Michael Peterson has spent the last 20 years explaining the death of his wife Kathleen. First, he stood trial for allegedly murdering her, and was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to life. He was released pending a new trial in 2011, and in 2017 pleaded guilty to manslaughter in an Alford plea.
After being released from prison, he largely kept a lower profile, mainly talking about his life in relation to the investigation and trial as it was presented in the 2004 documentary “The Staircase,” which he participated in with his four children — Clayton and Todd Peterson and Margaret and Martha Ratliff. (He also had a 13-year relationship with one of the editors of the doc; they broke up shortly after he was released from jail.)
But Peterson’s quiet period appears to have ended. Of late, after being back in the news because HBO Max has semi-fictionalized his family tragedy into a limited series called “The Staircase,” he’s been using his new megaphone freely, first to variety last week, in which he addressed what he called “egregious fabrications” in the show — which Peterson notes was made without his cooperation.
If you haven’t been following the case, the details are out of a mystery novel. On December 9, 2001, according to Peterson, he was having a glass of wine with his wife by the pool of his home in Durham, North Carolina after watching a Blockbuster rental, “America’s Sweethearts,” together. Kathleen went into the house and was later found dead in a sea of blood at the bottom of a staircase. Investigators later discovered that Peterson, who is bisexual, had been having affairs with men. Did Kathleen slip? Was she murdered? Was she attacked by a wild owl hiding in the woods? These are theories posited in “The Staircase,” which have been debated for years.
There are some who believe that Peterson is guilty, including Kathleen’s own sisters and Kathleen’s biological daughter Caitlin Atwater. It doesn’t help that there’s a disturbing coincidence from his past: In Germany in 1985, his neighbor and friend Elizabeth Ratliff (Margaret and Martha’s mother) was found dead at the bottom of her home’s staircase, and the North Carolina prosecutors alleged that he ‘d played a role in her death too.
Peterson agreed to talk to me not to profess his innocence. He’s outraged that HBO Max is, in his view, exploiting the story of Kathleen’s death, and he says the series has been taking a negative toll on his family. He also claims that the show is homophobic for depicting a scenario where Kathleen found gay porn on his computer before she was murdered, when forensic evidence in the case showed that his computer stayed off on the night of Kathleen’s death.
We first connected over email after I spoke to Margaret Ratliff about a documentary that she participated in about ethics in documentary filmmaking. Peterson was infuriated that “The Staircase” doc director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade had optioned his life story to showrunners Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn.
“’The Staircase’ is a fictionalized series based on true events,” says a rep from HBO Max. “Each episode is accompanied by a disclaimer that states it is ‘a dramatization based on certain facts.’ With respect to the facts that formed the basis for the series, Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn relied on extensive source material, including first-hand accounts of the people involved in the events that took place.”
When I spoke with Peterson on the phone, we had a wide-ranging conversation about Colin Firth’s onscreen portrait of him, and wishing his children hadn’t been made into characters on the show — we also discussed the “owl theory.” Although he says he hasn’t seen HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” Peterson did seem to know a lot about the series. The edited excerpts of our conversation are below.
Your case has been public, and stories have been written about you and your family. Isn’t the story of “The Staircase” in the public domain?
I might be a public figure, but my children are not. They are innocent bystanders who years ago helped make a documentary [about me]. So I’m just really annoyed. There is such a thing as implied consent. But where does that implied consent end? Can you take people like Margaret, Martha, Clayton and Todd, who have moved on with their lives in the last 20 years — and now take them, put actors in their place and suddenly and totally change the background about what they did? I mean, that’s unconscionable and disgusting.
You say you never signed a release to appear in the original eight episodes of “The Staircase”?
I do not know the ramifications of this, but I’m pretty sure that Jean couldn’t sell his documentary and Antonio couldn’t buy it and then produce his [HBO Max] series without signed releases. I don’t want any money. Any amount of money that I got would go to my stepdaughter—Caitlin. [Peterson has been ordered to pay Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen’s biological child, $25 million in a 2007 wrongful death lawsuit.] What I hope is that an entertainment lawyer can at least settle out of court with Antonio, Annapurna and HBO so that my children can get the money. But the real goal is to stop this thing. The HBO show, the most I hear about it, is just awful. It’s just awful. In it, my children are fighting, and totally different storylines are being made about them and that’s just wrong.
If you had to do it over again, when Jean approached you about making the docuseries, would you have said, “Just film me”?
No, because nobody knew how this was going to explode. I would have left it to my kids, as I did leave it to them to decide if they wanted to participate. They all volunteered to say something because they love me. I didn’t understand how hurt they would be by helping me. And if I had known in advance that this documentary was going to catch on, and then there was going to be a series in which they are fictionalized — I would’ve said “No, don’t film them.” But nobody could see that 20 years ago.
Have you seen the HBO Max series?
Oh God, no. There was this two-and-a-half-minute trailer and I turned it off after one minute because there are my children screaming at each other. And I said, “What family is this? Where did this come from?” So, I didn’t watch anymore. I realized I cannot under any circumstances watch this. I read everything that has been said, but without watching it. So I feel I have a really good understanding of the series from people, lawyers, friends and journalists. I can read about it—that’s awful enough. But to see it. No, no, no. I couldn’t do that.
