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

A Possible Pattern: Evidence Regarding Death of Elizabeth Ratliff in 1985

The Prosecutors Office received a message from Margaret Blair in Rhode Island concerning the Peterson case. She revealed that she had a sister, Elizabeth Ratliff, who had died in 1985 in Germany. She had been found deceased at the bottom of her stairs and that Michael was the last person to see Elizabeth.

“It seemed as odd to us as well that two people close to him could have died in a similar way.” District Attorney Jim Hardin

Prosecutors contend that Michael Peterson, a 59-year-old author and former newspaper columnist, killed his 48-year-old wife for money and made her death appear to be an accidental fall.

They also believed Peterson may have somehow been connected to the death of Elizabeth Ratliff, Margaret and Martha’s birth mother, a family friend Peterson met while living in Germany.

Elizabeth Ratliff

The events leading to Elizabeth Ratliff’s tragic death in November of 1985 would be examined by a lot of people fanatized by the Kathleen Peterson case in Durham, North Carolina, bolted to find a connection between the deaths. The two deceased women not only died in a similar fashion but they looked eerily alike.

Kathleen Peterson | Elizabeth Ratliff

On Day 29 of Michael Peterson’s Trial in North Carolina, Prosecutors tried to explain why Elizabeth Ratliff’s death was relevant to the death of Kathleen Peterson.

What’s eerily coincidental is the nature of her death. Elizabeth was found at the bottom of a staircase in her home with severe injuries to her head.

The similar nature of Elizabeth’s and Kathleen’s deaths was enough to leave the jury serving on Michael Peterson’s trial in Durham significantly suspicious.

Staircase Falls: Elizabeth Ratliff’s Head Wounds | Kathleen Peterson’s Head Wounds

The two families were close friends while living in Germany, and Michael was the last person to see Elizabeth alive. Following dinner at Liz’s home, Michael offered to stay behind and help put her girls to bed. The next morning, the nanny, Barbara, discovered Elizabeth’s body.

“There was blood on the walls coming down the side of the staircase and there was blood on the wall opposite the foyer area,” she said. The living room light was on. The living room was never used but that’s where financial papers were kept.

Appel-Schumacher then explained how Mike Peterson took charge of the scene and consoled grieving friends. “Michael was telling everyone that this accident had happened and she had fallen down the steps,” she said.

Elizabeth’s death was initially ruled an accident, but when her body was exhumed during the trial for a second autopsy in April 2003, the coroner found sufficient evidence to categorize it as a homicide. Michael wasn’t accused of murdering Elizabeth outright, but the fact her daughters — who he adopted after her death — were the recipients of a hefty life insurance policy was enough to cast doubt in the jurors of his case.

Was There a Connection Between the Deaths of Elizabeth Ratliff and Kathleen Peterson?

A significant aspect of the State’s case that Mrs. Peterson died from the result of a beating, rather than a fall on the stairs, was evidence regarding the death of Elizabeth Ratliff in 1985 in Germany. Mrs. Ratliff taught at a Department of Defense school and was close friends with Defendant and his first wife, Patty, who was also a teacher. Mrs. Ratliff had two young daughters, Margaret and Martha, and was left a widow when her husband died while on assignment for the United States Air Force.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Ratliff lived with her two daughters and with a nanny, who often stayed in the residence. On November 25, 1985, Mrs. Ratliff was found dead in her residence by her nanny. Mrs. Ratliff was at the bottom of a flight of stairs and had suffered several lacerations to the head. German doctors responded to the scene and determined that Mrs. Ratliff died of natural causes, which in turn caused her to fall. An army CID investigator came to the scene and found nothing inconsistent with the finding of a natural death.

Despite the prior findings that Mrs, Ratliff died from natural causes, the State had her body exhumed and a new autopsy performed by Dr Radisch, who came to the conclusion that Mrs. Ratliff died from blunt force trauma to the head. Although the State presented no evidence that Defendant was present when the injuries were inflicted, or had a motive to kill Mrs. Ratliff, the trial court overruled Defendant’s motion in limine to exclude evidence of this death.

Initially. Elizabeth’s death was deemed an accidental death but when Michael Peterson’s new wife Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of her stairs in their home in Durham, North Carolina, investigators gave Elizabeth’s death a second look.

