Michael and Kathleen Peterson - real people behind The Staircase
True Crime

Sky Atlantic’s ‘The Staircase’ explores Michael Peterson case and aftermath

He is the focus of Sky Atlantic's new series The Staircase

| Updated:

Sky Atlantic’s new series The Staircase follows the heartbreaking case of Michael Peterson and the death of his wife Kathleen.

Peterson was a novelist convicted of murdering Kathleen in 2003, despite his strong pleas of not being guilty.

A judge sentenced Michael to life in prison.

However, he was eventually let go when he reduced his charge to manslaughter.

So where is Michael Peterson now?

Michael Peterson crying
The Staircase star Michael Peterson served in the Vietnam war (Credit: Netflix)

The Staircase: Who is Michael Peterson?

Michael Peterson is an American novelist grew up near Nashville, Tennessee.

After college, he worked for the Department of Defence and married Patricia Sue, a teacher in West Germany in 1968.

He also fought in the Vietnam war before being honourably discharged in 1971.

Read more: The Staircase on Sky: First ‘Killer’ trailer, cast details and start date

He later became an author of Vietnam war novels and wrote columns for the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper when the family moved to Durham, North Carolina.

Michael and Patricia became very close to the Ratliff family while they lived in West Germany and when parents Elizabeth and George died, they became the guardians of their children Margaret and Martha.

Unfortunately, Michael and Patricia divorced in 1987 and Michael went on to marry telecoms exec Kathleen in 1997.

How old is Michael Peterson today?

Michael Peterson was born on October 23 1943.

He’s currently 78 years of age.

Michael Peterson frowning on The Staircase
Many people believed that Michael Peterson’s money problems poised as a motive for murder (Credit: Netflix)

How much is he worth?

According to CNN, Michael Peterson had over $1.4 million in debt at the time of his trial.

Although he received $384,000 in death benefits from Kathleen’s employer, Nortel Networks, he promptly spent it on his defence.

This lead many people to believe that his money problems were a motive for his murder.

District Attorney Jim Hardin said: “Kathleen’s death – accidental death – would have then allowed him to continue to live the affluent, privileged life to which he had been accustomed, even though he had no job.”

However, now Celebrity Net Worth reports that Michael Peterson is worth around $500,000.

How did Michael Peterson from The Staircase make his money?

When Peterson returned to the US after serving in the Vietnam war, he became a government consultant.

Michael also began writing about his experiences during the war.

Read more: MAFS Australia: Olivia loses job over Married At First Sight photo scandal

The author published three novels: The Immortal Dragon, A Time of War and A Bitter Peace.

Alongside his novels, Michael also co-wrote Charlie Two Shoes and Marines of Love Company with journalist David Perlmutt and co-wrote Operation Broken Reed with Lt. Col. Arthur L. Boyd.

With his career as an author going well, Michael also considered running for the Mayor’s office.

However, during his campaign it was revealed that he lied about receiving Purple Heart medals during the Vietnam war.

Michael and Kathleen Peterson holding each other
Michael Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife Kathleen (Credit: Netflix)

What happened to Michael Peterson from The Staircase?

On December 9 2001, Michael Peterson called 911 and explained that he found his wife Kathleen laying unconscious on the floor.

“My wife had an accident,” Peterson told the emergency services. “She’s still breathing. She fell down the stairs.”

According to Detective Art Holland of Durham police, Kathleen was “splayed out on the floor, her head resting on the landing of a back suitcase”.

Michael later suggested that Kathleen had stumbled down the stairs while under the influence of alcohol and Valium.

However, a medical examiner claimed that Kathleen had been bludgeoned to death and suffered multiple lacerations on her scalp.

And as he was the only person at home, Michael was the prime suspect.

On October 10 2003, the jury found Michael guilty and sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole.

However, in 2011, a judge vacated the jury’s verdict after it was revealed that a blood splatter analyst gave a misleading testimony in the original trial.

In February 2017, Michael Peterson entered an Alford plea which meant that he admits there was enough evidence to convict him for manslaughter but he doesn’t admit guilt for the crime.

Peterson was therefore sentenced to 86 weeks in prison, but because he already served more than that he was set free.

