Durham News: Opinion

Tom Gasparoli: Stylist recalls newsmaking case

Michael Midyette has been cutting, coloring and styling hair for 20 plus years now, at three salons in the South Square area. These days, he’s stationed at “The Company,” a few doors down from the Shannon Road post office. I’ve known the stylist for a good while – periodically, Double M does what he can do for my ’do.

Midyette has tended to legions of regulars, the everyday drop-in client, and some area celebrities. No matter who they are, when Midyette’s scissors start dancing, his clients get comfortable. The stylist is talented, funny and kind.

Kindness is what Midyette remembers most about a delightful, diminutive forty-something woman who was once a client for several years.

“I think about Kathleen a lot,” he said. “She was always just pouring out energy and warmth to everyone. One of my favorite clients ever.”

Her last name was Peterson, and she came to get her hair done two or three days before Dec. 9, 2001. After Midyette finished and Kathleen stood up, she realized she didn’t have a dime on her. First time that had happened.

“Can I pay you next time, Michael?” she said, embarrassed.

“I think you’re good for it,” he said with a laugh. “See you after the holidays, Kathleen.”

Michael Midyette would never see Kathleen Peterson again. Within a few days, her body lay near the bottom of a staircase in the Cedar Street house she shared with her husband, Michael, who would come to be convicted of murdering his wife.

He served years in prison but in 2013, the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld a Superior Court judge’s decision to vacate Peterson’s conviction and grant him a new trial. He’s been out of prison since late 2011. Any time now, we may learn what the next legal steps will be.

Peterson’s been back in the news recently, which is why Midyette has been reflecting on these events that occurred more than a decade ago.

After Kathleen’s death, Midyette said he was working at a different area salon when he looked up one day and saw Michael Peterson standing there. Midyette had seen the news stories about him.

Peterson was carrying a plastic bag. Inside was a gift. Turns out that before she died, Kathleen had apparently purchased a Christmas present for Midyette’s 6-month old daughter. Michael Peterson was delivering it.

“I was almost stunned,” Midyette told me. “I can count on one hand the number of clients who have bought a present for one of our children. And this, from Kathleen, after she was ...”

The present for the baby was a wooden toy box. There was a purple elephant image on the side. Purple matched the baby’s room; Kathleen had asked about the color weeks earlier.

“It was beautiful,” Midyette said. “I didn’t quite know what to say.”

The stylist said Michael Peterson was “a man of few words,” too, but then stated he wanted to pay Kathleen’s outstanding bill from her final visit. He asked about “tipping guidelines,” Midyette remembered, and then Peterson wrote out a check.

“How would he know about Kathleen owing you for her last visit?” I asked Midyette.

“No idea,” he said. “Maybe she mentioned it.”

This isn’t the end of the stylist’s story, though – it took another surreal turn.

“I knew Peterson was being investigated in the case, of course,” Midyette said. And one day, a Durham police detective came to the salon and asked for Midyette. It was a surprise, indeed.

The detective asked Midyette what if anything Kathleen had said about her husband during her many visits. Most people do talk to – and often confide in the people who cut their hair.

“She never said much about him,” Midyette told the detective. “That he was a writer and novelist. That’s about it.”

Midyette and the detective discussed Kathleen Peterson’s final visit days before she died. Midyette told the police it was mostly unremarkable, but he did remember Kathleen saying something about a celebrating a book deal for her husband.

Midyette said he very was surprised, again, when the detective quietly told him about a potential motive for murder that was quite sensitive in nature, and asked the stylist if Kathleen had ever mentioned anything relevant to it. His answer: no, she hadn’t.

As the detective was leaving, Midyette recalls that he was told he’d be put on a witness list for the trial. He was never called to testify. Later, he closely followed the headline grabbing trial along with so many others here.

“What I still choose to focus on most,” the stylist said, “is not the incredibly sad ending for my client. I think about the generous gift Kathleen gave our daughter: the toy box. We still have it and cherish it. I only wish I’d had the chance to say ‘thank you.’”

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.