Sept. 6, 2020

The Staircase // North Carolina // 27

The Staircase // North Carolina // 27

On December 9th, 2001, Michael Peterson placed a call to 911 to report that his wife had an accident and fell down the stairs. Kathleen Peterson was lying at the bottom of a staircase in their Durham, North Carolina mansion and didn't end up surviving. Kathleen's husband, Michael was the only person home and became the prime suspect in her death. Michael was eventually convicted of first-degree murder, but he got a retrial due to many inconsistencies. Michael later submitted an Alford plea, where he plead guilty to the evidence against him, but still maintained that he was innocent. There are several theories in this case, including the owl theory. Could an owl have attacked Kathleen and caused her death? Did Kathleen fall on her own? Maybe someone attacked her. There's also a second death that seems to have many similarities to Kathleen's.

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Today's story is from North Carolina.

On December 9th, 2001, Michael Peterson placed a call to 911 to report that his wife had an accident and fell down the stairs. Kathleen Peterson was lying at the bottom of a staircase in their Durham, North Carolina mansion and didn't end up surviving. Kathleen's husband, Michael was the only person home and became the prime suspect in her death. Michael was eventually convicted of first-degree murder, but he got a retrial due to many inconsistencies. Michael later submitted an Alford plea, where he plead guilty to the evidence against him, but still maintained that he was innocent. There are several theories in this case, including the owl theory. Could an owl have attacked Kathleen and caused her death? Did Kathleen fall on her own? Maybe someone attacked her. There's also a second death that seems to have many similarities to Kathleen's.


Michael Peterson graduated from Duke University with a bachelor's degree in political science. Michael was president of Sigma Nu fraternity and was editor of The Chronicle, the daily student newspaper. After graduating, Michel took a civilian job with the US Department of Defense, he was assigned to research arguments supporting increased military involvement in Vietnam. Michael married Patricia Sue, who taught at an elementary school and they had two children, Clayton and Todd. In 1968, Michael enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served in the Vietnam War. In 1971, he received honorable discharge with the rank of captain after a car accident that left him with a permanent disability.

Years later, Michael ended up claiming that he won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Valor, and two Purple Hearts. He had the medals, but he said he didn't have the documentation for them. He claimed that he received the Purple Heart after being hit by shrapnel with another soldier stepped on a land mine, and the other when he was shot. He later admitted that his injury wasn't from shrapnel, but was actually the result of a car accident in Japan. Military files do verify that Michael received a Silver Star and a Bronze Star Medal with Valor. During the time Michael and his wife, Patricia were in Germany, they became very good friends with another couple, Elizabeth and George Ratliff. Elizabeth and George had two children, Margaret and Martha. George ended up passing away and in in 1985, Elizabeth died as well. Michael became guardian of the two children and he and Patricia divorced in 1987. Clayton and Todd went to live with Patricia and Michael took Margaret and Martha and they moved to Durham, North Carolina. 

Over the years, Michael wrote three novels, based on his experiences during the Vietnamese conflict, The Immortal Dragon, A Time of War, and a Bitter Peace. He also co-wrote several books as well. He began working as a newspaper columnist of the Durham Herald-Sun and his columns were known for their criticism of police and the Durham County District Attorney. Michael met Kathleen Atwater, a successful Nortel business executive and they got married.


Kathleen Peterson was described as intelligent and successful. She excelled at math and science and was also the first woman to be admitted into Duke University's engineering program in 1971. She received a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and then a Master's in Mechanical Engineering in 1975. Kathleen met her first husband at Duke University and they struggled to conceive. They eventually had one daughter, Caitlin, but the marriage ended shortly after Kathleen discovered that her husband was cheating on her.

It seemed that Michael and Kathleen had a very happy marriage. They blended their family and now had five kids together. They enjoyed hosting big parties in their 8,000 sq. ft home and were referred to as Durham royalty.


On December 9th, 2001, Michael called 911 to report that he found his wife, Kathleen unconscious in their Forest Hills mansion. He said that he believed she fell down the stairs. (911 CALL)

Michael claimed that he had been outside by the pool and went in the house around 2:40 AM and discovered Kathleen at the foot of the stairs. He thought that she may have fallen down the stairs after consuming alcohol and Valium. 


