What ‘The Staircase’ leaves out: Michael Peterson’s military history and son’s crime

So, you’ve seen “The Staircase,” director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s version of the winding case against Michael Peterson.

The novelist, former Durham mayoral candidate and columnist for The Herald-Sun was charged with murder after his wife, Kathleen, was found Dec. 9, 2001, at the bottom of their back staircase in the couple’s mansion.

“The Staircase” packed a lot of the case’s twists and turns into its 13 episodes, which debuted on Netflix this month, but it’s weighted toward Peterson and his attorney’s perspective.

In this story, we’re offering a bit more on some of the people and elements of the case in the death of Kathleen, 48, a Nortel Network executive and Durham socialite. (If you are looking for information on the infamous owl theory, read the entire story here.)

Peterson’s war story

In interviews, Peterson has said he went to war because he wanted to see combat and had aspirations about writing the great American war novel.

After leaving the Marine Corps, Peterson wrote three novels and co-wrote a biography and another novel.

He parlayed the success that followed his initial novels into prominence in Durham, including as a newspaper columnist. He unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1999 and then City Council in November 2001, a month before Kathleen was found dead.

In the fall of 1999, Peterson, along with four others, were vying to be Durham’s next mayor. For years, Peterson had claimed a severe war injury to his right leg. He also said he had received two Purple Hearts in Vietnam.

At the time, The News & Observer took a closer look at those claims. Marine Corps files show no record of Peterson receiving a Purple Heart medal, which is given to soldiers injured or killed in combat. The file verified that he received two other high combat honors, the Silver Star and the Bronze Star with Valor.

Here is an excerpt from the 1999 story:

“In an interview, Peterson had said he received one of the Purple Hearts when a land mine blew up near him in Vietnam. A radio operator stepped on the mine and died from the blast, he said, and the shrapnel ripped into his right leg.

‘I was shot once, the other was a land mine — my radio operator stepped on a mine,’ he said then.

Confronted with his military records that show the injury occurred while he was stationed in Japan two years later, Peterson disclosed that the leg injury occurred in a two-car accident in Japan. He said not even his family and closest friends knew the truth.

‘It’s a cover; I admit it,’ Peterson said then. ‘My second wife [aka Kathleen], she doesn’t know. I’m going to discuss it with her today.’ “

Before Peterson’s 2003 murder trial, The News & Observer spoke to Marines, Peterson and reviewed military archives, which included Peterson’s account of the battle. A story then outlined the varying perspectives of what happened during a 1969 battle in Vietnam that led to the death of a U.S. radio operator. Peterson was later recognized with a Silver Star Medal for valor in combat during that battle.

A family in debt

In addition to contending that Kathleen discovered information about Peterson’s bisexuality the night of her death, prosecutors also contended that Peterson killed his wife to gain control of her assets, including a $1.4 million insurance policy.

Prosecutors presented experts and evidence that highlighted concerns about Kathleen’s potential layoff at Nortel, where she was director of information services and made $145,000 a year. They also pointed to Nortel’s decreasing stock value.

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

Kathleen Peterson’s sister, Candace Zamperini, testified that in mid-2001, Kathleen worried about losing her job and complained about tight finances that prevented the family from repairing their leaky plumbing and other issues with the house.

Prosecutors showed that the Petersons had more than $143,000 in credit-card debt in late 2001 and more money going out of their bank accounts than coming in. Some of Peterson’s email messages revealed that in the months before his wife’s death, he sought financial help for his children.

On April 18, 2001, Peterson wrote to a paternal uncle of Margaret and Martha Ratliff, the two young women whom Peterson reared after their father died in war and their mother was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in Germany. Martha Ratliff was to start college at the private University of San Francisco at $33,000 a year, and Peterson asked the uncle to chip in $5,000 a semester. The uncle agreed.

On Nov. 29, 2001, Peterson wrote to his ex-wife, Patricia, a schoolteacher in Germany, urging her to take out a $30,000 home equity loan to pay credit-card debt incurred by their two adult sons, Clayton and Todd. The young men owed $1,000 a month in interest alone.

Peterson ended the message by saying, “It is simply not possible for me to discuss this with Kathleen.”

The defense, however, countered that the Petersons had plenty of money and a $2 million net worth. Defense attorneys pointed out that the couple was well-off enough to defer $200,000 of Kathleen’s salary and could have exercised stock options that would have made as much as $667,000 in profit.

