On 8th December 2000, Michael Peterson called emergency services saying that his wife Kathleen Peterson had fallen down the stairs. She was an executive at Nortel, mother to Caitlyn, step-mother to Clayton and Todd (Mike’s kids from a previous marriage to a lady named Patty) and a stand-in mother figure to Margaret and Martha, whose mother had died when they were very young and had requested Mike to be their guardian in her will.
From what her large circle of friends and family say, she was a fun-loving, adventurous and forthright woman. She was the first woman to graduate from Duke University’s engineering course in 1971! The photos shown of her in the documentary The Staircase show that she loved travel too. If you’d like to know more about her personality and life, I highly recommend episode 13 of Beyond Reasonable Doubt. Her daughter Caitlyn also gave an interview describing her favourite memories of her mother, and how she is still inspired by her to this day.
I believe Mike killed her that night. His trial, appeals and final Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter took 17 years and were complicated by many circumstances. The documentary The Staircase (link goes to my review of it) covers a lot of that process from the point of view of him and his defence team. But the evidence that persuades me of his guilt came within the first hour after his 911 call, and from the autopsy on Kathleen.
- Mike called 911 at 2:40 AM, saying Kathleen had fallen down the stairs and was still breathing. A few minutes later he called back and said she’d stopped breathing.
- The paramedics arrived 8 minutes after the first call. They had many years of experience with both unfortunate accidents and deliberate violence, and had attended staircase falls before. They were surprised by enormous amount of blood at the scene, especially because it had dried considerably. There was some which was still liquid, but they didn’t need their usual protective gear to do their jobs.
- Mike said he’d just stepped outside to turn off the pool lights, and came back to find her on the floor. After the paramedics mentioned the dried blood, he changed his description to say that he had been outside by the pool for 45 minutes. (You can check these details in the September 2006 appeal reasoning and in the documentary The Staircase.)
- The autopsy showed deep lacerations to Kathleen’s head, which were the subject of a lot of debate. It also showed the presence of red neurons in her brain. These indicate that she had been bleeding out for at least 2 hours before the paramedics arrived.
What makes me suspicious is that Mike Peterson changed his story in response to the paramedics questioning how long Kathleen had been at the bottom of the staircase. If she had fallen about midnight and he’d only discovered her at 2:40 AM, why tell the story about only stepping out for a minute? His son’s friend says she saw him there about 10 PM, and there’s no evidence that he left the house that night. What was he doing for 2 and a half hours? And why would he lie about it?
Mike’s appeal for a new trial was granted because the government’s blood spatter expert Duane Deaver turned out to be a complete fraud in both his qualifications and his work processes. I think it’s fair to exclude any of the blood spatter evidence, but it wasn’t really what convinced me anyway.
The original trial also had a lot of evidence about luminol and wine glasses and so on. Deaver was involved in recording some of this, so it can’t really be relied on. But unless the entire police evidence team colluded to frame Peterson, at least some of it is relevant. The quantity of it says to me that Mike was busy cleaning up for some of those hours before calling for help.
There was also the inclusion of evidence about the death of Liz Ratliff, Mike and Patty’s close friend in Germany. It’s fascinating with very interesting similarities, and I’m inclined to think Mike killed her too. But even if he did kill her and get away with it, you can’t take it as any kind of evidence that he killed someone else. Even murderers deserve the presumption of innocence when deaths occur! I might write another post about it separately.
Kathleen had spoken on the phone to a colleague about 11:08 PM. The colleague said she didn’t sound drunk or otherwise impaired, and didn’t sound distressed like she had been in an argument or upset by anything. So whatever happened, happened after that. The computer history shows the colleague sent an email with an attachment at 11:53 PM, and the attachment was never opened.
I believe that while Kathleen was waiting for the email to arrive, she was noodling around on the computer. In addition to the gay military porn Mike had on there (and printed out in the desk drawers), there were also emails between him and a male sex worker trying to arrange an appointment.
The Petersons were in a shaky, but not desperate, financial situation. Mike had a small amount of income from his military pensions, but hadn’t earned money from his books for at least three years. Kathleen was earning a six-figure salary from Nortel, but the dot com boom was coming to an end and there were many layoffs from her work. Her job wasn’t immune to the cutbacks and her friends say she’d confided in them about her stress about that. She’d also mentioned that the mansion they lived in was expensive to maintain but Mike didn’t want to downsize.
