Last week the Red Heart Campaign released a map of women and children killed as a result of domestic violence in Australia. It’s a sobering reminder of how common this crime is. I’ve embedded the map below, but you can also view it directly in Google Maps if you like.
Killing For Pleasure, Debi Marshall
This is probably the most comprehensive book about the bodies in the barrels murders. It won the Ned Kelly Award for True Crime in 2007, and rightly so. Marshall is a crime writer who has published other books and writes long-form pieces for national magazines as well. Here she digs into the possible causes of one of the worst, and definitely the strangest, serial killings in Australia.
She begins with Bunting’s ex-wife, getting a perspective often overlooked. She also contacts several other people who knew Bunting before he moved to the outer suburbs of Adelaide. It’s sort of revealing but Marshall makes sure we don’t lose track of the fact that Bunting lied easily and frequently. Even when people from his early years are being honest we can’t trust anything he told them. It’s probable that Bunting was raped as a child, but we will never know for sure. Based on her details, I find it hard to believe that Bunting could have ever become an upstanding member of society even if he hadn’t been traumatised. He truly seems like someone born to psychopathy.
She gradually introduces us to the other perpetrators and shares as much as she’s been able to find out about their past. They all have horrific abuse from their early years, which can be verified and other people knew of before they became Bunting’s accomplices.
Not that Marshall offers this as an excuse for their behaviour. She goes to a lot of trouble to show that other people involved, and many of the victims, also had traumatic pasts. They might not have been kind to each other, they might have been struggling to live better lives… but they didn’t do any of the disgusting things that Bunting’s crew did. We all react differently to trauma. Bunting deliberately picked the people most vulnerable to manipulation or brutalisation. He gradually tested their boundaries and pushed them further and further until they thought his actions were normal. Anyone who didn’t like his ranting was ruled out of his plans and excluded from his company.
Marshall got access to interviews of Christine Johnson (Vlassakis’ mum and Bunting’s sometime partner) before she died in 2001. The original interviewer didn’t want to write the story, and I can understand why as it’s particularly harrowing. I like that Marshall also interviews the friends or loved ones of the victims whenever possible – it’s a very harsh story so it benefits from some love and care, even if it’s paired with grief.
Finally Marshall traces how the police and courts dealt with this extraordinary case, having sat in on large parts of the trial. This is covered in other books but hearing how the jury and judge coped, and how Vlassakis turned state’s witness, is interesting.
It’s hard to escape the grim background to this story – it’s never far from the surface. Marshall speculates a bit on the social, economic and political factors that came together to make this depressing landscape, and asks how it could be prevented. Because the murders weren’t the only crimes: child abuse, rape, domestic violence and petty crimes are part of many lives here. Mental illness and physical disability are common, and only get the bare minimum of treatment. More people are unemployed than working. The outer suburbs of Adelaide were (are?) treated like a dumping ground for all the people it’s too hard for society to deal with, and Marshall wants us to confront that reality.
For that reason, Killing for Pleasure is one of the most draining true crime books I’ve ever read. I think it’s excellent, filled with detail and compassion and answering the questions any reader would have. But it’s difficult to recommend it to anyone without warning that it’ll leave them feeling pretty raw.
Snowtown, Jeremy Pudney
Jeremy Pudney is a journalist from Adelaide, who was a crime reporter for The Advertiser at the time the bodies in the barrels murders were discovered. He breaks the story into 3 sections: the police working to figure out why the same names kept popping up in missing persons investigations; the murders and the people behind them; and the court trials and appeals. It’s a quick read, especially if you skim quickly through the gruesome parts in the middle section. Pudney takes a just-the-facts approach, letting the details speak for themselves.
Adelaide has a bit of a reputation for weird crimes, but this must have completely taken over Pudney’s working life. I’d have liked to hear more from him about the issues on reporting something like this. It was an enormous story in terms of number of perpetrators and victims, in the amount of media interest including from overseas, and in the length of time covered. But he has the best account of the steps taken in the investigation that I’ve read anywhere, which I’m assuming comes from his long relationship with the Adelaide police. People who enjoy police procedurals will get the most from this book.