In a side note, Peterson’s nearly 9,500-square-foot mansion at 1810 Cedar Street sold in the summer of 2004 for about half of the original asking price. The house initially went on the market for $1.175 million, but the price was reduced to $975,000 in late 2003. The six-bedroom, six-bathroom mansion sold in 2004 for $640,000. Tax records valued the home at the time as $925,000.

The house sold again in 2008 for $1.3 million to Biond Fury, a New York psychic. Its current tax value is $1.9 million, according to Durham County tax records.

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Other interesting facts about the Peterson home: it was previously owned by nationally recognized scholar Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., who lived there while teaching at Duke. And it was a location for the 1990 movie “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which was filmed in Durham and Raleigh and starred Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway and Natasha Richardson. The property was used as the Commander’s home and was featured prominently.

Clayton Peterson’s legal trouble

The documentary refers to Peterson’s oldest son, Clayton, getting in trouble in college, but doesn’t elaborate on the details that led to him spending four years in federal prison.

Clayton had gone through turbulent teenage years in Germany, where easy access to alcohol and a fascination with explosives would later get him into trouble, according to an N&O article.

He returned to Durham and sought to follow his father’s footsteps to Duke University.

At 19, Clayton Peterson was arrested and charged with planting a small bomb in a Duke University office.

Clayton was convicted in federal court of possessing a destructive device after admitting in April 1994 that he broke into the Allen Building, which houses the Duke president and several other high administrator offices. He admitted to placing a pipe bomb submerged in gasoline in a closet on the second floor and to stealing photo identification equipment to make a fake ID.

Clayton said in a 1997 interview from prison with an N&O reporter that he planted the bomb to divert attention from his pursuit of a fake ID, which he had discussed with friends. Clayton Peterson also said he took steps to prevent the bomb from detonating.

After his release, Clayton enrolled at N.C. State University, where he became an honors student and was valedictorian of his class.

Todd Peterson was not cooperative

Peterson’s older son, Todd, also graduated from N.C. State University and worked briefly for Nortel Networks, which employed his stepmother, Kathleen.

He then started a website,, which offered tips to high-schoolers on kissing, sex, drunk friends and makeup. While Todd said the website was to provide advice to teens like his sisters, some said the content and photos of scantily dressed girls was inappropriate for that age group.

The site also introduced Todd’s alter ego, bodybuilder “Roman Croft,” with before-and-after photographs of him in boxer shorts.

Todd Peterson listens as former Durham police officer James McVay describes his attitude the night his step mother was found dead in the Peterson home during testimony July 11, 2003 in his father Michael Peterson’s murder trial. Chuck Liddy News & Observer file photo

In a January 2002 interview, Todd told the N&O, “When I was a sophomore in college, I was really unsatisfied that I was a nobody, so I wanted to create something.”

On the night of Kathleen’s death, Todd had been at a party with friends and came to the house with four friends after police had arrived.

In testimony, police made it clear that Todd wasn’t cooperative that night. A former Durham officer testified that he had to ask Todd not to talk to others, but that Todd continued to do so. The police moved two women who were with Todd into another room and then at one point, Todd tried to signal out the window, the detective testified.

The search for the blow poke

Durham district attorney turned Superior Court Judge Jim Hardin said in an interview this week that he still doesn’t believe the blow poke that Peterson’s defense team presented in court was the blow poke that Kathleen’s sister gave the couple.

Hardin contended that Peterson beat Kathleen with a blow poke, or something like it, but law enforcement wasn’t able to find it. Zamperini, Kathleen’s sister, had said she gave Kathleen and her other siblings a blow poke many years ago.

Near the end of the 2003 trial, Peterson attorney David Rudolf introduced a blow poke that he said had been just discovered by Clayton in Peterson’s garage.

There were multiple searches, Hardin said in an interview this week. One time, Hardin said, they were about 20 officers and they were there all day long.

“I had the officers measure every inch of that house,” Hardin said, so he could have a scale model.

Peterson ordered extra blow pokes

In an interview on BBC Radio’s 5 Live, which did a podcast series on the Michael Peterson case, Hardin said prosecutors thought it was “something like the blow poke,” but he personally believed “we found the murder weapon.”

