Kathleen Peterson’s Mysterious Staircase Death: Accident or Homicide?

Mrs. Kathleen Peterson

The Staircase: Michael Peterson claimed that his wife had fallen down the stairs. Mrs. Kathleen Hunt Atwater Peterson died of a tragic accident in her Durham, North Carolina home on Sunday, December 9, 2001.

It’s been nearly 22 years since this case was investigated. However, there are still lingering suspicions as to Michael Peterson’s innocence or guilt. After watching The Staircase Documentary on Netflix, I was left with more questions than answers. Did Kathleen Peterson die from an accidental fall down the stairs or was it a homicide staged to look like an accident?

What Really Happened?

The most troubling aspect was the bloody stairwell scene. How could a staircase fall cause so much blood loss, blood smears, and blood spatter? Kathleen Peterson had horrific scalp lacerations to the back of her head and scars on her face. What or Who Caused It?

Kathleen Peterson was found lying at the bottom of the staircase.

Events Leading Up to Kathleen’s Death

Friday, December 7, 2001—Kathleen takes the day off from work. The Petersons go Christmas shopping. That evening, they attend the N.C. Independent Party.

Saturday, December 8, 2001—Around 3:30 p.m., Hundreds of files are deleted from Michael Peterson’s computer with a disc-purging program called “Quick Clean.” Around 4:41 p.m., Michael arrives at the Y.M.C.A. gym. Around 6:00 p.m., Michael speaks to Kathleen about renting a movie. Around 6:59 p.m., Michael rents “America’s Sweethearts” from Blockbuster Video.

Corks were popping at Michael and Kathleen Peterson’s Durham, N.C., mansion on the night of December 8, and not for the usual society bash or arts council fundraiser.

Earlier that day, Michael, 58, author of the 1990’s novel, A Time of War, learned that a Hollywood studio was interested in optioning his latest book, a true WWII-era tale. For his wife, Kathleen, 48, the news was most welcome. 

Around 9:45 p.m.Christine Tomassetti arrives at the Peterson’s home to take Todd Peterson (Michael’s son) to a party. She saw Kathleen and Michael sharing a bottle of wine.

Around 10:20 p.m.Todd and Christine leave for the party.

Around 10:40 p.m.Password “Atwater” was used to log onto Michael’s computer.

Around 11:00 p.m.—Michael Peterson says the movie ended (The Staircase on Netflix)

Around 11:08 p.m.Nortel Networks co-worker Helen Prislinger speaks with Kathleen by phone. She testified that she talked to Kathleen at 11:08 p.m. and that Kathleen did not sound intoxicated and did not seem abnormal in any way. She did not sense that Kathleen and Michael Peterson were fighting. Ms. Prislinger said Kathleen needed a document for a tele-conference scheduled for 10 a.m. the next day and was expecting an e-mail with that document attached. She heard Kathleen ask her husband for the home e-mail address. The e-mail was, in fact, sent to Michael Peterson’s e-mail address but there is no evidence the e-mail was ever read, and the PowerPoint attachment to Helen Prislinger’s letter was never opened.

Todd Markley, a lead consultant at CompuSleuth which performs forensic processing and investigation, testified as an expert in forensic computer examination. He examined a disk drive from defendant’s computer and identified an e-mail sent December 8, 2001, at 11:53 p.m. from Ms. Prislinger. He could not determine if the e-mail had been read but was “pretty confident” that the attached documents were not extracted.

Sunday, December 9, 2001—Michael Peterson’s Account of that Evening

In The Staircase documentary on Netflix, Michael Peterson recalls the events of that night. He guides the cameramen through sections of the house out to the pool area as he recollects what he and Katherine and done.

“I had gone to Blockbuster Video. Kathleen and I were watching America’s Sweethearts, and I think it was around 11:00 p.m., the movie ended. And we took our glasses, left the dinner plates, as a matter of fact, and we would clean them the next day (walking toward the dining/kitchen area). We would talk for hours, Kathleen and I, at nighttime we would talk 2 or 3 hours, talk about the movie, the kids, or what we were going to do, and we came in here (the kitchen)… I think there was… I’m not sure… We may have had another bottle of… I know we were drinking 2 bottles that night. It was a nice night. I guess it was 55 to 60 degrees. A very nice night… (exiting to the outdoor deck). And I had gone outside, and we were talking here for a fair amount of time. And then what we would usually do on a nice night… We would go down to the pool talking… and you know, the dogs would come over… and we were just talking and finishing our drinks. And she said ‘I gotta go in. I’ve got a conference call in the morning. And she started walking out that way (points) and I stayed right here…don’t think I said anything special to her… certainly not thinking it was the last time I was gonna see her. I said good night. I’ll be up a little bit later and stayed here… and she walked… and the last time I saw her was there… She was just walking here and that’s it. That was the last time I saw Kathleen alive… no…she was alive when I found her… but, barely.” ~Michael Peterson

Around 2:40 a.m.Michael Peterson called the City of Durham’s 911 center from his residence. He stated that his wife, Kathleen Peterson, had fallen down the stairs. Peterson further stated that she was unconscious but was still breathing.

