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 being let go, and its share price was tanking. The week before, her own supervisor was laid off. Kathleen, afraid she would be next, was taking “Valium.”
It was under this dark cloud that, on December 8, Michael suggested the two of them spend an afternoon out Christmas shopping. Things were beginning to look up for Michael. That day, he had learned that a Hollywood studio was interested in optioning his latest book.
That night, the couple shared two bottles of champagne, with Kathleen musing about the two of them traveling and spending more time together.
At around 11:00 p.m., Kathleen received a phone call from a co-worker; then it’s thought she waited by the computer for an e-mail from a colleague. According to Michael, they then sat outside by the pool for a spell. Just before 2:00 a.m., Kathleen went upstairs to go to bed.
Just 30 minutes later, Michael Peterson claims to have found his dying wife at the foot of a stairway, in a pool of blood.
“I can’t even remember the last thing I said to her,” says Michael. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘This is the last time I’m going to see her.’”
The big question is: how did Kathleen end up at the bottom of the stairs?
December 9, 2001: Michael Peterson Makes Frantic Call to 911
At 2:40 a.m., Michael Peterson made a frantic call to 911.
Operator: Durham 911, where’s your emergency?
Michael Peterson: 1810 Cedar Street, please
Operator: What’s wrong?
Peterson: My wife had an accident, she’s still breathing.
Operator: What kind of an accident?
Peterson: She fell down the stairs. She’s still breathing, please come.
Michael Peterson would go on to say that after relaxing by the pool, he went into the house to find his wife at the bottom of “15, 20” stairs. Peterson said he thought Kathleen probably tripped trying to walk up the poorly lit stairwell after mixing alcohol with Valium.
Authorities were not convinced that the events surrounding Kathleen’s death happened the way Michael said they did. Once the investigation started, focus was on Michael Peterson since he was the only one home when she died.
Investigators Cast Suspicious Eye on Michael Peterson
When Detective Art Holland of the Durham police arrived at the Peterson’s palatial home, he found 48-year-old Kathleen Peterson dead in a pool of blood, her body splayed out on the floor and her head resting on the landing of the staircase.
Neither Detective Holland nor the paramedics thought it was an accident. There was too much blood…everywhere—on Kathleen’s body and splattered on the stairwell. A blood spatter expert said he thought it was a homicide. Blood droplets around the stairwell were made by the striking of a weapon.
For the next 20 hours, officers photographed and documented what they thought was a crime scene. They found blood outside on the walkway, blood stains on the front door, and blood on the kitchen sink. They also found a bottle of wine and glasses on the counter.
To investigators, the scene looked staged. Kathleen was found at the bottom of the stairs in an entirely unnatural position and her fingerprints were not on either wine glass. A medical examiner later found that her blood alcohol content was low; so low she would have passed a breathalyzer test.
An autopsy report released two months after Kathleen’s death confirmed their suspicions.
The medical examiner released images of the back of her skull, which indicated Kathleen did not die from tripping down the stairs; she was attacked and died from blunt force trauma. Seven deep lacerations were found on her scalp; she had been bludgeoned to death.
The medical examiner also said the pool of blood Kathleen was found in was mostly dry, meaning she had been lying on the ground at the bottom of the staircase for a long time.
Not long after, Michael Peterson was charged with the first-degree murder of Kathleen Peterson. Michael denied killing his wife.
Michael Peterson’s trial was slated to begin in July 2003.
Too Much of a Coincidence? Ratliff’s Body Exhumed
When Margaret Blair, Elizabeth Ratliff’s sister, first heard about Kathleen’s death, she contacted the detective working the case. “I said, ‘Are you aware that the same thing happened to Margaret and Martha’s mother and Michael Peterson was the last one to be with her?”
Elizabeth’s body was exhumed in April 2003. The Durham medical examiner said evidence from the second autopsy (similar blows to the back of the head) coupled with new eyewitness statements allowed for the earlier finding to be overturned and for Elizabeth’s death to be called a “homicide.”
The prosecution did not charge Michael Peterson with killing Elizabeth Ratliff, but tried to show a link between the two deaths at trial.
July 2003: Michael Peterson Trial Begins
The prosecution and defense had wildly different versions of what happened in the early hours of December 9, 2001. Michael Peterson’s legal team posited that Kathleen had mixed booze and pills and subsequently tripped and fell in the darkened stairwell.
The prosecution meanwhile, was going to prove that Kathleen Peterson found out about Michael’s double life and was going to leave him. They fought and he killed her.
So what exactly was this double life?
