Features and Columns · TV

The Real Story Behind ‘The Staircase’

The new true-crime drama series depicts the shocking story of Michael and Kathleen Peterson.
The Staircase Firth
By  · Published on March 24th, 2022

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story of the Michael Peterson murder trial as depicted in The Staircase.

The Staircase, a drama miniseries from HBO Max, takes its inspiration from a French documentary series (later expanded by Netflix) of the same name, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Both works tell the true story of novelist Michael Peterson (now played by Colin Firth in the dramatic version), who in 2003 was convicted of murdering his wife, Kathleen (played by Toni Collette), two years earlier in Durham, North Carolina. A retrial resulted in Michael’s release in 2017.

In the decades that have followed, the case remains of tremendous interest to true crime followers. As one local news station in North Carolina put it, the Peterson case is “one of the most notorious and longest-running criminal cases in Triangle history.”

A 2010 report from NBC News titled “Death at the Bottom of the Stairs” describes the events of December 8, 2001, at the Peterson household. They spent the day Christmas shopping. They opened some bottles of wine, had dinner together, watched something on television, and celebrated some good news: Hollywood was starting to express interest in adapting Michael’s work for the big screen.

After that, no one can be entirely sure of what happened. As NBC News put it:

“Exactly how Kathleen Peterson came to be lying at the bottom of the stairs gushing blood would be a mystery that would tear a family apart by the roots.”

Buckle-up for the long, insane, and absolutely true story behind The Staircase. 

Michael Peterson is Caught Lying

Let’s start at the beginning. According to NBC News, Michael Petersen and Kathleen Atwater moved in together in 1987. Michael had separated from his first wife, and years earlier, he adopted two daughters of a family friend who had passed away. The girls often had playdates with Kathleen’s daughter, Caitlin (played by Olivia DeJonge).

For awhile, everything seemed right. Kathleen worked as a highly-paid telecommunications executive at Nortel. Michael found success as a novelist, where he turned his service in the Vietnam War into fuel for his writing. He also got involved in local politics and wrote a column for the newspaper.

The couple bought a beautiful home together in 1992 and got married five years later. Sometimes, they would fight. NBC News notes Caitlin remembered “some real screamers ” between the two. But the conflict would usually end within 20 minutes or so.

In 1999, Michael was caught in an embarrassing lie as he ran for mayor of Durham. During the election, he claimed that he had won a Silver Star and a Bronze Star during his service in Vietnam. Yet he didn’t have the documentation to prove it.

Michael also claimed he had two Purple Hearts. According to Yahoo! News, he said he was “hit by shrapnel when a soldier stepped on a landmine.” But eventually, he was caught in the lie. It turns out, the injury came not from combat, but during a car accident from the time he was stationed in Japan after the war. Such lies would come back into the public eye in the years ahead.

The Autumn of 2001

As NBC News notes, the autumn of 2001 turned out to be a tense one in the Peterson household. Michael once again ran for local office and lost. Kathleen too faced tremendous pressure at work. Nortel stock had taken a hit. Employees were being let go left and right. And Kathleen feared her job may be in jeopardy.

On the fateful night of December 8, at around 11pm. Kathleen took a call from a coworker. Michael, he would later say, sat by their pool smoking. He soon made a 911 call. Via NBC News:

Operator: Durham 911, where’s your emergency?
Michael Peterson: 1810 cedar street, please.
Operator: What’s wrong?
Peterson: My wife had an accident she’s still breathing.
Operator: What kind of an accident?
Peterson: She fell down the stairs. She’s still breathing please come.

Police arrived and found Kathleen “in a pool of blood, splayed out on the floor, her head resting on the landing of a back staircase.” It was so gruesome, police could not rule out foul play. To the discerning eyes of detectives and experts on the scene, this did not look like an accident.

Allegations of Homicide

In February of the following year, an autopsy report revealed that Kathleen Peterson had died, as NBC News puts it:

“by blunt-force trauma. Seven deep lacerations on the scalp. In other words, the medical examiner found that Kathleen Peterson had been bludgeoned to death.”

