The Staircase

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So if you know this case, you know that there is a lot going on, and it's difficult to know where to start. But I think that I want to start at the beginning of when everything started to go downhill, the very very beginning.

In 1972 at a US Military base in Germany, two school teachers became very close friends, their names were Patricia and Elizabeth. Elizabeth soon met a man named George Ratliff they married and the two couples became close. Both women had two children - Patty had two sons, Clayton and Todd and Elizabeth had two daughters, Margret and Martha.

It wasn’t long before George found a close friend of his own, Patricia’s husband, a man named Michael Peterson. Michael was a Vietnam War vet and George was a captain in the military so the two had a lot to talk about.

The couples were neighbors and shared much of their lives together but all good things must end and in 1983, on a military operation, George passed away from a heart attack, this is where things begin to get dark. After the passing of her husband, Elizabeth began to spend more and more time with her best friend’s family, spending dinners with the Petersons and joining them in family gatherings such as dinners and outings. It seems normal and reasonable enough. However, soon it became clear that Michael and Elizabeth were spending more and more time alone together. Although they assured close ones that their relationship was platonic only, you can only imagine.

Michael insisted that on the nights they spent together, which by all accounts was almost every night, all he did was help with household chores or read Elizabeths two young daughters, Margret and Martha, bedtime stories.

One night, after dinner at the Ratliff’s Michael, offered to stay to help clean up and take care of the children. He was the last person to see Elizabeth alive. On November 25th, 1985, Elizabeth was found at the bottom of the stairs in her home. Dead. She was found by Barbara, the hired nanny who had said that there had been so much blood.

At the time of her death, German authorities concluded that she had died from intra-cerebral hemorrhaging, secondary to a bleeding disorder known as Von Willebrand’s Disease, which - correct me if I’m wrong- affects the clotting of the blood.

They basically said that she died from the hemorrhage and then fell so her death was ruled an accident.

The Ratliff children were now orphaned but not for long, they were soon adopted by of none other than the Peterson family. Margret and Martha came with quite a substantial insurance payout - which for obvious reasons causes some to wonder what Michael’s true intentions were.

In 1987, two years after the death of Elizabeth, Michael and Patty got a divorce - the boys, Clayton and Todd went to live with Patty and the girls, Margret and Martha moved with their guardian Michael to Durham, North Carolina. Clayton and Todd soon followed to join their father in Durham.

Here starts the second part of this extremely and overwhelmingly detailed case. Michael Peterson soon met Kathleen Atwater, a successful Nortel business executive and in 1989 they moved in together.

Kathleen was very successful and was in a very high up position at Nortel Networks. She was known as a hard-working, strong, resourceful and fun-loving woman. She was an extremely successful businesswoman and socialite, in fact Kathleen had graduated from Duke University where she had been the first woman accepted into the school of engineering in 1971.

Michael and Kathleen merged their families, Clayton, Todd, Margret, Martha and Kathleen’s daughter Caitlyn - could you imagine a family that big?! I believe they were mostly grown at this point though.

It was said that Kathleen and Michael connected on another level, and that quote “they felt like soulmates, they would finish each other’s sentences”

Michael published his first book in 1990 called ‘A Time of War’ which tells the stories of both American and Vietnamese experiences during the Vietnam War.

In 1992, the Petersen and Atwater clans moved into the infamous mansion, I don’t know if you have seen pictures of this (I will add some to the blog) but this is an amazing house.

It is described on Zillow as a five-bedroom, five and a half bathroom, 9,429 square foot house - which is huge right? It’s more than 9 times the house we are living in now - but they did have a ton of people living there I guess?

His second book was published in 1996 and was also about the Vietnam War, it was called ‘Bitter Peace’.

In 1997 Michael and Kathleen married and made their large family official.

He co-wrote his third book in 1998 called ‘Charlie Two Shoes and the Marines of Love Company’. The only reason I bring this up is that this last book is still beloved and apparently treasured among some. To. This. Day! Even after everything that happened.

During this period, Michael worked as a columnist for the Durham Herald newspaper. His columns were known to criticize the Durham County District Attorney James Hardin Jr. (he comes back later in the story) and expressing opinions on the racial divide that existed in Durham.

Michael had ran for Durham City Council in the fall of 2001 but had lost the mayoral race when he admitted that he had not sustained a permanent injury to his right leg from combat in Vietnam like he had claimed but rather from a car crash in Japan. He had been lying about this for years but records show that he was honorably discharged from the military because of this injury.

The Petersons had spent the day of December 9th 2001 getting ready for their children to come home for the Christmas break. They had gone Christmas shopping, seen a movie drank some wine and they started to slow down for the night. Kathleen had gone up to bed while Michael stayed outside to smoke a cigarette.

