolina
Bio: Kathleen Peterson's Biological Daughter

Sophie Turner
Born: February 21, 1996
Northampton, England, UK

Margaret Ratliff
Born: December 10, 1981
Birthplace: Germany
Bio: Michael Peterson's Adopted Daughter

Odessa Young
Born: January 11, 1998
Sydney, Australia

Martha Ratliff
Born: January 3, 1983
Birthplace: Germany
Bio: Michael Peterson's Adopted Daughter

Trini Alvarado
Born: January 10, 1967
New York City, New York, USA

Patricia Peterson
Born: March 12, 1943
Birthplace: Paris, Arkansas, USA
Death: July 8, 2021, Durham, North Carolina, USA (heart attack)
Bio: Michael Peterson's First Wife

Patrick Schwarzenegger
Born: September 18, 1993
Santa Monica, California, USA

Todd Peterson
Born: March 14, 1976
Birthplace: Germany
Bio: Michael Peterson's Son from First Marriage

Dane DeHaan
Born: February 6, 1986
Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA

Clayton Peterson
Born: December 13, 1974
Birthplace: Durham, North Carolina, USA
Bio: Michael Peterson's Son from First Marriage

Michael Stuhlbarg
Born: July 5, 1968
Long Beach, California, USA

David Rudolf
Born: July 2, 1949
Birthplace: New York City, New York, USA

Parker Posey
Born: November 8, 1968
Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Freda Black
Born: November 11, 1960
Birthplace: Burlington, North Carolina, USA
Death: July 29, 2018, Durham, North Carolina, USA (end-stage liver disease from alcoholism)
Bio: Assistant District Attorney / Prosecutor

Cullen Moss
Born: July 8, 1975
Buffalo, New York, USA

Jim Hardin
Born: February 1957
Birthplace: Durham, North Carolina, USA
Bio: District Attorney / Lead Prosecutor

Rosemarie DeWitt
Born: October 26, 1971
Queens, New York City, New York, USA

Candace Zamperini
Born: August 15, 1957
Bio: Kathleen Peterson's Sister

Tim Guinee
Born: November 18, 1962
Los Angeles, California, USA

Bill Peterson
Born: July 1947
Birthplace: USA
Bio: Michael Peterson's Brother

Vincent Vermignon
Born: March 22, 1983
Martinique, France

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Born: July 1, 1963
Birthplace: Mirande, France

Juliette Binoche
Born: March 9, 1964
Paris, France

Sophie Brunet
Birthplace: France

Historical Accuracy (Q&A):

How did Michael Peterson meet his wife Kathleen?

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

The real Michael and Kathleen Peterson are pictured on the left. Toni Collette and Colin Firth portray the couple in the HBO miniseries (right).

Was Michael Peterson a novelist?

Yes. Three of his novels were inspired by his time serving in the Vietnam War as a member of the United States Marine Corps. This includes his popular 1990s novel A Time of War, which received interest from Hollywood. For one of his books, he received an advance of more than half a million dollars from his publisher. Peterson was also a journalist, writing a column for Durham's Herald-Sun newspaper. -Esquire

Did Michael Peterson and his wife Kathleen have a happy marriage?

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.

The real Kathleen and Michael Peterson are pictured at the bottom and stars Colin Firth and Toni Collette are displayed at the top in the HBO Max miniseries.

Did Michael Peterson claim that his wife fell down the stairs?

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

Was Michael Peterson charged with first-degree murder?

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.

Did the Michael Peterson's lawyers try to claim that his wife Kathleen fell down the stairs from drinking too much wine?

Yes. In researching how accurate is The Staircase on HBO Max, we confirmed that this was the argument put forward by the defense. They claimed that Kathleen had attempted to walk up a poorly lit stairwell after drinking wine and taking valium. She fell, struck her head, and bled to death. However, the medical examiner determined that her blood alcohol level was so low she would have passed a breathalyzer test at the time of her death. In addition, Kathleen's prints were nowhere to be found on the two wine glasses that were sitting out on the kitchen counter next to a bottle of wine. -Esquire

Kathleen Peterson's body was lying at the bottom of this back staircase inside the Peterson home. Dried blood can be seen on the floor and wall at the bottom of the steps. Photo: Netflix

Where was Michael Peterson when his wife allegedly fell down the steps?

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.

How long was Kathleen Peterson lying dead at the bottom of the stairs?

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).

The real Kathleen Peterson (left) is portrayed by Toni Collette (right) in the HBO Max series. Photo: NBC / HBO Max

Had Michael Peterson written a newspaper column that criticized Jim Hardin, the same district attorney who ended up prosecuting him for murder?

Yes. Peterson's columns in The Herald-Sun were at times critical of both the police and Durham County District Attorney James Hardin Jr., the same district attorney who would end up prosecuting him for his wife Kathleen Peterson's murder, a charge he denied.

Did the prosecution argue that Michael Peterson killed his wife with a fireplace blow poke?

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.

Kathleen Peterson's injuries included seven deep lacerations to the top and back of her head. Photo: Netflix

How likely is it that Michael Peterson killed his wife with his bare hands?

