It seems the world will never get enough of the death of Kathleen Peterson and the subsequent trial that found her husband Michael, a novelist and former Durham mayoral candidate, guilty of her murder.
The latest project on the case — a case which included everything from a male escort to a nearly identical crime in Germany to a theory of a murderous owl — is a 3-part series set to debut Sunday night on the Investigation Discovery (ID) channel.
The ID series, "An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase," has new interviews with key players in the case, including the most famous witness to testify at the trial: a former male escort named Brent Wolgamott, aka "Brad from Raleigh," who was emailing with Michael Peterson about a potential meeting before Kathleen's death.
Wolgamott talked to The News & Observer this week about what it was like to testify during the trial, the impact the trial had on his life, what he's been up to since then and what he really thinks about Michael Peterson's involvement in his wife's death.
A terrible time
Kathleen Peterson was found dead in December 2001 at the bottom of a staircase in the Durham home she shared with Michael. Michael Peterson, who has always maintained his innocence, was convicted of first-degree murder in 2003 and was in prison for eight years before his conviction was overturned because of improprieties at the State Bureau of Investigation. Peterson entered an Alford plea while awaiting a new trial last year, allowing him to plead guilty to manslaughter while maintaining his innocence.
At the time of the original trial in 2003, Wolgamott was a 28-year-old chemistry major at N.C. State and no longer escorting. During the time he corresponded with Michael Peterson about meeting for a sexual encounter, Wolgamott was an active-duty soldier stationed at Fort Bragg.
The two exchanged about 20 emails in August and September of 2001, but Wolgamott testified that he stood Peterson up for a scheduled date, and that they never met or corresponded after that. His relationship with Peterson was used as evidence toward a possible motive for the murder of Kathleen, with the defense theorizing that Kathleen learned of her husband's extramarital dalliances and that Michael killed her during an argument.
More than 15 years after the trial, Wolgamott, now living outside Cincinnati, said the trial changed his life in ways both good and bad.
"It was in a word, 'terrible,'" Wolgamott said in a phone interview this week. "It's not terrible now, but it was at the time."
Wolgamott didn't want to testify and initially asked to have his identity shielded. But he was issued a subpoena and compelled to testify with immunity, and his identity was published by local media days before his testimony, including by The News & Observer.
Wolgamott knows that his demeanor on the stand came off as cocky or flippant, but says that wasn't his intention.
"I sort of went into the courtroom annoyed," Wolgamott said. "I figured, my name is already out there, I might as well just wear this badge of honor proudly rather than act like I'm ashamed of it by using an alternate identity. That's why I used my real name on the witness stand, and why I behaved the way I did, because, I mean, the God's honest truth is I am proud of the choices I made in my life. I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, I didn't ever ask for help ... I needed to change my life and so I chose escorting. It's not a choice that everyone can make but I firmly believe that everyone has the right to do whatever they want with their own body."
At the time of the trial, Wolgamott was a student with a 3.97 GPA on a "rocket path to medical school," he said. His plan had been to join the Army, get the GI Bill for college money and become a doctor. He was on the way to making that happen when he got a call from a detective working on the Peterson case.
"I literally turned white, because I quickly realized what was happening," he said.
'Nothing like an ex-hooker to liven up a courthouse'
Wolgamott knew how big the Peterson case was playing in the news, and what that would mean for him.
The trial was moderately well attended by local media outlets before Wolgamott's testimony, but in anticipation of "Brad from Raleigh" taking the stand, the courtroom on the day he testified was packed.
Wolgamott says now that he often jokes with his friends, "Nothing like an ex-hooker to liven up a courthouse."
That notoriety followed him after the trial.
"It was uprooting at the time," he said. "It changed my life totally. I was unable to continue in North Carolina, but I do believe that everything in life happens for a reason. And that's not just a cliche, because I do think there are things that happened in the Peterson trial that sort of altered the course of my life in positive ways. And I am happy today because of that."
