Local News

Family Members Suspect Michael Peterson In Second Staircase Death

Posted February 9, 2006
Updated December 10, 2006

— More than two years after Mike Peterson was found guilty of killing his wife at their Durham home, there is a call to put the novelist on trial for a second staircase-related death.

A new article in Justice Magazine calls for the public's help in convincing the government to reinvestigate the death of Elizabeth Ratliff, a Peterson family friend who died in 1985 after apparently falling down the stairs.

Ratliff, a schoolteacher, was the neighbor of Peterson and his first wife when they lived in Germany, where Peterson was stationed in the U.S. military.

Found dead at the bottom of a staircase by her children's nanny, German authorities ruled Ratliff's death an accident that resulted from a cerebral hemorrhage.

But in 2003, when Peterson was on trial for the murder of his second wife, Kathleen, prosecutors had Ratliff's body exhumed from her Texas grave. An autopsy performed by a North Carolina medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.

"I do hope that someday Michael Peterson will come to realize what he has done," said the article's coauthor, Margaret Blair, who is also Ratliff's sister.

Peterson's wife, Kathleen was found dead in the couple's Cedar Street home in December 2001. During his trial, prosecutors argued Ratliff's death, no matter what the cause was, may have been used a model for Kathleen Peterson's death and that "a reasonable connection between the two deaths existed regardless of whether defendant killed Liz," according to a state response to an appellate brief filed last year by Peterson's lawyer.

"All I'm left with is -- what about Liz?" said Blair. "We have questions. We need truth and justice to Liz and my family."

Blair has the support of Peterson's own sister, Ann Christensen, who, according to Blair, believes her brother is a "cold-blooded killer."

"She stood up and spoke out and is still doing so," Blair said. "She believes that Liz deserves justice."

As for Peterson -- who took custody of, and raised, Ratliff's two daughters, Margaret and Martha -- after all these years, Blair has learned how to deal with her anger toward him.

"Believe it or not, I pray for him," Blair said. "No, I don't hate him. I hate what he's done, and I believe he's a sociopath."

Convicted of first-degree murder in October 2003, Peterson is serving a life sentence in prison. His lawyer, Thomas Maher, filed an appeal last October for a retrial. A decision from the state Court of Appeals is expected sometime this spring.

This summer, Peterson is scheduled to go to trial for a wrongful death suit filed against him by Kathleen Peterson's daughter, Caitlin Atwater, who contends Peterson "maliciously" assaulted her mother and caused her death.

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