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Things To Know Before Seeing The Staircase Documentary

Read this before seeing The Staircase Documentary: 

Micheal and Kathleen Peterson of Durham, North Carolina were certainly an accomplished couple. While Micheal boasts about being a decorated veteran of the Vietnam war and a best selling author, his wife Kathleen was a VP of Nortel Networks, an international communications firm. On paper she was worth 2 and a half million.

This couple had grown children from previous marriages, and lives in a luxurious home. That chapter came to an end in December 2001, when Micheal calls police at 2 am stating “ My wife had an accident, she’s still breathing” She fell down the stairs, please come. “

Too late. When paramedics arrived, she was already dead at the bottom of the staircase. 

When the paramedics asked Peterson what happened at the staircase, he said he was outside by his luxe pool while Kathleen was working on the computer. Within 45 minutes, he would come in to find her unconscious at the bottom of the staircase. Blaming it on alcohol and her flimsy sandals, Peterson forced the police to check her toxicology report. Although it was below the limit, she had been drinking. But, her blood alcohol level was reportedly low enough to pass a Breathalyzer test. Forensic scientists were also able to dig deep within her computer and successfully guarantee that she in fact was on her computer. So, was it the alcohol? Wasn’t she on top of the stairs? She could have fallen. 

Suspicious, and eager to read between the lines, forensics were back again at the crime scene. Photo evidence shows a lot of blood at the bottom of the staircase, but, blood splatter and large amounts of blood due to falling down the stairs, was never seen except for Kathleen’s murder scene. 

Another suspicion came from the knowledge that Micheals 25 year old son, Todd was already at the scene of the crime when paramedics arrived – at 2: 30 in the morning. Todd also refused to speak to the police, refusing to give a statement. Shady. 

Kathleen’s blood also didn’t look fresh when Paramedics arrived at the scene of the crime. And the wall by the staircase, looked like it had been washed with detergent, it looked smeared and intentional. In addition to this, investigators also noticed blood on the bottom of Kathleen’s feet. Which points to the fact that she HAD TO STAND up, to get blood on her soles. 

Another suspicion was the blood stain found on the side of the house, and drops of blood on the outside of the house (on a tile) 

Autopsy Reports

Kathleen Peterson’s autopsy reported 7 deep lacerations on THE TOP of her skull, inconsistent with her “fall”. In her brain tissue lied a clue: Medical examiners found red neurons, shrivelled. Finding red neurons on someone’s brain tissue means the person  suffered from an episode of lack of oxygen at least 2, 4 or 6 hours before a full body death. They ruled it as an attack or that she was beaten, but painfully, she continued to live for the red neurons to develop by the time she finally died. This was proof that she lay bleeding for hours. 

When investigators analyzed Micheal’s clothing, they found water marks on the front of his shorts which he tried to remove. A blood splatter expert then looked between the legs of Micheal’s shorts, and he found blood splatter which is very common in beating cases. This is because you are standing over a victim and beating them.

Micheal’s Peterson Unexpected Gay Sex and Debt: The oldest motive for crime 

Kathleen sent an email around midnight with a coworker, placing her inside, at the computer an hour or so earlier than Micheal originally claimed. Investigators also found thousands of gay pornographic images, at Micheal’s desk was also an email exchange between himself and a gay prostitute for sex.

The emails also revealed Micheal Peterson had a prior gay relationship with another man, a local college lacross player. Allegedly, this find on his desk, could have been the instigator for Kathleen and Micheal Peterson’s duel. 

Micheal Peterson May Have Killed Another Female

Just like Micheal Peterson was the beneficiary of Kathleen’s $1.4 million if the death was ruled an accident via life insurance policy, he was also the beneficiary of Liz Ratliff, a wealthy women he knew from Germany. 

16 years earlier, when Peterson and his first wife were living together in Germany, Liz Ratliff, a widow was found dead at the bottom of the staircase.  She was a wealthy woman who named Micheal in her will, and in charge of all her personal property and children. When officials dug up her body, her prior accidental cause of death was forever deleted in the new autopsy when they saw lacerations on her head, 7 of them, JUST LIKE KATHLEEN.

Things To Know After Watching The Staircase Documentary: 

So, you’ve seen “The Staircase,” director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s version of the winding case against Michael Peterson. Here’s more: 

Is the staircase a documentary?

Yes, The Staircase: The Seminal True Crime Documentary Is Now on Netflix. 

It’s hard to overstate how much this new wave of true crime TV owes to The Staircase, a 2005 documentary series by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade about the murder trial of best-selling novelist Michael Peterson.

Who made the staircase documentary?

The entire 16-year saga was directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the French filmmaker whose Murder on a Sunday Morning won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2001.

The 13-part series includes French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s original ten episodes, which premiered on French television in 2004 to much acclaim, plus three new episodes delving into the almost two-decade long quest for truth.

What was left out of the staircase?

In the 13-plus hours that make up the finished film, certain facts that might complicate or distract from that narrative are elided or left out entirely. These include:

Peterson was in deep debt

The Staircase documentary did cover the fact that by the end of all the legal proceedings, Peterson was in the hole. But the actual sum is astounding. By the end of his trial, Peterson was reportedly $1.408 million in debt.

Kathleen Peterson’s sister, Candace Zamperini, testified that in mid-2001, Kathleen worried about losing her job and complained about tight finances that prevented the family from repairing their leaky plumbing and other issues with the house. 

Prosecutors showed that the Petersons had more than $143,000 in credit-card debt in late 2001 and more money going out of their bank accounts than coming in. Peterson’s email messages showed that in the months before his wife’s death, he looked for financial help for his children.