Given the evidence, it seems plausible that Michael Peterson murdered his wife Kathleen with his bare hands. If so, he most likely grabbed her by the hair on the front of her head with his right hand and then used his left hand to help repeatedly slam the back of her head into the wooden step at the bottom of the service stairs. This theory is supported by the fact that hairs from the front of her head were found on her hands, as well as on Michael Peterson's Diet Coke can discovered on the patio. It appeared as if Kathleen had used her hands to try and free her hair from her killer's hand. The bruising on her wrists and hands further supports this theory.

Kathleen also had contusions on her back and posterior arms, which make sense if the back of her head was being repeatedly thrust into a step. She had no bruising on her legs, knees, feet or ribs, which demonstrates that she almost certainly didn't fall down the staircase. She had sustained a fracture to the superior cornu of the left thyroid cartilage of her throat, consistent with the type of wound a thumb could make if a hand had grabbed her throat to help control her head or try to strangle her. It should also be noted that Colin Firth is not as physically imposing as the real Michael Peterson was, who certainly had the strength to confidently commit the murder without a weapon. -Inside the Staircase

The real Michael Peterson (left) is portrayed by Colin Firth (right) in the HBO Max series.

Is it possible that Michael Peterson murdered his wife because she found out he was secretly gay?

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.

Did Michael Peterson have affairs during both of his marriages?

Yes. Peterson admitted that he had affairs with both men and women when he was married to his first wife, Patricia Peterson. He said that while he was married to Kathleen, his second wife, he only had affairs with men. He tried to stress that he was never engaged in extramarital relationships, only sex.

Did Michael Peterson kill Kathleen for her money?

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.

Michael Peterson's mansion in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Durham is pictured at the top. His family, including his wife and children, are shown at the bottom.

Was Michael Peterson connected to the death of another woman whose body was found at the bottom of a staircase?

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.

Michael Peterson was the last person to see Elizabeth Ratliff alive. Her body was found at the bottom of a staircase inside of her home. Photo: Netflix

Elizabeth Ratliff's cause of death fell under scrutiny after Kathleen Peterson's body was found at the bottom of a staircase in December 2001, 16 years later. Kathleen Peterson's death prompted Elizabeth Ratliff's body, buried in Texas, to be exhumed in April 2003. A second autopsy was performed by Durham, North Carolina officials and they found convincing evidence to conclude that Elizabeth Ratliff's death was a homicide. Michael Peterson maintains that he was not involved in her death and no charges have been brought against him. His defense, led by David Rudolf, stated that the second autopsy was biased and should have been performed by officials in Texas, not Durham.

Photo: Netflix

What was Michael Peterson's punishment?

At the end of a trial that lasted more than three months and was one of the longest in North Carolina history, a jury convicted Michael Peterson of first-degree murder on October 10, 2003. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for Kathleen Peterson's murder.

Does Michael Peterson maintain his innocence?

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

Michael Peterson (left) has always maintained his innocence. Colin Firth (right) portrays the author in the HBO miniseries.

Did an attorney try to blame the death of Michael Peterson's wife on an owl attack?

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.

Was Michael Peterson released from prison due to misleading testimony given during his trial?

Yes. In 2011, a judge found that testimony given by blood splatter analyst Duane Deaver at the original trial was false and misleading, as it focused only on the droplets that fit the defense's theory while failing to address the blood at the scene that didn't. The analyst's tests were also found to have been carried out to confirm the defense's theory rather than uncover what most likely happened. Furthermore, the judge found that Deaver had exaggerated his professional experience and had lied a number of times before. The judge ordered a new trial and Michael Peterson was released from prison on December 16, 2011 on $300,000 bail (Newsweek). His bond restrictions were eased in July 2014.

As we explored The Staircase fact vs. fiction, we discovered that he remained on bail until February 2017 when he entered an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter. While the plea is technically a guilty one, it is not an admission of guilt. Instead, it is an acknowledgment that the prosecution still has enough evidence to likely get a first-degree murder conviction. Therefore, the plea to the reduced charge is the better option. The judge accepted the plea and sentenced Peterson to a maximum of 86 months in prison. However, he was given credit for time already served, which amounted to more than the sentence (98.5 months), so he was freed.

Did Michael Peterson date Sophie Brunet, an editor of the documentary about him?

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.

Do Michael Peterson's children believe he is innocent?

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.

Todd Peterson (left) changed his mind with regard to believing his father was innocent. Patrick Schwarzenegger (right) portrays Todd in the HBO Max miniseries.

Does the creator of the documentary, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, feel that the HBO Max miniseries is accurate?

While The Staircase miniseries on HBO Max is based on Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's Netflix docuseries of the same name, the director told Vanity Fair that he feels "betrayed in a way" by Antonio Campos, the director of the HBO miniseries. Lestrade said that HBO's The Staircase falsely depicts him and editor Sophie Burnet (portrayed by Juliette Binoche) as being opposed to including in the documentary courtroom footage discussing possible strangulation attempts, despite their producer pushing for the footage to be included.

"We gave [Antonio Campos] all the access he wanted, and I really trusted the man," says Lestrade. "So that's why today I'm very uncomfortable because I feel that I've been betrayed in a way."

Where is Michael Peterson today?

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