By Patrick Rogers
Updated August 12, 2002 12:00 PM

Corks were popping at Michael and Kathleen Peterson’s Durham, N.C., mansion on the night of Dec. 8, and not for the usual society bash or arts council fundraiser. Earlier that day, Michael, 58, author of 1990’s popular A Time of War, learned that a Hollywood studio was interested in optioning his latest book, a true WW II-era tale. For his wife, Kathleen, 48, the news was most welcome. As they shared two bottles of champagne, she mused happily about traveling and spending more time together. Just before 2 a.m. she headed inside for bed. “I can’t even remember the last thing I said to her,” says Michael. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘This is the last time I’m going to see her.'”

Michael Peterson could hardly have predicted that 30 minutes later he would find his dying wife at the foot of a stairway, slumped in a pool of blood. Or could he have? That’s a question that has divided members of Durham’s close-knit upper crust ever since police arrested Peterson for his wife’s Dec. 9 murder. The authorities initially considered the death accidental. But in a startling turn of events, based almost wholly on an autopsy report, investigators say Kathleen died not after a fall but after being attacked. “This was not an accident,” says Durham County D.A. Jim Hardin. “There is no question.”

The autopsy, conducted by a state medical examiner, indicates she was killed by multiple blows to the back of the head and suffered wounds to her back, arms, hands and wrists. Although a hair found under her fingernails has yet to be analyzed for DNA, the police are confident they’ve found the killer—her husband.

What makes them so certain? The police have not yet said. And among the couple’s many friends, none can imagine a scenario in which Peterson, a doting husband who often surprised his spouse with gifts of valuable jewelry and silk scarves, could have lifted a finger to harm her. “Everything you hear about them loving each other and belonging together is true,” says lawyer Nick Galifianakis, a former congressman who had represented both Petersons. “Where in the world is the motive for this?”

On the surface at least, they did seem like an ideal pair. Born and raised in Greensboro, N.C., Kathleen was the first woman admitted to Duke University’s school of engineering, from which she went on to jobs with a pharmaceutical company and, more recently, telecommunications giant Nortel, where she rose to the post of vice president. Michael, a Tennessee native who also graduated from Duke, had successfully translated his experiences as a decorated Vietnam War vet into three widely praised novels.

The couple first met in 1986, the year Michael returned with his family from living in Germany, where his first wife, Patty, had been an elementary school teacher at an American military base. Kathleen, also married, with a daughter of her own, would live with Michael for 10 years before their divorces were at last finalized, clearing the way for their wedding in 1997. “She was immensely funny, intelligent, warm and just so quick,” says Peterson. By then Michael was writing an often scathing column about the city leaders for The Herald-Sun and, soon, running unsuccessfully for city council and mayor in Durham. Kathleen, meanwhile, had fallen in love with the arts. Often after a full day at the office, she turned the couple’s landmark home, valued at $1.8 million, into a setting for gala receptions for local dance and arts groups. “We called her the 48-hour-per-day woman,” says neighbor Maureen Berry, 52. “She lived life to the fullest on four or five hours of sleep a night.”

In fact, she seemed to do so right up until the morning of her death, although friends report that Kathleen had been complaining about the stress of her $150,000-a-year job. Michael’s high-dollar defense attorney, David Rudolf, has not yet announced whether he will argue that Kathleen’s death was accidental or perpetrated by an intruder while Michael was outside feeding the dogs. Meanwhile the investigation took another unexpected turn in May when police interviewed Peterson’s ex-wife about the death of a close friend, Elizabeth Ratliff, 42, who was living near the couple in Germany when she died of a brain hemorrhage in 1985. Like Kathleen Peterson, Ratliff’s body was found at the foot of a staircase.

With a trial scheduled for next May, Peterson—who faces life in prison and is out on $850,000 bond—is living back in the big house that Kathleen Peterson had once made such a hub of activity. He is writing, planning his defense and trying to put the bad memories behind him. “I take a little step forward and then I’m back again,” he says. “Everything in the house is a reminder of Kathleen.”

Patrick Rogers

Lori Rozsa in Durham