Revisit PEOPLE's 2002 Conversation with Michael Peterson, Whose Wife's Death Inspired HBO Max's 'The Staircase'

When Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the base of her staircase, police quickly suspected foul play. While theories swirled about what happened, PEOPLE spoke to her husband about their relationship

Michael and Kathleen Peterson
Michael and Kathleen Peterson. Photo: Netflix

The sudden and violent death of Kathleen Peterson stunned the nation in 2001, when it was reported that the successful businesswoman took a fatal, late-night fall down the staircase of her $1.8 million home. The story rose to a new level of prominence after police soon arrested her husband, novelist Michael Peterson, and charged him with murder, saying that Kathleen's injuries were consistent with homicidal assault.

Michael's subsequent trial and conviction were chronicled by a film crew and turned into a 2004 documentary series titled The Staircase, which received critical acclaim and was re-released by Netflix in 2018 with three additional episodes to account for updates in the case. Now, HBO Max is bringing the case back to life in a new way with its scripted true crime drama of the same name, starring Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson.

Colin Firth Toni Collette
Colin Firth and Toni Collette as the Petersons. Courtesy of HBO Max

Before diving into The Staircase's latest iteration — premiering on HBO Max on Thursday, May 5 — PEOPLE is looking back at its early coverage of the real-life case 20 years ago, when Michael vowed he was innocent and the public struggled to determine the truth.

What follows is PEOPLE's original magazine story about the investigation surrounding Kathleen's death, including interviews with her husband, neighbor, a prosecutor and a defense attorney. "Plot Twist," written by Patrick Rogers and Lori Rozsa, was first published on Aug. 12, 2002.

Did Kathleen Peterson die in a tragic fall — or did her novelist husband, Michael, script a cunning murder?

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 WWII-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?"

The Staircase
Kathleen and Michael Peterson. Netflix

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."

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