These days Pudney is news director at Channel 9 Adelaide. He hasn’t written any more books to date, and I hope this is because he hasn’t had to pay close attention to any more grim torture scenes. One case like this is enough for a lifetime I reckon.
Corryn Rayney – my opinion
At this time, there’s no satisfactory answer to the question of “who killed Corryn Rayney?” Her family deserve the truth, and so do those of us who live in Perth.
The state prosecution led a pretty weak case against Lloyd Rayney, and were rightly told off for it by Justice Brian Martin. A circumstantial case is necessary when no-one witnesses a crime. But it still has to meet high standards of evidence, and it should exclude any other theories of how the crime was committed.
Timeline and location
John Agius brought a case which did a good job of proving Corryn made it back to at least the driveway of her home in Como. The seed pods do a lot of work here, although the police nearly ruined that with dodgy evidence handling. But he didn’t prove that Lloyd must have killed her, and didn’t sufficiently rule out anyone else from doing it. There’s no forensic evidence to definitely connect Lloyd to Corryn or the gravesite.
I think the judge was right to point out the very tight and implausible timeline of the prosecution case too. Lloyd would have had to put one daughter to bed, kill his wife, hide her body and car, have a shower, welcome home his other daughter and invite her friends in for a cup of tea, wait for her to go to bed, drive out to Kings Park, bury a body, have engine trouble, walk back from Subiaco to Como, have a shower (I’ve dug Perth sand before and you’ll be completely grey by the end of it) and maybe time for a nap before waking up the next day to pretend he thought his wife had gone to work early. It’s not impossible, but it does sound more like one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories that work like clockwork than anything like the real crimes which actually happen in life.
And all this assumes she didn’t make it inside the house – the prosecution led some very unconvincing evidence that she had gone in. They wanted to claim that Corryn’s coat on the bed means she went inside. But it was an office jacket and she was found with a jacket on that was a better style for her bootscooting outfit. If she had gone inside, it just adds to the length of time needed for their version of events.
For me, the car is very important to figuring out what happened. If it weren’t for the damage to the transmission making an oil trail to Kings Park, Corryn would not have been found for many years (if ever). The gravesite was hidden by leaves and scrub, in bushland a few metres away from a sandy track used mostly by joggers, which itself led off a little-used section of road. It wasn’t the kind of place people stopped for a picnic or to socialise, unlike many other parts of the park. The placecard discovered on the sandy track was found by people who were very unfortunately looking for clues to their son’s suicide not far away a few weeks earlier. They wouldn’t normally have been there. And if the gravesite hadn’t been found, the card would’ve just been a strange coincidence.
So where would the killer have put the car if it hadn’t broken down? It seems they were heading away from the Rayney home before the transmission problem became obvious, but that isn’t certain. You could leave it at the airport, or maybe the country rail station at East Perth. Or you could drive it into the ocean as was done with Julie Cutler’s car many years ago. You could take it back to the bootscooting venue, or leave it outside someone’s house if you wanted to incriminate them. Police did look at lawyers who lived in Kershaw Street who knew the Rayney’s. Or what about her work parking space? There are plenty of options.
No matter what was done with it, I believe the plan was to hide the fact that Corryn had been killed. If her car had been found somewhere plausible, you’d have a lot of options for investigation that wouldn’t have led to any result. Her disappearance would remain a mystery.
And this is one of the reasons why I don’t think this was a rapist who deliberately or accidentally killed Corryn. Why try to make a mystery when you could just walk away from the Rayney’s front yard without even leaving much DNA? Other reasons include that she was attacked from behind (damage to neck and head) but had no defensive wounds. I think this indicates a surprise, sudden attack rather than a struggle for compliance.
Although there was a bit of back and forth at trial about her jeans being opened, and her boots being taken off in the car, none of the men suggested what was my first assumption: that she was wearing tight jeans and cowboy boots because they looked good for bootscooting, and as soon as she hopped in the car she made herself more comfortable. Surely half the ladies at that class had done the same thing at least once!
