The Staircase (2004) s01e03 Episode Script

A Striking Coincidence

1 [theme music plays] [TV announcer] Live from ABC 11, this is Eyewitness News at Six.
[news fanfare plays] The murder case against Michael Peterson doesn't just involve his wife anymore.
It involves a friend who died 18 years ago.
Just like Kathleen Peterson, Ratliff was found dead at the bottom of a staircase.
Eyewitness News reporter Anthony Wilson has more on the potentially explosive information.
[reporter] Elizabeth Ratliff was a friend of Michael Peterson.
In fact, Peterson was with Ratliff the night before she was found dead in Germany.
Ratliff's body was discovered at the bottom of a staircase in 1985, and prosecutors have implied the circumstances of her death mirror those of Michael Peterson's wife, Kathleen.
She was found dead in the Peterson home back in January 2001.
[news broadcast continues] Nope.
OK, well, you guys got a much better film now.
[David] What did Margaret Ratliff tell you about what happened to her mother? - Does she know any of the details about - No, she doesn't.
With the exception that her mother died of a natural cause.
Didn't we look at this a few months ago, and didn't Mike give us an autopsy or something? That said cause of death: stroke or cerebral hemorrhage, - or something like that? - Right.
He told us that he had been with her the day before, I think with Patty, they had dinner or something.
But you know what the authorities are gonna do.
 The police are gonna assume that because she was found at the bottom of the stairs, they're gonna try to link them together.
- Whether or not they're successful - Mike is like "The Stairway Killer.
" - Is that the idea? - Apparently that's what they're gonna He's found a way to kill women, 17 years apart Right? This is, like, in the mid-'80s.
Yeah, this is 1985, I believe.
So he strikes, like, every 17 years, by finding some way to kill women on a stairway? Is that the Right.
And of course it helps their case.
It's, you know if two people are found at the bottom of stairs, they're gonna try to bring that in, one way or the other.
I mean, I don't know what's there, and it may be nothing, but if it is nothing, we need to find out it's nothing.
'Cause I'm not gonna be very comfortable being surprised by something that happened in Germany.
Oh, I know.
I know you don't know much about the case, but we all form impressions from whatever we've heard.
Howard, you know, what's your gut-level reaction? - Can I ask one question before I tell you? - Sure.
OK, someone said that there was another wife that died in similar circumstances? I think I don't know whether she was a wife or not, but there was another woman that It came up that she may have fallen in similar circumstances, and someone had said they need to check that out.
This second incident in Europe casts a long shadow on Michael Peterson.
And it really does create a lot of doubt.
[Marjorie] OK.
So I think that people are going to really question his innocence because of this.
Because the two incidences, as I remember reading, were so very similar.
Can you be back here in 35 minutes? Is that enough time? 35, 40 minutes? [woman] Oh! I'm sorry.
The Germany thing is out there already.
We're not gonna to get rid of that.
It's there.
You know? There is no getting rid of it.
All we can do right now is I agree with David.
Can I make a suggestion? I'd like to know, if you would ask them one more time, What would you want to know about the Germany thing? What would you want to know, and then answer the questions.
- Right.
- OK.
Do you want me to start out by clarifying the Germany thing? - Yes, now that it's on the table, - It does seem to permeate I think we have to "Here are the facts that are known right now about Germany.
" We know what we're gonna be able to show.
There was no financial benefit from it.
He did take You know, he took care of the kids for the next 16 years.
There was no evidence of any affair.
[Ron] Do you wanna mention the $70,000 or not? Yeah, you can say there was a $70,000 life insurance policy, - and that's all the money that - And it was left to the girls, right? - Right.
- Which he spent on the girls.
- Right.
- Which was spent on the girls.
[Marjorie] What happened is, that during the night, or a few days following the death of Mrs.
Peterson, the police overheard some people talking about "Well, this is really a double tragedy, because Margaret and Martha's mother died in the same way," and that is why the police decided to check into it, and go to Germany, and find out what the circumstances were.
