I’ve been following the Claremont Serial Killer trial via a couple of live-blogs, and I’ll write a proper post about it soon. But it’s brought up an interesting side issue for me.
Bradley Robert Edwards is accused of being the Claremont Serial Killer. As part of the trial preparation, police revealed that he’d previously been convicted of common assault for a 1990 attack on a social worker at Hollywood Hospital.
The thing is, that wasn’t common assault. It was an attempted sexual assault. But either he stopped or she fought him off (it gets told differently at different times), and he said sorry to her. So it was charged as common assault only.
When police were investigating the Claremont crimes they were looking for people with a record of sexual offenses, not everyone who’s ever been in a punch-up. So Edwards’ name didn’t come up, and his fingerprints weren’t checked.
Edwards has pled guilty to the charges for the Huntingdale prowler series of incidents, and for a rape in Karrakatta in 1995. The Huntingdale offenses were before the Hollywood attack, and would’ve been difficult for police to solve because it was before DNA testing was available. But could the Karrakatta rape have been prevented if the hospital assault had been taken more seriously?
Everyone gets upset when women are raped and murdered. But when a young man starts grabbing women and trying to drag them places, everyone starts looking for excuses for him.
“He was stressed.”
“He’s never done it before.”
(But how would you know if he’s been excused on a previous occasion?)
“He said sorry.”
“It’d ruin his chances of promotion.”
It’s time to stop making excuses for sexual offenses which don’t meet the technical definition of rape. People escalate the severity of their attacks over time as they gain experience. They learn how to get away with it. We need to take the unsuccessful attempts more seriously if we want to prevent murder.
The ABC has aired the first episode of a three-part special investigating the disappearance of baby Tegan Lane in 1996. As you’d expect from the ABC, it’s well-presented and deeply researched. It’s satisfying viewing for people with an interest in the case.
But I’m not sure why it got made. Keli Lane, in prison for the murder of her daughter Tegan, called Caro Meldrum-Hanna and said she was innocent. There’s no new evidence. Enough time has passed that if Tegan is alive after all, she might hear about the show and come forward. Several recent true crime documentaries and podcasts have prompted people to come forward with new evidence they were scared or too young to reveal at the time, and I guess it’s possible here too.
But there’s not a lot of mystery around Tegan’s disappearance. Lane hid the pregnancy until she went into labour then rushed to hospital. After giving birth to Tegan, she stayed in hospital and had no visitors. Two days later she checked out with Tegan, who was never seen again. Later that afternoon, Lane was a guest at a friend’s wedding and never mentioned baby Tegan to anyone for years. When questioned about it during the adoption of another baby, she told conflicting stories about giving Tegan to the biological father.
There’s no question of the police doing anything less than a full investigation. DNA checks were made, birth records and school enrolments were examined. The cops followed every inaccurate lead that Lane gave them. Tegan has disappeared, and Lane is responsible.
The first episode of Exposed shows that Lane’s water polo coaches were negligent at best and complicit at worst in their treatment of Lane. And the pressure of elite sports is ridiculous and deserves more examination. But there are already laws and guidelines to protect the health of players – they should be better enforced but there’s no new lesson to be learned from this. Lane was not a child or even in her teens when she had Tegan – she was an adult with full capacity to make decisions, with money and an education.
Should every prisoner who claims to be innocent get a TV series about them? Amy McQuire, a journalist and presenter on the Curtain podcast, said on Twitter:
I will wait to see if #ExposedABC uncovers any new evidence supporting Keli Lane’s innocence. But given how many prisoners have large bodies of evidence already to support their innocence – and are STILL in jail, I am flabbergasted as to how this one takes priority
I’m not interested in true crime for entertainment – I want it to expose the flaws in the justice system that lead to wrongful convictions. Consider the large numbers of exonerations in the US – there needs to be an in-depth examination into it on our own shores
It seems like if the victim or perpetrator is a white female, plenty of media resources will be devoted to the case. I enjoyed Making A Murderer and Trace, and will probably listen to Teacher’s Pet soon since it has led to some new searches. But it disturbs me that these cases get attention while others are overlooked.
Meanwhile, Kevin Henry and Derek Bromley have actual evidence which proves their innocence. The families of the Bowraville children have new evidence showing they were all victims of a serial killer. But they can’t get new hearings to present the information. Their supporters don’t have friends in the media, so they have to fight alone for justice.
Kevin Henry was 21 when he was arrested for the murder of Linda from Rockhampton. Keli Lane was 21 when Tegan disappeared. Linda’s murder had a sloppy, half-arsed investigation by police; Tegan got a nation-wide search involving several federal and state organisations as well as the police. Kevin and Keli both maintain their innocence, but Kevin was forced to give a false confession while Keli was given years to produce proof of her lies. Both are still in jail. He is a young Aboriginal man, and she is a young white woman. He was treated as a criminal immediately and denied due process, while she got not only due process but every benefit of the doubt.
And now Keli Lane gets to tell her story again, even though there doesn’t seem to be anything to learn from it on a community or evidence level, and justice is already being served. Maybe the next episodes will change my mind… but this doesn’t seem fair to me.
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 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.
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.