Soon, Michael was charged with first-degree murder and faced life in prison. He denied killing his wife, and his children, including his step-daughter, Caitlin, came to his defense.

But as the trial began, things began to unravel. Assistant District Attorney Freda Black (played in the series by Parker Posey), got to work questioning a series of experts, who testified that Kathleen’s death could not have been from an accident.

One crime-scene technician recounted Michael’s behavior at the crime scene, per NBC News:

“He was moaning and he ran through the home over to Mrs. Peterson’s body. And then he put his arms around her and he was still sobbing.”

The prosecution said Michael was merely acting. Other experts discussed inconsistencies between the official story and the crime scene evidence, focusing on the amount of blood found at the scene and the autopsy report.

The Wine Glasses and the Blow Poke

Another expert testified to Michael Peterson’s staging of the crime scene. According to Michael’s account, Kathleen had fallen because the two had been drinking wine and she took a Valium. Police found a bottle of wine and two “neatly arrayed” wine glasses at the scene. However, Kathleen’s fingerprints were nowhere to be found. Experts saw all the evidence of a staged scene.

And medical examiners found that Kathleen had a low blood alcohol content at the time of her death. In fact, experts testified, she could have passed a standard breathalyzer test administered for suspected drunk driving.

During the trial, Kathleen’s sister, Candace (played in the series by Rosemarie Braddock DeWit), also took the stand. She testified that the Petersons kept a blow poke — a hollow tube used to tend a fire — in their kitchen. The police never found the blow poke, thus fueling speculation, according to The Wrap, that Michael may have used it as the weapon to kill Kathleen.

But then later in the trial, the defense found the blow poke in the garage, thus undermining the prosecution’s argument. Forensic experts proved the blow poke had remained untouched, and thus could not have been the weapon.

Michael Peterson’s Sexuality

As the trial unfolded, the private lives of Michael and Kathleen Peterson naturally became public. The prosecution shared information about their financial woes and deep debts. Michael’s novels made little money. They owed on their taxes. Their children attended expensive schools. And they were just barely getting by on Kathleen’s paycheck.

The prosecution made the case that Michael murdered Kathleen, in part, for money. Through her company life insurance policy, he would be the beneficiary of a $1.8 million windfall. But that was only the beginning, and they soon moved on to another theory.

The state later tied Michael’s actions to his bisexuality. Followers of the trial began to obsess over the “other man” in his life. The prosecution believed that Kathleen had found images of naked men (roughly 2,000 of them) on Michael’s computer. There was also a series of email exchanges between Michael and a male prostitute named Brad.

Prosecutors brought Brad to the stand, who testified he had never met Michael but that the two had exchanged emails and planned to meet. The prosecution shared their emails. Caitlin testified how she thought her mother would have responded: “that’s not something that she would have been willing to accept.”

And thus, that became a key part of the prosecution’s case. On the night of the murder, they said, Kathleen took a work call and found Michael’s correspondence with Brad on the computer. Kathleen confronted Michael, and he killed her, they said.

Michael Peterson’s Defense

After the prosecution made their case, the defense, including Michael Peterson’s attorney David Rudolf (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), stuck to the story about Kathleen’s drinking and accidental fall. They said the Petersons were happy, in fine financial shape, and that Kathleen’s death could not be anything other than an accident.

The defense also cross-examined Brad. They raised the possibility that Kathleen had known about Michael’s bisexuality and was fine with it. Michael’s attorneys made the point that he regularly called Brad from the house phone, and thus could not have been that concerned about hiding his sexuality.

As it relates to the crime scene and the inordinate amount of blood, the defense brought in experts of their own to try and refute the prosecution’s. Their experts included Dr. Henry Lee, at that point known to many in the country as one of the medical examiners in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. He made the case that there was, in fact, too much blood at the crime scene for it to be a beating. The defense began to charge the police with sloppy work.

But then the story began to get even weirder.

A Mysterious Death in Germany

In the middle of the trial, the judge made what has been described as a shocking ruling. He allowed for the jury to hear a story from decades earlier, from the time when Michael Peterson and his first wife, Patricia, were living in West Germany. History, it seemed, had repeated itself.

