The Mysterious True Story Behind ‘The Staircase’ and Michael Peterson

the staircase true story

Colin Firth and Toni Collette lead the cast of BINGE’s upcoming eight-episode limited drama series, The Staircase — a must-watch for all true-crime aficionados.

Based on a true story, The Staircase explores the life of Michael Peterson, his sprawling North Carolina family, and the suspicious death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson.

In addition to Firth and Collette, the ensemble cast stars Sophie Turner, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Michael Stuhlbarg, Juliette Binoche, Dane DeHaan, Olivia DeJonge, Rosemarie DeWitt, Tim Guinee, Vincent Vermignon, Odessa Young and Parker Posey.

You might recall that The Staircase was also the name of a documentary, which investigated the bizarre true story of the Petersons. So, what exactly happened to Kathleen? Read on to find out more about the case.

Who Is Michael Peterson?

Peterson is a novelist who has written a couple of historical fiction novels such as The Immortal DragonA Time of War, and A Bitter Peace. The books were inspired by his time serving in the Vietnam War as part of the United States Marine Corps.

Peterson was married to a woman named Patricia, with whom he had two children — Clayton and Todd. The couple later became the legal guardians of two more children, Margaret and Martha Ratcliff, when their parents both passed away. When Patricia and Michael divorced in 1987,  Clayton and Todd lived with Patricia, and Margaret and Martha stayed with Michael.

Who Was Kathleen Peterson?

Kathleen Peterson (nee Atwater) was Michael’s second wife, with the two marrying in 1987 and residing in Durham, North Carolina.

On December 9, 2001, Michael called 911 to say that he had found his wife alive but unconscious at the bottom of the stairs in their home. He told police that after having dinner and watching a movie, Kathleen had gone to bed while he stayed up.

According to Detective Art Holland of the Durham police, the scene was immediately suspicious upon his arrival, especially given the fact that, despite there being wine and wine glasses out on the kitchen counter, her fingerprints were nowhere to be found. She had basically no alcohol in her blood.

How Did Kathleen Peterson Die?

Michael Peterson’s legal team tried to argue that Kathleen had drunk wine, taken Valium and then fallen down the stairs, but the Medical Examiner concluded she had been bludgeoned to death and suffered seven deep lacerations on the scalp.

Experts also noted that the blood around her was mostly dry, meaning she’d been lying at the bottom of the stairs for at least two hours.

Did Michael Peterson Murder Kathleen?

Peterson was arrested and charged with first-degree murder for the death of Kathleen and he went to trial in July 2003.

Despite maintaining his innocence throughout the trial, he was found guilty of his wife’s murder on October 10, 2003, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

However, in 2011, a judge vacated the verdict and ordered a new trial after finding that blood-spatter analyst Duane Deaver gave false and misleading testimony at Peterson’s first trial.

In February 2017, Peterson entered an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to maintain innocence while still acknowledging that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict. The plea was for voluntary manslaughter in his wife’s murder and Peterson was released from custody.

Was Kathleen’s Death Michael Peterson’s Only Alleged Crime?

Funny you should ask, because there was much speculation that Peterson also played a role in the death of another person.

Remember the kids that Michael and Patricia adopted after their parents died? Elizabeth Ratliff was their biological mother and she was widowed when her husband was killed while on a military mission.

Ratcliff, like Patricia, also died after an alleged “fall” down the staircase in her home in 1985 — with her body being found the morning after Michael had been there helping to put Margaret and Martha to bed.

Ratliff’s death was later re-examined and ruled a homicide but Peterson was never formally charged for it.

Where Is Michael Peterson Now?

Now a grandfather, Peterson still lives in Durham, NC and in 2019, he self-published two books – Behind the Staircase and Beyond the Staircase – that tell his side of the story.

He still maintains his innocence.

When Does ‘The Staircase’ Premiere?

The Staircase will premiere on BINGE on May 5, 2022. Check out the teaser trailer below.

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