Few true crime sagas have achieved the lasting popularity and critical acclaim of The Staircase, the 13-part documentary series investigating the suspicious death of Kathleen Peterson. Peterson was found dead and bloody at the bottom of a staircase in her home on December 9, 2001, and her husband, Michael Peterson, was charged with first-degree murder. Filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his team documented Michael Peterson’s journey through the criminal justice system, beginning in 2004 and concluding in 2018. Now, Lestrade’s landmark work has been adapted into a fictional limited series starring Colin Firth as Michael and Toni Collette as Kathleen.
Most of the coverage of Kathleen’s untimely death has centered Michael’s perspective and focused on the question of whether or not Michael killed her. Co-writers Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn told Vanity Fair that they wanted to foreground Kathleen in their version of The Staircase: “What we knew of her was this tragic ending at the bottom of a staircase,” Cohn explained. “But what we didn’t see was this big, complicated, and beautiful life that she had before that.” In the series, Kathleen — a renowned hostess and ambitious career-woman — is shown in greater depth, as is the family life that she shared with Michael and their blended family.
Together, Kathleen and Michael cared for a large brood: Clayton and Todd Peterson, whom Michael had with his first wife, Patricia “Patty” Sue Peterson; Margaret and Martha Ratliff, whom Michael and Patty adopted after the girls’ mother, a close family friend named Elizabeth Ratliff, died; and Caitlin Atwater, whom Kathleen had with her first husband.
Below, find out more about Michael Peterson’s wives, Patty Peterson and Kathleen Peterson.
Who was Michael Peterson’s first wife, Patricia Sue Peterson?
Patricia Peterson, also known as “Patty,” was born in Paris, Arkansas, on March 12, 1943. Her father, John Paul Balkman, was in the military. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin before getting married at 23 to Michael Peterson — who, like her father, was a military man. Michael served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and was stationed in Vietnam from August of 1968 to September of 1969. (He later lied about having been injured in combat.) At some point, the couple moved to Durham, North Carolina, where she completed a master’s degree in education. Their sons Clayton and Todd were born in 1975 and 1977, respectively. In 1980, they moved to Germany, where Patty worked for the U.S. Department of Defense for 35 years, teaching elementary school to the children of military personnel.
Although Patty and Michael Peterson separated in the mid-1980s and divorced around a decade later, Patty supported him financially and emotionally during his murder trial. In 2003, CNN reported that Patty had loaned Michael $168,000 to help him pay his legal bills, and she attended the murder trial. Even after Michael was convicted, she remained certain that he was innocent. In 2014, she firmly told The Charlotte News & Observer, “He is innocent of any involvement in Kathleen’s death … I’ve always believed he did not do this, and I always will.”
According to Patty and Michael’s son Clayton, the former couple lived together for the last two years of Patty’s life in an apartment in Durham. “They were companions,” he told the News & Observer. “They took care of each other.”
Patty died on July 8, 2021, following a heart attack. “She was a kind person,” Clayton said. “She touched so many lives.”
Who was Michael Peterson’s second wife, Kathleen Peterson?
Kathleen Peterson, née Hunt, was born on February 21, 1953 in Greensboro, North Carolina. After high school, where she excelled academically, she became the first woman to attend Duke University’s School of Engineering. There, she completed first a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree — and met her first husband. With him, she had a daughter, Caitlin, and picked up a new last name, Atwater. Soon after, though, they divorced, and she moved to Durham… right down the road from Michael Peterson.
Caitlin Atwater soon began playing with Michael Peterson’s children: the two sons he’d had with Patty and the two daughters he’d adopted in Germany after their mother, Elizabeth Ratliff, died by falling down a staircase. (Needless to say, speculation about the nature of Ratliff’s death mounted in the wake of Kathleen’s.) As a result, Kathleen and Michael began to grow close, and in 1987, they became one blended family.
At this time, Kathleen was working for a telecommunications company called Nortel, where she made $150,000 a year (approximately $330,000 in 2022 dollars). She also worked actively with charitable arts organizations. She was particularly enthusiastic about dance, and helped raise money for the American Dance Festival and the Carolina Ballet. In the wake of her death, friends and acquaintances remembered her as a suburban superwoman — someone who’d managed, at least on the surface, to have it all. “She was the Martha Stewart of Durham. She actually prepared the food for her parties. When you went to her house, you were entering a Martha Stewart kind of event. Virtually all her foods were homemade — and they were always wonderful,” Jimmy Gibbs, the society columnist of the Durham Herald-Sun, told the paper.
At the time of Kathleen’s death, however, things weren’t going as well for the Petersons as that gleaming public facade suggested. The economy was declining, and as a result, Nortel’s stock was losing value and the company was conducting mass layoffs. Kathleen could not afford to lose her job, as the Petersons had $142,000 in credit card debt and were spending $100,000 more than they made each year. (Kathleen had a life insurance policy for $1.8 million, which the prosecution argued may have been Michael’s motive for killing her.) But the Petersons kept up appearances right up until Kathleen’s death: According to the Durham Herald-Sun, they attended a party sponsored by local alt-weekly paper The Independent only days before her death.
Michael later said that he and Kathleen spent the evening that preceded her death watching America’s Sweethearts, drinking wine, and going outside to sit poolside. Later that night, as a result of foul play or an accident, she would wind up at the bottom of the house’s staircase, bloody and battered. She died the following morning, on December 9, 2001. Although Michael Peterson has maintained his innocence, Dr. John Butts, the chief medical examiner of the state, testified at Michael’s trial that Kathleen’s “wounds are consistent with inflicted trauma; beating would be one word that one could use.”
“She was a mother who loved us with the greatest capacity possible,” Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin said at her funeral. “It is my mother’s words and the part of her in each of us that will give us the strength to fulfill the dreams she wanted for us.”
Michael Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder in 2003, a conviction he appealed and got reduced to manslaughter via a plea deal in 2017. Despite taking that plea, he has maintained his innocence. The story has become a true crime phenomenon as a result of the documentary series, other theories of the death have emerged, most notably Larry Pollard’s suggestion that Kathleen was actually mauled by a barn owl. While the ultimate truth may never be known, Kathleen’s sisters, Lori Campell and Candace Zamperini, told the Herald-Sun in 2003 that Michael Peterson was controlling, angry, and abusive, and that Caitlin Atwater detailed his abuse in a diary, portions of which were shared with prosecutors. “The last one was so upsetting I couldn’t finish it,” Campell told the paper.
Now, the Raleigh News and Observer reports that Kathleen Peterson’s grave, which is located in Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery, has become a popular destination for true crime aficionados. Strangers leave flowers and other mementos on her tombstone, which reads, “Just whisper my name in your heart and I’ll be there.”