‘The Staircase’: Bizarre twists and theories of Kathleen Peterson’s death

‘The Staircase’: Bizarre twists and theories of Kathleen Peterson’s death

Spoilers for “The Staircase” documentary and HBO Max series follow.

In the early hours of Dec. 9, 2001, novelist Michael Peterson made a panicked, tearful 911 call: He had found his wife Kathleen unconscious and bloody at the bottom of a staircase in their Durham, North Carolina, house. His explanation to cops, that she had been drinking and had likely taken a sleeping pill and fallen, was deemed unconvincing; he was arrested for her murder shortly thereafter. 

The ensuing case would become the subject of one of the defining true-crime documentaries in the genre: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s “The Staircase.” The eight-part series debuted in France in 2004 and in America in 2005, then arrived on Netflix in 2013 with additional episodes shot by de Lestrade in the years after the initial case. It riveted viewers even as it wrapped up with the conclusion that, well, we can really never know whether Michael did it or not.

Now, the case becomes a dramatization on HBO Max as a miniseries titled, once again, “The Staircase.” Premiering May 5, it stars Colin Firth as Michael, Toni Collette as Kathleen, Michael Stuhlbarg as defense attorney David Rudolf and Parker Posey as prosecutor Freda Black.

Kathleen (in blue, third from left) and Michael Peterson (fourth from left) with their family.
WhatsUp / Netflix
In the HBO Max series “The Staircase,” Colin Firth portrays Michael Peterson with Toni Collette as Kathleen.
Courtesy of HBO Max

True-crime author Aphrodite Jones, who covered the case, hasn’t seen the new series but thinks it isn’t likely to tread any new ground if it follows the beats of the documentary. “It’s not what [de Lestrade] included, it’s what he did not include,” Jones — whose 2004 book “A Perfect Husband” profiles the case and became the basis for the 2007 Lifetime movie “The Staircase Murders,” starring Treat Williams — told The Post.

“The ‘Staircase’ documentary is a vehicle for Michael Peterson,” said Jones.

A novelist couldn’t have written Peterson’s story any better, full of outrageous twists as it is. In court and on camera, Peterson initially presented his marriage to Kathleen as an enormously happy one, but prosecutors unearthed evidence that he had been secretly seeing men and that the couple had argued about it shortly before her death; they also found a trove of male pornography on his laptop, which they used to further cast scrutiny on his claims of being content in the marriage. Kathleen had also had a $1.4 million life insurance policy, which would be paid to Michael in the event of her death.

The staircase where Kathleen Peterson was found dead.
Netflix
Blood was splattered all over the staircase.
Michael Peterson (left) with his defense attorney David Rudolf in an undated photo.
WhatsUp / Netflix

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. As the case rolled along, more shocking facts would surface. Chief among them: A close friend of Peterson’s, Elizabeth Ratliff, had also been found dead at the bottom of a staircase, in 1985. Peterson subsequently ended up raising Ratliff’s young daughters, alongside his own two sons, as Ratliff’s husband had died previously. 

And then there was the owl theory, introduced late in the documentary. Lawyer Larry Pollard, who wasn’t on the case but was a neighbor of Peterson’s, brought up this idea. He suggested that Kathleen had been the victim of an attack by a barred owl, which had swooped down and sunk its talons into her scalp; she had gone inside after fighting it off, drunkenly, and had fallen. Three small feathers were found in the hair strands in Kathleen’s hand, and Pollard said the lacerations on her scalp were consistent with owl talons. And as the Audubon Society pointed out, “An owl strike can definitely cause blunt-force trauma. What’s more, the raptors are known to dive-bomb humans when they feel threatened, almost always targeting the head.”

Jones isn’t buying that. “If she was attacked by an owl, she would have been screaming her head off,” she said. “And they claim because a fountain was on in the pool that he [while sitting outside, as he claimed] wouldn’t hear it? The fact that people even want to believe that is maddening.” What’s more, she said, the feathers on Kathleen were likely from a pillow.

Furthermore, Jones said, a substantial amount of damning evidence was never included in the documentary. “She had a crushed hyoid bone, which is evidence of strangulation. Her hands and arms had contusion bruises — but not her legs,” which suggests evidence of a struggle. “There was a bloody shoe print found on the back of her sweatpants, which was a match to Peterson’s shoe. We know he stepped in her blood and stepped on her. 

Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sophie Turner (center) and Odessa Young in the HBO Max series, “The Staircase.”
Courtesy of HBO Max

“The other thing is red neurons,” Jones continued. “Red neurons were present in her brain when the autopsy was done. That means a decreased flow of blood to the brain, and it takes hours for that to happen. So what we’re really looking at here is someone who allowed his wife to bleed out on the floor for hours before he called 911.”

At least one person was swayed by the physical evidence: Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin, who had initially supported Peterson’s claims of innocence, along with his children. Caitlin changed her mind after seeing the autopsy report, and ended up siding with the prosecution.

In 2003, Peterson was found guilty in the initial trial. But after eight years in prison, he was released after it was found that a key witness had given misleading testimony. In 2017, Peterson entered an Alford plea, which acknowledges without admitting guilt that a trial had found enough evidence to convict him, and he was released on time already served.

“If it’s not clear, play it that it’s not clear,” Colin Firth, who portrays Michael Peterson, told ABC. Above, Toni Collette and Firth in a scene from the series.
Courtesy of HBO Max

The actors in the new “Staircase” seem content to accept the case’s ambiguities. “I walked away with less of an opinion of what happened than when I went into it,” Sophie Turner, who plays Ratliff’s daughter Margaret, told ABC, with Firth echoing her sentiment. “If it’s not clear, play it that it’s not clear,” Firth said. “It does resist clarity. And it speaks to our desire for clarity. We want it. We want certainty. We find doubt uncomfortable.”

Jones isn’t satisfied with that. “There’s no question that [Peterson] did it,” she said. “If I were to be telling this story, we would know that he did it.”

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