The True Story Of The Murder Mystery Behind Netflix’s The Staircase

Published June 20, 2018
Updated August 15, 2019

On a December night in 2001, Michael Peterson's wife was found dead at the bottom of the staircase in their North Carolina home, setting the stage for one of the strangest legal cases in American history.

Michael Peterson Trial

Michael Peterson (left) at his retrial in 2011. Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images.

The Staircase is one of the latest offerings in Netflix’s series of binge-able true crime documentaries. It covers the story of Michael Peterson, a novelist who in 2003 was convicted of murdering his wife two years earlier. The documentary is full of twists and bizarre theories surrounding what was undoubtedly a very strange case. As Peterson himself said of the trial, “This has become a show.”

A Mysterious Death

Early in the morning on Dec. 9, 2001, Peterson called emergency services to report that his wife Kathleen had taken a fall down a set of stairs in their Durham, N.C. home. According to Peterson, Kathleen had been drinking and mixing the alcohol with valium. When he came back inside from the pool at 2:30 a.m., he reported that he found her lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of the staircase.

During the call Peterson made to 911, he stated, “My wife had an accident. She’s still breathing. She fell down the stairs.” But by the time the emergency medical services and police arrived, Kathleen Peterson was dead.

The autopsy immediately cast doubt on Michael Peterson’s story. According to the report, Kathleen had suffered multiple blunt force trauma injuries to the head and neck. As a result, she bled to death between 90 minutes and two hours after the trauma occurred.

The autopsy led the police to classify the death as a homicide. Since Peterson was the only one at home at the time, he was the obvious suspect. The stage was set for one of the longest, strangest trials in American history.

The evidence against Peterson was spotty. But the investigators were confident that Kathleen had been murdered. While there was no obvious murder weapon on the scene that could be tied to her husband, the prosecutors believed that they could establish a motive.

Michael Peterson

Netflix/YoutubeMichael Peterson in court.

During the investigation, it was revealed that Michael Peterson was bisexual. Investigators discovered a collection of gay pornography in his possession, and it was revealed that he had been communicating by email with a 28-year-old male escort.

Though there was little evidence to support the idea, prosecutors latched on to the theory that Peterson’s wife had found out about her husband’s sexuality and started a fight that led to her death on the staircase.

Michael Peterson’s Murder Trial

With a purported motive and the evidence that Kathleen Peterson had been murdered, the district attorney brought the case to trial. Peterson’s sexuality was a crucial component of the prosecution’s case, with the male escort he’d been communicating with being called to the stand.

And halfway through the trial, a new theory emerged that could tie Peterson to another suspicious death at the bottom of a staircase.

Peterson spent years in the military and had been stationed in West Germany during the Cold War. There, he and his first wife met a woman named Elizabeth Ratliff. One night, Peterson was visiting with Ratliff to help put her children to bed. The next morning she was found dead at the bottom of a staircase. According to the German authorities, Ratliff died of a stroke.

She had been known to suffer from frequent headaches, after all.

The Petersons decided to adopt Ratliff’s children and took them back to the United States. For the next several years, the incident was all but forgotten.

But Margaret Blair, Ratliff’s sister, placed a call to the investigators as soon as she heard that Kathleen had also died at the bottom of a staircase. “Are you aware that the same thing happened to [Elizabeth Ratliff] and Michael Peterson was the last one to be with her?” she asked.

Ratliff’s body was exhumed in Texas and transported to North Carolina for a second autopsy that concluded she had been murdered. There was nothing concrete to tie Peterson to this murder, but the similarities between the two deaths were clear.

Ultimately, it was enough to convince the jury. Peterson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2003 for the murder of his wife.

A Successful Appeal

According to Michael Peterson, the trial was a farce from the beginning. The prosecution had “stacked the odds” against him. Though he was originally sentenced to life in prison, a long series of appeals began soon after.

During the appeal process, his lawyers advanced some interesting theories to support his case. In 2010, they submitted three affidavits from experts stating that an owl had done it.

According to the theory, Kathleen had been attacked by an owl the night of her death and run back inside only to fall and knock herself out on the bottom step. The combination of trauma from the fall and blood loss from the owl attack made her lose consciousness and led to her death.

The weirdest thing about this hypothesis is that it actually isn’t as far fetched as it sounds on the surface. The experts who wrote the affidavits admitted that Kathleen’s injuries could be consistent with an owl attack. And Peterson’s lawyer argued that the crime lab had recovered a feather from her body, according to a report he had seen.

In 2011, eight years after his original conviction, Peterson was released from prison after it became clear that one of the forensic analysts for the prosecutors had committed perjury during his trial, misleading the jury about how qualified he was. He also used questionable methods in obtaining results favorable to the prosecution.

Aphrodite Jones speaks with Michael Peterson about the murder of his wife and his bisexual affair.

Peterson was granted a new trial. In 2017, he entered an Alford plea, whereby he maintained his innocence but admitted the district attorney had sufficient evidence to convict him. Taking into account the eight years Peterson already served, the judge ordered his release.

According to Peterson, taking the plea was a hard choice. He said that he’d decided to take it after his son told him, “You’ll never win. Pick up your chips and go home.”

“I can live with this,” he said. “It’s not fair. It’s not right. I’m innocent, and yet I’ve got this verdict there.”

Kathleen’s sister, Lori Campbell, felt differently. “It’s wrong that, after a jury sentenced him to life in prison for the murder of his wife, he gets to be a free man while Kathleen lies in her grave,” she said in a victim’s statement.

Michael Peterson moved into a two-bedroom condo, where he said he planned to begin writing again and visiting with his family. He remains a free man.

After this look at the crime behind The Staircase, read about Mitchell Quy, who murdered his wife and then had the media follow him while he “looked” for her.

Wyatt Redd
Wyatt Redd is a freelance writer from Nashville, Tennessee.