The placecard got a lot of attention in the media but I don’t think it’s very useful. It came from a dinner Lloyd went to, driving his own car. In a family with two kids and two parents working full time, I really wouldn’t be surprised if something Lloyd put in a pocket had gotten dumped on a table and then caught up in whatever bit of paperwork were being piled up and shuffled around in briefcases and school bags and into a car. Or maybe I’m just more of a messy pack-rat than most people! The alternative is that it was in Lloyd’s car or pocket, and sometime between the 8th and the 14th he visited to look at the grave and create litter in Kings Park. I hope no-one wants to introduce his car to the timeline of the 7th August, I don’t think there’s room for it. But the card ends up in Kings Park whether Lloyd is guilty or not.
I feel the same way about the handkerchief found in the grave. It probably came from Corryn or Lloyd’s car, rather than being randomly in a patch of sand in Kings Park. But it doesn’t prove anything either way.
Motive and behaviour
I completely agree with Agius and the police that Lloyd had motive. Justice Martin said Lloyd had accepted that the divorce was going to happen and he would have to provide his financial information to Corryn. But I don’t really see that.
I’ve known plenty of passive people who make a small protest about something they don’t want to do, then seem to agree to it, only to drag their feet and delay the task as long as they possibly can. Sometimes they end up having to do the thing anyway. But just as often they get their own way because the other person gets tired of doing all the work, or eventually the task becomes irrelevant or worthless.
Corryn was willing to stay with Lloyd for the sake of the children if he would just be honest about money. But he passively resisted this, blowing past two deadlines she gave him. So she started putting things in motion for a divorce and he seemed to be willing to lose his marriage over it. On the 2nd August he finally gave some bank information to his lawyer, and agreed to meet Corryn on the 7th to discuss handing over the rest. To me, that just seems like another delaying tactic. If they’d had the meeting, he could easily have said he didn’t realise she wanted this or that, and let’s talk about custody instead.
Friends who were sympathetic to him kept giving him the same advice as his lawyer: show her your finances, move out, see if you can get alternate weeks custody of your daughters. He just really didn’t want to take that advice.
Justice Martin is a respected older white male with a lot of authority. I bet it’s been a long time since anyone tried to put him off with excuses when he asked for something reasonable. Women in particular get this treatment, which is why I think we need more diversity in our courts. People recognise sexism and racism more easily when they’ve experienced it personally first.
In addition to this, Corryn was threatening to ruin Lloyd’s chances of becoming Senior Counsel when he next applied for the job. Lloyd’s defense pointed out, and Justice Martin agreed, that she had no real say in who became Senior Counsel. But obviously she was well-regarded at the Supreme Court and her opinion would carry weight. And if she found any proof of impropriety (like secretly recording conversations?), that could get him enough raised eyebrows that someone else would turn out be a better fit for the job. I suppose lawyers and judges have to pretend that jobs are filled based on purely logical criteria, but personal situations play a big part and I think that affects motive here.
Lloyd also behaved strangely during the investigation – he lied a lot, plus got rid of some of his recordings of Corryn, which he shouldn’t have made in the first place. Most importantly, he refused to give statements to the police and encouraged his daughters to distrust them as well. Their evidence could have made the search for her killer much easier, and preventing it makes him look very suspicious.
But suspicion isn’t proof. All sorts of crappy people doing weird things haven’t committed murder. You have to do more than prove motive to put someone in jail for a crime.
Since I don’t think a stranger killed Corryn, and I’m taking the police at their word that Corryn and Lloyd didn’t have any enemies, that leaves friends and loved ones. And none of them had the opportunity the way Lloyd did.
But this is where all the difficulties come in if you point at Lloyd. There’s only time for him to do this if he’s fast, decisive and physically strong. He’s a gambler who was known to play long odds, but I don’t think he’s strong enough. Moving a body and digging holes is hard work, while Lloyd is slim and didn’t have a gym habit at the time.
If we assume he had an accomplice though, a lot of the difficulties disappear. He doesn’t have to leave his sleeping daughters or do any hard work. He can call someone to let them know what time Corryn is coming home. That person can lie in wait for her with a weapon and a shovel (or maybe one is the other), make a surprise attack, put her in her car and then take as long as they need in Kings Park. The next morning Lloyd can proceed exactly as he did.