[man] But it wasn't the same way, though.
I would think that the defense would benefit from this story being brought up in the case because my opinion has gone, like you say, higher respect, moral character, towards Peterson, by the man who would do that, take on the children, et cetera.
I have to say I have a totally new respect for the man.
Anybody who would take on someone else's children and raise them, and they're not blood children because when they got divorced, he could have easily said, "Go with Patty," or, "Go to the state," or whatever.
I'm just thinking that we, the group, in general, jumped to a conclusion of innocence, because he adopted these her two children, the woman who died.
- No, that's not what I'm saying.
- I don't think you can do that.
Well, let's assume, for instance, that he had an affair with this woman, OK? And he was discovered.
OK? I'm gonna write one of his books now.
Suppose he has to get rid of her and does Then adopting the children would make him look innocent, wouldn't it? - Here's a picture of Axel here, that's - OK.
- When we get in the airport - He's gonna meet us the airport.
- Axel's gonna meet us at the airport.
- OK.
Grafenhausen is where Elizabeth was living at the time of her death.
That's also where Mike and Patty were living.
and one of the first people we're gonna see is Patty herself.
- Where is Patty living now? - Grafenhausen.
- She's still living there.
- Yeah.
- But a different house.
- Different house, not far.
It's just a little village.
And Patty is taking us over to the apartment.
She says a woman lives there, but doesn't know her, so we're just gonna go in and knock on the door.
Hopefully, she'll let us in.
You're talking about Elizabeth's apartment? Elizabeth's old apartment.
In my mind, there are two main things that I think we should be focusing on when we go over there.
First of all, I think we need to understand what the relationship was between Mike and Patty on the one hand, and Elizabeth Ratliff on the other.
And the second thing I think we need to really focus on, is what happened on the morning that Elizabeth Ratliff died, what time did Barbara Malagnino find her? What were the conditions like? You know, what happened after Barbara found her.
You know, what were Mike and Patty doing, all that sort of stuff.
[church bell tolls] I hear Clayton's doing well in Baltimore, he enjoys it.
I am thankful.
I'm encouraging him to apply for entry to Johns Hopkins - to do his master's degree in electronics.
- That'd be great.
- Yeah.
- A brother is going So these are the houses? These are all of the homes.
They're all exactly alike.
- The stairs in question - There's a young German youth there.
Hallo, Todd.
And this is where Todd grew up for six years.
So does this bring back fond memories for you? It's amazing being back here.
Is it? It's a lot smaller.
Really? You remembered it bigger? And this home here was the Peterson home.
- Right here? - That is it.
[Ron coughs] [David] So you all lived right here? [Patty] Yes.
I won't go further.
There's someone in her window.
- OK.
- But we lived here.
The children's bedroom upstairs, and ours over there.
And this is the home of dear Elizabeth McKee Ratliff, - our beloved friend.
- It's right here? This is it, yes, this is her home.
Liz lived here with Margaret and Martha.
With Margaret and Martha, and Barbara, the nanny, would would live here with them, but of course she was not always here.
She was sometimes out with her family, with her friends.
But they lived here from probably the end of 1983, until Liz's death in the fall of 1985.
And we spent, essentially, much of every day together.
She and I were teachers together at the base school.
And Sunday evening, we had dinner here together.
Mike came in later, because he went every day to the gymnasium at the air base, and he came in perhaps 30 minutes later.
We shared dinner, then I took my two sons back home to put them in bed.
Mike stayed here, as was customary since George's death, to help clear the dishes, perhaps.
Sometimes, he would read a story to the children, bring family comfort to them, and then he returned home to me.
He got the Rather, to our home.
He came to collect the automobile keys.
He drove back here in the automobile.
Liz would have been in her automobile.
We American teachers have the custom over here, if we need to have automobile repair work done, one drives a friend, collects us, and brings us back home.
That had been the arrangement, and I can confirm the fact that he returned within 30 to 40 minutes after that trip.