"After the Peterson trial and after all the plans in my life were irrevocably altered, I started using again," he said. "Obviously, when that happens you're going to get busted and I was busted. But being busted was the best thing that happened to my life because it saved me. I think probably if I wasn't busted, I'd probably be dead.
"I needed help and I didn't know I needed help at the time," Wolgamott said. "The Peterson trial forced me to move away from North Carolina because of my notoriety. And because of that, I moved closer to my parents and I ended up getting help from the VA here in Cincinnati."
Wolgamott has been clean now for 13 years. He works on a pop culture podcast called "Rob Has a Podcast," doing updates on reality TV shows like "Survivor," "Big Brother" and "RuPaul's Drag Race."
Peterson 'seems absolutely broken'
Wolgamott says he has had no contact with Michael Peterson in all the years since the trial. When he thinks of him now, "the word that comes to mind is 'sadness,'" he said. "I am sad for Michael Peterson, he just looks sad. When I talked with him (in 2001) he was always so lively and jovial, even a bit cocky ... he just seems absolutely broken."
He also doesn't think Peterson killed his wife. He has theories about who may have done it — he considers "The Owl Theory" to be "absurd" — speculating that perhaps it was someone close to Peterson that he was covering for.
"I have to believe that it was a homicide based on the amount of blood and what her body looked like at the time," Wolgamott said. "I think the prosecution from the beginning looked only at Michael Peterson, as far as I could tell, and I think there were probably other players involved that they probably didn't look at, who might have somehow accidentally killed Kathleen Peterson and maybe Michael was covering it up. Maybe that's why he wouldn't talk.
"I'm looking for a reason because in my heart of hearts, I do not believe that the guy who I talked to over email and over the phone, not that I have any standing to judge him, but he just does not seem like the kind of guy who would kill his wife."
Watch 'An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase'
"An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase" is told in three parts through interviews, news footage and re-enactments. It features legal experts, jurors and reporters who covered the case from the beginning. Former News & Observer reporter Joseph Neff is one of the reporters interviewed for the series. There are also interviews with former Durham County District Attorney Jim Hardin, and with Kathleen Peterson's sister Candace Hunt Zamperini, who initially defended Michael Peterson but later testified against him.
The special will air at 10 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday on Investigation Discovery (ID). Locally, you'll find ID on channels 76 and 138 on Time Warner Cable/Spectrum; channel 260 on AT&T UVerse; channel 339 on Google Fiber; channel 192 on Dish; and channel 285 on DirecTV.
The Peterson case in popular culture
The Peterson case has been the subject of numerous true crime TV shows, books and podcasts. Here are just a few examples:
▪ The murder and subsequent trial were the subject of a 2004 French documentary miniseries, "The Staircase," by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. The film crew embedded with Peterson, his family and the defense team to make the film. Lestrade updates the series periodically. UPDATE: De Lestrade added three new installments to be released June 8, 2018, when the entire 13-part series airs on Netflix.
▪ A 2006 episode of the Headline News series "Forensic Files" focused on the Peterson case. The episode was called "A Novel Idea."
▪ In 2007, a Lifetime movie called "The Staircase Murders" starred Treat Williams as Michael Peterson and Kevin Pollak as Peterson's attorney, David Rudolf.
▪ The French documentary was the inspiration for the first season of the NBC sitcom "Trial & Error," which aired in March 2017. In that show, a poetry professor (John Lithgow) goes on trial for the murder of his wife, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in front of a shattered window. In the final episode of the season, after the husband is convicted and sent to prison, cell phone video is discovered of the wife being attacked and killed by an owl. (An owl attack was one of the more unusual theories floated as a possibility for Kathleen Peterson's death.)
▪ In April 2017, NBC's "Dateline" tackled the Peterson case with an episode called "Down the Back Staircase." Peterson was interviewed by Dennis Murphy about his decision to plead out the case.
▪ Late last year, a BBC podcast called "Beyond Reasonable Doubt?" examined the case and scored a long interview with Michael Peterson. Reporter Chris Warburton also interviewed the Petersons' former neighbor, Larry Pollard, who came up with the infamous "Owl Theory."