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

Financial Motive

Prosecutors and Defense lawyers spent several days arguing about whether Michael Peterson had a financial motive to kill his wife of four and a half years.

“They had to begin living on credit. They were forced to liquidate Kathleen’s assets. Out of all of this, the evidence is also going to show that by the end of 1999, Michael Peterson was making no income as a writer.” ~District Attorney Jim Hardin

Proof of motive is not essential, but prosecutors found Peterson had… A Million Reasons to Murder.

A novelist beat his wife to death and tried to pass it off as an accidental fall to cash in on a $1.4 million life insurance policy, Prosecutors said.

The Petersons had $143,000 in credit card debt at the time, and cashing in on Kathleen Peterson’s life insurance policy would have pulled her husband “out of the financial fire that he had built for himself,” D. A. Jim Hardin said.

Defense Attorney David Rudolf said a financial motive for the death makes no sense because the Petersons had more than $1 million in resources on top of the $600,000 to $700,000 of equity in their house.

“And you need to keep in mind, we’re not dealing with the average individual over here. We’re dealing with a fictional writer. Some people even say he’s a good fictional writer. He is a person who knows how to create a fictional plot and in this case, he has tried to create one. He tried to sell it to the EMS workers… didn’t work—not ultimately—he tried to sell it to the firemen, he tried to sell it to Corporal McDowell, to Connie Mack Bullock, to Pascal, to Art Holland. He tried to sell it to his family… and in this courtroom, he’s tried to sell it to you—a fictional plot.” ~Freda Black, Senior Assistant District Attorney

E-Mail Messages Regarding Finances

E-mails recovered from Michael’s computer also related to the Petersons’ finances. One e-mail was from Michael to his ex-wife, Paricia Peterson, asking her to pay a portion of their sons’ living expenses. Another was an e-mail from Thomas Ratliff to Michael Peterson on April 19, 2001, responding to Michael’s request that Thomas pay $5,000.00 per semester for Martha Ratliff’s college expenses.

Thursday, November 29, 2001


Let me add a little more to the idea of a home equity loan and the boy’s plight.

Right now Clayton is paying about $750 a month in interest on his credit card debt. He will earn about $1300 from NC State with his teaching fellowship. His rent is $700 a month, plus expenses. He cannot afford to live. Todd is paying probably about $300 a month. Thus the boys are paying $1,000 a month in interest and not reducing the principal. If you got a home equity loan of $30,000, you would only have to pay somewhere around $400 a month, even less if you didn’t want to reduce the principal.

If you could handle that, they could live nicely. I would help if you need it. Certainly when Todd’s car is paid off (at $500 a month) in another two years, I could pick up your payments if they don’t do it themselves. I honestly think this is the best way to help the boys out because I think they have learned their lesson.

Please let me know what you think. It would also be a huge relief off my mind because I am worried sick about them. It is simply not possible for me to discuss this with Kathleen.


Peterson stood to gain well over $1 million in life insurance and other benefits.

Within 6 months of his wife’s death, Peterson collected $347,000 of Kathleen Peterson’s assets, including her 401(K) and pension plans, but her $1.8 million life insurance benefit was tied up in civil lawsuits between Peterson, Caitlin Atwater and Kathleen Peterson’s ex-husband.


Page 6: Michael and Kathleen Peterson’s Finances