Michael Iver Peterson — “Mike” to his friends — is a 73-year-old novelist and decorated military veteran who once ran for mayor of Durham, North Carolina. He also went to jail for life without the possibility of parole 16 years ago, a result of being convicted of the 2001 murder of his wife, Kathleen Peterson.
In February 2017, Peterson walked free from that conviction, after years of investigations, trials, intense media attention, wild controversies, and a decade and a half behind bars.
The Peterson killing, sometimes referred to as “The Staircase Murder,” is a true-crime buff’s deliciously dark dream come terribly and terrifically true.
The saga is packed with twists, turns, exposed secrets, colorful characters, and conflicting theories. It’s even got a killer owl! And now there’s an ending, but even that still doesn’t quite seem likely to be the last word.
Here’s a quick guide to the whole bloody affair.
1. THE BODY AT THE BOTTOM OF THE STAIRCASE
At 2:40 A.M. on December 9, 2001, Mike Peterson, then 58, called 911 to report that his wife Kathleen, 48, had fallen down a set of “15, 20” steps inside the couple’s home. He said he’d been sitting out by the backyard pool and came in to see Kathleen dead.
Peterson said his wife had been drinking liquor and possibly took a Valium, so she must have tripped. The toxicology report seemed to back up that idea: Kathleen’s blood alcohol was .07, pretty close to not being able to drive.
However, Kathleen’s autopsy report also made clear that she’d endured severe head-and-neck trauma consistent with being intentionally and furiously beaten by a blunt object, and that she actually died after bleeding out for more than 90 minutes.
Initially, Kathleen’s kids supported Peterson’s claims that he was just out contemplating material for the next book he was writing when he stumbled upon their mom’s horrific accident. Their support did a 180, though, as Mike’s secrets emerged during the investigation.
2. BISEXUALITY; BOGUS MILITARY HONORS; ANOTHER BODY, ANOTHER STAIRCASE
After the coroner’s statement, police arrested Mike Peterson and charged him with murder. As prosecutors built a case against him, curious and what can only be described as “juicy” details emerged.
First, Peterson was actively bisexual and led a “secret life.” The DA would claim that Kathleen found out her husband was having an affair with a man, and Mike killed her in anger and/or to shut her up. The defense countered that Mike kept his fluid orientation out in the open and that Kathleen was cool with it.
In addition, Peterson fudged on his war record. Since he wrote military fiction, Peterson’s status as an honorably discharged Marine and wounded Vietnam veteran added significant cred to his novels.
Peterson, however, wanted extra glory. He claimed he won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Valor, and two Purple Hearts, one of which he got from being sprayed by shrapnel after his buddy stepped on a landmine. Of all those, he could only verify a single Purple Heart, and he later admitted he got it after a car accident while away from combat in Japan.
Freakiest of all, though, was Mike Peterson being the last person to see yet another woman alive who also died after suffering head injuries and falling down a staircase.
In 1985, Mike and Kathleen were in Germany and had dinner at the home of their friend, Elizabeth Ratliff. Afterward, Kathleen departed, and Mike stuck around to help put Ratliff’s two daughters to bed. A housekeeper found Ratliff dead at the foot of the stairs the next morning. The Petersons subsequently adopted the two little Ratcliff girls.
During the Kathleen Peterson trial, Elizabeth Ratliff’s body was exhumed and re-examined. In opposition to initial examinations in 1985, this time medical experts determined that Ratliff’s death was a homicide.
The prosecution team didn’t explicitly accuse Peterson of killing Ratcliff in court, but they did introduce the murder as evidence that he would know how to “fake” an accident almost exactly like the one that killed his wife.
3. HOOT DONE IT? THE OWL THEORY
Following one of the longest trials in North Carolina history, a jury convicted Mike Peterson for the murder of Kathleen Peterson. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Peterson repeatedly appealed the verdict and motioned for a new trial unsuccessfully until 2009. That’s when T. Lawrence Pollard, an attorney who lived near the Petersons, noticed that the trial’s court papers included mention of a feather.
Pollard, who had not been involved in any of the initial legal proceedings, theorized that Kathleen had possibly been attacked by an owl before taking her fatal tumble, which could explain all the head-and-neck damage.
After initial mockery, the owl theory proved to be no laughing matter. Owl attacks apparently occurred in the Petersons’ neighborhood regularly. Microscopic owl feathers, a tree limb splinter, and cedar needles turned up in a clump of Kathleen’s hair that had been torn out by the roots. Her scalp wounds were shaped like predatory bird talons. Blood smears and spatter patterns indicated she bled outside first and then slammed a door shut.
Dr. Patrick T. Retig, a University of Minnesota professor of veterinary medicine, and Kate Davis, a wildlife expert who runs Raptors of the Rockies, both wrote that Kathleen Robertson’s injuries could have absolutely been the work of a large bird of prey, in particular a Barred Owl.
4. MIKE PETERSON COPS A PLEA, FLIES THE COOP
Although no new trial resulted from the owl theory, attorney T. Lawrence Pollard did take up Mike Peterson’s cause and worked with the novelist’s attorneys to expose prosecutorial flaws from the original trial — a task that proved shockingly fruitful.
District Attorney Michael Nifong had since been disbarred and imprisoned for misconduct in the Duke Lacrosse case. State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) analyst Duane Deaver proved to have faked evidence in 34 cases. And that was just the beginning.
These facts, and other findings of incompetence and/or corruption, led in 2011 to Peterson being released from jail and placed under house arrest during arguments for a new trial. In 2014, Peterson had numerous restrictions lifted. The state then granted him a new trial, which was slated to begin in May 2017. That’s not going to happen, though.
On February 24, 2017, Mike Peterson entered an involuntary manslaughter Alford plea, meaning that he didn’t admit he did it, but he conceded that a jury would likely result in finding him guilty. Since he had already served more time than any potential sentence, Peterson is now a free man, but he remains on the record as a convicted felon.
5. MIKE PETERSON POPS CULTURE
From the get-go, “the Staircase Murder” attracted unusually ambitious media attention. Especially outstanding was Soupçons (“Suspicions”), a 2004 eight-part documentary series on the case that proved to be a French television sensation.
The show aired in the U.S. on The Sundance Channel as The Staircase. It is a major achievement in true-crime filmmaking and most extremely recommended. A two-hour sequel, The Staircase: The Last Chance, also premiered to acclaim in 2012.
Numerous American true-crime TV series have also covered the Peterson affair, and the case has also captivated the podcast world. The podcasts Criminal and Generation Why have each done killer episodes on the topic.
Now, even weirder than “the owl theory,” NBC is debuting Trial and Error, a high-profile “Must-See TV” sitcom starring John Lithgow that is reported to actively send up the Michael Peterson case in that it plays as a spoof of The Staircase. The show’s creator, Jeff Astroff, said he was inspired by watching The Staircase and thinking, “If this guy (Peterson) was played by Steve Carell, this would be the funniest thing ever.” Astroff says that if this first run of Trial and Error is successful, each future season will spoof another specific crime documentary.
As noted: This is a case that has only ever gotten stranger. Let’s see where it goes next.
Main photo: Michael Peterson in “The Staircase” documentary [screenshot]