Michael Peterson, the man convicted of murdering his wife Kathleen Peterson in 2001, captured the imagination of the entire country. The way in which she died was very strange; not only that, but another woman connected to Peterson died the same way.
Prosecutors have laid bare the secret double life of Michael Peterson, the fact the opulent couple was deep in debt, and that their marriage was anything but perfect. Peterson maintained his innocence and the defense countered everything. But it wasn’t enough.
Michael Peterson was found guilty of murdering his wife and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The open-and-shut case, though, was anything but. And the Staircase trial, as it was known, meandered through the courts for years.
This Michael Peterson wiki looks at the peculiar life of the Marine, novelist, father, husband, and convicted murderer.
Who Is Michael Peterson?
So…who is Michael Peterson? That’s a good question. It seems as though nobody ever had a complete picture of the real Michael Peterson. But let’s take a look at what we know.
Michael Iver Peterson was born on October 23, 1943, in Nashville, Tennessee, to Eugen Iver Peterson and Eleanor Bartolino.
Michael’s father was a military officer and moved the family around several times during his childhood. It was during this time that the young Michael Peterson became an avid reader. One of his favorite childhood authors was Ernest Hemingway, a writer he wanted to emulate.
Peterson attended Duke University and was president of Sigma Nu fraternity and the editor of The Chronicle (the school’s independent daily newspaper). In 1965, Michael Peterson graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
After graduating from Duke, Michael Peterson found employment as an analyst at a government think tank. He was tasked with researching topics for the U.S. Department of Defense that supported the country’s increased military involvement in the Vietnam War.
Michael Peterson Marries in 1965
Around this time, Peterson married Patricia Sue Peterson, who was an elementary school teacher on the Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany. They would go on to have two children: Clayton and Todd Peterson.
(Fun fact: Clayton Peterson was a freshman at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke in 1994 when he tried to bomb the main administration building. Michael Peterson tried to pass off the incident as a childish prank. The authorities didn’t see it the same way. He was sent to prison for four years.)
In 1968, Michael Peterson enlisted in the Marines and served in Vietnam. Peterson saw active combat in Vietnam and won a Purple Heart. He was honorably discharged four years later, after being in a car crash that left him with a permanent disability. Peterson retired with the rank of captain in 1971.
Neighbor Elizabeth Ratliff Falls down Staircase and Dies
For much of their marriage, Michael Peterson and his wife Patricia Sue lived overseas. While in Germany, they became close friends with Elizabeth Ratliff and Captain George Ratliff (an Air Force navigator) and their two children, Margaret and Martha Ratliff.
After George died of possible arsenic poisoning in 1983, the Petersons and Elizabeth became even closer friends.
That same year, Michael Peterson published his first novel, The Immortal Dragon. He would write a number of popular novels based on his experience during the Vietnam War. A Time of War followed in 1990, A Bitter Peace was released in 1995, and in 1998, Peterson co-wrote Charlie Two Shoes and the Marines of Love Company with David Perlmutt.
One evening in November 1985, the Petersons had dinner with Elizabeth Ratliff and her daughters. Afterwards, Michael Peterson stayed behind to help Elizabeth put her daughters to bed.
The following morning, the children’s nanny, Barbara, discovered Elizabeth Ratliff’s body at the foot of her staircase. Michael Peterson was the last known person to see Elizabeth alive. Ratliff’s death was investigated by the German police and U.S. military police and was determined to be an accident.
After Elizabeth Ratliff died, Michael Peterson and Patricia Sue adopted her two children, Martha and Margaret.
During the late 1980s, the enlarged family moved to North Carolina. By this time, Michael Peterson’s writing was bringing in a lot of money.
Unfortunately, their marriage was not as successful as his writing career, and Michael and Patricia Sue divorced in 1987. Clayton and Todd lived with their mother while Margaret and Martha lived with Michael. Clayton and Todd would eventually move in with their father as well.
Michael Peterson Falls in Love Again
It didn’t take long for Michael Peterson to find love again. But it was his children who were the matchmakers. Martha and Margaret used to play with a neighborhood girl, Caitlin, who lived down the street from them in Durham, North Carolina. Caitlin’s mother, Kathleen Hunt Atwater (who bears a striking resemblance to Elizabeth), was a successful executive at Nortel and was also divorced.
“They all sat me down and said: ‘How would you like it if Martha and Margaret come live with you?’ And I immediately thought—’a permanent sleepover!'” Caitlin recalls.
Her mother pulled Caitlin aside and told her, “This is going to be our family now.”
In 1989, Michael moved in with Kathleen Atwater.
Their blended family consisted of Michael, Kathleen, Clayton, Todd, Martha, Margaret, and Caitlin.
On the surface, Michael Peterson and Kathleen had an idyllic relationship. Kathleen was a vice president at Nortel making $150,000 a year; Michael had written three widely praised novels.
As their relationship matured, friends would remark on how happy the couple and family seemed.
In 1992, five years before the couple would marry, they purchased their 14-room, three-story, 9,500-square-foot dream home at 1810 Cedar St. in Forest Hills, a wealthy enclave in Durham, North Carolina, near Duke University.
An Idyllic Marriage?
Michael Peterson and Kathleen Atwater married in 1997.
Their marriage appeared idyllic. Kathleen was active in the arts community, often hosting gala receptions at the couple’s mansion.
“We called her the 48-hour-per-day woman,” said neighbor Maureen Berry. “She lived life to the fullest on four or five hours of sleep a night.”
Michael meanwhile, ran for mayor of Durham. His campaign got off to a roaring start, but his credibility took a massive hit when it was discovered that he’d fudged his military record. Not content with a Purple Heart and honorary discharge, Michael Peterson claimed to have won a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with Valor.
Not only that, but Peterson claimed to have won two Purple Hearts; one of which he said he’d received after being hit with shrapnel when his friend stepped on a landmine. The truth came out in the end, and Peterson was worse off than before. It was discovered that Peterson got his Purple Heart after a car accident while in Japan…not in combat, as he had claimed all along.
Suffice it to say, Michael Peterson lost the election badly. And misery loves company. By 2000, their financial position had deteriorated; Peterson’s novels were not bringing in much money and Kathleen was afraid she would be laid off. To make matters worse, the depressed Peterson started to spend a lot of time on adult web sites.
To outsiders, the Petersons still seemed to have the perfect marriage; right up until the night Kathleen Peterson’s body was found.
December 8, 2001: Champagne Corks Are Popping
Christmas 2001 was approaching and, with their children away at college, empty-nester Kathleen was looking forward to having a full house over the holidays. It would help her take her mind off the fact that Nortel was in trouble, thousands were bein