'The Staircase' : The True Story Behind HBO Max's True Crime Series

Here's everything you need to know about the true story behind The Staircase, which details the tragic death of Kathleen Peterson

colin firth the staircase
Photo: Courtesy of HBO Max

HBO Max is telling the true story of Kathleen Peterson's tragic and mysterious death.

The Staircase, which is set to hit the streamer on May 5, stars Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, a novelist who was convicted of murdering his wife Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) after she was found dead at the bottom of the staircase in their home.

The real-life tragedy took place in December 2001 in Durham, North Carolina, and has gained media attention in recent years due to the mysterious nature of the case.

Before HBO Max's show, the story was developed into a French limited docuseries through BBC's Storyville, spanning several spinoffs as Michael Peterson's case continued to evolve.

The 10-episode series was eventually picked up by Netflix in 2018, further increasing interest in the trial and the Peterson family.

Ahead of The Staircase release, here's a breakdown of the true story behind it.

How did Michael and Kathleen Peterson meet?

The Staircase

Before Kathleen, Michael was married to an elementary school teacher named Patty whom he met while living in Germany. Together, they had two children, Clayton and Todd. While living in the Western European country, Michael and Patty met and befriended another couple, George and Elizabeth Ratliff, and their two children, Margaret and Martha.

Following the deaths of both George and Elizabeth, Michael became the guardian of their two children. The family moved to Durham, North Carolina; after Michael and Patricia divorced in 1987, Clayton and Todd lived with Patricia, and Margaret and Martha lived with Michael. Clayton and Todd eventually followed to live with their father.

Michael and Kathleen met in 1986. At the time, they were both still married and Kathleen had a daughter of her own named Caitlin. The couple lived together for 10 years before their respective divorces were finalized, and the two were wed in 1997.

How did Kathleen Peterson die?

The Staircase

On Dec. 9, 2001, Michael called 911 after finding Kathleen unconscious at the foot of a stairway in their home in Durham, N.C., slumped in a pool of blood. The night before, the two had been celebrating with drinks by the pool after learning that Michael's latest book, a WW II-era tale based on a true story, was being optioned by a Hollywood studio. Kathleen eventually went to bed just before 2 a.m., and Michael found her about 30 minutes later.

Though authorities initially considered the death accidental, the ​​autopsy report later led investigators to believe that Kathleen died not after a fall but after being attacked. "This was not an accident," says Durham County D.A. Jim Hardin at the time. "There is no question."

The autopsy, conducted by a state medical examiner, indicated that Kathleen was killed by multiple blows to the back of the head and suffered wounds to her back, arms, hands, and wrists.

Was Michael Peterson arrested for Kathleen Peterson's death?

The Staircase

Days after Kathleen's death on Dec. 9, 2001, Michael was charged with murder. Michael later went on trial in 2003, where he maintained that he was innocent.

On. Oct. 10, 2003, Michael was found guilty of the murder of Kathleen and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

He served time for eight years before his conviction was overturned in 2011 "because of improprieties at the State Bureau of Investigation," according to the News & Observer.

Several years later in February 2017, Michael entered an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter in his wife's death. He was released from custody with credit for the seven-plus years he'd already spent behind bars.

Where is Michael Peterson now?

Writer-Wifes Death, Durham, USA - 24 Feb 2017

According to local media outlets, Michael is currently 78 years old and still resides in Durham. News & Observer adds that Michael also wrote a book, independently published in January 2019, titled Behind the Staircase, which chronicles his life since Kathleen's death, including his time in prison.

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