Detective Arthur Holland of the Durham Police Department arrived at the crime scene to fine the body of 48-year-old Kathleen at the foot of a narrow staircase in a pool of blood. The scene looked suspicious because there was a large amount of blood spatter on the walls. It didn't appear that Kathleen could have simply fallen down the stairs. It initially looked like she had been bludgeoned to death and the main suspect was her husband, Michael Peterson.

On the night of the incident, shortly before 3:00 AM, Michael Peterson's youngest son, Todd, arrived home from a party and saw paramedics in the home. Detective Holland noted that Todd seemed to be in shock and Michael was pacing around the house, picking up items and setting them back down. Michael was mumbling about emails and went to his office several times to do stuff on his computer. Michael was eventually asked to leave his computer alone and he did comply.

Todd was interviewed and told Detective Holland that his step-mom often drank heavily in the evenings and also took Valium to help her sleep. This combination along with the thin flip-flops Kathleen was wearing could have contributed to her fall.

The scene was secured and investigators obtained clothing from Michael and Todd. Investigators took photos of the body and the blood spatter and also took samples of the blood and collected trace evidence from shoes and the surrounding area. It was noted that several hairs were clutched in Kathleen's hands. When investigators arrived, Michael was barefoot, but upon examination of the shoes in the home, they found a pair that were bloody on the bottom and they belonged to Michael. There was also a partial shoe print found on Kathleen's sweat pants. Perhaps this means Michael was holding her down at some point.

Kathleen's body was found at the foot of a staircase that had 19 steps. There was a large pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs. There were also blood droplets that were found in the kitchen and a single blood drop was on the front porch, 50 feet away from where Kathleen was discovered. There were blood drops on the walkway leading to the front door and a bloody hand print was on the outer door frame of the front door.


Detective Holland interviewed Michael about the night in question. He said that he and Kathleen had a lovely, quiet evening. Their son, Todd, went to a party around 10:20 PM with a friend and this left Michael and Kathleen home alone for the night. Michael had received word that one of his books was up for adaptation into a film and he and Kathleen were going to celebrate the good news. They had dinner, watched a movie, and went out to the back patio to have some wine. Michael says this is when Kathleen took her Valium to help her relax. Kathleen was getting cold and headed inside the house around 1:45AM to 2:00AM. Michael says he headed in the house around 2:30AM and finds Kathleen's body at 2:41 AM and calls 911. The paramedics arrived on the scene by 2:48AM and the Police and Detectives were starting to arrive around 3:00AM. The autopsy later revealed that Kathleen's body was lying at the staircase for 90 minutes to two hours and this was calculated by the blood loss. This certainly wouldn't match up with the timeline provided by Michael.


The toxicology results showed that Kathleen's blood alcohol content was 0.07 percent. Kathleen's son mentioned that Kathleen was a regular drinker in the evenings. If that's true, she may not have been impaired by this amount. The autopsy report showed that she suffered severe injuries, including a fracture of the thyroid neck cartilage and seven lacerations to the top and back of her head, consistent with blows from a blunt object, and she died from blood loss ninety minutes to two hours after sustaining injuries. The medical examiner, Deborah Radisch, concluded that Kathleen had died from lacerations of the scalp caused by homicidal assault. It was concluded that the seven lacerations on the top and back of Kathleen's head were the result of repeated blows with a light, rigid, weapon. The defense disputed this analysis because Kathleen's skull hadn't been fractured by the blows, nor was she brain damaged, which they say is inconsistent with injuries sustained in a beating death. 

This trial ended up gaining a lot of media attention as they tore through Michael's private life. His credibility was attacked and the allegations focused on the fact that he misreported his military service. There were also allegations that Michael was secretly gay. The prosecution suggested that Kathleen may have discovered Michael's discovered that he was gay and wanted to end the marriage. It was the main motive that the prosecution offered at trial, oh and the other motive was that Kathleen had a $1.5 million life insurance policy. The defense argued that Kathleen accepted Michael's bisexuality and the marriage was happy, this was supported by their children and friends. 

The prosecution said that Kathleen's murder was most likely committed with a custom-made fireplace poker. The Peterson's received one as a gift from Kathleen's sister, but it was missing from the home during the investigation. Late in the trial the defense team produced the missing blow poke and they claimed it was in the garage and had been overlooked by investigators. Forensic tests revealed that it had been untouched and unmoved for too long to have been used in the murder. 