At 2:46 a.m.Peterson called 911 again, claiming that Kathleen was not breathing.

Michael Peterson’s Frantic 9-1-1- Call

December 9, 2001—2:40 a.m.
Mary Allen, operator. Listen to the Audio Recording

911: Durham 9-1-1. Where is your emergency?

PETERSON: 1810 Cedar Street. Please!

911: What’s wrong?

PETERSON: My wife had an accident. She’s still breathing!

911: What kind of accident?

PETERSON: She fell down the stairs. She’s still breathing! Please come!

911: Is she conscious?


911: Is she conscious?

PETERSON: No, she’s not conscious. Please!

911: How many stairs did she fall down?

PETERSON: What? Huh???

911: How many stairs did —

PETERSON: …the back stairs!…

911: How many stairs?

PETERSON: … oh… ah… ah…

911: Calm down, sir. Calm down.

PETERSON: Oh 15, 20. I don’t know. Please! Get somebody here, right away. Please!

911: Okay somebody’s dispatching the ambulance while I’m asking you questions.

PETERSON: It’s off of a… It’s in Forest Hills! Okay? Please! Please!

911: Okay sir? Somebody else is dispatching the ambulance. Is she awake now?

PETERSON: … ah… ah…

911: Hello? …Hello?

PETERSON: … ah… ah… mmmm… aaaah… oh… aaaah…

(dial tone)

The 2nd 911 Call at 2:46 AM
Tonya Pierce, operator

911: Durham 9-1-1. Where is your emergency?

PETERSON: Where are they?! This is 1810 Cedar — wh –. She’s not breathing! Please! Please would you hurry up!

911: Sir?

PETERSON: Can you hear me?

911: Sir? Sir, calm down. They’re on their way. Can you tell me for sure she’s not breathing? Sir…? (dial tone) Hello…? Hello?

Paramedics Arrive at the Peterson House

Approximately 7 to 8 minutes after the initial 911 call, James Rose and Ron Paige—paramedics with the Durham County Emergency Medical Services—arrived at 2:48 a.m. at the Peterson residence. Dispatch call was upgraded to a Code 5 situation. Engine 5 and police officers were also dispatched to the scene. James Rose testified that Defendant’s son, Todd Peterson, arrived at the same time as the paramedics.  

Soon after Todd and Christine Tomasetti returned from their party, other friends arrived at 1810 Cedar. Todd called his friend Ben Maynor and Ben’s girlfiend, Heather Wittsome.

The Peterson house is a large estate home with an open foyer entrance. The paramedics found the front door open and noticed blood on it. Straight ahead through the front door is the large, main staircase leading to the second floor. Immediately to the left after entering, however, is a front hallway leading down to the kitchen. Off of this hallway near the kitchen is an enclosed, narrow stairwell also leading to the second floor.

Kathleen & Michael Peterson’s Former House

Upon entering the house, the Paramedics observed Kathleen lying at the bottom of the narrow stairwell. Her legs were out into the hallway and her head was just inside the encased, open doorframe where the first few steps are located. The stairwell runs parallel to the hallway but has a few angled steps at the bottom designed to open up the staircase perpendicular to the hallway.

Kathleen Peterson found lying at the bottom of the staircase.

Art Holland, Lead Investigator

“When I first entered the house, I noticed what appeared to be two legs kind of sticking out of a doorway or hallway to my left. And once I approached the victim, there was just a very abundant amount of blood on her, on the floor, on the walls, that just was not consistent with somebody falling down the steps.”

When paramedics arrived at the Cedar Street mansion, they found Michael Peterson sobbing, barefoot and covered with blood. Near his wife’s dead body were Peterson’s sneakers and four socks.

Michael Peterson was seen standing over Kathleen in a “semi-knees-bent position” with blood on his hands, arms, legs, and feet. He wore shorts and a t-shirt.  

Paramedics Rose and Paige quickly determined that Kathleen had no pulse and was not breathing. Rose attempted to get more information from Mr. Peterson, but he was not responding to the questions. Michael Peterson eventually stated that he had gone outside to turn off the lights, came back in, and found her at the bottom of the steps.

Rose testified that Todd tried to pull his father away, stating, “Dad, she’s dead, the paramedics are here.”

Paramedic Rose testified that there was an “enormous amount of blood involved.” He saw “dried blood on the steps, and also on the wall. And it also looked like it had been wiped away or wiped on. It had been smeared, instead of just blood droplets just soaking down the wall.” He testified that based on his experience there was an unusual amount of blood for a fall, and the most severe injury he had seen from a fall was a broken neck. The blood under Kathleen’s head had already clotted and started to harden.

After assessing Kathleen’s condition, Paramedic Rose went to talk to Todd and advised him that she was gone and there was nothing they could do. He told the police that the situation needed to be investigated.