- Let me ask you a question.
- Of course, yes.
When they left your place, the girls were here asleep, right? Or did they come home, Martha and Margaret? - Repeat your question please.
- No, the dinner was here.
Well, the dinner was here, but when Mike took - I understand that Mike took Liz - Liz.
The girls would have been sleeping upstairs.
- Who was watching the girls? - They were probably alone for 30 minutes.
So you're talking, how old were they? - Would have been several years.
- Two and one.
Two and one.
And they would have been left alone? Yes, but probably, she might have notified a next door neighbor, and also, I was there.
Up the street.
- Let me ask an unpleasant question.
- Yes.
Is there any chance that Mike was having an affair with her? My response would be absolutely not.
It was a platonic relationship, because I know all aspects of his personality.
There would be, under no circumstances would he have had a sexual relationship with her.
He would have had a platonic, a loving, familial relationship with her, and that, in my mind, in my heart, in my spirit, under no circumstances including even temporary insanity, that could strike all persons, under no circumstances would he have taken her life or injured her.
[camera shutter clicks] Is this how you pictured it, Ron? - No.
- No.
I didn't realize it was this close.
- It's very close.
- Yeah.
Yeah, I thought it was a lot further away, the way they were explaining it to me.
It's real close.
Hello? [dog barks] - Hi.
- Hi.
- Is it alright if we come in? - Of course.
Thank you.
- Thank you very much.
- You're welcome.
Don't be afraid of the dog.
Oh, no, no, no.
He's just barking.
But I understood that she had a stroke up there, and then she fell down and obviously broke her neck.
I really don't know.
I know that my neighbors up there, they still were talking that it was kind of funny and mysterious.
And I think the babysitter found her.
Yes, right.
Guten tag.
Guten tag.
[conversation in German] And hallo.
You are most kind.
- Never mind, it's OK.
- Thank you.
So You OK? - Seventy-eight centimeters.
- Seventy-eight Sixteen.
This is the first time I've been in the home since that period of time.
- Is that right? Since she died? - Yes.
And when Barbara first came in and found her, and was with with her for perhaps five minutes, and then came to collect me, and I ran immediately, and Liz was still in the same position, and then Michael immediately, within a few minutes, telephoned the military police, and she was Now that I see the staircase, she could have even been on the first, second stair.
I was sitting here the entire time that the polizei and the military police were in the home, and I was sitting here, directly observing, when the German medical examiner took the spinal tap and held the contents up so that he could view them, and that even from this distance, I could see that it did not look clear, and that's when he made the statement, right there by her body, in my presence, that she had died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
There was nothing out of place, except she was no longer living.
Everything was as one would have walked into a normal home.
You know, there was no pool of blood.
- There were no - Spatters.
I mean, there could have been a few spatters here.
But so small, that they did not register with me.
- OK, so like this - Yes, and her feet were - Try to position me exactly.
- OK, if you turn here, and the feet were about, something like right here.
Just turned a little She was turned sideways.
She was turned on her side facing upward.
- Facing that way.
- Yes, like that.
Except this arm was more under her, as I recall.
- Something like this? - Yes, and this arm would have been more like this.
You are more at an angle, and her position was more linear.
- More straight? - More linear, at a diagonal.
Like that, yes, but you take up four stairs, and she would have only taken three stairs, and her head was lower, and her head was more on this angle.
[camera shutter click] [camera shutter click] [camera shutter click] [marching band drums play] [David] What was your sense, other than attending the parties at Mike and Patty's house? Did you have any sense of what their relationship was like at the time? I saw them as a perfectly normal couple.
Not anything unusual, and Did you ever see Mike lose his temper at Patty, - or get angry at her? - Oh, no.
We were never in a situation where that would have happened.
- [Ron] This is Liz here.
- [Regina] Mm-hmm.
And that's the oldest daughter with her, Margaret? - Which one's Liz? - Yes.
On the right.
