Killer Thriller: Staircase Murder

We almost had our own staircase murder...
We almost had our own staircase murder…

A murder fitting for a novel, perhaps one from the murderer himself.  That being author Michael Peterson.  Don’t be confused (because I was), I’m not talking about the more recent murderers Drew Peterson or Scott Peterson.  (I’m beginning to think Peterson is an unlucky surname.)  No, this one happened a few years before them.

Let me take you back to Christmas time 2001.  Michael and his second wife Kathleen are living in a suburb of Durham, North Carolina.  She’s an executive at a local company and he’s a successful author who sometimes dabbled as a newspaper columnist.  And they have a couple of children between them, but both were the product of their prior marriages.  Your typical American family, but all families have their secrets.  And late one December night this family’s secret would begin to unravel.

In the wee hours of the morning a 911 call came through from the Peterson’s residence.  A distressed Michael explained that his wife had fallen down the stairs, but was still breathing.  Then he hung up only to call back a moment later and explain now she wasn’t breathing.  And yet again terminated the call.  Paramedics rushed to the scene where they discovered Kathleen laying in a pool of her own coagulated blood.  Extensive blood spatter and smearing decorated the staircase walls.  The medical examiner concluded she died of lacerations to the scalp due to blunt force trauma and ruled it a homicide.  But just what would motivate someone to kill Kathleen?  And just who killed her?

Police swiftly charged Michael with her murder, but the trial would drag on for a good five months revealing things no one ever realized.  From all appearances on the outside it looked as if they led a cushy lifestyle supporting some of the finer things in life.  But when they dug deeper they discovered the Petersons were living far above their means.  And what better way to fix that than by receiving the vast amount of assets and life insurances in Kathleen’s name.  But that wasn’t the biggest bomb shell.  No, far from it.  In the middle of the trial, the prosecution revealed that Michael… was gay.  They divulged his secret life including emails he exchanged with a male prostitute.  Oh wait, there’s more.  Almost forgot… his dead friend, Elizabeth Ratliff…who also died… at the bottom of a staircase… with head injuries… and he was the last person with her.  Coincidental?  My gut doesn’t think so, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

In the end, a jury convicted Michael Peterson of first-degree murder and the Judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole.  But hey there’s always appeal.  If you want to read more about the staircase murder check out these… there’s the long version or the wiki version.  Currently, he’s out on bond, under house arrest since 2011, and awaiting a new trial.

Okay, I have to share with you one of my favorite things I read about this staircase murder.  In 2009, on appeals and while trying to free their client, his attorneys raised a new theory.  What’s that theory you ask?  Well, because they could never find a murder weapon they came up with their own idea.  It involves an owl attacking Kathleen, outside the house, as she ran inside.  Somehow she ended up falling down the stairs and smashing her head.  Owl theory…  I mean really?  Is that the best you can do?  Don’t they teach you better stuff in law school?  It’s kind of like saying the icicle fell from the house and killed someone.  Then the “murder weapon” melted away or in this case flew away.  Come on, you can do better.

So, I’d like to give my little viewpoint on this, a little psychological profiling if you will.  Okay, I just like saying that because it sounds cool.  It’s more like the possible motives, but I want to call it psychological profiling anyway.  Makes me feel like I’m putting my expensive psychology degree to good use.

Anyway, let’s get to the theories.  Obviously we have the bisexuality and gay angle.  Perhaps she confronted him after discovering his emails with the male prostitute.  That may have led to a possible fight and he pushed her down the stairs.  Another angle is fear of the family unit breaking down.  Maybe she threatened to leave him or he couldn’t deal with his bisexuality or being gay and felt it would tear his family apart.  Or worse, disgrace the family to the public eyes.  There’s so many others we could discuss like how his friend really was an accident (or he discovered people could see it as an accident), but then he realized how he could kill someone and possibly get away with it.  Or he saw the attention he received when she died and maybe he felt he needed more attention.