At round 2:40 in the morning, Michael had come back into the home and found his wife unconscious at the bottom of their stairs, he called 911.

Now what I want to do is just read the 911 call because I think it is important for the case - Sean will you be the 911 operator and I will be Michael? Okay perfect:

December 9, 2001 -- 2:40 AM

Mary Allen -- operator

911: Durham 9-1-1. Where is your emergency?

PETERSON: 1810 Cedar Street. Please!

911: What's wrong?

PETERSON: My wife had an accident. She's still breathing!

911: What kind of accident?

PETERSON: She fell down the stairs. She's still breathing! Please come!

911: Is she conscious?

PETERSON: What?

911: Is she conscious?

PETERSON: No, she's not conscious. Please!

911: How many stairs did she fall down?

PETERSON: What? Huh???

911: How many stairs did --

PETERSON: …the back stairs!…

911: How many stairs?

PETERSON: … oh… ah… ah…

911: Calm down, sir. Calm down.

PETERSON: Oh 15, 20. I don't know. Please! Get somebody here, right away. Please!

911: Okay somebody's dispatching the ambulance while I'm asking you questions.

PETERSON: It's off of a… It's in Forest Hills! Okay? Please! Please!

911: Okay sir? Somebody else is dispatching the ambulance. Is she awake now?

PETERSON: … ah… ah…

911: Hello? …Hello?

PETERSON: … ah… ah… mmmm… aaaah… oh… aaaah...

(dial tone)

The second 911 call, 6 minutes later

911: Durham 9-1-1. Where is your emergency?

PETERSON: Where are they?! This is 1810 Cedar -- wh --. She's not breathing! Please! Please, would you hurry up!

911: Sir?

PETERSON: Can you hear me?

911: Sir? Sir, calm down. They're on their way. Can you tell me for sure she's not breathing? Sir...? (dial tone) Hello…? Hello?

So what do you think? One thing I notice is that he hangs up, and calls back 6 minutes later and hangs up again… that's strange …

Michael stated that his wife must have fallen because she had been drinking and taken a Valium, however, the autopsy report had something completely different to say.

 

Kathleen's blood-alcohol level was 0.07. So she had been drinking, to put this in perspective this is the level of someone who would have had 4-5 drinks and could be considered a DUI. But walking up a flight of stairs is not driving a car.

The report stated that Kathleen had sustained severe injuries, including a fracture of the thyroid neck cartilage, seven lacerations to the top and back of her head, these injuries were consistent with blows from a blunt object not falling down the stairs. You don't get cuts on the top of your head from stairs.

Kathleen had ultimately died from blood loss, get this - 90 minutes to 2 hours after sustaining the injuries.

The medical examiner ultimately ruled the death a homicidal assault.

A trial proceeded and the prosecutor, who happened to be the same one Michael had written about in his columns, James Hardin Jr. charged Michael with murder. Michael, of course, pleaded not guilty.

The defense pushed back, they had some evidence of their own. They stated that Kathleen's skull had not been fractured by blows, nor was she brain damaged which is inconsistent with injuries sustained by a beating death. Which we already have disproven because there is no way she would have gotten lacerations on the top of her head from a fall down the stairs.

There had been a ton of blood on the scene, pools of blood on the lower landing and the first few stairs, if you haven't seen this area, take a peek at the picture cause honestly, it is a strange angle and hard to picture if you haven't seen it.

Kathleen had blood on the bottom of her feet, meaning she must have gotten up at some point after the injury. She hadn't just continued to fall down in the way that the defense attorneys claimed, her injuries were on the top of her head, it's not the right angle for her to have fallen and injured herself on the stairs, there's like not enough room for that to happen in my opinion - there had to be another explanation.

The defense, of course, had a blood spatter forensic expert come in and testify about the evidence. The prosecution hired a blood spatter expert as well, we'll talk about him later but is defending his reputation, so all around not a great group of forensic scientists. Now let's have a chat about this guy, his name is Henry Lee. As of 2019, Henry is defending his reputation after a murder conviction from 1989 is being thrown out. Lawyers claim that the conviction came from juries' perception based on the testimony given by Lee. He stated that a blood smear on a towel found at the crime scene was consistent with blood and “could” be blood. Years later a lab technician claimed that the towel had in fact never been tested.

So can we really trust anything this guy said? I am not sure...

The trial was brutal and Michael's life and credibility were pulled apart. The prosecutors stated that his motive to kill Kathleen was that she had discovered he was having an affair, with a man and of course the 1.5 million dollar life insurance policy.

