DURHAM COUNTY, NC — Michael Peterson, the husband at the center of the infamous 2001 “Staircase Murder” that killed his wife Kathleen Peterson, has long been called a “liar.”
But, even as stunning falsehoods and uncannily fishy circumstances piled up around Peterson through the years, he wasn’t proven to be a murderer — except, of course, for that time he was. But then, after that … he wasn’t. Read on.
Mike Peterson, as friends know him, initially made a public splash as an author who wrote military thrillers. He said he based the novels on his own experiences as a wounded Vietnam War veteran and an honorably discharged Marine — two points of high honor that have (thus far) proven factual.
Alas, according to the book ‘Till Death Do Us Part: Love, Marriage, and the Mind of the Killer Spouse by Robi Ludwig and Matt Birkbeck, Peterson said he won a medal for combat, but he later backed down from that claim.
The ‘Till Death Do Us Part authors write that Peterson withdrew from his 1999 campaign for mayor of Durham “after he was forced to make an embarrassing admission: the Purple Heart he won in Vietnam was not awarded for wounds he received in combat, but from an auto accident in Japan.”
Peterson’s literary career, of course, took a back seat to his murder-suspect status as of December 9, 2001.
At 2:40 A.M., Mike Peterson, then 58, called 911 to report that his 48-year-old spouse had fallen down a set of “15, 20” steps inside the couple’s home. He said Kathleen had been drinking wine and took Valium and that, after lounging by the backyard pool, he stumbled across her dead body.
At first, the cops and even Kathleen’s kids bought Peterson’s story. That changed fast, however, after examiners determined Kathleen had suffered extreme head-and-neck trauma consistent with being pummeled by a blunt weapon, and that she’d expired only after bleeding out for more than 90 minutes.
Police subsequently arrested Michael Peterson and charged him with murder. In the course of building a case against him, prosecutors discovered and unleashed a number of discoveries that rapidly captivated the public.
First off, in 1985, Peterson was the last person to see yet another woman alive — just before she died from head injuries from falling down a staircase. It occurred when Michael and Kathleen were visiting Germany and dropped by the home of their friend, Elizabeth Ratliff. Kathleen left early; Michael stuck around. The following morning, a housekeeper found Ratliff dead at the foot of a stairwell.
Shortly thereafter, Michael and Kathleen Peterson adopted Elizabeth Ratliff’s two little girls and moved them to America. That first staircase death came up quite powerfully in Peterson’s 2003 trial.
Perhaps the most sensational revelation of the Staircase Murder trial, though — at least in terms of getting tongues wagging — occurred when prosecutors alleged that Peterson had been having an affair with a man.
The DA claimed that Kathleen found out her husband was deeply involved with a male lover, and that Michael killed her in a fit of rage over the potential exposure.
The defense team countered, however, that Michael kept his fluid orientation out in the open and that Kathleen was not just cool with it, but she accepted his extramarital adventuring as simply part of their relationship.
Ultimately, in 2003, all these shadowy circumstances persuaded a jury to find Michael Peterson guilty of first-degree murder, and a judge to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But, like so much else surrounding the Staircase Murder, though, that original version of the outcome didn’t stick.
Attorney T. Lawrence Pollard, a former neighbor of the Petersons, took up Michael’s cause and worked to get him a new trial. That didn’t work, but, in time, Pollard’s efforts did help to get the convicted lifer out of prison.
First, Pollard introduced the shockingly credible “Owl Theory” that posited Kathleen fell victim to an attack from a bird of prey who tore up her head and neck, prompting her to fatally fall down the stairs.
As mentioned, Michael Peterson was convicted of murdering Kathleen Peterson, but his conviction was overturned in 2011. In 2017, on the eve of a new trial, Peterson entered an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter. He has remained free since then.
For more on Michael Peterson, watch Investigation Discovery’s An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase on ID GO now!
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Main photo: Michael Peterson listens as his defense attorney David Rudolph makes his opening statements in Peterson’s request for a new trial Tuesday December 6, 2011, in Durham, North Carolina [Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT]