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Fact vs Fiction: The Staircase — did Michael Peterson kill Kathleen and where is he now? And what really happened to Elizabeth Ratliff?

The Staircase — did Michael kill Kathleen? Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) embraces Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) from behind, with his arms around her waist. Her hands are clasped over his. They are both wearing formalwear, and he appears to be whispering into her ear. There is a Christmas tree in the foreground on the right hand side of the photo.
Colin Firth and Toni Collette as Michael and Kathleen Peterson. (Image credit: Sky)

True crime is huge on TV right now, with shows based on extraordinary real-life events taking center stage. But somehow The Staircase feels different, mainly because the tragic death of Kathleen Peterson is still shrouded in so much mystery. But what really happened the night she died? 

The Staircase, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette as Michael and Kathleen Peterson, explores the life of Michael Peterson, who was accused of murdering his wife Kathleen at their sprawling North Carolina home after she died under suspicious circumstances in December 2001. 

Despite the fact Michael was the one to call 911 the night Kathleen allegedly fell down the stairs, Michael soon became the prime suspect in her death when it appeared there was much more to Kathleen's injuries than simply taking a tumble down 15 steps. 

This isn't the first time Michael Peterson's story has been played out on TV. This current adaptation follows many shows covering Kathleen's death, with the most renowned being the 2004 documentary series, also called The Staircase, which is still available to watch on Netflix.

But how much of this latest adaptation of The Staircase actually happened? Here is everything you need to know... 

Is The Staircase a true story?

Yes. In December 2001 novelist Michael Peterson called 911 to report that his wife had fallen down the stairs, suggesting her accident was due to her alcohol and Valium intake. However, when the police arrived at the scene they quickly became suspicious given the amount of blood found around Kathleen's body. 

After Kathleen's body had been examined it was revealed that she was bludgeoned to death with a blunt object, and with Michael being the only other person at the house at the time, he quickly became the prime suspect in a murder case.

Michael Peterson listens as his defense attorney David Rudolph makes his opening statements in Peterson's request for a new trial Tuesday December 6, 2011, in Durham, North Carolina.

The real Michael Peterson in court listening to his defense attorney David Rudolph.  (Image credit: Getty)

Who is the killer in The Staircase?

This is the million-dollar question. While Peterson still to this day maintains his innocence and claims that his wife's death was a tragic accident, the prosecution at this trial back in 2003 told a very different story. 

It was argued that Michael killed Kathleen after she found pictures of naked men on his computer and emails to a male escort. It was then claimed that he bludgeoned her to death with a metal tube used for stoking the fire.

What was Kathleen Peterson's cause of death?

The medical examiner on the case found that Kathleen was bludgeoned to death with a blunt object and suffered multiple lacerations to her scalp. The blood on her head had dried, implying she was left in that predicament for some time, contradicting Michael's claims that he had found her at the bottom of the stairs no more than half an hour after the incident allegedly occurred. 

Colin Firth and Toni Collette star as the Petersons

Colin Firth and Toni Collette star as the Petersons in The Staircase.  (Image credit: Sky)

What happened to Elizabeth Ratliff? 

*Warning — mild spoilers for episode four below*

In episode four of the true-crime drama, it was revealed that a close family friend the Petersons called Elizabeth Ratliff was also found dead at the bottom of a staircase. But did this happen in real life? And what happened? 

Yes, unbelievable as it sounds, Kathleen's ordeal wasn't the first staircase death that Michael has been linked to. 

Elizabeth Ratliff and her husband, George Ratliff, were close friends of Michael Peterson and his first wife Patricia Peterson when they lived in Germany in the 1980s. However, in November 1985 Elizabeth was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her home. She was last seen alive by Michael, who had brought her home just before the incident and German authorities ruled Elizabeth's death as an accident, stating that she had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage before falling down the stairs. 

George Ratliff sadly died two years after his wife, and Michael Peterson went on to adopt the couple's two daughters Margaret and Martha Ratliff.

However, the similarities between Elizabeth's death and Kathleen's were too hard to ignore, and Elizabeth Ratliff's body was exhumed and a second post mortem carried out by the Durham Medical Examiner. 

In April 2003, a second autopsy was carried out and it was concluded Elizabeth's cause of death was in fact homicide. The medical examiner found Kathleen Peterson and Elizabeth Ratcliffe suffered matching trauma to the head, throwing Kathleen's injuries into a different light during Michael's trial. 

A bizarre coincidence or does Michael have form? You decide. 

How does The Staircase end? 

The jury found the evidence sufficient to convict Michael of first-degree murder and sent him to prison for life in 2003. But that is far from the end of the story. 

After serving eight years in prison, Michael Peterson was given a new trial in 2011 when the judge ruled that a key witness had given misleading testimony. Fast-forward to 2017 and Peterson entered what is called an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter — this means that the accused can admit that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them, but not admit guilt for the crime.

Peterson was then freed from prison because his new sentence was 86 weeks in prison, however, he had already served that.

Colin Firth rests his chin on his hands in front of a wall with good and bad sheets in The Staircase

Colin Firth plays Michael Peterson in The Staircase.  (Image credit: HBO Max)

Is The Staircase a documentary?

While this HBO adaptation of the real-life story of Kathleen's death is a drama, there was an original documentary made of the tragedy, too. 

In the second episode of The Staircase, we find out that some documentary filmmakers are interested in chronicling Peterson’s case. This really did happen, with a docuseries also called The Staircase which was first released in 2004.

The making of the true-crime documentary came about after Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Denis Poncet won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2002 for their movie Murder on a Sunday Morning, which documented a murder trial of a 15-year-old African American in Jacksonville who was wrongfully convicted. They soon found themselves drawn to Michael Peterson’s case, and the rest is history. 

The Staircase 2004 documentary is currently available to stream on Netflix in both the US and the UK. There are 13 almost hour-long episodes in the documentary, which provide in-depth looks at the case from shortly after the indictment to the trial to the appeals and developments all the way up to 2018.

You can find out more about where to watch The Staircase documentary with our handy guide. 

Where is Michael Peterson now? 

After being released from jail, Peterson moved to Durham, North Carolina where he lives a secluded life.

The wealth he enjoyed before Kathleen's death is now gone, not only because he missed out on Kathleen’s life insurance policy, but because his step-daughter, Caitlin, also obtained a $25 million settlement from Michael via a wrongful death claim against him.

In 2019, Michael self-published two books — Behind the Staircase and Beyond the Staircase — that detail his side of the story. He donated the proceeds from his book to charity because the law forbade him to keep the money for himself. 

Tv tonight The Peterson family gather together.

The Peterson family gather together in episode one of The Staircase.  (Image credit: Sky)

What is the owl theory in The Staircase? 

In another bizarre twist in the tale, it was later claimed that Kathleen could have died as a result of an owl attack. The Peterson's neighbor suggested that the injuries on Kathleen's scalp were consistent with being attacked by an owl and a re-examination of evidence in 2009 found that Kathleen had a tiny feather in her hair and that wood from a tree was tangled up in the hair which had been pulled out of her head by the roots and was found between her fingers.

It was thought Kathleen could have been attacked by the owl outside (blood was reportedly spotted outside too) and then stumbled in, disoriented from the attack, before falling down the stairs.

The owl theory was so complex and baffling that it was excluded from the Netflix documentary entirely. However, it is thought this latest drama adaptation of The Staircase will see the theory examined in later episodes. 

The Staircase landed on HBO Max in the US and on Sky TV and NOW in the UK on Thursday, May 5. 

The first three episodes of The Staircase were released on the streaming service on May 5, with subsequent episodes launching once a week through to June 9.

Claire Crick
Claire Crick

Claire is Assistant Managing Editor at What To Watch and has been a journalist for over 15 years, writing about everything from soaps and TV to beauty, entertainment, and even the Royal Family. After starting her career at a soap magazine, she ended up staying for 13 years, and over that time she’s pulled pints in the Rovers Return, sung karaoke in the Emmerdale village hall, taken a stroll around Albert Square, and visited Summer Bay Surf Club in sunny Australia. 

After learning some tricks of the trade at websites Digital Spy, Entertainment Daily, and Woman & Home, Claire landed a role at What’s On TV and writing about all things TV and film, with a particular love for Aussie soaps, Strictly Come Dancing and Bake Off

She’s interviewed everyone from June Brown — AKA Dot Cotton — to Michelle Keegan, swapped cooking tips with baking legend Mary Berry backstage at the NTAs, and danced the night away with soap stars at countless awards bashes. There’s not a lot she doesn’t know about soaps and TV and can be very handy when a soapy question comes up in a pub quiz! 

As well as all things soap-related, Claire also loves running, spa breaks, days out with her kids, and getting lost in a good book.