The catch is that damage to the transmission. If the car had been left somewhere that created a mystery, Lloyd could play the grieving husband who just wants closure but struggles on heroically. But whatever the car plan was, it hadn’t gone right. So now he’s got to worry about the possible evidence, and have everyone suspect him because of seed pods and gambling and not letting his daughters help police.
The police must have thought of this. I’m not a fan of the WA Police – see Andrew Mallard and their years-long harassment of a guy who turned out not to be the Claremont Serial Killer, plus one of the cops in this case was jailed on unrelated charges. But they seem to have investigated this possibility. They did question Johnny Montani, a client of Lloyd’s who’s a known career criminal. It doesn’t seem like they were very good at it, though. Allon Lacco and Ivan Eades were also looked at.
I wonder if that’s why it took them three years to arrest Lloyd. They were trying to find or prove an accomplice, and when they couldn’t they decided to just stick to Lloyd. If so, it’s pretty crappy to leave the lawyers with half a case.
It’s possible that Lloyd had a foolproof way of organising crime with a henchman and he was just too good for the cops to beat. It’s also possible I’m completely wrong about this and it was a stranger who killed Corryn. My idea is just as circumstantial as the state prosecutor’s, with even less evidence! I’m not 100% convinced I’m right, and if new evidence turns up someday I’d be happy to be wrong.
In 2015, the Police Commissioner ordered a cold case review of Corryn Rayney’s death. Not enough evidence was found to charge anyone. Perhaps Corryn will never see justice. But I hope one day the truth is revealed, for the sake of her family and loved ones.
Corryn Rayney – the situation
Corryn Rayney was a smart, hard-working woman. She and her family moved to Australia when she was 10 years old, to get away from the military dictatorship of Idi Amin in Uganda. When she grew up she became a lawyer, and by 2007 she was Registrar at the Supreme Court of Western Australia. She had been married to Lloyd Rayney since 1990, and together they had two daughters. Lloyd was also a lawyer, and the two of them were well-known in Perth’s legal community. In her free time she enjoyed watching AFL football, and she was a regular at bootscooting classes.
Corryn was close to her sister and father, and had a wide circle of friends. She was ambitious, not just for herself but for the people she loved, wanting them to aim high and succeed in life. She wasn’t happy in her marriage though, and was in the middle of separating from Lloyd when she disappeared.
The last time anyone saw Corryn was as she left her bootscooting class at Bentley Community Centre about 9:30pm on Tuesday 7th August 2007. She’d told several people she’d be meeting with her husband Lloyd at their home in Como to discuss financial information to do with their separation. She believed he was gambling and having affairs but was willing to stay with him for the sake of their children if he would come clean about his financial situation. She was in a good mood because he’d been delaying this for a while but had promised he’d have the details for her that night.
Corryn’s oldest daughter had been out at a concert with friends, and was dropped home between 10:30 and 11pm. Lloyd invited the friends in but they said no because it was a school night. The younger daughter was already in bed by this stage.
In the morning, the girls asked where Corryn was as they were getting ready for school. Lloyd said she must have gone into work early. He left messages on her work phone about picking up the kids from school, and an email about her missing their meeting the night before. About 11:30am his office called while he was in court, saying that Corryn’s work was askng about her because she’d missed an appointment.
After calling friends, colleagues and family, Lloyd visited her office and asked for police to be present while he checked her calendar and email for clues about where she might be. By 2:30pm he was at a police station with his sister and Corryn’s father to report her missing.
At 5:30pm a detective attended the Rayney house to speak to Lloyd, the kids and Corryn’s sister Sharon and her family. He asked about her wallet and passport, which both turned out to be missing (she didn’t usually take her wallet with her to bootscooting). They looked for clues about whether or not she’d actually been home the night before or during the day, but it didn’t seem like she had.
Over the next week the family made appeals to the public for information and police investigated her movements.
On the 15th August, someone living on Kershaw Street in Subiaco reported a car which might have been abandoned there. It turned out to be Corryn’s car, and had been there for a few days. Later, detectives discovered it had been there from about 2:30pm on the night Corryn went missing. Her wallet was found inside, on the back seat floor with the contents pulled out and tossed around. Her boots were in the back seat as well.