Rose testified with that much blood loss and with that amount of trauma, there was nothing to initiate CPR. It was an unusual amount of blood to be seen at a fall. He had never seen the severity of wounds to the head from a fall.

See Paramedic James Rose Court Testimony Part 1 on Court TV

Paramedics Report: Fall-Related and Blunt Trauma

Chief complaint: Fall, Upgrade to a Code 5 Upon Arrival.

Treatment area: pupils were diluted (lack of oxygen), had been hypoxic for a while, no blood getting to the brain; cardiac monitor was assytlyic. Peterson was not able to provide medical history or prescribed medicine; no verbal response; no eye movement; respiratory rate was zero; no restoration; No level of consciousness. Could not determine the source of the blood; however, there was a pile of blood underneath the head.

Peterson was not asked whether he performed CPR on Kathleen. According to Rose, Peterson’s shirt was partially blood soaked with speckles of blood over his shirt, blood on his hands and arms, and I believe his hands and feet. He was wearing shorts and t-shirt.  

Defense Attorney Tom Maher Cross-Examines James Rose

Cross-Examination of Paramedic James Rose by the Defense on Court TV

Upon arrival, the front door was wide open. He could hear a man sobbing before entering the house. Peterson was crouched over the body of his wife sobbing and crying.

He observed that someone had put towels under Kathleen’s head. The towels appeared to be soaked in blood. There were glasses near where Kathleen’s body was.

Initial paramedics report does not indicate that the blood was dry or appeared to be dry. It was not documented. The paramedics team assessed for pulse and restoration. No CPR. No treatment. No effort to revive her.

Had never been asked to write another statement. He was told by the investigating officer that they needed a second report with more detailed information.

See Paramedic Ron Paige’s Testimony on Court TV

Durham Police

Durham police Sgt. Terry Wilkins’ report says that Michael Peterson was wearing a blue shirt and light-colored shorts and was covered in blood when he saw him. Wilkins noted, “Mr. Peterson appeared to be confused and was walking in small circles, and back and forth.” According to the report, when witnesses were being separated, Peterson said, “What is this? Do I need a lawyer?”

They noted that Michael was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Investigators later brought in a forensic meteorologist who determined it was 51 to 55 degrees outside that night, a little too cold for beach clothes, which made investigators question whether he was really at the pool when Kathleen fell.

Michael previously said he and Kathleen were relaxing by their pool, and she went inside to work on the computer. He stayed outside to smoke for 45 minutes or so and found her at the bottom of the stairs when he came back in. She had been drinking and was wearing floppy shoes, so she probably tripped, Michael told police. But there was one circumstance that Michael Peterson couldn’t explain away. The accident scene was a bloodbath—inconsistent with a tumble down the stairs. 

At no time, in either of his 9-1-1 calls, did Michael Peterson mention blood, or say his wife was bleeding.

The Staircase in the Peterson’s Former House

But other evidence pointed convincingly to Michael’s guilt. Paramedics said that Kathleen’s blood had congealed, suggesting she died hours before he called 911.

Prosecutors would later contend that Kathleen stumbled upon the trove of photos and messages while using Michael’s computer—she had left her own machine at work that day. She confronted Michael about cheating on her, there was an argument, and he beat her to death with a fireplace implement, they alleged. He made a futile attempt to get rid of blood evidence and then called 911, the prosecution contended.

According to Power, Privilege, and Justice, which produced a 2004 episode about the case titled “Murder He Wrote,” Peterson went upstairs to work on the computer while police were still on the murder scene. Strange? Michael Peterson recalled that policemen were following him everywhere he went.

About Kathleen Peterson

Kathleen was a prominent and active citizen in Durham. She served on the Board of the Durham Arts Council, opened her home frequently to help the American Dance Festival and the Carolina Ballet. She gave willingly of her time and creative talents in cooking, decorating, and entertaining to her community and neighbors.

Her career was exceptionally successful. She achieved executive level positions at Baltimore Air-Coil-Pritchard, Merck and finally Nortel. Kathleen received countless awards for her leadership skills and successes from Nortel Networks. In her work, she traveled extensively to Russia, Ukraine, Vietnam, Malaysia, Europe, Hong Kong, and Canada.

Kathleen’s greatest accomplishment and pride was in the wonderful family that she raised. She is survived by her biological daughter, Caitlin Atwater (from her first marriage), her husband, Michael Iver Peterson; her stepsons, Todd and Clayton Peterson (Michael’s sons with his first wife, Patricia); and stepdaughters, Martha and Margaret Ratliff (Michael had guardianship over the girls after their mother, Elizabeth Ratliff, died in 1985). She is also survived by her mother, Veronica Hunt; sisters, Candace Zamperini and Lori Campell; and her brother, Steven Hunt.

Kathleen and Michael Peterson


Page 2: Kathleen Peterson’s Cause of Death