Local News

Guilty Verdict Eases Pain For Kathleen Peterson's Family

Posted October 11, 2003

— Kathleen Peterson died Dec. 9, 2001. Almost two years later, there is vindication for her family.

Many people only heard of Kathleen Peterson after her death. But those who knew her while she was alive described her as a warm, festive person who contributed greatly to the community.

Kathleen's friends say she threw herself into a number of causes involving the arts and historic preservation. Her death came as a shock to those who knew her well.

"We're devastated," Margaret DeMott, of the Durham Arts Council, said on Dec. 10, 2001. "We just keep looking at each other, going: 'How could this happen?'"

A jury believed that Kathleen was murdered by her husband. On Friday, the 12 jurors returned a guilty verdict in Mike Peterson's first-degree murder trial, sending him to prison for the rest of his life.

According to Kathleen's sister, Candace Zamperini, Kathleen was very involved in the Durham Arts Council and always hosted a party at her house.

Zamperini was in the courtroom for much of Mike Peterson's three-month trial and also was called to testify. She shared the personal side of her sister during the trial.

"She was the one who taught me to cook, to sew, to clean, clean, clean," Zamperini said of her older sister.

Kathleen made a name for herself at a young age. She was admitted to the Engineering School at Duke, from which she graduated in 1975. That also is where her memorial was held.

When she died, she was an executive at Nortel Networks. Kathleen was married to Mike Peterson for four and a half years.

"This was not a case of winning a case or losing a case," Zamperini said of the guilty verdict. "This meant justice for my sister."

Lori Campell, another sister of Kathleen's, also testified during the trial. After the jury deliberated for three days without a verdict, Campell said she began to worry that justice would not be served.

"I was thinking this might be a hung jury, and saying: 'well, this means another trial,'" Campell said. '"Maybe it'll take two times.'

"Today, I put my children on the bus and went back to bed. It started off as a bad day, but it has become a good day."

The scene of Kathleen's death left an impression on Campell.

"The blood in the stairwell," she said. "The moment I saw that stairwell and I saw that blood, I said: 'This doesn't look right.' Yet people closest to Kathleen in that house wanted to shove it down my throat that she fell down the stairs and made that kind of scene.

"It was two months before I saw her autopsy photos, and I didn't know about the luminol footprints and the wine glasses, and the paper towels. And his shoes and socks were off? It's all highly suspicious."

Zamperini said Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen's daughter from a previous marriage, was very close to her mother and has had a rough time dealing with the events since her death.

"Caitlin is totally emotionally drained," Zamperini said. "She is having a hard time even functionining.

"Caitlin has lost her mother. She also has realized that the man she cared about as a stepfather is the reason her mother is gone."

Atwater filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Mike Peterson after her mother died just shy of her 50th birthday.

"She's never going to be there anymore," Atwater said of her mother. "She won't see me graduate or go to law school, or see me get married."

Zamperini said it will take a while for the lives of Kathleen's family to get back to normal, particularly Caitlin's life.

"She's had so many overwhelming losses," Zamperini said. "It is going to take one step at a time to rebuild this woman's life. But she did get justice, and that is a very important first step."

For his part, Durham District Attorney Jim Hardin said he owed it to Kathleen's sisters and daughter to give them justice.

"Kathleen Peterson died a horrible death," Hardin said, "and her family for the last two years has had to endure suffering and pain."

Campell said Friday's verdict did not put an end to the family's suffering and pain, but it was a "wonderful" start.

"I feel much, much better than if he had been found not guilty," Campell said. "As long as I live, I am going to remember Kathleen, and all those memories will be tied up with her final moments, fighting for her life in that stairwell, fighting to live against the hands of the man who loved her.

"That is not going to change, so I can't say it is closure. But it is a wonderful thing that Michael will spend the rest of his natural life behind bars."


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