During the 1980s, Michael and Patricia were living near an American Air Force base near Frankfurt. They befriended a woman named Elizabeth Ratliff, a widow and the mother of the two girls Michael would later adopt. The families grew very close and Michael became a kind of father figure to the young girls.

On November 24, 1984, Michael agreed to take Ratliff home and help put the girls to bed. The next day, according to NBC News, Ratliff’s sister received a call: Ratliff had fallen down the stairs and died. Examiners said “she’d died of a spontaneous intracranial hemorrhage, a stroke, natural causes.” Her will said the Petersons were to be the girls’ guardians, and so the new family moved back to the United States.

Officials in the Peterson case had no idea about Ratliff’s death until her sister got in touch with them. Understandably, they were stunned by the similarities. The prosecution and law enforcement officials decided to reopen the case into Ratliff’s death.

A medical examiner studied Ratliff’s remains after they were exhumed from Texas. They found “lacerations, deep injuries to the scalp.” Seven of them, just like with Kathleen. The examiner believed that Ratliff’s death was also a homicide.

A Conviction

The state did not charge Michael Peterson with the murder of Elizabeth Ratliff. But her death and suspected murder became evidence in the case. The defense tried to object, but the evidence was overwhelming. And as witnesses took the stand, including the nanny who discovered Ratliff’s body, the similarities were too difficult to ignore.

After three-and-a-half months, the jury, after four days of deliberation, found Michael guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. NBC News reports that the trial tore the family apart. Ratliff’s relatives broke off relationships with Michael and his adoptive daughters. He no longer spoke to Caitlin. The sisters stopped speaking, too.

The Owl Theory

Michael Peterson’s attempts to appeal the verdict and get a new trial were routinely rejected, including by the North Carolina Supreme Court. But then, in 2009, a new explanation for Kathleen’s death came to the surface: the so-called Owl Theory. Durham attorney Larry Pollard (played in the series by Joel McKinnon Miller) had been following the case and raised a new possible explanation for how Kathleen died.

Pollard pointed to evidence to back up the claim that Kathleen had been attacked by an owl and then fell, hitting her head after running back inside the house. Feathers were found attached to Kathleen’s hair and, according to the medical examiner, in her right hand. Michael’s attorney had been presented with the theory in the final days of the trial, and thus could do little with it in the moment.

Other experts rejected the theory, however, claiming that a bird could not have caused the damage Kathleen sustained. But Pollard remained insistent and continued to pursue the theory. It never made its way to a court room, and thus it is not in the the original Staircase documentary.

Retrial and Release

Michael Peterson didn’t need an owl to get a lucky break. Years later, in 2010, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation came under public scrutiny for questionable practices. It was revealed that one of the key witnesses testifying against Peterson, SBI analyst Duane Deaver, was removed from his position after receiving horrible scores for his performance on the job. He was later fired for misrepresenting evidence in his work.

In December 2011, in the wake of the SBI news, Michael Peterson was released from jail on bail and placed under house arrest. A retrial was ordered. The alleged tampering of evidence made the state’s case against Peterson that much harder to prove. Years went by as the workings of the retrial(s) were sorted out.

Then, in 2017, Michael Peterson walked free. He entered an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter of Kathleen. A judge sentenced him to 86 months in prison, but because he had already served more than that time, he was free to go.

The Staircase

The HBO Max drama series of The Staircase is just one of many depictions of the case in popular culture. In fact, the new show itself dramatizes the very documentary series on which it is based. During the making of the doc version, Michael Peterson became romantically involved with its editor, Sophie Brunet, who is now played in the drama series by Juliette Binoche.

Of the relationship, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade told L’Express (via Refinery29):

“This is one of the incredible things that happened during those 15 years. Life is really full of surprises. They had a real story, which lasted until May 2017. But she never let her own feelings affect the course of editing.”

What do you think?

The Staircase begins streaming on HBO Max in the spring of 2022.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.