Detectives determined early on that Michael Peterson was bisexual and was in contact with a male escort. Michael Peterson claims that his wife knew about his bisexuality and visits to male escorts, but that she approved of it.
All of this was utter nonsense to the State. Prosecutors argued that on the night of December 8, 2001, Kathleen found 2,000 images of naked men on Michael’s computer as she waited for an e-mail from a colleague.
She also found e-mails from a 26-year-old male escort, Brad, a former soldier. On his web site, he bragged about how large he was and declared himself “jock-masculine…I am definitely dominant.”
They alleged Kathleen lit into Michael about his secret lifestyle, who responded by being physical, and ultimately killing her.
Physical evidence also backed up the prosecution’s claims. Blood placement and seven lacerations on the back of Kathleen’s head were consistent with being intentionally beaten…not falling down the stairs. Blood evidence also suggested Kathleen died after bleeding out for more than 90 minutes.
As for Kathleen’s body, the prosecution interviewed the first police investigator at the house. The officer said he suspected foul play right away. The biggest giveaway was the placement of Kathleen’s body; it looked like her body was planted.
Det. Borden: In my experience, very rarely—I don’t think ever—I saw a serious fall where the neck was in complete alignment with the spinal cord.
Officers also questioned why Michael Peterson took off his running shoes and socks. As his wife lay there dying in a pool of her own blood, Michael appeared to be concerned about messing up their house.
Hardin: It didn’t make sense why he’d take his shoes off unless he realized he was going to be tracking blood thru the house and he had to take his shoes off so he could execute some cleanup.
And, how did one of his running shoes leave a bloody footprint on the back side of Kathleen’s sweatpants…the side facing the floor?
Because Kathleen’s fingerprints weren’t on either of the wine glasses, the prosecutor argued that Michael Peterson staged the cozy image to imply that Kathleen had too much to drink and fell down the stairs.
Technicians thought it was more than a little suspicious to find a scrubbed-down stair step with fresh drops of blood on top. This suggested the vicious beating took place over two stages.
Hardin: She was probably down during at least a portion of that time. And then became conscious again. And he had to initiate a second round of assaults because the blood spatter is on the clean-up.
Moreover, the medical examiner testified that the seven lacerations on the scalp were so deep they went down to the skull. Bruises on her face, arms, and hands were signs Kathleen put up a fight during a struggle, not a fall.
A forensic neurologist discovered red neurons inside Kathleen Peterson’s brain. According to experts, this proved she slowly bled to death. It is thought she could have been lying at the bottom of the staircase for at least two hours before Michael Peterson called 911.
1.8 Million Reasons to Kill Kathleen
As salacious as Michael’s sexual secrets were, he had other reasons to kill Kathleen that night. Michael was having money troubles, and Kathleen’s massive life insurance payout would make all his worries go away.
The Petersons lived in a huge mansion but they were cash poor, living off of plastic. Jim Hardin, the prosecutor, found the Peterson’s had $143,000 worth of credit card debt. Michael and Kathleen were supporting three children in top-ranked private universities, his book sales were piddly, and Kathleen was afraid of losing her job.
An accidental death, though, would mean her company insurance policy would pay out $1.8 million.
It was the perfect storm that led to Kathleen’s murder. Money woes and fears about his bisexuality being exposed led to her death, prosecutors argued. Blood evidence and Michael’s odd behavior at the crime scene backed up their theory.
Defense Says “This” Is How Kathleen Died
The prosecution might have said the Petersons had a terrible marriage, but the defense said the complete opposite. Defense attorney David Rudolph said that “everywhere they went, people noticed Michael looking at Kathleen with the kind of pride you just don’t fake.”
As for money troubles, the couple’s net worth was substantial. A fact the state’s financial analyst admitted during cross-examination. If Michael and Kathleen weren’t having money troubles and she was okay with Michael’s bisexuality, then how did she die?
There are two prevailing defense theories of how Kathleen died that night. The most popular one is that she was drunk and tripped when she got to the top of the stairs.
Michael Peterson Guilty of Murdering Wife
The jury didn’t buy it. On October 10, 2003, after a three-month trial, Peterson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Michael Peterson maintained his innocence all along. “I didn’t do anything. I’m innocent. I did not believe until the jury clerk read the sentence that I would be convicted.”
On the Netflix series called The Staircase, Peterson said, “They lied, they cheated, they did everything to convict me.”
Caitlin Atwater Awarded $25.0 Million
After Michael was found guilty of murdering Kathleen, her daughter Caitlin Atwater filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her former stepfather in October 2002.
