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.