The car had an oil leak caused by damage to the transmission. It would have been making a horrible noise as it was driven, and wouldn’t have been able to go much further if the driver hadn’t stopped. Police traced the oil leak back to Kings Park, a large area of bushland and parkland overlooking the city centre. It seemed the transmission damage was from driving over a not-fully-lowered bollard in front of a walk trail. Searching the bushland area, police found Corryn’s body in a grave a short way from the track.
A post mortem exam showed that she had been killed by damage to the back of her head, she had a previously undiagnosed heart condition, and she had seed pods from a Liquidambar tree stuck in her hair. Her belt was undone and her jeans were unzipped, but her underwear wasn’t disturbed and she didn’t appear to have been sexually assaulted.
Later, forensic analysis showed scrape marks on her boots plus microscopic paint chips and soil in her bra straps. The Rayney home had Liquidambar trees (which are very common in that suburb) but there are none in Kings Park. The paint samples matched the paving outside the home as well, although the soil couldn’t be ruled in or out and no drag marks were found when the property was searched two weeks after she went missing. Altogether the evidence shows that it’s very likely she made it home and was attacked in her front yard.
- Where was the driver planning to take the car? Subiaco is on the opposite side of Kings Park from Como.
- Where did her passport go?
- What happened to the shovel which would have been needed to dig the grave? Nothing was found near the gravesite or car.
The main types of perpetrators in this kind of situation that I can think of are:
- Violent offenders who lived in the area. Police questioned known offenders and ruled them out, but it’s possible someone was new to that kind of thing. In support of that idea is that she wasn’t sexually assaulted – if someone was planning that and accidentally killed her, they might panic and make stupid decisions. Against that theory is that burying the body in Kings Park and trying to dispose of the car is pretty elaborate for someone who hadn’t meant to kill anyone that night. Alternatively, the police might have ruled out someone more experienced that they shouldn’t have.
- Someone with a grudge against Corryn or Lloyd hrough work or for personal reasons. Police did investigate this angle but didn’t come up with much. Someone lying in wait outside her home and attacking her seems plausible, but then why hide the body and try to hide the car?
- A husband or lover. This is the direction the police took. They questioned a man Corryn had a flirtation with, but ruled him out. They spoke to the woman Lloyd had an affair with a few years before. But when a woman is murdered while she’s in the process of leaving her partner, it’s very common for the partner to be the killer. The attack had happened in their front yard. Lloyd did have betting accounts he hadn’t told Corryn about, and had been secretly recording her conversations with him and other people. So the police had good reason to investigate him. People like to think that violence doesn’t happen in “nice” well-off families, but it’s not true.
The trial and appeal
After 3 years, Lloyd Rayney was charged with murdering his wife Corryn. Then there was another long wait as one of his clients, Gina Rinehart, tried to get all details of her work with him suppressed from the media coverage of the trial. There was also a lot of wrangling over which of his home and office files were protected by legal privilege.
Eventually Lloyd got a judge-only trial in 2012. There was no jury as there had been a lot of potentially prejudicial news about every part of the story. The judge was Brian Martin, brought in from the Northern Territory because nearly everyone in the Western Australian legal community knew the Rayneys.
Judge Martin acquitted Lloyd on charges of wilful murder and manslaughter. You can read the trial summary (PDF) because it was a judge-only trial. He had some harsh words for the police involved in the case, and seemed unimpressed by the prosecution’s argument. The state government appealed this decision, but the court (this time 3 judges from the Supreme Court of NSW) upheld Martin’s original decision.
Then there was more legal wrangling. Police had charged Lloyd with phone tapping earlier but waited until the murder trial was over to proceed to court. He was acquitted of knowingly breaking surveillance laws. Then Lloyd sued the police for defamation over the “prime and only suspect” announcement, and won. He didn’t get the damages he wanted though, so that’s still going. The Legal Practice Board Of WA cancelled his practising certificate over the phone tapping, and after appeals back and forth he is currently not practicing law. He’s also sued for defamation against a forensic scientist for remarks made at a conference, a publisher over implications made about him in one chapter of a true crime book, and some of Corryn’s family for comments they made to the media on the day he was acquitted of murder.
There is still no official solution to this crime. Corryn Rayney’s murderer has gotten away with it, so far.