In January 2008, a judge granted a $25.0-million settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit. The judge also awarded around $1,500 in court costs, and $10.5 million in interest, bringing the total judgement to $35,501,486.80. The interest that Caitlin received covered the 62 months prior to the January 2008 judgement.
Jay Trehy, an attorney representing Caitlin, said Peterson probably won’t be able to pay the judgement, but it shows that Kathleen Peterson’s life had value. Peterson, who was in prison at the time, filed for bankruptcy in 2006.
“It didn’t really matter what number a jury would give. Mr. Peterson doesn’t have money,” his attorney, Kerry Sutton said. “He specifically told me that he hopes this gives Caitlin some peace to close this legal chapter of her life.”
Caitlin agreed to stay her lawsuit until Peterson’s criminal appeals were exhausted. If Peterson were ever exonerated, Caitlin would be allowed under the agreement to reinstate the suit. Peterson did not admit any guilt or liability in the settlement.
In October 2017, Caitlin’s attorney filed another complaint against Michael Peterson to keep the wrongful death lawsuit active. While her lawyer, Trehy, does not believe Peterson has any money, the suit has been reactivated to “disincentivize” any effort Michael might make to profit off the case.
Now, if he sells his story or writes a book, he’ll have to give Caitlin any money he makes, until the entire settlement is paid off. He has not paid anything yet.
The Owls Did It!
In 2009, another theory about how Kathleen died began taking flight.
The owl theory sounds far-fetched, but it does have some merit. The theory posits that a barred owl attacked Kathleen, got entangled in her hair, and left major lacerations on her scalp. Michael could not hear her screams because she was in the front of the house while he was lounging in the backyard by the pool with a pipe. Kathleen ran into the house, up the stairs, and, disoriented from the attack, tripped and fell.
In 2009, after crime scene evidence was further investigated, it emerged that Kathleen Peterson held clumps of her own hair in her hands. Within this hair, investigators found microscopic feathers along with cedar needles and wood splinters.
It was theorized that Kathleen may have been attacked outside her home that night by a barred owl, which became entangled in her hair. According to three experts, the pattern and shape of the lacerations on Kathleen’s head could have been caused by an owl’s talons.
One of those experts, former U.S. Army surgeon and owl expert Dr. Alan van Norman, noted that the lacerations on Kathleen’s scalp had “the appearance of a trident with three limbs converging to a point at roughly 30 degrees from each other, and a fourth limb converging to the same point at nearly 180 degrees from the center limb of the other three limbs.”
Dr. Patrick T. Redig, professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota, agreed with the owl theory. “In my professional opinion, the hypothesized attack to the face and back of the head resulting in the various punctures and lacerations visible in the autopsy photographs is entirely within the behavioral repertoire of large owls,” he wrote.
Lawrence Pollard, one of Peterson’s attorneys, wanted to have Kathleen’s autopsy photographs unsealed, hoping to prove that she was killed by an owl, not by blunt force trauma.
But is it even possible?
Yes, apparently. A 2014 study found that an owl weighing less than one pound can swoop down on a mouse with force equal to 150 times the weight of the rodent. If a 175-pound person was hit with the same force, it would feel like being smacked by a 13-ton truck.
Being struck by an owl can cause blunt force trauma. And owls are known to dive-bomb people when they feel threatened, usually targeting the head.
2011: Michael Peterson Released on House Arrest
In the end, the owl theory wasn’t necessary. In December 2011, a judge ordered a new trial after discovering that a key witness lied about his forensic expertise and made “materially misleading” and “deliberately false” testimony about bloodstained evidence.
During the 2003, Duane Deaver, one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, only focused on some of the blood droplets that fit his narrative. He failed to tell jurors about other blood at the scene that didn’t fit his findings.
After serving just eight years, Peterson walked out of prison.
February 24, 2017: Michael Peterson Walked Free
Because of the faulty blood evidence testimony, Peterson was granted a new trial.
But Michael Peterson didn’t want to risk a second trial.
On February 24, 2017, Peterson, 73, entered an Alford plea. That meant Michael Peterson maintained his innocence but acknowledged the state had enough evidence to convict him of murdering his wife.
He was sentenced to 64 to 86 months in prison, but because Michael Peterson had already served eight years in prison, the judge gave him credit for time served. He was free.
After the hearing, one of Kathleen’s sisters, Candace Zamperini, had this to say:
“An innocent man does not plead guilty. Mr. Peterson pled guilty today.”
Michael Peterson still lives in North Carolina. But not in the same palatial residence. He lives in a much smaller condominium and spends time with some of his family.