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

Kathleen Peterson’s Cause of Death

Kathleen: 48 years old, 5’ 2”, 120 lbs. found dead at the bottom of a staircase on December 9, 2001.

Michael maintained she must have fallen down the stairs after consuming alcohol and valium. Toxicology results showed that his wife’s blood alcohol content was 0.07 percent, below the legal limit.

Kathleen Peterson’s Autopsy Report

Later that day, Dr. Deborah Radisch, a pathologist with the Office of the North Carolina Medical Examiner, performed an autopsy on Kathleen’s body and determined the cause of death to be blunt force trauma of the head. The autopsy revealed multiple contusions and abrasions on the head and neck; seven distinct lacerations on the posterior scalp; and contusions and abrasions on the arms, wrists, and hands.

Depiction of Kathleen Peterson’s Skull Lacerations

The number, severity, locations and orientation of these injuries are inconsistent with a fall down the stairs; instead, they are indicative of multiple impacts received as a result of beating. There is dried blood on the bottoms of the feet bilaterally with dried blood noted over the face. The nail beds are intact with crusted blood noted beneath them.


Blunt force trauma of the head

Multiple (at least 7) deep, complex lacerations and avulsions to the posterior scalp

Multiple contusions consistent with lacerations

Multiple small abrasions and contusions on the face

Early acute ischemic neuronal necrosis

No abnormalities of the brain


One fracture with associated hemorrhage of the left superior cornu of the thyroid cartilage in the neck

No other neck fractures.


No long bone or rib fractures


Contusions of back, posterior arms, wrists and hands

Hair in left hand — hair in right hand

The autopsy report concluded that the 48-year-old victim sustained a matrix of severe injuries, including a fracture of the thyroid neck cartilage and seven lacerations to the top and back of her head, consistent with blows from a blunt object, and had died from blood loss 90 minutes to two hours after sustaining the injuries.

Assuming that Kathleen Peterson actually did have a horrible, accidental double backward flip off her back stairs, questions still remain.

Accidental Fall Down The Staircase?

“This was not an accident,” says Durham County D.A. Jim Hardin. “There is no question.”

“What our experts tell us happened, is that at some point Kathleen fell backward and hit her head. She lay bleeding, gets up, steps into the pool of blood, slips and hits her head again … She bled out.” Defendant’s Attorney David Rudolf

Search Warrants for the Peterson House

On December 9, 2001, 0309 hrs., Investigator A.H. Holland, Jr., was paged by On-Call CID Supervisor Sgt. Fran Borden in reference to a Death Investigation at 1810 Cedar St. Sgt. Borden advised that the victim, age 47, fell down a flight of stairs and there was a large amount of blood present at the scene.

At 0359 hrs., Holland arrived at 1810 Cedar Street. According to Investigator Holland, “Prior to entering the front door, I observed blood on the sidewalk that leads to the front door. Upon entering the front door, I observed blood on the inside of the door. Sgt. Terry Wilkins advised that the victim’s husband had blood all over his person. I saw the victim at a distance but did not approach. At this point, this investigator made the decision to obtain a Search Warrant

On the same day, Investigator A.H. Holland, Jr., a member of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Durham Police Department, applied for and received a search warrant to search the Peterson residence at 1810 Cedar Street, Durham, North Carolina. The warrant stated that the property to be seized included, inter alia, fingerprints, bloodstains, physical layout and measurements of the premises, documentary evidence indicating ownership, and moving pictures, video, and still pictures to preserve the nature of the crime scene.

LUMINOL TESTING revealed bloody footprints leading from Kathleen Peterson’s body—into the laundry room—then going to the kitchen refrigerator and sink—then moving to a wine glass cabinet (which also had blood on it). The footprints mysteriously stop there at the cabinet.

On December 10, 2001, Investigator Holland applied for and received a second search warrant. This warrant stated the premises to be searched as defendant’s residence along with four vehicles not on the first warrant. The probable cause for the second warrant simply repeated the probable cause from the affidavit for the first warrant.

Durham Police Department officers searched for evidence in the front yard of Michael Peterson’s home on Monday morning, Dec. 10, 2001. Peterson’s wife, Kathleen Hill Peterson, was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in the home early Sunday morning. Peterson called 911 and has said that he believed his wife fell down the stairs after coming inside from the couple’s backyard. At this point, police calling the death “suspicious” and were searching the home for any evidence or clues in the case.

