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There are strange true crime cases and there are those that are downright bizarre. The death of Kathleen Peterson falls into the latter category. With more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, her killing and the investigation that followed are confounding to say the least. It was at the seemingly idyllic Durham, North Carolina mansion she shared with her novelist husband, Michael, which just sold once again this past August, that the 48-year-old Nortel Networks executive’s life came to an abrupt end at the bottom of a narrow staircase in the early morning hours of December 9, 2001. Whether Kathleen Peterson was the victim of a terrible accident, a random owl attack, or murder at the hands of her husband has been the stuff of tabloid fodder ever since.
To hear Michael tell it (and tell it, he has, many times), he and Kathleen spent her last night watching “America’s Sweethearts” and drinking wine — lots of wine. After the movie, at around 11 p.m., the couple opted to hang outside by the pool, despite the brisk 51 to 54-degree weather. Kathleen headed back inside at some point to prepare for a conference call that was scheduled for the following morning. When Michael re-entered the house at approximately 2:30 a.m., he found Kathleen bloody, battered and barely alive at the bottom of the rear staircase, and called 911, claiming his wife had fallen, but she passed away before the ambulance arrived. Due to the massive amount of blood at the scene and the seven head lacerations discovered by the coroner, authorities quickly figured it was a homicide and pinned Michael as their prime suspect. He was arrested just 11 days later.
And that’s when things got really strange. While out on bond preparing for trial, Peterson was approached by French documentary filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade who hoped to cover his trial cinematically. Though under intense scrutiny from detectives and the public at large, Peterson inexplicably agreed, granting de Lestrade and his crew unfettered access to his home, his defense team and his family — including his four children! The result, a fascinating 13-episode docuseries named “The Staircase,” is an unparalleled look at our legal system, the makings of a defense and the behind-the-scenes goings-on of a major criminal trial. My mom and I devoured the show when it initially premiered on Sundance TV in 2005 and then again when it was re-released by Netflix with several hours of added footage in 2018. The story only grows more mysterious with time.
Click over to the gallery for more Dirt on Michael Peterson and his former house.
Launch Gallery: See Inside the Former House of Michael Peterson