What have other people told you?
My understanding is that Kathleen dies three times in this series! Well, I saw her die. I was there when she died, and I do not want to see two other depictions of her death that I’ve been told are violent and graphic. I just don’t want to see that. I’ve gone into war; I was with the Marines in Vietnam. I didn’t want to see war movies when I came back. I was in prison for eight years. I’m out free. Do I want to watch a prison movie? No, I lived it
It’s the same way with this HBO series. I saw Kathleen die. It was awful. Do I want to watch her die three times? No. Apparently my son, Todd, I guess he’s drunk and saying things and the same way with Clayton, my understanding is they have this guy [Dane DeHaan] with bags under his eyes and I’m told that he looks like a drugged out individual. Well, that’s not my son.
What have your children said about the series?
Clayton and [his wife] Becky were watching the Jimmy Fallon show and suddenly out comes the actress who plays Margaret [Sophie Turner] and they showed clips from the HBO series. Becky just ran out of the room and Clayton was doing everything he could to change the channel, but it was thrown in their faces. I understand why HBO and Antonio would be looking for publicity. I get that. But the problem is what he did to distort and embellish their lives. He just can’t do that to real people who are innocent. It’s just an appalling desecration of their lives.
The docuseries doesn’t try to put words in Kathleen’s mouth, but in the HBO Max series we get to hear from her and see what her life with you may have been like. How does that feel?
If she and Colin Firth are fighting all the time and screaming at each other — no. That’s certainly not Kathleen. We did not have a life like that. Apparently, there’s this one scene, when Kathleen dies — oh, I kill her supposedly — because she had seen the pornography on my laptop. Wrong, wrong, wrong! We never fought. There was nothing to fight about. I would be sickened to see the fictional Kathleen fighting and screaming.
Did you find the depiction of your bisexuality in the documentary or series to be homophobic?
I spoke of my bisexuality to Jean, and I believe he represented it as I spoke about it, so I would say that Jean was fair. I’ve heard from many people including my attorney that the sex scenes in the HBO series are both wrong and salacious, including a male-male encounter when I went to Blockbuster’s to rent the movie Kathleen and I watched the night she died. That’s totally false, and the rest of the gratuitous sex in the series is, from what I’ve also heard, homophobic, as my trial certainly was — and definitely a contributing factor in my conviction.
That completely fabricated episode with me killing Kathleen is grossly homophobic when she finds pornography on my computer late at night, though the prosecution expert tested that the computer was not accessed after 4 pm Creating a false and fictional sexual reason for me to kill her is disgustingly homophobic as well as wrong, as proven in court. How could Campos create a scene that was completely disproved in trial testimony? That shows his total disregard for truth, and his denigration of my bisexuality. He invented a reason for killing Kathleen based on my bisexuality. That also malignant Kathleen, who was a kind and understanding person.
He has turned Kathleen into a screaming shrew, the last thing she was. Campos claims he has finally focused events on Kathleen, but in doing so, he has created a person who in no way represented the real Kathleen. She, as well as my children, are victims of Campos’ grossly fictitious story. She would be appealed at his portrayal of her.
The series implies that she drank quite a bit. Is that true?
Yeah, she drank, but nothing that would make it bad. She had a full-time job. She was making a quarter of a million dollars. She was an executive with Nortel. Alcohol never interfered with anything.
Did Colin Firth ever reach out to you for research?
No, he did not. That was his choice. Whether I would talk to him? I probably would have. I will forever be known as Colin Firth. It could be worse, I suppose. He’s not my favorite actor. Get Brad Pitt! But to be fair, I haven’t seen his portrayal, but I heard he got [my] voice right and [my] mannerisms. But he didn’t capture my energy or my humor. To me, Colin’s a great actor but I can’t think of any roles that weren’t dull as dirt that he’s ever played and that’s fine. I’m not denigrating him, but I would have thought about talking to him. He said he wanted to do it himself — make his own creature, I thought, “What are you talking about? I’m the real person. If you want to know what I think and feel, read my book or talk to me.”
To look at things from the other side: Campos works in Hollywood. He’s a narrative filmmaker. He took a story and fictionalized it. What did you expect?
Even the most innocent ingenue would know, “This is Hollywood. They could be doing some pretty bad stuff to me.” But at least make a movie with fictional characters not named Michael Peterson and not named Clayton, Todd, Margaret, and Martha. That would have been OK.
Why do you think 20 some years after Kathleen passed people are still so interested in how she died?
You’ve got sex. You’ve got money. Murder. That’s a magic combination there. There’s the bisexuality. It was also one of the very first crime documentaries.
What’s your take on the owl theory?
When [a neighbor] Larry told me about an owl, I thought, “What in the world?” But then he felt the pictures of the autopsy with the owl talons superimposed over and I thought, “’Oh my god.’ It’s a real possibility.”
But did Kathleen put out Christmas decorations that night?
It’s a real probability that Kathleen went and put those reindeer outside right before she went to bed. She thinks, “Let me just go put them out.” So, she runs out. She puts them up and then maybe an owl attacks her. Very conceivable.