How did Kathleen Peterson really die?

Spoilers follow for The Staircase documentary and the HBO Max series.

In the early hours of December 9, 2001, novelist Michael Peterson made a panicked, tearful call to 911 after finding his wife, Kathleen, unconscious and bloodied at the bottom of a staircase at their home in Durham, North Carolina. His explanation to police that she had been drinking and was probably taking a sleeping pill and had fallen was not considered convincing; Shortly thereafter, he was arrested for her murder.

The following case became the subject of one of the seminal true crime documentaries in the genre: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase. The eight-part series debuted in France in 2004 and America in 2005, then hit Netflix in 2013 with additional episodes filmed by de Lestrade in the years following the first case. It captivated viewers even as it ended with the conclusion that we really can never know if Michael did it or not.

Now the case is being dramatized on HBO Max as a miniseries re-titled The Staircase. Premiered May 5, starring Colin Firth as Michael, Toni Collette as Kathleen, Michael Stuhlbarg as defense attorney David Rudolf, and Parker Posey as District Attorney Freda Black.

Caitlin Atwater, Clayton Peterson, Kathleen Peterson, Michael Peterson, Todd Peterson, Martha Ratliff, Margaret (Ratliff) Blakemore
Kathleen (in blue, third from left) and Michael Peterson (fourth from left) with their family.
Colin Firth and Toni Collette in a still from the HBO Max series, "The stairs."
In the HBO Max series The Staircase, Colin Firth portrays Michael Peterson with Toni Collette as Kathleen.
Courtesy of HBO Max

True-crime author Aphrodite Jones, who covered the case, hasn’t seen the new series but believes it likely won’t break new ground by following the documentary’s beats. “It’s not what [de Lestrade] recorded, it’s what he didn’t record,” said Jones – whose 2004 book A Perfect Husband describes the case and became the basis for the 2007 Lifetime film The Staircase Murders, starring Treat Williams – opposite The Post.

“The ‘Staircase’ documentary is a vehicle for Michael Peterson,” Jones said.

A novelist couldn’t have written Peterson’s story better, though it’s full of outrageous twists and turns. In court and on camera, Peterson initially presented his marriage to Kathleen as enormously happy, but prosecutors encountered evidence that he had dated men in secret and that the couple had fallen out over it shortly before her death; They also found a trove of male pornography on his laptop, which they used to further scrutinize his claims of being content with the marriage. Kathleen also had a $1.4 million life insurance policy that would be paid out to Michael in the event of her death.

The staircase where Kathleen Peterson was found dead.
Blood was splattered all over the stairwell.
Michael Peterson (left) with his defense attorney David Rudolf.
Michael Peterson (left) with his defense attorney David Rudolf in an undated photo.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. As the case progressed, more shocking facts surfaced. The most important of them: A close friend of Peterson, Elizabeth Ratliff, was also found dead at the bottom of a staircase in 1985. Peterson ended up raising Ratliff’s young daughters along with his own two sons as Ratliff’s husband had previously died.

And then there was the owl theory, which was introduced late in the documentary. Attorney Larry Pollard, who was not involved in the case but was a neighbor of Peterson’s, floated the idea. He suggested that Kathleen had been the victim of an attack by a barred owl, which had swooped down and buried its claws in her scalp; She went in after drunkenly resisting it and fell. Three small feathers were found in the strands of hair on Kathleen’s hand, and Pollard said the cuts on her scalp were compatible with owl’s claws. And as the Audubon Society pointed out, “An owl punch can definitely cause blunt trauma. Additionally, raptors have been known to bombard humans when they feel threatened, almost always aiming for the head.”

Jones doesn’t buy that. “If an owl attacked her, she would have screamed,” she said. “And they claim because a fountain was on in the pool that he [while sitting outside, as he claimed] wouldn’t hear it? The fact that people would even want to believe that is maddening.” Also, she said, the feathers on Kathleen probably came from a pillow.

Additionally, Jones said, a significant amount of damning evidence was never included in the documentary. “She had a fractured hyoid bone, which is evidence of strangulation. Her hands and arms were bruised – but not her legs,” suggesting a struggle. “A bloody shoeprint matching Peterson’s shoe was found on the back of her sweatpants. We know he stepped in her blood and stepped on her.

Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sophie Turner and Odessa Young in the HBO Max series, "The stairs."
Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sophie Turner (center) and Odessa Young in the HBO Max series The Staircase.
Courtesy of HBO Max

“The other thing is red neurons,” Jones continued. “When the autopsy was done, red neurons were present in her brain. That means reduced blood flow to the brain, and it takes hours for this to happen. So what we’re really seeing here is someone who let his wife bleed to death on the floor for hours before calling 911.”

At least one person was influenced by the physical evidence: Kathleen’s daughter, Caitlin, who originally supported Peterson’s claims of innocence, along with his children. Caitlin changed her mind after seeing the autopsy report and eventually sided with the prosecution.

In 2003, Peterson was found guilty at the first trial. But after eight years in prison, he was released after it was discovered that a key witness had made a misleading statement. In 2017, Peterson filed an Alford plea deal, acknowledging without a guilty plea that a trial had found enough evidence to convict him and he was released on time despite having already served.

Toni Collette and Colin Firth in HBO Max's "The stairs"
“If it’s not clear, play it like it’s not clear,” Colin Firth, who portrays Michael Peterson, told ABC. Above Toni Collette and Firth in a scene from the series.
Courtesy of HBO Max

The actors in the new “Staircase” seem content to accept the ambiguities of the case. “I left with less opinion about what happened than I walked in,” Sophie Turner, who plays Ratliff’s daughter Margaret, told ABC, with Firth echoing her sentiment. “If it’s not clear, play it in such a way that it’s not clear,” Firth said. “It defies clarity. And it speaks to our desire for clarity. we want it We want certainty. We are uncomfortable with doubts.”

Jones is not happy with that. “That’s out of the question [Peterson] did it,” she said. “If I told that story, we would know he did it.”

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