[Ron] Can I see that? Is this about what she looked like when she died? Is this close to when she died? [Regina] Yeah, because you can tell by the age of the girls.
- One girl was two, one was one.
- OK.
That's Patty, of course, because look, here I see Patty and Liz side-by-side.
This could have been Liz.
If I had not seen this other picture.
I would have taken this for Liz.
How close they looked.
See? Look at this.
Patty Liz.
- [Ron] Who's that there? Is that Mike? Oh.
- That's Mike.
[David] Oh, wow.
This is after George had died? [Regina] I would think so.
Otherwise, George [David] Which one is Liz now? The one standing up? [Regina] Yeah, but look how close.
From our perspective, given what the police think, what we're concerned about is, did she ever say anything to you that would have led you to believe that she had some affair with Mike, or illicit relationship with Mike? No.
That's the first time I hear this.
- We have to ask the question.
- Yeah, I know, but that would have been so far-fetched, that even if she had said that, I would have said, "Are you crazy?" And I don't think See, the friendship between Patty and Liz was a such a friendship, that you wouldn't dare ruin your friendship over something like that.
And that's the way Liz believed, and that's the way I believe with my close friends, - because I risk the friendship.
- Right.
And to me, the friendship is worth more than a man.
I can find a man somewhere else.
- But then I still have that friendship.
- Makes me feel real good.
- No, but would you risk a friendship - I'm just kidding.
- I think you're asking the wrong person.
- That went on over years? It takes time to build a friendship, and when it lasts for years [Ron] Depends on how fast you talk.
[Regina] Ah, no.
[door luck buzzes] This is the District Attorney's office? Yeah.
What's the handwriting on the back there? Is that anything? Oh, yes, it's a decision of my colleague, who said, "I put an end to this case.
" - Ah, OK.
- "It's finished.
" - Do we get a copy of this? - Yes.
Yes, I see it.
- And it has the name of the doctor.
- Of the doctor, OK.
It's a lot of years.
15 years or 17 years.
Thank you.
[speaks in German] Because There's a trial in the United States because of murder or homicide? Which is the prosecution? It's a homicide case in the United States.
- Where is it in the States? - In North Carolina.
- North Carolina.
- Yes.
- OK.
- Thank you very much.
No problem.
Thank you.
Have a good day.
"Body was given to the MPs, and any following investigation will be conducted - by the CID, Darmstadt.
" - CID, Darmstadt.
"He realized that there is blood - inside the fluid" - Spinal fluid.
"Spinal fluid.
" OK "Cause of death: Natural death, due to blood inside the brain.
" OK, yeah, hemorrhage.
Is it unusual for the doctor to go to the place of a death? - Or do they always go? - No, they always go.
Every accident, the German law says it must must be attended by a doctor, and he has to give his medical examination.
Well, there was no foul play.
That's why they quit investigations.
Hey, Michael.
How are you? I'm back.
If I never go to Germany again, it'll be OK.
All I could think about, as I watched these German men marching in this parade on Saturday, was what they were doing in 1942.
Yes, exactly.
Or guarding somebody who I knew.
Sunday we first interviewed Barbara.
There are a couple of things that she said, that, you know, if they're true, are troubling.
She claimed that there was a lot of blood all around the stairway and the bottom of the hallway.
You know, when Liz was lying there, and Patty says that's just not true.
There's no indication of that in any of the police reports, but she was very firm about that.
You know, blood on the wall, blood underneath the stairs.
You know, she told me she had been cleaning blood up for, you know, weeks afterwards.
[David] Alright On the exhumation apparently Holland told Barbara, in an email to her, told her that they were exhuming Liz's body.
Right now we're just basing it on what Barbara told us that Holland told her, - and I don't wanna - Right.
What I would like you to do, then, is talk to Hardin, and say, "Jim, we don't personally have any objection," although again, what's the fucking grounds? Can people just go dig up graves? What Holland claimed was that they had permission - from Liz's mother and sister.
- Well, aren't the closest relatives And, again, I don't wanna get into a pissing contest with them.