After the trial had been over for about three weeks, Hardin’s office received a call from a federal prosecutor’s office, Hardin told the BBC. Someone had received a call from a lady in Vermont saying someone named Michael Peterson had ordered three blow pokes before Rudolf introduced the blow poke that he said was found at Peterson’s home.

“So the lady sent us the shipping order and credit,” he said.

However, the timelines don’t appear to match up. Requests to the District Attorney’s Office and the clerk’s office made last year to view that receipt were unsuccessful.

Defense attorney David Rudolf holds three fireplace blow pokers as he questions Durham Police Detective Art Holland during the Michael Peterson murder trial on Monday, Sept. 29, 2003. Peterson, right, was on trial for the murder his wife, Kathleen Peterson, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in the Peterson’s home on Dec. 9, 2001. AP Photo/Kevin Seifert AP Photo/Kevin Seifert

In 2004, a Herald-Sun article said that the blow poke was ordered by Peterson from a shop in Maine. The article said the order was made before the blow poke showed up in court, but it’s not clear that it is accurate.

Someone identifying himself as Mike Peterson “left a message on our answering machine that he needed them immediately,” manager Alechia Maguire of Hurlbutt Designs in Kennebunk, Maine, told The Herald-Sun in March 2004.

Two pokes, which cost $82.50 each, were shipped by overnight air on Sept. 29, 2003, Maguire said.

The pokes sent to Peterson were new ones made in China, not antiques, she said.

Rudolf introduced the blow poke in court on Sept. 23, 2003.

Hardin said when he spoke to the BBC he was going from memory, and it could have been Maine, but he was pretty sure the number of blow pokes was three.

A document filed in the Peterson case on behalf of the state Attorney General’s Office pointed to Peterson ordering two blow pokes, but couched the connection a little differently than Hardin.

“Along this line it is interesting to note that defendant knew where to acquire blow pokes in that he bought and had shipped to him two blow pokes on September 29 2003 from a company in Maine,” the state filing states.

The state filing — made years before questions arose about the prosecution’s blood splatter expert Duane Deaver — was in response to an unsuccessful defense challenge in the case that included an allegation about prosecutors withholding evidence about a tire iron found by a neighbor.

To further confuse the situation, Peterson told the BBC that the blow pokes were ordered to show that it could not have been the blow poke, “and then the real blow poke shows up.”

In 2003, Rudolf told The News & Observer that he had planned to use them as props during closing arguments.

The idea was to smash a blow poke over the head of a mannequin or dummy to show how mangled the object would have been had it been used as a weapon, unlike the undamaged blow poke found in the Peterson garage.

Rudolf said the blow pokes were too dissimilar to Peterson’s blow poke to make an effective demonstration. Besides, the defense attorney said, the demonstration seemed a bit much.

“I didn’t think it was necessary,” Rudolf said.

None of this was shown in the documentary, which included extensive footage of defense planning sessions.

Hardin’s ‘survival complex’

The documentary left out some interesting backstory about Hardin, including that one of his biggest fans attended most of the trial: his mother.

Carolyn Couch-Hardin sometimes made lunch for prosecutors and their team and would hand out hard candies during breaks.

When Hardin was 12, he watched his family home burn down, claiming his two younger sisters and brother.

Couch-Hardin told WRAL in 2003 that he tied sheets together and used them to climb out of his window. His brother and two sisters died in the fire.

“I think he has a survival complex. He tries to make up for the other children, I think, that did not survive,” she told WRAL.

Other blood experts

So, what did Hardin think that the documentary left out?

Hardin said in an interview this week that in addition to State Bureau of Investigation blood spatter expert Duane Deaver, two renowned blood spatter experts consulted with his team and a third consulted with the defense.

Deaver conducted blood spatter analysis for the SBI in the Peterson case and had a crime-scene investigation career that spanned nearly 25 years. But 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 Orlando Hudson ruled that Deaver misled the jury in the Peterson case, one of the reasons cited for vacating the murder verdict.

Two other renowned experts reviewed everything Deaver did, Hardin said. They differed in a few minor areas, but “in terms of his core opinions, they came up with the same conclusion,” Hardin said.

Hardin said he decided not to call those experts because he thought it would strain the jury after days of Deaver’s testimony.

News & Observer staff writer Brooke Cain contributed to this story.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.