The Staircase is one of the latest true-crime drama streaming television miniseries which premiered on HBO Max on 5th May 2022. It is based on the 2004 true-crime docuseries of the same name created by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. The series is created by Antonio Campos and it chronicles the length saga of Michael Peterson (played by Colin Firth), who was convinced of killing his wife, namely Kathleen (played by Toni Collette), who was murdered on the stairs in their Durham, N.C. home in December 2001.
Netflix has also tried to retell the chilling case in 2018 but HBO Max’s rendition strives to reveal untold sides and different angles of the harrowing story, with Colin Firth as the lead. Now many of the viewers might be wondering if Peterson is alive and about his family. So, we will provide you with information about Michael Peterson and whether he is alive or not.
The story of Michael Peterson
Michael Peterson was born in 1943 in Nashville, Tennessee. He moved to work for the U.S. Department of Defense after college. Later, he met his first wife Patricia Sue in West Germany. At that time, she was an elementary school teacher and they had decided to walk down the aisle back in 1968. Together, they had two sons, namely Todd and Clayton.
Michael began to write novels and newspaper columns about his experiences following his honorable discharge in 1971 after serving in the Vietnam War. They had a neighbor while they lived together and they became close with their neighbor-turned-friends, namely George and Elizabeth Ratliff.
Unfortunately, George died from a military accident back in 1983. Similarly, his wife Elizabeth was also found dead at the foot of her staircase with head injuries. Not long after, Michael and Patricia decided to get a divorce and he moved in with telecoms exec Kathleen Atwater before getting married in 1997. Just after four years, his second wife Kathleen was found unconscious at the bottom of their staircase in Durham, North Carolina. Later, she was pronounced dead.
How did he become the only suspect in his wife’s murder?
At first, Michael was seemingly innocent as he was the one who dialed 911 after finding his wife at the base of their steps. However, the details about Kathleen sparked suspicion due to the awfully close similarities to Elizabeth’s death in 1985. The Detective Art Holland of Durham police revealed that Kathleen was splayed out on the floor, her head resting on the landing of a back staircase.
Michael had suggested that his wife fell down the stairs after drinking too much alcohol and Valium. However, the investigation showed that there were no fingerprints on the wine bottle or glasses out in the kitchen.
Did he kill his wife?
The prosecution suggested that Michael had killed his wife Kathleen after she initiated the fight after she discovered more than 2,000 explicit images of men on Michael’s computer. Additionally, he was planning on reuniting with a young male escort after meeting a few months prior which was revealed through his emails.
However, the defense disputed that Kathleen was accepting of Michael’s bisexuality and there was no evidence she had seen the messages. Furthermore, the blow poke (a hollow tube instead of a solid metal stick) he allegedly used to strike her suffered no damage and there were no remnants of blood on it as well.
Ultimately, the jury found Michael guilty of Kathleen’s murder and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole on the 10th of October 2003. Later, a retrial was ordered after the judge vacated the jury’s verdict in 2011. It was found that the blood splatter analysts gave false and misleading testimony in the first trial, resulting in an unsound conviction.
Michael submitted an Alford plea to the lesser charge of manslaughter before the new trial commenced on 24th February 2017 and he was set free as he had already served time for murder.
Michael’s ex-wife Patricia supported him
Surprisingly, Michael’s first wife Patricia remained supportive of him through his trial, incarceration, and release. Moreover, they took care of each other and were companions as told by Clayton to News & Observer. They also moved together in 2019. Sadly, Patricia died due to a massive heart attack in July 2021, and Michael was left alone.
Michael Peterson is played by actor Colin Firth in the latest retelling of Kathleen Peterson’s murder and Michael’s attempts to prove his innocence. Firth revealed to Deadline that he didn’t meet Michael before playing his role in HBO’s The Staircase.
He said, “These are created characters but we all know what the source is. We all know that these characters have names of living people, but it’s very carefully calibrated to tell the story in a certain way.”
He also added that he felt that he wanted to keep his inspiration, motivation, and the sense of the source material, as much as possible contained within the script and the way it was written.
Where is Michael Peterson now?
Michael Peterson is 78 years old and he is still alive. It was reported by his defense attorney David Rudolf at CrimeCon in New Orleans, per Oxygen in 2019, that he is living in Durham in a ground-floor apartment with no staircase. It was also revealed that he sold the house he owned with his wife Kathleen back in 2004. According to ABC 11 News, Michael’s house was on the market for $1.9 million.
However, his life had been dissected and picked apart by the media for almost two decades and the case that dominated such a large part of his life still haunted him. It was high time he got some much-needed privacy. You can also read his side of the story as he self-published two books that detail his side of the story. The title of the books is “Behind the Staircase” and “Beyond the Staircase”.
The proceeds from his books are donated to charity as he wouldn’t be allowed to keep them for himself and he believed that by agreeing to pay, he would be admitting to murdering Kathleen. Furthermore, all of the riches he had before his incarceration no longer exist. Because he missed out on Kathleen’s life insurance policy and his step-daughter obtained $25 million as a settlement from Michael via a wrongful death claim against him.
So, he is currently enjoying a secluded life with the occasional media appearance to again discuss that fateful staircase and lives a modest life in Durham, North Carolina.
Michael still asserts his Innocence despite pleading guilty to manslaughter
Even though many years have been passed since the incarceration, Michael still asserts that he did not kill Katleen Peterson and he is innocent. The thing that’s quite confusing about his first trial is that Michael was the last person to see Elizabeth Ratliff before she was discovered dead at the bottom of a staircase. Authorities had concluded that she had fallen down the stairs after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage at that time. However, after the North Carolina medical reexamined Ratliff’s remains in 2003 after they were exhumed in Texas, it was concluded that her death was a homicide caused by blunt force trauma.
So, Michael was painted as a murderer with prosperity for pushing his victims down the staircases which no doubt contributed to his conviction. He still insists that he hasn’t killed anyone. He even appeared in an episode of Dr. Phil in 2019, and he said that Elizabeth fell down the stairs after suffering a stroke.