The prosecution argued that the blood stairs proved that Michael murdered Kathleen. The amount of blood and the spatter on the walls showed that. Some of the blood spatter was actually 9 feet high and they say it would have been cast off the weapon that was used to bludgeon Kathleen. If the murder weapon was light and flexible, it would explain why Kathleen didn't have a skull fracture.


Elizabeth Ratliff, I spoke about her at the beginning of the story. This was the woman who passed away and Michael ended up with her children. After Elizabeth's husband passed away, Michael Peterson and his first wife, encouraged her to move into the house across the street from them so they could help her with her kids as she was now a single mom. Elizabeth died two years later in 1985 and was also found at the foot of her staircase with injuries to the head. An autopsy concluded that Elizabeth died from an intra-cerebral hemorrhage secondary to the blood coagulation disorder Von Willebrand's disease, based on blood in her cerebrospinal fluid and reports that she had been suffering severe, persistent headaches in the weeks leading up to her death. The coroner determined that the hemorrhage resulted in immediate death after she fell down the stairs after collapsing. On the night of Elizabeth's death, Michael had dinner with Elizabeth and her daughters. Michael stayed and helped Elizabeth put the children to bed before going home. The children's nanny, Barbara, discovered the body when she arrived the next morning. She noticed that the door was unlocked when she arrived and she immediately ran to Michael's home across the street to ask him to call the police. 

When the police arrived at the scene, it was stated that Michael was acting as if it was his home, not his neighbor's. Michael explained that Elizabeth had been suffering from headaches and that's probably what caused the fall. The autopsy determined that Elizabeth had blood on her brain and must have suffered a stroke causing a hemorrhage which then caused the fall. Her death was ruled accidental. Friends and neighbors were immediately suspicious of Michael and a witness testified in a letter to the police that they saw a man running from Elizabeth's house in the middle of the night. Elizabeth left her $35k estate and custody of her children to the Petersons.

Once it was discovered that there were odd similarities between the death of Elizabeth Ratliff and Kathleen Person, the DA decided to have Elizabeth's body exhumed. They needed to obtain the permission from her daughters, Martha and Margaret. The girls wanted to prove that their adoptive father had nothing to do with their mom's death, so they agreed to let them perform a new autopsy. The back of Elizabeth's head was shaved and oddly enough, she had seven deep lacerations that looked very similar to the one's found on Kathleen's head. 

Before Michael went to trial for the death of Elizabeth, the court ordered to have the body exhumed. The results of the second autopsy, overturned the earlier findings and Elizabeth's death was changed to homicide. In October 2002, the administrator of Kathleen's estate, filed a wrongful death claim against Michael. In June 2006, he filed for bankruptcy. Two weeks later, the estate administrator filed an objection to the bankruptcy. A wrongful death claim was settled for $25 million and Michael didn't admit that he murdered Kathleen. It's worth mentioning that Kathleen and Elizabeth look VERY similar, like they could be sisters, similar. 


Ok, we are jumping back to Kathleen's case now. On October 10th, 2003, a Durham County jury found Michael Peterson guilty of first degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Michael Peterson filed an appeal on April 18th, 2006. On September 19th, the Court of Appeals rejected arguments that he didn't get a fair trial because of repeated judicial mistakes. The appeals ruling said the evidence was fairly admitted. The judge did find defects in a search warrant, but it didn't effect the defense. Since the ruling wasn't unanimous, under North Carolina law, Michael had the right to appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which accepted the case. On November 9th, the Court announced that they agreed with the decision of the Appeals and Michael had exhausted his appeal of the verdict. 


Ok. I want to discuss all theories of this case and the one that is brought up the most is called the owl theory. This theory presented itself in 2009. People began believing that Kathleen had actually been attacked outside by an owl, then she fell after rushing inside, and was knocked unconscious after hitting her head on the first tread of the stairs. This theory began with Durham attorney T. Lawrence Pollard, a neighbor of the Peterson's who wasn't involved in the case. He suggested to the police that an owl may have been responsible after reading the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation evidence list and finding a feather listed. The SBI crime lab report listed a microscopic owl feather and a wooden sliver from a tree limb entangled in a clump of hair that had been pulled out by the roots found clutched in Kathleen's left hand. In September 2008, a re-examination of the hair found two more microscopic owl feathers. According to the attorney that started the owl theory, he felt that this would have changed everything. If the evidence of the owl theory was presented to the jury, the verdict may have been affected. Deborah Radisch was the person who performed the autopsy on Kathleen and she says it's unlikely that an owl or any other bird could have made wounds as deep as the ones on her scalp. Her opinion has been challenged by several experts. On March 22nd, 2017 Michael's attorney filed a motion to allow him to pay for a bird expert at the Smithsonian Institution to examine feather fragments found in Kathleen's hair to determine if she was in-fact, attacked by a bird.

