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First Wife Of Michael Peterson, Subject Of 'The Staircase,' Dies

Patricia Peterson remained supportive of Michael Peterson after he was accused of killing his second wife Kathleen Peterson.

By Gina Tron
The Michael Peterson Case, Explained

The first wife of Michael Peterson, the subject of the popular docuseries "The Staircase," has died.

Patricia “Patty” Peterson, 78, died on Thursday at Duke University Hospital after suffering a massive heart attack the day prior, her son Clayton Peterson told North Carolina's News & Observer. While she and Michael divorced years ago, they have been living together for the past two years in a Durham apartment.

Clayton Peterson, the couple’s son, told the outlet, “They were companions. They took care of each other.”

Patricia was very supportive of Michael during his many legal woes.

The author was convicted in 2003 for the murder of his second wife, Kathleen Peterson, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their North Carolina home in 2001 with lacerations on her head. He maintained his innocence throughout and her death spawned many theories, including one that an owl had killed her. The contentious case was examined in the 2004 docuseries “The Staircase,” for which three new episodes were made for Netflix in 2018. 

Michael spent nearly a decade behind bars for Kathleen’s death but was granted a new trial in 2011 after a judge determined that a key prosecution witness, Duane Deaver, provided unreliable testimony during his trial. In 2017, just months before the scheduled retrial, Michael submitted an Alford plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter. The plea deal acknowledged there was enough evidence to convict him at trial, while still allowing him to maintain his innocence.

But before marrying Kathleen, he was wed to Patricia. They lived abroad in Germany where Patricia taught elementary school for children of American military families for decades. It was there, in Germany, when the Petersons notably were connected to another staircase death.

Elizabeth Ratliff, a friend of Patricia, died in 1985 at the age of 43 after Michael took her home; he was the last person to see her alive. Her body was later found at the bottom of a staircase. Her death was ruled an accident by German authorities. She suffered a cerbral hemorrhage which led to her falling down a set of stairs and suffer serious injuries. However, after Kathleen’s death, North Carolina authorities had Ratliff’s body exhumed and argued that she was murdered, according to the News & Observer — a characterization Michael's lawyers took great issue with.

Following Ratliff’s death, Michael and Patricia became the legal guardians of her children Martha and Margaret Ratliff. The girls, along with Michael and Patricia’s children Todd and Clayton Peterson were featured in “The Staircase.”

Clayton told the News & Observer that his mother “was a lovely person” who touched many lives.

“She loved the arts,” he said. “She loved Durham.”

Through her life, she was consistently adamant that her first husband was innocent of all crimes he was accused of.

HBO Max recently announced that a dramatized version of “The Staircase” is in the works starring Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth, known for his roles in “The King’s Speech” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” as Michael Peterson. Turner and Firth will star alongside Toni Collette, Parker Posey, Juliette Binoche, and Rosemarie DeWitt.