In her last weekend alive, Liz participated in a party dedicated to her soon to be married friend, Cheryl Appel Schumacher, and on Sunday, she spent the last hours of her life with the Peterson family until she was left at her house at approximately 9:00 p.m. Mike and his wife at the time had dined with Elizabeth the night before she found dead at the foot of her staircase.

It is believed that Michael Peterson was the last person to see Elizabeth alive. Elizabeth Ratliff’s neighbor Karin Hamm reported that she saw Michael hurrying away from the Ratliff house the night she died. She reported that she heard a slamming door which caused her to look out of her bedroom window at 12:50 a.m. November 25, 1985. She looked out the window and saw Mike Peterson hurriedly leaving Liz Ratliff’s home.

Ratliff’s original autopsy stated that she died of a brain hemorrhage from her staircase fall.

Michael Peterson was not a suspect in the 1985 death of Ratliff because it was determined an accident.

Prosecutors Freda Black and David Saacks, along with Detective Art Holland, traveled to Germany to investigate the death of Mike Peterson’s friend, Elizabeth Ratliff. Michael Peterson’s Defense Attorney Rudolf also traveled to Germany to gather information police records and examine Elizabeth’s former home.

Prosecutors in the Mike Peterson trial spent the day at a home in Germany trying to unravel the mystery behind the murder of a Peterson family friend.

They believes a critical part of their case was in Grafenhausen, a small town tucked just outside of Frankfurt. Prosecutors were trying to find out if Michael Peterson was the last person to see Elizabeth Ratliff alive. Durham prosecutors claim she was murdered and wanted to know if Peterson was to blame. They met with German investigators and searched through old police records.

For 18 years, it was thought that Elizabeth Ratliff had suffered a natural brain hemorrhage and fallen downstairs in her home.

The Durham District Attorney’s Office had Ratliff’s body exhumed from her Bay City, Texas grave and transported via police escort to North Carolina.

Ratliff’s body was exhumed in March 2003 in connection with a murder charge against Michael Peterson.

The autopsy results were released at the end April 2003, stating that Elizabeth was the victim of a homicide and not a stroke as originally thought. The report says because of the character and number of scalp lacerations, the trauma inflicted on Ratliff is clearly from what is called a “homicidal assault.”

Pathologists said they found deep lacerations on Ratliff’s head that they say were caused by an assault. Kathleen Peterson’s body suffered injuries similar to Elizabeth Ratliff’s. Kathleen Peterson was found dead on the stairs in the couple’s Durham home.

Ratliff’s sister, Rosemary Kelloway, said the autopsy report came as a shock to her family. Rosemary said she traveled hundreds of miles to be in Durham and said she was looking for justice. Kelloway said her family became suspicious after Kathleen Peterson’s death.

Elizabeth Ratliff’s Time of Death

According to Michael Peterson’s Attorney David Rudolf, the biggest flaw in the prosecution’s theory regarding Elizabeth’s death was the timeline and moreover that no one observed rigor mortis when they arrived on the scene. The neighbor, Karin Hamn, testified that she saw Michael hurrying away from her house at 12:50 a.m. on November 25th. When the nanny arrived at 7:15 a.m., she claims the body was still warm, which doesn’t stack up – or does it?

Attorney David Rudolph: I’ve looked into this and the first thing to say is rigor mortis only gives an estimate of time of death. Usually, it begins 2 to 6 hours after death but there are factors which delay this: ambient temperature, body mass and loss of blood being a few factors which affect the process. The cooler the temperature, the slower the onset and development of rigor mortis. Smaller bodies cool more quickly, and loss of blood will also hasten this cooling process. So, Elizabeth, who weighed less than 120 pounds, lost blood and died in a hallway in Germany in the winter would most likely not develop rigor mortis quickly; in fact, she would likely be at the lower end of the scale in terms of how long it would take for rigor to set in. Not only that but even when it begins, it starts with small muscles such as eyelids, neck fingers and then spreads slowly, taking up to 12 hours to progress throughout the body.