One thing is for sure though, we will never truly know the motive behind this crime, but when it comes to this chiller thriller, like any good mystery novel, it’ll keep you guessing.


7 thoughts on “Killer Thriller: Staircase Murder

  1. Fascinating, Stephanie. I am considering including a murder in a timeslip [21st/20th century] novel I am writing, so may come back to you for feedback about my mad ideas, if I may. SD

  2. I remember this well when I was living in California and how gripping it all was. Bit like OJ all over again. I also watched the documentary he made whilst the case was being put together for his defence and for the prosecution. I am still unsure as to his guilt or innocence but it did make me feel relieved that our justice system in Britain is so very different to that of the USA. If I ever committed a serious crime or was accused of one, I would hope I would be tried in England. It seemed to me he was on trial for pissing off the local press and police department, then for being a married homosexual and being a writer. I found the evidence more circumstantial than actual and I also watched the TV movie of the trial etc., and still didn’t feel happy about the verdict. I know his first wife died in a similar manner….but the whole way the so called detection and prosecution worked left me disgusted with the system and the grand-standing, posturing of both opposing sides left me wanting to see the old fashioned way we do it here; judge, facts, jury who are not allowed to be interviewed, give opinions etc before or after the trial and less of a superstar legal set up and more about the crime, the victim and the possible perp. Big fees, big exposure and all the political stuff going on in trials in the USA leave me so frustrated about the due process of law. I have to ask if law and due process have anything to do with it. Enjoyed your post. Thanks.

    1. That’s so cool that you remember it so well! I vaguely remembered hearing about it. I think it was before my news junkiness kicked in though. Otherwise I think I would have been all over it. And I didn’t even know there was a documentary. Definitely have to search for that. I hear ya… it’s a tough call on his guilt or innocence. And like you said, the justice system in America is so messed up. My day job is in the legal field and it’s just pathetic how if you have the “right” attorney and “right” judge and/or put on a good show you can get off with a slap on the hand. Grandstanding is a great way to put it. That’s what it’s all for… to get attention and put on a show. It’s almost like the media controls the justice system. Just terrible. I don’t know much about the British system, but by the sounds of it, the US should take some notes! Glad you liked the post 🙂 Thanks for your comment! Great to hear from someone with similar feelings and thoughts!

      1. Wow then you have first hand experience of all this. I wish I did. I love all the court-room stuff and the research leading up to a case and of course, the detection of the crime etc. I think we do go about it in a different way here. You can get in rouble with the judge here, contempt of court – prison can result – if a lawyer misbehaves in court, or jurors discuss their cases or look on the internet or in the papers and on TV etc. They are under threat of prison if they talk, discuss or hint about the cases when the trial is going on and are forbidden to speak of it afterwards. The jurors are chosen from our Electrol Roll and unless there is a good excuse cannot get out of it. We don’t screen them other than find out if they know the defendant or are mentally infirm or a criminal etc. Other than that we have a system of 12 good men and true so to speak. They are invisible really to all but those who can see them in court. Not allowed to be photographed, interviewed or named ever. It is so different. You are lucky to have such a fab job – I think I many well need to pick your brains one day. 🙂

        1. I said the same thing until I worked in it… be careful what you wish for haha. There’s hardly ever any court-room stuff. It’s mostly bickering back and forth on the phone or by nasty letters sent to each other. The research is okay… I don’t mind that part. Sometimes though case law can get rather tedious. Detection of the crime… now that is interesting! We don’t do any of that though, of course, haha. We’ll get copies of documents and photos, but we don’t get to do any of the juicy leg work or “detecting”. For the most part though, it is interesting. And I’m always open to having my brain picked 🙂 Wow, your system sounds so different… and better! Especially the part of choosing the jury. I never understood why they have such an extensive jury selection process in the US. Doesn’t make any sense other than to see which side can pick the more favorable jurors and thus get a more favorable outcome. One thing is for certain… after seeing the results of some of these high-profile cases, something needs to change in the US system.

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