Michael Peterson on perception and prejudice following his release from prison
Michael Peterson has finished his story. He has worked on it for a long time, in some ways since his eight years in prison. Now it’s complete — a book he put online, free to download. It’s about everything: the death of his wife, Kathleen; his trial; his conviction; his time incarcerated; his life since.
“Behind the Staircase,” it’s called — a play on the title of the Netflix documentary, “The Staircase,” which was released last summer. The documentary introduced Peterson and his case, arguably the most notorious true-crime spectacle in recent North Carolina history, to a worldwide audience.
For months, we have talked about the book. He had hoped to have it ready in mid-November, then after Christmas. In February, he sends an email announcing that the website to download it is ready.
“There will also be an Amazon Kindle and print book available in a few days,” he writes. “Out of respect for you, I will not send this information to other media for a little while, including that bitch from London at the Daily Mail who banged on my door, then did a 10-page hatchet job on me. ...”
It’s a jarring description of a female reporter who arrived at Peterson’s apartment in Durham one day last summer, at the height of the craze over the documentary. It’s jarring, especially, coming from a man who spent eight years in prison after being convicted of killing his second wife.
Peterson is 75 now, and for nearly two decades his life has been consumed one way or another by what happened on Dec. 9, 2001, when Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of the back staircase in their home, covered in blood. Peterson has insisted that he was innocent.
At the trial, a jury convicted him. In prison, he lost his appeals. Then came the revelation that Duane Deaver, a former SBI blood spatter analyst, exaggerated his expertise and misled the jury. Peterson’s conviction was thrown out in 2011.
For years after, he lived in purgatory, unsure if prosecutors would retry him, unsure if he’d go back to prison for the rest of his life. Finally, in 2017, he accepted an Alford plea, which allowed him to plead guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a sentence of time served.
He walked out of court a free man — as free as anyone can be after a murder conviction, after accepting legal responsibility for his wife’s death, and after a civil judgment that ordered him to pay one of his stepdaughters, Caitlin Atwater, $25 million, money he doesn’t have and never will.
“I can’t own anything,” he says to me one day in his apartment, “because I would lose it.”
He rents the place. He leases his car. He says four New York City publishers were interested in his book, but they backed off when they understood his legal predicament. He speaks about everything as if he’s come to terms with it, and yet he finds fault in the logic.
“I owe her now with interest, probably $35 or $40 million dollars for what (Caitlin) considers me killing her mother,” Peterson says. “Well, I didn’t do that. So should I owe her that money?”
That’s why the book is free: Because in some ways, Peterson still isn’t. What is freedom to a man many think should still be locked away?
He seems to appreciate the mystery surrounding him. A lifelong storyteller — a novelist who wrote freelance political columns for The Herald-Sun in Durham in the mid-to-late 1990s — Peterson embraces the drama.
The link in the email he sent me goes to his website for the book. There’s an “About the Author” section.
“Kathleen once told me that I was every character in every book I’d written; she said she could identify me in them all,” Peterson writes, before listing several characters. “… ‘None of them are all bad,’ I said. ‘True,’ she answered, ‘but none are all good either.’
“I think she was on to something. So who am I?”
‘I didn’t kill Kathleen’
The question posed in his book’s introduction sets up Peterson’s story. He’s often telling one. A few minutes after knocking on his door in mid-November, our first meeting, I’m following him inside, past the living room, to a small nook next to the kitchen.
Stacks of memorabilia cover a table: photographs from his time in Vietnam, where he served in the Marines; one of him in a hospital bed after an injury. Near the top is a copy of Time magazine. He opens it to the page where there’s a blurb about “The Staircase.”
The article describes him as “suspiciously laid-back.” He wonders what that means. He doesn’t like it. Peterson has kept everything he could find that has been written about the documentary. Some of the stories, he doesn’t appreciate. He keeps those, too.
“Suspiciously laid-back.” He asks again what that’s about, shaking his head.
