8 months ago
At 20 minutes till 3 AM on December 9, 2001, police in Durham, North Carolina received a panicked 911 call: “… Uuuuh, eighteen ten Cedar Street. Please!” said Michael Peterson. “My wife had an accident, she is still breathing,”
“She fell down the stairs,” he said later in the call, “she is still breathing! Please come!”
Peterson was a noted author and columnist for the Durham newspaper at the time, and his wife Kathleen was a business executive. During that call, Peterson said she’d fallen down “sixteen, twenty” steps.
Perhaps Kathleen was breathing when Peterson called emergency services, but by the time they arrived she was dead, and her death marked the beginning of a mystery that endures to this day. Did Michael take her life, beating her over the head with a blunt object then shoving her down the stairs? Was she simply too intoxicated to navigate the steps? Did Kathleen lose her life to a random owl trapped in the house? (Yes, that was seriously one theory of the crime.)
Over the next 16 years, media in Durham as well national outlets would follow every twist and turn in the Peterson case. In that time multiple true crime shows and news magazines also dramatized events from every imaginable angle: Michael was innocent; Michael did it.
No single account of events surrounding Kathleen Peterson’s death has been as thorough as a documentary coming to Netflix this summer, The Staircase.
Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, The Staircase first debuted in 2004. Lestrade had total access to Peterson and his legal team, permitting a far more thorough examination than the typical documentary. Viewers watched as Peterson and his lawyers battled the courts to prove his innocence—a battle they ultimately lost.
Peterson didn’t spend long in prison, considering the crime—he was incarcerated in 2003 and was released in 2011. Still, clouds lingered over his head. Legal battles continued until he took an Alford plea in 2017. In doing so, Peterson admitted the state had enough evidence to find him guilty, but he did not admit to guilt.
All this sounds cut and dried, but true crime buffs have known for years that Michael Peterson led a more complicated life and had a murkier past than a simple recap of his trials might indicate.
For instance, Kathleen wasn’t his only alleged victim.
In 1985, Peterson was living in Germany with his first wife Patricia and their sons, Clayton and Todd. The couple befriended George and Elizabeth Ratliff and their daughters, Margaret and Martha—whom Michael later adopted. George died, and the Petersons grew closer to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Ratliff died in 1985. German U.S. military authorities conducted an autopsy at the time and concluded she’d died from cerebral hemorrhage complicated by a rare blood disease. This was easy to believe—she’d reportedly been dealing with terrible headaches for quite some time.
Ratliff was found dead at the bottom of a staircase.
Authorities were certain she’d had a hemorrhage which precipitated the fall. But—Michael Peterson was probably the last person who saw her alive, having stayed after he and his wife had dinner with her to help Ratliff put her kids to bed.
Naturally, Ratliff’s death came up during the North Carolina investigation into Peterson’s path, and just months after Kathleen Peterson died, Ratliff was exhumed. A new examination determined she’d been murdered.
No one would stand trial for killing Elizabeth Ratliff, but prosecutors managed to shoehorn the mystery into their case by suggesting it had essentially inspired Peterson, providing him with an opportunity to plausibly argue Kathleen’s death was an accident.
There’s still more to the case. That’s why Jean-Xavier de Lestrade was able to make an entire TV series about it and add new episodes, as well.
Michael Peterson has been free for over a year now. The Free Michael Peterson Facebook page has been inactive since his release. The 74-year-old has insisted he’s innocent, despite the Alford Plea, telling the AP the “deal [was] not a good one for me.”
It appears he’s leading a quiet life now that his trials are over.
He probably won’t be streaming Netflix when The Staircase is available on June 8. When a new generation of true crime buffs—a much larger fandom than those who avidly followed his case in 2003—are introduced to the mystery.
Peterson remains, despite the plea and all the coverage, a murky figure, surrounded by innuendo as well as accusations, including those that will never leave him, like the dangling question of what happened to Elizabeth Ratliff.
Did Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, with his hours of footage, really uncover some truth about the man, whether he’s guilty or not?
We’ll have to see.