The three girls were all going to college, which in the US is very expensive. And the sons were also in debt, unable to repay even just the interest on their loans let alone reduce the principal. Mike had emailed their mother Patty for help with their money issues, saying that he couldn’t discuss it with Kathleen. Apparently letting the large adult sons face the consequences of their own decisions was not an option for Mike. So their money situation could easily have gotten worse very quickly, and it seemed like Kathleen was the only one who cared about that. Again, you can confirm these details in the appeal document linked above.
I’m a fairly forthright woman myself. If she discovered that her husband was spending his time and money on sex workers while she was working her arse off in a very stressful job to support three kids and maintain a mansion that only he wanted… well, I find it easy to believe she read him the riot act and told him the marriage was over. I know I’d do the same in her shoes. I think if Mike saw his comfortable life about to come to an end, he would have taken action to prevent it. If her death was assumed to be an accident, he could claim her life insurance, keep his image as life-of-the-party guy and devoted father intact, and keep his bisexuality secret. As it turns out, he failed at all of that.
A fall, or an attack?
Dr Radisch, who performed the autopsy, reviewed records for 287 deaths from falls down stairs in North Carolina. She paid special attention to 29 where the victim was in the same age range as Kathleen Peterson. 17 of them had no scalp lacerations, and 12 had just one laceration. She also said the wounds and bruises on Kathleen’s arms were consistent with defensive wounds (details in the November 2007 appeal reasoning).
The general consensus from medical examiners for both the prosecution and the defence is that there was too much blood around Kathleen’s body for a normal staircase fall. The defence team said it was an unusual fall, constructing a series of improbable coincidences to explain how the lacerations were only on the top-back of her head. They said she fell once and after laying at the bottom of the stairs for a bit (either unconscious or recovering) she stood up then fell again. There weren’t any footprints or handprints from her, though, so I don’t see how she could have stood up in that state. There was also a bloody print from Michael’s sneaker on the back of her track pants. The prosecution put forward a theory of a violent beating using a light, flexible weapon. They suggested the infamous blowpoke as an option.
I don’t think it was a rage-filled beating though. I think it was a calculated attack designed to look like an accident. I think Mike grabbed her by the throat (explaining the thyroid damage) and bashed her against the door frame, before letting her bleed out while he tried to stage the scene. Like the paramedics, police and jury members who visited the house, I really don’t think it was a fall.
As happens sadly too often, someone valued their parter more for the material comforts they provided than their unique personality. And like so many men before him, Peterson was willing to use violence to maintain his status.
Other points of interest
- Werner Spitz was invited by the defence team to review the evidence. You can see him in the early episodes of The Staircase with Henry Lee. The doco doesn’t show him in the later stages of the case, and doesn’t mention him again at all. However, someone on Reddit was watching The Keepers afterwards and realised that the Peterson case is mentioned as one where the defence didn’t like Spitz’s report so they stopped calling him. I read somewhere that Spitz was present for the second Ratliff autopsy, but I don’t know how to confirm that or rule it out.
- Mike is asked several times in The Staircase about when he found Kathleen – what did he think, or feel, or try to do? His answers are beyond vague, even though he uses just as many words as when he describes the evening before in great detail. And in the BBC podcast, he fumbles his answer of what he was doing when he took his shoes and socks off because the blood made the area slippery. Police questioners (at least in the UK and Australia) are trained to ask people of interest for a general overview of events first, then to get more detail on each section, and finally to go into into a large amount of detail for the crucial times. People who are lying about something are not be able to give the same amount of detail as they can for something which actually happened. Martin McKenzie-Murray describes the process really well in A Murder Without Motive, and I was reminded of it every time people asked Mike a direct question.
- If Mike Peterson hadn’t been rich and white, I think he would have been arrested immediately after the police arrived. He complains about ‘playing at a crooked table’, because nothing is ever his fault. But he was given the benefit of the doubt in spite of being covered in blood after calling 911 far too late, and had the money to drag out the trial, the appeals, the further appeals and the negotiations for an Alford plea. Not everyone has that chance, although it’s supposed to be the right of every accused person in a civilised society.