Peterson knows that some people just think he’s guilty, that he belongs in prison. He lives with that, just as he lives with the contrast between the life he’s still learning to live and the one that was his before Dec. 9, 2001.
Back then, he was known as a successful novelist with a passion for politics. People delighted in his war stories. He counted doctors and lawyers and politicians among his friends. Very few of them remain in his orbit. Now the memories of what was occupy the same space as those from prison.
In one moment, Peterson can tell stories about being a student at Duke University and meeting B. Everett Jordan , the Democratic senator from North Carolina. In another, his mind redirected, Peterson can describe the men he met inside Nash Correctional Institution.
He has stories about inmates with names like Johnny Blood, Banger, Jay Bird, The Dwarf. He can tell stories about Rae Carruth, the former Carolina Panthers player who served time in Nash, too. They shared the same attorney, David Rudolf. Peterson says he and Carruth became friends.
“Some major, major, major characters in prison,” Peterson says. “A lot more interesting than the cocktail crowd I used to hang out with.”
Peterson feels the rejection from that crowd. After his conviction was overturned in 2011, there was no welcome-home party. There was no home. The large house that he shared with Kathleen, the one off of Cedar Street in Durham’s Forest Hills Neighborhood, was but a memory to Peterson. So were a lot of his friendships.
“People I had known, people that Kathleen and I had known well … none of them reached out to me,” Peterson says, sitting inside of an apartment that’s about 4 miles away from Cedar Street. “At first I thought, my God, I’m out of prison, you know, my conviction was overturned – I didn’t kill Kathleen ...”
“I thought, ‘Oh, what is it, you know? Was it because it came out (in the trial) that I was bisexual and they were going to be contaminated, that it was contagious or something?’ I don’t know. But then I realized, hell, I don’t want to be a part of their life — not remotely interested in their life.”
People are interested in his. In March, the “Dr. Phil” show flew Peterson to Los Angeles for a taping of the show, which will air over two episodes April 22 and 23. (“We did not bond, ... he thinks I was guilty,” Peterson writes in an email to me about his interview with psychologist Phil McGraw.)
He says he has hundreds of friend requests on Facebook. During a recent trip to the airport, he says he often felt stares. Not long ago, at Target, he says a man in the parking lot asked for a selfie. He says two more did at the library.
“Happens all the time,” he says, “because, obviously, of Netflix.”
He says he had no idea before “The Staircase” was released that Netflix had purchased the documentary. Peterson hasn’t made any money from it and, even if he had, it wouldn’t be his to keep. In the months after it began streaming last June, his case again became a spectacle.
He says he hasn’t watched the documentary. He has difficulty remembering when the filming ceased, or even when he accepted the plea deal that formally ended his case.
“I keep losing track of time,” he says.
‘I can... make up life’
In prison, time slows down in some ways and accelerates in others. Peterson spent eight years there, yet emerged looking like he had spent 20 or more. In an email before our in-person introduction, he offers a warning: “Don’t be frightened when you see me. I look like hell and am hobbling around on a walker.”
He has just had surgery on his feet, a procedure he describes as long overdue to repair an old military injury. His feet look gnarly, with little metal pins, like small nails, sticking out of each one of his toes. He’s in pain. He looks older than 75. His eyes are still a piercing blue, but often there’s a hint of fear in them, as if he’s anxious about something. They’re set back in the sockets.
Peterson lives alone. The relative isolation doesn’t bother him. It didn’t, either, in prison, where he says he took five trips to “the hole” — solitary confinement. He says the longest of those lasted approximately 34 days. He earned those trips, he says, because he was often “antagonistic to authority.”
“Sometimes I welcomed it as, thank God, you know. I’m away from all these other assholes out there. I don’t have to deal with anything. It’s good. So solitude never has bothered me. I mean, writers are, by choice or necessity, solitary individuals. …
“And I have this terrific imagination and I can just, you know, make up life.”
