TV & Movies

Caitlin Atwater Stepped Away From The Peterson Family After Her Mother’s Death

HBO Max’s The Staircase follows the case against her stepfather, Michael Peterson.

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Caitlin Atwater distanced herself from the Peterson family after Michael Peterson was accused of kil...

Portrayed by Olivia DeJonge in HBO Max’s The Staircase, Caitlin Atwater was a student at Cornell University when her mother, Kathleen Peterson, died on Dec. 9, 2001. After Kathleen’s dead body was found at the bottom of the stairs in her North Carolina home, the medical examiner determined she had been bludgeoned to death, rather than suffering the accidental fall her novelist husband, Michael Peterson, claimed in his 911 call. As the police’s prime suspect, Michael professed his innocence, and Atwater, whose biological father is Kathleen’s first husband, Fred Atwater, initially believed her stepfather.

“My mother and Mike had an absolutely loving relationship and there is no way that either of them would ever wish any sort of harm on the other one,” she told reporters at the time, while acting as the de facto spokesperson for her blended family, which also included Michael’s sons Clayton and Todd, as well as his and Kathleen’s adopted daughters, Margaret and Martha Ratliff.

After seeing the evidence against Michael and learning of his extramarital affairs with men, however, Atwater changed her mind. In fact, when Michael first went to trial for first-degree murder in July 2003, Atwater testified for the prosecution, convinced that her stepfather had murdered her mother. The jury agreed, finding Michael guilty of first-degree murder, though he maintained his innocence. Following a series of appeals, Michael was granted a retrial and struck a Alford plea deal to a manslaughter charge, an agreement under which the defendant doesn’t have to admit guilt but acknowledges that a judge or jury would likely convict them based on the evidence. He was released from prison in 2017. The case and the trial were the focus of Netflix’s 2018 update to the 2004 documentary The Staircase.

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“The only thing that I have to say about the trial and all the subsequent fallout is that, if there was any closure to possibly come from all of this, it came after sitting through the entire trial and listening day after day to all the evidence — on both sides,” Atwater said in a 2017 Indy Week interview. “And after the closing arguments, when all was said and done, I felt confident that I knew what happened. I knew what happened to my mom. While there’s no true closure that can ever come for an event like this, for a loss this deep, I was ready to walk away and start moving forward with my life.”

She’d had a wrongful death lawsuit to settle first, though. In February 2007, Michael agreed to pay Atwater, acting as administrator of her mother’s estate, $25 million in a deal that was ultimately finalized a year later. “With this settlement, I believe that Michael Peterson is agreeing to an offer great enough to begin to speak to the value of my mother’s life and the loss I must continue to deal with,” Atwater said in a 2007 statement, per North Carolina’s WRAL. “By entering into this agreement, I can only hope I’ll be able to put some of this behind me.” However, the win was largely symbolic in nature, as her attorney acknowledged that then-incarcerated Michael likely would not be able to actually pay the money.

Courtesy of HBO Max

Public interest and scrutiny in the case was intense, as evidenced by its appearance in pop culture, ranging from director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase documentary to, more recently, HBO Max’s true-crime drama of the same name, starring Colin Firth and Toni Colette as Michael and Kathleen. So after graduating from Cornell in 2007, Atwater endeavored to live a much more private life, and she and now-husband, attorney Christopher Clark, even lived abroad in London for several years.

Now a mother of two and reportedly living in northern Virginia, Atwater said she still felt the “watchful eye of the town” when she would return to Durham, North Carolina, and so she found it helpful to “remove [herself]” from her hometown. Still, she thinks of her mom often and does her best to keep her mother’s memory alive. “I’ve tried to be the person I think I would have been if she were here,” she added to Indy Week. “And hopefully, that’s a part of her legacy I can pass on to my own kids.”

While the rest of the Peterson family appears close, Atwater’s bid for closure seems to still involve a separation from the others.

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