In 2001, Peterson wrote to a paternal uncle of Margaret and Martha Ratliff, the two women whom Peterson raised after their father died in war and their mother was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in Germany (we’ve mentioned this in detail above). Martha Ratliff was to start college at the private University of San Francisco at $33,000 a year, and Peterson asked the uncle to chip in $5,000 a semester. The uncle agreed.

On Nov. 29, 2001, Peterson wrote to his ex-wife, Patricia, a schoolteacher in Germany, urging her to take out a $30,000 home equity loan to pay credit-card debt incurred by their two adult sons, Clayton and Todd. The young men owed $1,000 a month in interest alone.

Peterson concluded by saying, “It is simply not possible for me to discuss this with Kathleen.”

Michael Peterson’s long-term romantic relationship with the editor of The Staircase 

De Lestrade confirmed the long rumored romance between Peterson and the film’s editor Sophie Brunet to L’Express saying “This is one of the incredible things that happened during those 15 years. Life is really full of surprises. But she never let her own feelings affect the course of editing.”

Micheal Peterson’s fake military history

In the fall of 1999, Peterson, along with four others, were vying to be Durham’s next mayor. Peterson had always claimed a severe war injury to his right leg. He also said he had received two Purple Hearts in Vietnam.  

So, The News & Observer took a closer look at those claims. Marine Corps files show no record of Peterson receiving a Purple Heart medal, which is given to soldiers injured or killed in combat. The file verified that he received two other high combat honors, the Silver Star and the Bronze Star with Valor.

“In an interview, Peterson had said he received one of the Purple Hearts when a land mine blew up near him in Vietnam. A radio operator stepped on the mine and died from the blast, he said, and the shrapnel ripped into his right leg.

‘I was shot once, the other was a land mine — my radio operator stepped on a mine,’ he said then.

Confronted with his military records that show the injury occurred while he was stationed in Japan two years later, Peterson disclosed that the leg injury occurred in a two-car accident in Japan. 

‘It’s a cover; I admit it,’ Peterson said then. ‘My second wife [ Kathleen], she doesn’t know. I’m going to discuss it with her today.’ “

Clayton Peterson’s arrest and incarceration 

The documentary refers to Micheal Peterson’s oldest son, Clayton, getting in trouble in college, but doesn’t elaborate on the details that led to him spending four years in federal prison.

Michael Peterson’s oldest son Clayton has nothing to do with Kathleen Peterson’s death, but he is featured prominently in The Staircase, particularly in the last five episodes.

On May 7, 1994, six years before Kathleen’s death, the Asheville Citizen Times reported an Associated Press story that Clayton Peterson, then 19, had been charged with trying to firebomb Duke University’s main administration building. The homemade pipe bomb didn’t explode or cause any injuries. When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives later searched the Peterson home they found “six more assembled explosive devices hidden in the attic.”

Clayton was sentenced to a four-year prison term in a federal penitentiary. In a 1997 profile of Michael Peterson, titled “Successful Author Lives the Quiet Life in Durham,” the elder Peterson explains that his son planted the bomb only “as a diversion while he stole equipment needed to make a fake ID for a Myrtle Beach trip.” He describes Clayton’s incarceration as the “…the most painful thing that happened to me. This is not how I planned to spend my 50s — going to visit my son in the pen.”

Peterson’s lawyer David Rudolf’s wife covered the trial as a reporter and wrote a letter to jurors during deliberations

As reported by Raleigh and Company, Sonya Pfeiffer, who is married to Peterson’s lawyer David Rudolf, covered Peterson’s original trial extensively as a reporter for WTVD. Soon after, she quit journalism to pursue a legal degree and now works in the same law firm as her husband. Pfeiffer was criticized during the trial for sending a letter to jurors during deliberations, inviting them to dinner and an interview. Her news director apologized and said the letter was meant to be sent after deliberations concluded.

And while de Lestrade made the decision to keep parts of Kathleen Peterson’s sister, Candace Zamperini’s fiery victim impact statement in the final episode of The Staircase, the portions where Zamperini accused Pfieffer of misconduct were left out.

In the unedited version of Zamperini’s statement she says that Pfeiffer, “… pretended to be my friend, she came to my home for an exclusive interview,” Zamperini said in court. “She invited me to dine. She told me she believed my sister had fallen down the staircase. Sonya Pfeiffer had the hubris to come to Maplewood Cemetery without an invitation to hold hands with our family [at Kathleen Peterson’s headstone].”

The prosecution was supposed to be more involved in the documentary

According to The Staircase director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the prosecution was initially supposed to be much more involved in filming. The plan was to showcase both sides of the trial evenly. However, after four months of shooting, the DA pulled the plug on the idea and refused to continue their involvement.

Peterson deleted tons of emails prior to Kathleen’s death

A Perfect Husband reports police were able to determine that Peterson had deleted 216 files from his computer the day before Kathleen’s death. Micheal deleted 352 files two days following her death. The emails reported detailed Peterson’s financial struggles, suggesting motive if he did in fact kill his wife. 

What happened to Michael Peterson staircase?

Micheal Peterson was the center of the story on The Staircase documentary. On February 24, 2017, Peterson entered an Alford plea (a guilty plea entered because sufficient evidence exists to convict him of the offense, but the defendant asserts innocence) to the voluntary manslaughter of Kathleen Peterson. The judge sentenced him to a maximum of 86 months in prison, with credit for time previously served. Because Peterson had already served more time than the sentence (98.5 months), he did not face additional prison time.

In October 2002, acting as administrator of Kathleen’s estate, Caitlin filed a wrongful death claim against Michael. In June 2006, he voluntarily filed for bankruptcy. Two weeks later, Caitlin filed an objection to the bankruptcy. On February 1, 2007, Caitlin and Michael settled the wrongful death claim for $25 million, pending acceptance by the courts involved; finalization of the settlement by the court was announced on February 1, 2008. 

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