Statements like that are enough to give pause. Peterson has a history of embellishment. Twenty years ago, he ran for Durham mayor, and built part of his campaign on his military record. In Vietnam, he had earned a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with Valor. Peterson also claimed two Purple Hearts. His military record, however, contained no evidence of those, and after a News & Observer reporter confronted Peterson during his campaign, he acknowledged that he had fabricated a story about a leg injury.
When he tells a story these days, it’s difficult to know where the exaggerations might lie. His stories from prison are filled with accounts that are nearly impossible to verify. He has stories about coaching Carruth on a prison softball team, and becoming close. Peterson has others about helping inmates earn their GEDs, which he says earned him respect from Nash’s leader of the Bloods, the notorious gang.
In another story, Peterson has lost his wedding ring. He was allowed to wear it, and one day after a shower he noticed it was gone. He knew the ring would be a lucrative commodity in a place where even postage stamps are like cash. An hour passed. A younger prisoner found Peterson and presented the ring.
“He cleaned the shower, which is the worst job you can have,” Peterson says.
He still wears the ring. He says it reminds him of Kathleen, but also of incarceration, and “that poor kid who had nothing, and returned it to me.”
“So I will never take it off,” he says.
Peterson’s life after prison
In some ways, Peterson tells me, it was more difficult to leave prison, to readjust to the outside, than it was to go in. He has been out now for about eight years, which is about as long as he spent inside.
He still finds pleasure in simple things: the space and quiet of an empty room, the freedom to slowly sip a cup of coffee in the morning. His back window overlooks trees and greenery — a contrast to the dirt track and patch of cement that filled the narrow view from his cell.
He cried a lot there, at first. One night he went to the ballet with his first wife, Patty Peterson. (They’re still close.) Peterson broke down at the performance. He visited a psychiatrist: “I want you to un(expletive) my head,” Peterson says he told him. The doctor told him to cry.
“What’s wrong with crying?” Peterson asks now. “What’s wrong in going in and remembering the sorrow for Kathleen, the sorrow for your children? My mother was dead. My father who died while I was in prison. All of these things, it’s okay to cry about that.
“And it’s called catharsis. And it’s also called book-writing. So that’s what I did.”
In Peterson’s mind, he is a victim who wrongly spent eight years in prison, and who, out of fear of going back, pleaded guilty to manslaughter. If he could have profited off of his book, he says he would have donated the money to three charities, including the Innocence Project.
The Owl Theory
On a cold sunny day in January, a small group has gathered with Peterson in Durham: Patty; Joan Miner, who worked on Peterson’s mayoral campaign; and Eric Smith, a friend who went to Duke and also works out at the same Durham YMCA as Peterson does. Michael Peterson is moving around better, two months after the surgery on his feet.
Peterson’s social circle is small. His friends now have been his friends for a long time. They’re the ones who visited in prison, who stood by while others turned away.
“I felt like that’s what happened to Michael, that he got accused and then all of a sudden everybody just sort of got on the bandwagon and figured he was guilty because he was accused,” says Miner, who for years controlled Peterson’s visitation list at Nash. “... So why did I want to stay friends with him? Well, because he needed a friend.”
We’re heading to Raleigh for a lunch visit with Nick Galifianakis, who was a U.S. Congressman in the late 1960s and early ‘70s before he unsuccessfully ran for Senate, losing to Jesse Helms when Helms won the first of his five terms. I’m in the middle of the backseat, where Patty, to my right, offers me lozenges and tries to buckle my seat belt.
“You’re in the most dangerous position in the vehicle,” she says. She’s a retired teacher.
Peterson drives, and quickly the conversation turns to politics.
“I know we all would agree in this car here, that the world be different if Nick had beaten Jesse Helms,” Peterson says.
His mind takes him back to that Senate race in the early ‘70s. Peterson’s service in the Marines had just ended. He and Patty had just bought a house on University Drive in Durham. It was close to the 1972 presidential election, when Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern in the largest landslide in history.
“Patty went canvasing for McGovern,” Peterson says. “Do you remember that, Patty? You went up on Oak Drive.”
“Never to be forgotten,” she says.
