‘The Staircase’ main players: Where are they now?

Clockwise from left: David Rudolf and Michael Peterson, Jim Hardin, Caitlin Atwater, Margaret and Martha Ratliff, Todd Peterson.
Clockwise from left: David Rudolf and Michael Peterson, Jim Hardin, Caitlin Atwater, Margaret and Martha Ratliff, Todd Peterson. News & Observer staff photos

With millions tuning in to watch “The Staircase,” Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s French documentary series that debuted on Netflix last week, there’s more curiosity than ever before about Durham’s most notorious crime story and the strange saga’s cast of characters.

What happened to members of the defense and prosecution teams after the trial? What about the family members torn apart by the events?

Here’s a “where are they now” look at some of the main players.

The people

Michael Peterson — Peterson was indicted on a first-degree murder charge in the death of his wife, Kathleen, in December 2001. Peterson said he found Kathleen at the bottom of the back staircase of the couple’s large Durham home around 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2001. Peterson was convicted in one of North Carolina’s longest trials 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. Peterson and the editor of “The Staircase,” Sophie Brunet, fell in love during the filming of the documentary, and the two maintained a relationship until May 2017. He currently lives in an apartment complex in Durham.

David Rudolf — Rudolf, the lead attorney on the Peterson case, is still a practicing attorney with the Rudolf Widenhouse firm in Charlotte. On his website, Rudolf also writes an episode-by-episode “insider’s view” of “The Staircase” series. Rudolf co-owns an art gallery in Charlotte, The Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art, with his wife Sonya Pfeiffer, a former reporter for WTVD in Durham who now practices law at Rudolf Widenhouse. Pfeiffer runs the gallery and plans its programming.

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Tom Maher — Maher, a member of the Peterson defense team, is currently listed as a Senior Lecturing Fellow on the Duke University Law School website. His bio says he is the executive director of North Carolina’s Indigent Defense Services, the state agency that oversees the provision of indigent representation in North Carolina.

Ron Guerette — The gritty investigator who assisted defense attorney David Rudolf died on June 19, 2018. He was 73.

Judge Orlando Hudson — Superior Court Judge Hudson presided over Peterson’s 2003 murder trial and his 2017 Alford hearing. Hudson is the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for Durham County, District 14.

Jim Hardin — The district attorney who led the prosecution of Peterson was Durham’s top prosecutor from 1994 until 2005, when Mike Easley, the governor at the time, appointed him a Superior Court judge. He spent nine months as a special Superior Court judge before taking a leave to serve with the U.S. Army Central Command during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He served as staff judge advocate for the 81st Regional Readiness Command of the U.S. Army Reserve, then returned to Durham. In summer 2007, Hardin was appointed by Easley to take over temporarily as the Durham district attorney after Mike Nifong, his successor, was disbarred after the Duke lacrosse scandal and forced to resign. Hardin conducted a review of the office, at Easley’s direction, then returned to the bench. Hardin, a Durham County Superior Court judge now, was elected to an eight-year term in 2010.

Freda Black — As an assistant district attorney on the case, Black is perhaps best remembered for her closing arguments, delivered in a molasses-thick Southern accent. She memorably described the pornography found in Peterson’s home as “pure-T filth.” Since the trial, Black has run two unsuccessful campaigns for Durham district attorney, in 2006 and 2008. In 2010, she ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Durham district court bench. Twice since 2012, Black has faced driving while impaired charges in Durham and Orange County. Her 2012 arrest warrant showed she was working at the Durham Cleaners then.

Todd Peterson — Michael Peterson’s youngest son with his first wife, Patty, is seen a lot in the early episodes of “The Staircase” and has been a vocal supporter of his father. At the time of last year’s Alford plea, David Rudolf said Todd was living in Tennessee. It’s not clear where he currently lives.

Clayton Peterson — Clayton, Michael Peterson’s oldest son with his first wife, Patty, is seen a lot in later episodes of “The Staircase.” In one episode, he visits his father in prison with his wife and baby, and later Michael Peterson is shown playing with both of Todd’s young sons during visits. Clayton and his family live in Maryland.

Margaret and Martha Ratliff — The daughters of Elizabeth Ratliff were raised by Michael Peterson and his first wife, Patty, when their mother died in Germany. Our 2017 update on them had Martha living in Colorado, but more recent public records indicate Martha lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. The most recent public records show that Margaret lives in Los Angeles.

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Caitlin Atwater — Kathleen Peterson’s daughter from her first marriage initially supported her stepfather. But after viewing autopsy photos, she believed that Michael Peterson murdered her mother. Caitlin won a $25 million wrongful death suit against Michael Peterson in 2008. (Peterson claims to be indigent.) Caitlin married Christopher Clark in 2012. The couple has twins and, according to Rudolf last year, live in Northern Virginia.

Candace Zamperini — Kathleen Peterson’s sister Candace has been outspoken in her belief that Michael Peterson killed her sister. She testified for the prosecution at Peterson’s 2003 trial and read a heated statement at his 2017 Alford hearing. She resides in Virginia.

Brent Wolgamott (aka “Brad from Raleigh”) — The former male escort was emailing with Michael Peterson about a potential rendezvous just months before Kathleen Peterson’s death. At that time, Brent was an active duty soldier stationed at Fort Bragg. At the time of the trial, Brent was a 28-year-old chemistry major at N.C. State and no longer escorting. The publicity from the trial was difficult. “It changed my life totally,” he told us in a recent interview. He struggled with addiction but got help from the VA. He’s now living outside Cincinnati and works for the pop culture podcast Rob Has a Podcast.

Duane Deaver — Duane Deaver testified as a blood spatter expert for the State Bureau of Investigation in the Peterson case. In 2011, Deaver was fired from the bureau after a series of messy court cases, including the exoneration of Greg Taylor, who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Deaver failed to report the result of blood tests that would have been helpful to Taylor. In 2011, Judge Hudson ruled that Deaver misled the jury in the Peterson case, one of the reasons cited for vacating the murder verdict. Deaver’s attorneys challenged the firing. They described him as a scapegoat for the SBI, which was under legislative and public scrutiny for the crime lab’s policies and procedures. In 2014, the state ruled that the SBI was justified in firing Deaver because of the judge’s findings in the Peterson case, but not for the initial reasons put forward by the bureau. The commission ruled that Deaver should get back pay for an 18-month period after Hudson’s ruling in the Peterson case, and the state Appeals Court ruling upheld it.

Deborah Radisch — The state pathologist who performed the autopsies on both Kathleen Peterson and Elizabeth Ratliff, who died in Germany, is now the chief medical examiner for the state of North Carolina.

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Nonhuman players

The house — The front of the house at 1810 Cedar St. in Durham, now on its second post-Peterson owner, is visible from the street, but the entire 3.4-acre property is gated. It still has the swimming pool where Michael Peterson said he was sitting alone the night Kathleen died. The owners right after Peterson put barbed wire on top of the back gate, along with “No Trespassing” signs. The house is currently owned by clairvoyant and medium Biond Fury, who paid $1.3 million for it in 2008. The current Durham County tax appraisal is $1.9 million.

The blow poke— First it was missing. Then it was found. But Zamperini said it wasn’t the same one. Peterson’s family said it was. Then at Peterson’s 2017 Alford hearing (depicted in the final episode of “The Staircase”), Rudolf said he had learned that the blow poke was never missing at all — that Durham police found it in June 2002 and even took photos with it before returning it to the garage. Current location not known.

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