Truth about Netflix’s The Staircase murder revealed – killer owl or evil husband


Police responding to Michael Peterson’s call that his wife had fallen down stairs encountered a truly gross scene when they arrived at the house.

Officers walked in on bloodstained floors, stairs and walls… and the bloody corpse of Kathleen Peterson. Michael was arrested, charged and convicted of murder.

The case had so many twists it seemed far-fetched even by Hollywood standards. However, that hasn’t stopped Tinseltown giving it its own treatment.

Sky mini-series The Staircase stars Colin Firth as Michael and Toni Collette as Kathleen as they play out the events of that night, December 8, 2001, in Durham, North Carolina, according to Mirror Online.

So did Michael kill Kathleen? Was it an insurance scam? An attempt to silence Kathleen over her discovery of her bisexuality? Was it an accident? Or, bizarrely, was the real culprit an intruding owl?

We sift the facts and examine the evidence with the help of Michael’s defense lawyer, David Rudolf, writer of a gripping book on the great miscarriages of US justice.

Kathleen Peterson (centre left) and Michael Peterson (centre) surrounded by their children
Kathleen Peterson (centre left) and Michael Peterson (centre) surrounded by their children

The family

Kathleen was a highly paid telecommunications executive while Vietnam vet Michael was a novelist. He was also involved in local politics and wrote a newspaper column often critical of Durham’s officials and police.

The family home was a lavish colonial-style mansion. Michael had two sons from his first marriage as well as two daughters he adopted with his ex-wife Patty. Kathleen had one daughter from her first marriage to ella-Caitlin Atwater.

At first all five children supported Michael against the accusations. But then Caitlin changed her mind after the discovery of the male escort emails and after reading the autopsy report.

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The bisexuality revelations also turned Kathleen’s sister Candace Zamparini against him, saying she had no idea who Michael Peterson was any more.

Kathleen was found at the foot of the stairs
Kathleen was found at the foot of the stairs

The Night of…

After renting the film American Sweethearts, Michael and Kathleen settled in for an evening of movie watching and drinking wine.

Kathleen’s work colleague called after 11pm to discuss a presentation for the next day.

According to Michael, the couple went through their second bottle of wine by their pool. Kathleen then went inside and he stayed out for another 45 minutes before finding his wife from him at the foot of their stairs.

He can be heard in a phone recording desperately begging the emergency services to “please come quickly”. He told the operator: “My wife had an accident. She fell down the stairs. She is still breathing.”

Arriving within minutes, paramedics walked into a bloodbath.

Michael claimed she must have fallen down the stairs after drinking too much and taking Valium. But police immediately suspected foul play.

They searched the family computer and found email exchanges between Michael and several male escorts. He was then arrested.

The evidence

The autopsy showed Kathleen died from blood loss. Her head wounds from her were “consistent with blows from a blunt instrument”.

But defense lawyer Rudolf says: “Kathleen did not have the injuries someone beaten with a blunt object would have. She did not have a fractured skull or a brain bleed.”

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Her blood-alcohol content was just below the driving limit. No murder weapon was found.

The defense argued Kathleen slipped after a night of drinking, struck her head at the bottom of the stairs, came to, slipped in her blood and hit her head again.

The defense’s forensic expert said the blood spatters were consistent with a fall. The prosection claimed they were evidence of a beating. There were no signs of an intruder.

A feather was found on the body together with strands of her hair which had been pulled out. The Petersons’ neighbor suggested that Kathleen could have been attacked by a barred owl, many of which roost locally.

Such an attack would account for the head cuts.

Rudolf recalls: “I first heard of this when I was preparing closing statements and it was too late to do anything. It explains all the evidence a lot more persuasively than the prosecution’s theory.”

Michael was suspected of being responsible for Kathleen's death
Michael was suspected of being responsible for Kathleen’s death

the motive

The couple had debts of more than $142,000 in 20 different accounts…and Kathleen had a $1.4million life insurance policy.

As well as the money motive, the police also believe that on the night she died Kathleen may have discovered emails Michael had been sending to male escorts.

It was a discovery, they claim, that led him to murder her.

Defense lawyer Rudolf insists his client had no motive to murder Kathleen.

He says: “The policy was issued before she even met Michael and named her first husband, Fred, as the beneficiary. And she had several $100,000 deposits in her deferred compensation account so there was no financial strain.”

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He also believes that in today’s more liberal society, bisexuality would not be the big issue it was 20 years ago.

Rudolf says: “If the case went to trial today I am not even sure the prosecution would raise his bisexuality as a motive.”

He adds: “Michael claims Kathleen knew of his bisexuality and accepted it.”

The trial and after

Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Rudolf says of the 2003 verdict: “I could not understand how the jury could not have experienced reasonable doubt.

“When I compare the objective facts to the emotional facts, it really is not a close call. The emotional facts carried the day here.”

Michael had served eight years when a judge ruled that a prosecution witness gave misleading evidence and ordered a re-trial.

Michael was freed after entering an Alford plea – meaning he was sentenced to the time he had already served while not admitting guilt.

He returned to Durham where he lives quietly in a two-bed apartment. Now 78, he has written two books about the trial with the proceeds going to charity.

Explaining why Michael took The Alford plea, Rudolf said: “He was never guilty, he is not admitting guilt. He does not feel he got a fair trial.”

But was Michael to blame all along? More than 20 years after Kathleen’s death, the question mark remains.

The Staircase is on Sky and NOW TV. American Injustice by David Rudolf is available to buy.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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