In August 2010, following a series of newspaper articles critical of the SBI, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper led an investigation that resulted in the suspension of SBI analyst Duane Deaver, one of the principal witnesses against Michael Peterson, after the report found his work among the worst done on scores of flawed criminal cases. Duane Deaver was fired from the SBI in January 2011 after it was discovered that he falsely represented evidence in 34 cases, including withholding negative results in the case of Greg Taylor, a North Carolina man who spent seventeen years in prison on a murder conviction based on his testimony. A bloodstain-analysis team that Duane trained was suspended and disbanded. In the 2003 trial for Michael Peterson, Duane testified that he had been mentored by SBI bloodstain specialist David Spittle, worked 500 bloodstain cases, wrote 200 reports, and testified in 60 cases. During the retrial hearing, SBI Assistant Director, Eric Hooks testified that Duane had only written 47 reports. David Spittle testified that he couldn't recall mentoring Duane who, since completing a two-day training course in the 1980s, had testified in only four cases.

Duane Deaver was the person that tested Michael's navy blue sweatshirt for blood evidence. He claimed that he gave the report to the prosecution to turn over to the defense, but the prosecution claimed to have never received the report. It turns out that there was no blood evidence on Michael's shirt. This doesn't make sense because he claimed he was holding his wife's bloody body in his arms after he discovered her, but blood wasn't found. Since Duane Deaver is a piece a shit liar, Michael is granted a new trial. 


On December 16th, 2011, Michael Peterson was released from the Durham County jail on $300k bail and placed under house arrest with an ankle tracker. His release on bond followed a judicial order for a new trial after Judge Hudson found that Duane had given misleading and deliberately false testimony about bloodstain evidence, exaggerated his training, experience, and expertise. There's also another small problem. Most of the evidence in the case was stored incorrectly and there was substantial cross-contamination so the state can't retry him.

On February 24th, 2017, Michael Peterson entered an Alford plea which is a guilty plea in which a defendant maintains their innocence, but admits the prosecution's evidence would likely result in a guilty verdict if brought to trial. He was sentenced to a maximum of 86 months in prison, with credit for time previously served. Since Michael served 98.5 months, he didn't face any additional time. 


The first theory that was thrown around in this case is that Kathleen discovered that Michael was gay on the night of the incident. Investigators found thousands of gay pornography images on the computer and Michael had attempted to delete many of them. There was also a string of emails between Michael and a male escort. The escort said they never actually met up. They originally had plans to meet up, but the escort backed out and said he was feeling to lazy to show up that night.

Michael also had printed out pornography images that had blood on them. Could this mean that Michael was on the computer during the 911 call? On the 911 call, Michael keeps breathing heavily and it sounds like there could be typing noises. In addition to the affairs Michael was having, they were also having money troubles. The Peterson's were in debt. They had three daughters in college and two sons that they were financially supporting. They were over $130k in debt. 

On the day of the incident, Kathleen forgot her laptop at work and she would need to use Michael's computer for the evening. At 10:40PM the password “Atwater” the last name of Kathleen's daughter, Caitlin was used to log into Michael's computer. Kathleen spoke with a coworker, Helen Prislinger after 11PM. She was going to send Kathleen a file by email. The email arrived at 11:53, but the attachment was never opened. The prosecution believes that Kathleen may have discovered the gay porn or emails form the escort and this may have prompted her to confront Michael. Kathleen left her first husband when he had an affair. Do you think she would stick around for a second husband doing the same thing?

Perhaps she got up and decided to head to another room and just slipped and fell. 

Maybe the owl theory is the explanation. The feathers that were discovered in Kathleen's hair were tested and belonged to a barred owl, which is actually the second largest owl in North Carolina. The barred ow has talons that are covered in microscopic feathers. They are very territorial especially during mating season in December. This is the month Kathleen died. Barred owls will attack humans that get too close to their nesting area and will strike at the head and face. It was argued that Kathleen may have stepped out the front of the house and been attacked by the owl and she may have stumbled back into the house where she fell on the stairs.


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