Why some murders don’t make the news
ABC Radio’s show The Signal discusses which murders and crimes make the news while others are not reported on. As they note in the introduction, Eurydice Dixon received a lot of public attention but other women like Qi Yu are often forgotten about quickly.
They speak to journalists and court reporters to get their opinions and experiences. Sadly there’s no transcript, but there is a download if you would like to listen to it on your own device instead of from the web stream.
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.
Beyond Reasonable Doubt (BBC)
Beyond Reasonable Doubt is a 16-episode podcast series from the BBC about the Kathleen Peterson case. I went looking for it because I found The Staircase so unsatisfying, and several people on true-crime forums recommended it as a less biased alternative.
It’s more professional and less biased for sure, because the host Chris Matthews and his team put in a lot of effort to speak to a variety of people in addition to Michael Peterson and his lawyer. Some of Kathleen’s family are interviewed, as well as then-District Attorney Jim Harding (now a judge), Judge Hudson and some jury members. Journalists and authors who covered the news of the case also contributed. Mike Peterson’s friend and neighbor Larry Pollard gets to explain his owl theory, and although Matthews doesn’t buy it he’s very respectful of Pollard. There are also some segments with questions from listeners.
My favourite episode was number 13, A Sister’s Story, because about half of it is Candace (Kathleen’s sister) sharing stories of what kind of person Kathleen was. Every time she spoke of Kathleen’s life her voice brightened and it was lovely to hear. I wish more true crime stories included this kind of thing.
Of course, Mike Peterson gets an unedited episode to himself too. Matthews invites him to rebut any details he disagreed with in previous episodes. I found him unconvincing since his answer to most questions was for listeners to check the trial transcript, which isn’t publicly available. And others he answered with irrelevant details before quickly changing the subject. I bet his lawyers weren’t happy he did the interview! But the man does love an audience.
As with any podcast adapted from a radio show, there are frequent station identification bits and long intro/outro sections. I learned to hit the skip-forward button for these as I don’t have a lot of listening time. But they weren’t annoying or intrusive, just the usual padding that commercial products do.
If you’re a true crime fan or want to know the complicated history of the trial through to the Alford plea, Beyond Reasonable Doubt is an excellent choice.
The Staircase (Jean-Xavier de Lestrade)
I finished watching the documentary The Staircase on Netflix last night. It follows Michael Peterson and his defense team as he goes to trial for the murder of his wife Kathleen Peterson. The original 9 episodes were released in 2003 cover events up to his imprisonment. Another 3 episodes were commissioned and released in 2016 covering his appeal for a new trial, based on one of the prosecution’s key witnesses turning out to be a fraud. And a final episode was produced by Netflix to show the circumstances of him taking an Alford plea.
It’s a long documentary with a lot of padding – Peterson loves to hear himself talk, so there are lengthy scenes of him giving his opinion on Justice, Love and the Meaning of Life. The final 4 episodes are particularly flabby. I really didn’t need the photo montages, I would have preferred these to be two episodes at most.
It’s also a very one-sided documentary. The director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, wanted to have one film crew follow Michael and the defense and another crew to follow the prosecution. But a few months in the prosecution decided they didn’t want to participate, so we lose that perspective.
But LeStrade should have made more of an effort to include information about the prosecution case. Even if he couldn’t film their meetings or work, he could have included the prosecution sections of the trial. There were 9 episodes to play with, he could have cut all the bits of Peterson smoking a pipe. As it is, the story fails to include key aspects such as the financial situation of the Petersons (in debt and reliant on Kathleen’s income during the end of the dot-com boom) and allegations of Peterson’s volatile temper. He got permission to film Kathleen’s sisters, but he didn’t interview them. It seems lazy to me.
In addition to giving a lot of time to Peterson’s (natural) self-interest, it ends up giving a lot of weight to the opinions of David Rudolf, Peterson’s lawyer. He’s the kind of guy who states opinions as facts, and doesn’t hesitate to make his client happy by joining in on trash talk of their opposition. Several times Rudolf convinced himself he knew how people would react, then was shocked when they didn’t behave as he predicted:
- He felt the suggested murder weapon (a blowpoke, no I’d never heard of those before either) was central to the prosecution’s case. He looked genuinely surprised when no-one in the media seemed to care about it and were more interested in other evidence. And when he produced the blowpoke in court and no-one was impressed he was very put out. From the tiny bit of detail from the prosecution shown on-screen, and from reading elsewhere, it seems that the prosecution only suggested it as a possible murder weapon. It was never a key part of their case.
