The infamous North Carolina mansion where the wife of an author was discovered lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase has been at the center of a case that has fascinated the public for more than two decades.
The death of 48-year-old executive Kathleen Peterson and the trial of her husband, author Michael Peterson, spawned a hit documentary miniseries, “The Staircase.” The story, centered on whether Michael murdered his wife in their stunning Colonial in Durham, is the basis for a forthcoming HBO Max limited series of the same name to premiere on Thursday.
So what happened to the 10,000-square-foot home where Kathleen’s body was found on Dec. 9, 2001?
It has changed hands a few times, including once to a psychic and medium, before it sold to its most recent owner in August 2020. However, the owners have never been able to erase the stigma of Kathleen’s death from the property and sell it for what it would have fetched had the tragedy never occurred.
Homes where suspicious deaths and murders happen often sell at a discount that can range from 10% to 25%, says real estate appraiser Randall Bell, of the Landmark Research Group in Laguna Beach, CA.
The more terrible—and well-publicized—the incident, the longer the property can take to find buyers and the larger the discounts. That’s been true of the Peterson home.
“A lot of times, people with infamous properties start optimistic and gradually start to home in on something more realistic,” says Bell.
The five bedroom, six-bathroom Colonial was built in 1940 for a wealthy local businessman. The residence is on a lot of 3.4 acres in the tony Forest Hills neighborhood of Durham. Amenities include a slate patio and outdoor fireplace, a library and game room, a private wing for the main bedroom, and the pool where Michael claimed to be when he claimed his wife drunkenly “fell” down the back staircase of their home.
The home was used as a set in the 1990 movie version of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” starring Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway.
The Petersons bought the house for $600,000 in 1992. Famed scholar, author, and PBS host Henry Louis Gates Jr. claims to have sold them the property.
“The Staircase” documentary series from French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade was filmed in the residence shortly after Michael was indicted for his wife’s death. He gave the filmmaker access to his family, attorneys, and the spot where his wife’s body was found.
After Michael was sent to prison, the home was listed for $1,175,000, according to the News & Observer. The price was reduced and then sold at an even deeper discount to the co-owner of a local bakery for just $640,000 in 2004. (Tax records valued the property at $925,000, according to the Associated Press.) The new owner reportedly renovated the property.
Four years later, the home was sold for more than double that price. Psychic medium Biond Fury purchased the property for $1.3 million in 2008. Fury, who is also a self-described writer and musician, had a show that ran on a New York cable station.
In 2018, Fury launched a GoFundMe campaign to help him pay for repairs to the home.
He listed the property for $1.9 million in July 2020 and sold it a month later for $1.6 million, according to Realtor.com® records. Property records show the buyer was a limited liability company, which obscures the names of the new owners.
Michael Peterson, who was also an unsuccessful Durham mayoral candidate and was having financial troubles before his wife’s death, has long maintained his innocence.
His sensational trial in 2003 included testimony from a male escort Peterson had planned to pay for sex. It was also revealed that in 1985—16 years before his wife’s murder in North Carolina—Peterson had been the last person to see Elizabeth Ratliff alive. In a striking parallel to the later events, the 43-year-old widow’s bloody body was discovered twisted at the bottom of a staircase in her Germany home. Officials believed Ratliff fell after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was the mother of two young daughters whom Peterson adopted after she died.
At the culmination of the three-month trial, a jury found Peterson guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance at parole.
However, in 2011, he was granted a new trial due to claims of biased testimony. Just before it was slated to begin, in 2017, Peterson entered a plea to a new manslaughter charge. This allowed him to simultaneously maintain his innocence while acknowledging the body of evidence against him was likely strong enough for prosecutors to obtain a conviction. He was released from prison, sentenced to time already served.
In 2019, Peterson’s former defense attorney David Rudolf said Peterson was living in a ground-floor apartment in Durham—with no stairs.