Here is a quote from Assistant District Attorney Freda Black, Kathleen “would have been infuriated by learning that her husband, who she truly loved, was bi-sexual and having an extramarital relationship—not with another woman—but a man, which would have been humiliating and embarrassing to her. We believe that once she learned this information that an argument ensued and a homicide occurred”

The defense argued that Kathleen had known about her husband’s affair and that he was bi-sexual and claimed that they were all a very happy family and their relationship was perfectly fine. Now, if I found out my husband was having an affair with anyone, I don't care if it was a man or a woman, I would be pissed... so this explanation does make sense to me..

Dr. Kenneth Snell (who was a key prosecution witness) was at the scene of the crime and encouraged an autopsy. He stated that he believed that Kathleen had been beaten with a rounded blunt instrument that was relatively light

He encouraged the police to begin looking for a crowbar or fire poker.

Turns out there was a blow poke missing from the Peterson living room, it had been given to the Petersons by Kathleen's sister, I will try and find a picture of it. It had been leaning against the fireplace for years friends said, but on the night of the death it was nowhere to be found.

Michaels attorney, David Rudolf went through great lengths to try and prove that the blow poke had not been near the fireplace for years, and went so far as to dig up family pictures of the living room in the place of the blow poke was Kathleen's father's cane… which is weird in itself…

Later in the trial, the blow poke was found in the garage covered in spiderwebs and bugs (there's a picture of this too) supposedly not touched in a long time. Rudolf entered the brass blow poke into evidence and said that it was found by an unspecified person at an unspecified time, meaning they could have had the blow poke in their possession for who knows how long? I am not sure if this is correct but I thought one of the sons found the blow poke? I could be wrong.

The jury, however, didn't pay much attention to the blow poke because it wasn't mangled or bent or covered in blood and therefore they disregarded it as the murder weapon.

I don't want to give anything away but I am going to jump around a bit here, we all know Michael was found guilty, but Rudolf his defense attorney was shocked. He really believed that the reveal of the quote-unquote missing blow poke would provide reasonable doubt and get his client off - here is a quote “ In my mind when the prosecution spends three months telling the jury that your client beat somebody to death with a blow poke, and you bring the blow poke if that not reasonable doubt, I don't know what reasonable doubt is.”

One of the jurors later came forward and expressed his reasonings for doubting the defense teams recovery “ It was awful strange to us that five different detectives had gone through the basement looking for that exact thing and none of them found it - then two or three months later, it was propped up against the wall”

Okay so this is jumping around just a little bit more but you know The Staircase by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the Netflix series on this case? You know what I’m talking about right? Well, Jean-Xavier catches Michael's reaction to the surprise poker, he asks if the poker has blood on it! Later, Jean-Xavier tried to explain away this reaction by saying Michael believed the Durham police were trying to frame him by planting the blow poke with his wife's blood on it. Which… I don't know what to think about that.

Now I have a quote from Michael, after the conviction of course and I believe from Jean-Xaviers series: “Well, of course, I thought, well, that's the only thing he's basing his case on is this blow poke, and then it wasn't the blow poke, so of course I thought well for all of these other reasons including the fact that I certainly didn't kill Kathleen, well, I certainly didn't kill her with the blow poke. So I thought, of course, this solves the problem for the case. And then I find out it didn't even make any difference to the jury. Something else must have caused those injuries, but nobody knows what."

I think that is a huge statement right there...

Okay, let's move on to a new theory. My personal favorite: the owl theory.

Michaels defense attorney did not provide this theory, rather a man named Larry Pollard - who was actually one of Peterson's neighbors. He came up with the theory close to the end of the trial and this is how it goes:

Kathleen was coming in the house when an owl swooped down and dug its talons deep into Kathleen's skull, she continued inside and was able to escape the owl and hurried upstairs to tend to her wounds. As she was trying to quickly go upstairs she slipped and fell backward and bled to death.

Believe it or not, there was evidence to corroborate these claims. Microscopic owl feathers were found along with some of Kathleen's hair in her hand, as if she had pulled her own hair to get the owl off.

Kathleen's head injuries themselves were oddly shaped, almost in a trident pattern of equal depth - this could also correspond to an owl attack, and experts agreed.

Owl attacks are not common, NBC’s Dateline had found a local man who had been attacked by an owl and it was caught on camera. He said that it hurt so bad it felt like he had been hit with a baseball bat and that there was so much blood he thought he lost an eye.

Although there seems to be a lot of evidence showing this could be a possibility Rudolf couldn't bring it forward as an official theory, it was too late in the trial, just before closing statements. He said that he was ashamed he hadn't thought about it before, the feather was right there in her hand but he assumed it was from a down comforter. Rudolf said he couldn't bring it forward because he had just spent the last few months trying to convince the jury it was a fall, he couldn't just turn around and say it was an owl out of the blue!