On December 12, 2001, Investigator Holland applied for and received a third search warrant to search defendant’s residence. That warrant stated that the property to be seized included all items from the previous warrant as well as “computers, CPUs, files, software, accessories and any and all other evidence that may be associated with this investigation.” The only additional probable cause listed in Investigator Holland’s application for the search warrant was the following statement: “After conferring with the District Attorney’s Office and the State Medical Examiner’s Office, this applicant has probable cause to believe that additional evidence remains at the residence.”

Also collected from the scene: a bottle of white wine, two wineglasses with small amounts of red liquid, a bottle of champagne, a diet COKE can with blood and hair on it, copies of e-mail traffic, pornographic photographs of men taken from Peterson’s den… and a condom.

“This investigation revealed what appears to be a used condom in the victim’s bedroom and towels that appeared to have semen stains on them. We believed that with this finding, a sexual act took place.” C. Bullock (Durham PD)

SBI agent Suzi Barker, testified that no semen was found in a condom police collected from the Petersons home. No identifiable fingerprints were located on the TROJAN wrapper.

The medical examiner concluded that Kathleen had died from lacerations of the scalp caused by homicidal assault. According to this medical examiner, the total of seven lacerations to the top and back of her head were the result of repeated blows with a light yet rigid weapon, a blow pole which was a gift by Kathleen’s sister but wasn’t recovered at the scene of the crime…that is, not at that time.

Regardless, the defense disputed this theory, claiming that Kathleen’s skull had not been fractured by the blows and nor was she brain damaged, which was inconsistent with injuries sustained in a beating death, according to their analysis.

Reactions to Kathleen’s Death

Todd Peterson (Michael’s biological son;Kathleen’s stepson): “It was such a shock when I drove into the driveway and seeing ambulances. Oh my God, did someone have a heart attack? Never in your wildest dream did you think… My first thought was my dad had a heart attack. He’s a little older than Kathleen. So, when I ran in there and I saw my dad alive I was, quite honestly, a little relieved, like whew. Then, he was able to mutter the word… something along the line of Kathleen… Oh my God, Kathleen. He was motioning in the direction of the staircase.”

Caitlin Atwater (Kathleen’s biological daughter; Michael’s stepdaughter): “My mother and Mike had an absolutely loving relationship and there is no way either of them would ever wish any sort of harm on each other.”

Kathleen’s daughter, Caitlin, and her sister, Candace Zamperini, both initially maintained Michael’s innocence and publicly supported him alongside his children, but Zamperini reconsidered after learning of Peterson’s bisexuality, as did Caitlin after reading her mother’s autopsy report, and both subsequently broke off from the rest of the family.

Todd Peterson: “I knew for a fact no way in this world my father ever would have hurt Kathleen. But the realism of their investigating it did seem real. While it was completely unfounded in my mind, the way that they were behaving, the way they were barking orders at us, restricting us from talking to one another, they truly drove home the point that they were investigating this as a crime.

“I can vividly remember finding Kathleen. I can vividly remember opening the door, calling 911. I can remember… I particularly remember Todd just holding me and remember Heather, the doctor, Ben’s girlfriend taking my pulse and then I can remember… it must have been early while I was still in the kitchen that a cop was on me instantly. Everywhere I went a policeman was there. I went outside with Ben and a policeman was there. I remember walking down there… policemen were there. There was always a policeman with me.” Michael Peterson

District Attorney Jim Hardin (The Prosecutor)

“This was not an accident,” says Durham County D.A. Jim Hardin. “There is no question.”

“Well, obviously, we can’t know exactly what happened. We have to piece together what we believed happened based on the circumstantial evidence that we’ve uncovered. The only people that know are Mike Peterson and Kathleen Peterson. And obviously Mr. Peterson is not going to enlighten us about what he knows. We believe the evidence is going to show she was beaten, that she was stunned, and was bleeding, that she probably recovered and struggled in the door frame with Mike Peterson to a degree and that he had to bludgeon her on multiple occasions after that. She basically bled to death.”

Michael Peterson’s Defense Team

The defense team included Lead Defense Attorney David S. Rudolf, and his Partner, Tom Maher, Ron Guerette, a Private Investigator, Dr. Werner Spitz, a Forensic Pathologist, Dr. Faris Bandak, an Injury Biomechanics Expert, Dr. Henry Lee, a Forensic Scientist, and Tim Palmbach, a DNA Expert. 

“We contend the case is going to hinge on forensics,” Rudolf said. “Evidence of what the police did or did not collect at the scene. That’s where the heart of the matter is.”

Rudolf said he would offer evidence that police took an hour to secure the crime scene and allowed Mike Peterson and his son Todd Peterson to embrace Kathleen’s body and spread blood in the kitchen, the laundry room, a Coca-Cola can and a couch.


Page 3: The Bloody Stairwell