- He’s shocked that the jury would think there were problems in the marriage because Mike was hiring hookers. All the friends and family he spoke to said it was a happy marriage! He says he doesn’t understand why it’s relevant.
- He convinced Mike that the DA would offer an Alford plea deal because without Deaver the blood spatter expert there would be no case to answer. When the DA said no, they were going to go to trial, Rudolf blamed Candace for influencing him rather than admit he was mistaken. It also showed that having abandoned his fixation on the blowpoke, he had moved on to Deaver as the main cause of him losing the trial. But jury interviews afterwards showed they were more interested in the extent of the injuries and the inconsistencies in the 911 call than the blood spatter evidence. Those would still work in favour of the DA’s case even if other evidence was excluded.
- He was also upset that the judge ordered a new trial after it was discovered that the evidence boxes hadn’t been stored properly. But as the prosecution pointed out, Mike’s claim of Kathleen dying from a fall did not rely on DNA evidence so the boxes of gear would not be relevant anyway. They still had the medical examiner’s evidence and the financial evidence even if Brad the hooker and the whole Ratliff death in Germany were excluded.
Which does raise the question of why Rudolf never tried an intruder theory on the jury? It would be easy to say that when Mike saw his wife’s body he immediately thought it was a fall but now the shock is over he wonders if it was an intruder after all. The obvious guess is that they knew there would not be any evidence of an intruder, only of Mike in the house. But they can’t turn around 10 years later and complain that they can’t do tests on the evidence anymore. The time for that was in the immediate aftermath, not after an appeal.
Ultimately, Rudolf seems like the kind of guy who gets tunnel vision. And the film crew got drawn into that atmosphere of only looking at what they wanted to see.
Another potential source of bias is that Sophie Brunet, the editor, was romantically involved with Mike during some part of the filming. Lestrade says that didn’t affect the film but I really don’t see how it could be avoided.
I do agree with the defense team that the prosecution was hoping to trigger homophobia without directly calling for it. But they did extensive jury screening to prevent Mike’s bisexuality from being an issue, which seems fair to me. And honestly, there’s not a good way to convince people that someone making appointments with sex workers while his wife is at work is a good husband who cares about her feelings. That the sex workers were men is not as relevant as the dishonesty and selfishness. It’s lucky for Mike that Rudolf never puts his clients on the stand, because he sounded so unbelievable when he initially said “oh yeah, Kathleen knew, we had an arrangement”. And then in the final episode he admits that he never told her about even the bisexuality, let alone the infidelity.
On the positive side, the doco shows a lot of the process of a defense team, which I found really interesting. Preparing their arguments, discussing jury selection and traveling to Germany were all really interesting parts of the series and I’m glad to have seen them.
And another plus is that it doesn’t spend much time on the ridiculous owl theory. But Netflix has put a short clip on it up on their site, called The Owl Theory, if you want the LeStrade take on it.
Heaps of people have watched The Staircase and decided that Mike is innocent. I can’t agree with them, but what else are they supposed to think when Lestrade only presents the opinions of a small group of people and ignores anyone who contradicts them? If it’s meant to be a documentary about the failures of the American justice system, I would have expected to see more about the standard processes, maybe some interviews with the SBI now that they’ve gotten rid of Deaver, and neutral legal experts.
Oh well. I’ll write up another post to explain why I think Peterson is guilty, and then maybe I’ll watch the Forensic Files episode on this case as well.
Update 10th July 2018
Just adding a few links to good articles I’ve read about this documentary:
- Who are the Women of The Staircase? by Molly Odintz for CrimeReads
- Netflix’s The Staircase Doesn’t Seem Particularly Concerned with Kathleen Peterson by Maggie Serota for Spin
- Candace Zamperini is The Staircase’s Most Polarizing Figure by Leah Carroll for Refinery 29