Local News

Mike Peterson Case Has Some Similarities To Barbara Stager Case

Posted April 29, 2003
Updated December 9, 2006

— A high-profile Durham murder case, a dead spouse and the revelation of a suspiciously similar death in the past -- all could be used to describe the upcoming Mike Peterson or the trial of Barbara Stager.

In 1989, a jury convicted Stager of murdering her husband, Russ.

"It was probably one of the most in-depth investigations in Durham County at that time," said Capt. Rick Buchanan, who headed up the investigation.

The Stager trial captivated Durham. Authorities claim she shot her husband in the night with a gun he kept under his pillow. She claimed it was an accident. The investigation revealed that Stager's previous husband died in a similar accident 10 years earlier.

"Both men at the time, they were married to Barbara [and] were killed in their bed in their home in the middle of the night by weapons that were owned by Barbara," Buchanan said.

The previous death proved to be key in the trial.

"Once we learned about the first husband's death and were able to get all the documentation on that, the autopsy reports, then you develop and see a pattern," Buchanan said.

Mike Peterson is on trial for the death of his wife, Kathleen, in December 2001. Kathleen was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in the couple's home. In 1985, Elizabeth Ratliff, a friend of Mike Peterson, was also found dead at the bottom of a staircase. Peterson is reportedly the last person to see Ratliff alive.

Similarities between the Stager case and the Mike Peterson case are not lost on people in the Durham courthouse.

"Everyone around here probably thought about the Stager case," said Bill Cotter, Stager's attorney. "It prejudiced her trial immensely. You have a jury who would have heard of one husband's death. Now, they're heard about two."

Buchanan said she still keeps the Stager evidence in a box in his office. Fourteen years later, he can understand what the Peterson investigators are up against.

"In order to investigate effectively, you've got to push the media to the curb and go ahead and do your job. Don't worry about the media," he said.

Stager was never charged in the death of her first husband, Larry Ford. However, she is serving a life sentence for the death of her second husband, Russ Stager. Another similarity between the cases is that the Stager case started on May 5. May 5 will also be the same day for the start of the Mike Peterson case.

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