Michael Peterson smiling on The Staircase
Michael Peterson wrote two memoirs based on his trial for Kathleen’s death (Credit: Netflix)

What is he doing now?

Since his release from prison, Michael has written two books about the trial, his experiences in prison and his life as a free man.

The memoirs are titled Behind The Staircase and Beyond The Staircase.

Peterson now donates the proceeds of his books to charity and lives a private life in North Carolina in a ground-floor apartment.

With no stairs.

Is Michael Peterson married?

As far as we know, since the death of his second wife Kathleen, Peterson is single.

This is one of the most incredible things that happened during those 15 years.

However, it was rumoured that Michael began a relationship with Sophie Brunet, editor of the Netflix documentary The Staircase which is based on his trial.

A French filmmaker and director explained in an interview with L’Express that Sophie Brunet had fallen in love with Michael while they were making the documentary.

She said: “This is one of the most incredible things that happened during those 15 years. Life is really full of surprises.

“They has a real story which lasted until May 2017. But she never let her feelings affect the course of editing.”

Michael and Kathleen Peterson smiling
Michael Peterson and his wife Kathleen (Credit: Netflix)

What does he look like?

Michael Peterson looks like an ordinary old man with thin grey hair and blue eyes.

In a photo used in the Netflix documentary, Michael appears to look happy standing next to his wife Kathleen.

The author is wearing a patterned shirt, while his wife is wearing a blue dress with pearls.

Michael also wears glasses from time to time.

Where does The Staircase’s Michael Peterson live now?

In 2018, AP reported that Michael Peterson now lives in a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom condo in the same town, Durham, North Carolina.

In July 2020, the chilling Cedar Street mansion, where Kathleen was found dead, was put up for sale.

According to reports, Michael Peterson has not owned the mansion since he sold it to Jason Balius for the cut price of $640,000 in 2004.

The Staircase: Where are Michael Peterson’s daughters?

Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen’s daughter and Michael Peterson’s step-daughter, shocked everyone when she sided with the prosecution during Michael’s trial for Kathleen’s death.

She was the only child to state that she believed Michael had murdered her mother and subsequently won a $25 million civil suit against him in 2007.

However, Michael’s adopted daughters Margaret and Martha continued to show their support for their father.

Martha even told the filmmakers behind the Netflix documentary The Suitcase that the trial even drew the remaining members of the Peterson family together.

She said: “Sometimes it gets to us all, and that’s when everybody starts worrying about everyone else.

“But I wouldn’t say I worry about my dad. He is probably the strongest person that I’ve ever met.”

According to Bustle, Martha lives in Colorado, whereas her sister Margaret lives in California.

Who killed Kathleen Peterson?

Of course, police charged Michael Peterson with his wife murder.

On October 10 2003, a jury found Michael guilty of the crime.

The judge sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole.

However, in 2011, a judge vacated the jury’s verdict.

This was because a blood splatter analyst gave a misleading testimony in the original trial.

Michael submitted an Alford plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter.

A judge sentenced him to time already served and subsequently freed him.

He spent eight years in jail in total.

According to the dictionary definition, an Alford plea “is a guilty plea in which a defendant maintains their innocence but admits that the prosecution’s evidence would likely result in a guilty verdict if brought to trial”.

There have been no other suspects in the death of Kathleen Peterson.

Michael still maintains his innocence and claims it was an accident.

Was Kathleen Peterson killed by an owl?

There is also a bizarre theory that Kathleen’s injuries were caused by an owl.

A neighbour of the Petersons suggested that an owl could have attacked Kathleen and disorientated her.

Kathleen had been holding clumps of her own hair in her hands.

Within this hair, microscopic feathers were found along with wood splinters and cedar needles.

Owls had been responsible for various attacks on joggers around the same time.

The lacerations on Kathleen’s scalp had the appearance of an owl’s talons.

How many episodes is The Staircase on Sky Atlantic?

It starts today (May 5) on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV, with Colin Firth playing Michael.

You can watch the first three episodes from 9pm.

After that, new episodes in the eight-part series drop weekly.

YouTube video player

Leave us a comment on our Facebook page @EntertainmentDailyFix and let us know.

Aaliyah Ashfield
Digital Marketing Apprentice