Barbara, the nanny arrived at 7:15 a.m. If Elizabeth died after midnight, with Michael leaving at 12:50 a.m. as testified by her neighbor, then her body would have been dead for approximately 7 hours. If rigor began say after 5-6 hours (lower end of scale), then it is likely that it would be in the early stages, where the body would still feel warm to the touch and only small organs have been affected (stage 1 or 2). There are three stages to rigor mortis. Stage 1: warm but not stiff, dead up to three hours. Stage 2: warm + stiffness, dead up to eight hours. Stage 3: cold and stiff, dead up to 36 hours.

If Elizabeth died at around midnight, this would be another potential eerie coincidence linking her death to that of Kathleen Peterson whose time of death was most likely sometime around midnight, because we know red neurons take around two hours to develop.

The prosecution could not explain the rigor mortis issue, could not establish a motive, and certainly could not build a viable case against Michael for Liz’s murder.

Possible Financial Motive

Another aspect that has been hard for Kelloway to swallow is that Peterson was named guardian of Ratliff’s two young daughters, as well as administrator of her $44,000 estate.

You know, my sister signed that will not too long after her husband died. She had come to the States, and I saw her. She was not in any sort of stable condition to understand what she was signing. I believe in my heart she would not have done that. Ratliff’s husband, an Air Force officer, had died two years earlier.

She said the family tried on numerous occasions to adopt the children from Peterson. They were only babies when he took them. We tried several times to get them, but because of the will, it was just impossible. They should have been with the family, she said. Now it’s so hard on them. He never adopted them, but he’s basically the only father they’ve known. They believe he couldn’t have hurt her.

At the time of her death, Elizabeth Ratliff was not wealthy. Her deceased husband’s Life Insurance Policy was $350K. They both would’ve had military benefits that went with the girls that were not allowed into evidence. Michael Peterson never adopted the girls so he could receive foster benefits for them, and he received hundreds of thousands of dollars from extended family of the girls! This was all discussed by Rosemary and others during the trial. More specifically, Liz would’ve had government benefits as she was a federal employee.

Probate records filed in Texas showed that her estate amounted to $72,000 in personal property — almost all of it in savings bonds — minus about $13,000 in debts. With a little more than $100 in the bank, an 8-year-old BMW and no more than typical belongings to her name.

No evidence was presented that Michael Peterson personally benefitted from the estate.

Jurors Hear About Elizabeth Ratliff’s Death in Mike Peterson Trial

The prosecution in Michael Peterson’s trial scored a major victory when Judge Orlando Hudson ruled that evidence about a death 18 years ago was admissible. Prosecutors believe Mike Peterson may have killed his wife and his friend, Elizabeth Ratliff.

Elizabeth Ratliff, a friend of Mike Peterson, was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell in Germany in 1985.

Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell at the couple’s home on December 9, 2001.

Prosecutors believed details of Elizabeth Ratliff’s death were similar to those of Kathleen Peterson’s death.

Prosecutor David Saacks said Ratliff’s death clearly proved a lack of an accident in Kathleen Peterson’s death. He said he found as many as 30 similarities between the deaths of the two women.

“You have here now this defendant that is involved in a case where two women are found dead at the bottom of a stairway dead,” he said. They are both found at the bottom of the stairway [with] large amounts of blood present. There is spatter high up on the wall next to the stairway. The blood is dry on the wall.”

Defense attorneys did not want the Ratliff evidence to be heard by the jury. Defense attorney Tom Maher said the information would unfairly prejudice jurors against Mike Peterson. Mike Peterson has said that Ratliff died from natural causes.

After hearing both sides, Judge Hudson ruled that the information about Elizabeth Ratliff’s death was admissible in the trial. After Judge Hudson’s decision, Rosemary Kelloway, Ratliff’s sister, said a silent prayer. Meanwhile, Ratliff’s daughters, Margaret and Martha, who stood by Mike Peterson throughout the trial, showed little emotion.

Jurors then heard testimony of Cheryl Appel-Schumacher, Ratliff’s friend. Appel-Schumacher told jurors about how she cleaned the area after Elizabeth’s death and how much blood was present. “There was a lot of blood in the whole foyer area,” she said.


Page 8: The Jurors Verdict in North Carolina v. Michael Iver Peterson