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The True Crime Inspiration For HBO’s Series “The Staircase”

HBO Max’s new series “The Staircase” is tearing it up among fans of true crime dramas; here’s what is known about the real case that inspired the show.

The true crime behind the popular series, which began streaming earlier in May, involves Michael Peterson and his wife Kathleen, along with their blended family. In December of 2001, Peterson made a frantic 911 call, reporting that Kathleen had fallen on the stairs in their house. When police arrived at the scene, they found Kathleen dead on the narrow staircase and immediately suspected that this was no accident.

To start with, there was an exceptional amount of blood present, and some of Michael Peterson’s statements just didn’t match up with the evidence. Kathleen’s body looked as if it had received multiple blows that were not consistent with her hitting her head on the stairs as she fell.

As the case was preparing to go to trial, some startling facts about Michael Peterson’s life began to emerge, which made him look even more guilty. If Kathleen had found out about her husband’s secrets, might they have argued? And if so, might that argument have ended in Michael striking out at Kathleen in anger, killing her?

What made all of this even more fascinating was prior to the HBO dramatization of the events leading to Kathleen’s death, Netflix approached Michael to make a True Crime documentary about the case, and he welcomed the film crew. The subsequent documentary aired on Netflix, and I urge all true crime followers to watch it if you haven’t already.

Initially released in 2004 with eight episodes, the series became an acclaimed sleeper hit within the true crime community before gaining wider popularity amid the post-Serial true crime boom. Two follow-up episodes on the case were filmed in 2011, with three more following in 2017, when the full series was finally released on Netflix.

The Staircase’s central question — who or what killed Kathleen Peterson? — has technically been answered. Michael Peterson was first convicted of her murder in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison. Fifteen years later, after a massive forensics scandal led to his original conviction getting overturned, he would enter an Alford plea, a plea of technical guilt while maintaining his innocence, in exchange for his freedom. But that summation fails to capture the enduring appeal of a case that yielded one gothic, head-turning twist after another.

A decorated Vietnam War veteran, Michael wrote military fiction; his novels did well enough to allow him to purchase a giant five-bedroom house in Durham for his idyllic blended family. In 1997, Michael and Kathleen married; by 2001, it seemed Michael Peterson, then 58 years old, had acquired the perfect life.

According to Michael Peterson, on the night of December 9, 2001, it was a balmy 50-something degrees, and he and Kathleen were enjoying drinks by their pool after dinner. Kathleen went back inside first, and after some time passed, Peterson followed — and found her lying covered in blood. Peterson made a frantic 911 call in which he hung up several times. Upon arriving at the house and seeing the amount of blood all over the body, the walls, and Michael Peterson, police immediately treated the area like a crime scene.

While I said this post was going to discuss the real facts and bizarre details of Peterson’s trial and eventual conviction and release, I am going to stop here. I don’t want to give any spoilers that will ruin the first-time watch for any of my readers who haven’t seen either the Netflix documentary or the recommended HBO series. However, suffice it to say that the true story reads every bit like exciting crime fiction. And, I will drop just one hint about the defense’s “alternative suspect” for Kathleen’s killer, who was not human at all and would account for how a simple fall down the stairs could result in so much physical trauma.

At the end of this jaw-dropping story, in real life and on TV, most of the public is still left uncertain as to Michael Peterson’s guilt or innocence. Despite his claims that he adored Kathleen, he was obviously lying to her about some pretty significant aspects of his life, but does that make him a murderer? 

Watch the series, streaming now on HBO Max, and draw your own conclusions.