Personally I think it’s all nonsense.

So let's go over what the prosecution believes happened:

It is believed that after the argument with Kathleen about Michaels affair, he beat her until he thought she was dead. After a while, Kathleen woke up and Michael beat her again until she actually was dead. He then attempted to stage the scene and called 911 to try and cover up what he had done.

Although Rudolf attempted to convince the jury that Michael had been financially stable at the time of Kathleen's death, it soon became clear that all the money was Kathleen and Michael hadn't made a dime in over three years. At the time of her death in 2001, the Petersons had $143,000 in credit debt. Hardin, the Defence Attorney famously described Michael's state as “financial fire” and the only way he could solve the problem they had gotten themselves in to was Kathleen's 1 million dollar life insurance payout.

On October 10th, 2003, after one of the longest trials in North Carolina History (13 weeks I believe), Michael Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. His attorney immediately filed for an appeal.

In 2011, after many denied appeals, Peterson was finally given a second chance at a trial after it was found that a key prosecution witness was found to have perjured himself in this and many other cases, that would be Duane Deavor. He was a major part of the trial and did the blood spatter analysis. It was discovered that Duane had falsified evidence in 34 cases which meant all the cases he had worked on were called into question. Giving Michael a second chance at freedom, and I'm sure a lot of other killers.

Rather than go back to court Micahel agreed to plead to an Alford plea, which is basically when a defendant pleads guilty but admits to no wrongdoing. He is currently a free man.

Now I know this is a long episode but there is one more point I'd like to touch on, and that is The Staircase series itself. I don't know if everyone knows this, I sure didn't, but it was only weeks after Kathleen's death that Michael granted Jean-Xavier de Lestrade total access to himself and his family.

Why would someone do this? Why would a man who is trying to prove he is innocent of killing his wife let someone come in in such a horrible point of their life and document it?

That is so strange to me.

In total there were 650 hours of the Petersons life recorded and it was sold to different people in different formats. So the footage was shown on many different occasions before the Netflix- The Staircase came out.

That was a lot. I hope you all enjoyed this episode! I set up a forum on my site so head over there and let me know your thoughts!! All of my resources will be posted on my blog - link in the show notes! Next week we are hoping to have a guest on the show and we are super excited to introduce you all to her!

References:

1. Nguyen, Stacy. "Here's the Other Death at the Center of Netflix's The Staircase." Popsugar, www.popsugar.com/entertainment/How-Did-Elizabeth-Ratliff-Die-Staircase-44966636.

2. Jarvis, Craig, and Demorris Lee. "Peterson Trial: Slain woman's 1985 death after night out with Mike Peterson no accident, pathologist finds." The News & Observer, www.newsobserver.com/news/local/counties/durham-county/article208069454.html.

3. "Michael Peterson (criminal)." Wikipidia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Peterson_(criminal).

4. "Michael Iver Peterson ." Murderpedia, murderpedia.org/male.P/p/peterson-michael-iver.htm.

5. Bobic, Chrissy. "What Books Did Michael Peterson Write? The Novelist Has Been Making Headlines For Years." Romper, www.romper.com/p/what-books-did-michael-peterson-write-the-novelist-has-been-making-headlines-for-years-92890

6. Zeilinski, Linnea. "What happened to Caitlyn Atwater, Kathleen Peterson's daughter, after trial?" Metro, www.metro.us/news/the-big-stories/caitlin-atwater-what-happened-kathleen-petersons-daughter.

7. "Exposing Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's Film ." Behind the Staircase, www.peterson-staircase.com/index.html.

8. Dalesio, Emery P. "Prosecutors: Money was motive in killing." Midland Daily News, www.ourmidland.com/news/article/Prosecutors-Money-Was-Motive-in-Killing-7207032.php.

9. Blanton, Kayla. "Who lives in 'The Staircase' house now? The Peterson's former family home has a surprising new tenant." Bustle, www.bustle.com/p/who-lives-in-the-staircase-house-now-the-petersons-former-family-home-has-a-surprising-new-tenant-9317315.

10. Modell, Josh. "The Real Killer in The Staircase Might Be... an Owl?" Volture, www.vulture.com/2018/06/the-staircase-netflix-owl-theory-explained.html.

11. Hornshaw, Phil. "'The Staircase': What Happened to Blood Spatter Analyst Duane Deaver After the Case?" The Wrap, www.thewrap.com/the-staircase-blood-spatter-analyst-duane-deaver/.

12. Mack, Lori. "Forensic Expert Henry Lee Defends Reputation After Court Throws Out Murder Conviction ." Connecticut Public Radio, www.wnpr.org/post/forensic-expert-henry-lee-defends-reputation-after-court-throws-out-murder-convictions.

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