She and Peterson are friends, despite their divorce and all that came after. Patty knows it seems a bit unusual. She was close, like sisters, she says, with, Elizabeth Ratliff, who was Peterson’s neighbor when he and Patty lived in Germany in the 1980s. Ratliff, like Kathleen in 2001, was found dead at the bottom of a staircase.
Peterson then raised Ratliff’s young daughters, Margaret and Martha, as his own. During the trial, the suspicion surrounding Ratliff’s death was used against Peterson. Elizabeth Ratliff, Patty says in the car, “was my dearly beloved friend.” Patty tries to explain her relationship with Peterson.
“I lecture myself every day,” she says. “Try to be a better human being. Try to be kind. As my children and all of my students know, we must have a kind heart for others and I said this to all of my students, the highest aspect of human intelligence is compassion and love for others.”
Peterson parks outside the senior living facility where Galifianakis lives with his wife, Louise. The building has the feel of a luxury hotel. Inside the unit, Galifianakis, 90, is lounging in a chair, the TV tuned to CNN, where they’re talking about the latest with President Trump, and his claims of a crisis at the border.
Peterson walks in and makes a joke that his old friend should run for president. They share a moment, and Galifianakis, who is the uncle of actor and comedian Zach Galifianakis, asks Peterson about his book.
Nick Galifianakis had visited Peterson in prison and worked with Peterson’s defense. The conversation jogs Galifianakis’ memory: “Oh, I’ve got to tell you this,” he says with excitement. And so begins a story about a lunch Galifianakis shared with friends, one of whom asked about notable cases he had tried.
“I got into a discussion with him,” Galifianakis says, “about my friend, your neighbor.”
“Oh, Larry,” Peterson says. “Larry Pollard.”
“Larry Pollard,” Galifianakis says. “And I told him about Larry and the owl.”
Larry Pollard is another lawyer. He still lives in Durham on Cedar Street, not far from where Peterson and Kathleen lived. Pollard invented what has been called the Owl Theory, and in some ways has devoted his life to it. It’s the theory that an owl attack led to Kathleen’s death.
Not even Peterson took it seriously, at first. Now, in a strange way, both men feel empathy for the other; Pollard because he feels Peterson didn’t kill his wife, and Peterson because of the reaction Pollard has received for years.
“That man has suffered more than anybody, except me, during my trial and afterwards,” Peterson says. “He was ridiculed, dismissed as a lunatic. And then it came out oh, wait a minute, there might be more to this.”
The Owl Theory has become a fascination. Peterson listens to Galifianakis go on about it. He tells Peterson that not long ago Pollard brought over a large stuffed owl, the same kind he believes attacked Kathleen. He brought over a book with evidence he’s collected over the years.
One of the pieces, Pollard says during a phone call later, he calls “my smoking feather.” During that phone call, Pollard talks for about an hour, most of it unprompted by any question. He makes several invitations to see the evidence he’s collected, including the stuffed owl. He knows how all of this sounds: “It has caused me to lose friendships, lose respect, be ridiculed in the press,” he says.
Galifianakis asks Peterson if he’s seen the stuffed owl.
“Oh, God yes,” Peterson says.
Now Galifianakis remembers, too, that Pollard brought a small souvenir: a little owl figurine. It’s cartoonish-looking — an owl hatching out of a pumpkin. It looks like a fall decoration.
“Louise, would you get that little owl thing?” Galifianakis asks his wife. “You mind getting it?”
“Yeah, I do,” she says, shooting him a look before rising off the couch.
“Behind you,” Galifianakis says. “There’s a little owl sitting on that thing there.”
She brings it over to Peterson. He holds it and looks at it, this cartoonish owl, a representation of the bird that, perhaps, could have attacked his wife 18 years ago, leading to the end of her life and forever altering the direction of his. Peterson grows quiet but not for long.
He hands the owl back and rises from his chair. He leads the group downstairs for lunch. There, they talk about war and prison and growing old. Peterson has finished his book but his stories continue.