- What about their daughter? - I don't know.
You know, that It may be ugly and it may be terrible, but the bottom line is, it's gonna end up help - You know, if - I understand that.
If everything is as we think it is, it's gonna help us.
I know, and normally, look, I mean, I've seen enough dead bodies and corpses and graves, that it doesn't You know, I have no moral problem with this, but You know, again, as I wrote you, Liz was a very good friend of mine.
And I've been with that family, the Ratliff family, since George died in Jesus, you know, the Grenada Invasion in 1981.
I mean, these people have gone through an immense amount.
And it's just I just don't know, and I can't imagine what Margaret and Martha would think.
"Oh, by the way, your Aunt Margaret decided to dig up your mother.
Just because.
" Like, oh, Christ! So if you can work it out with Holland, or Holland and Hardin, so that I won't tell the girls, but before they do it, I'm certainly going to have to tell the girls, and you might say, "You might also, Jim, want to talk to the girls.
You know, the sister's one thing, but the daughters are another matter, and" - I really don't want to get into that.
- OK.
I don't want to get into a pissing match with Hardin over who did they get permission from, and who should they have gotten permission from.
That, I mean, that's just a battle that A, I don't want to fight, and B, we're not gonna win.
Fine, but I guess now we're strictly talking about the law here.
Can people just go dig up graves? You know, it's one thing when they go in, on Holland, and go swab Kathleen's vagina, and Howard and Brian.
Now we're talking You know, that's macabre and sick.
They go in there after Kathleen's autopsy, two days later.
She's in there, they all rush in to her body, and were doing that, which was disgusting, and now we're digging up a body.
- I just, I don't like it.
- I understand.
No, but I mean, I understand it.
So just work it out with Hardin, that at least I can notify Margaret and Martha that their mom is going to be dug up.
I understand.
Morning, morning, morning.
Hi, nice to see you.
- How are you? - Good.
- Guter? - I did sleep.
- Thank you.
You? - Good.
Down in the corner room? - No, just nearby.
- Yeah.
I'm so happy to see you again.
You don't need anything? You want something to drink? Just a little water.
That would be lovely - Ice? - as a matter of fact.
- [phone rings] - Of course.
Oh, my God.
My attorney.
Hello? David! Fine.
What's up? Go ahead.
Well, that's what I thought, that the whole purpose behind embalming, was to preserve the body.
So the expectation is she's going to look exactly like she was when she was buried.
That's what I thought.
Yeah, and you know, she was buried in her wedding dress.
So you wanna see her by seven o'clock? Bye.
- That was David saying that - I beg your pardon.
The exhumation is probably going to be She's going to be perfectly preserved.
- Indeed.
- That's what I would have thought.
Well, I had horrors of other things that I think we did, but that's the whole idea behind - Embalming.
- Embalming, and having, you know, sealed coffins, and then a vault in there, so that you're preserved forever.
I think when Margaret was visiting with me, we had a very good visit, and we sat down and we talked for many, many hours.
We talked through the entire night.
All of her hopes, her dreams, her fears.
And with your trial approaching closer and closer, I think everyone's anxiety is growing more.
When we were in Frankfurt, I took her up to the wonderful, lofty building from which you can view all of Frankfurt, and she developed some severe anxiety about that, and obviously this is all related to her feelings for you, the father.
You are her profound father figure obviously, but I think that her anxiety is, perhaps, increasing somewhat, because she does not want to suffer another loss, and we touched very briefly on on the exhumation of her mother.
I did not use that word.
I didn't use necessarily an epithet, but I didn't want to use that word directly.
But this, I feel, will be a very profound and certainly life-disturbing event for her.
[Michael sighs] It was just a shock.
It was too overwhelming.
It was the most horrible thing in the world.
I don't know.
It was, like, my worst nightmare when I was little.
You know, you'd have nightmares of like your mother, your parents coming back alive, and what they would look like, you know, and just typical childhood nightmares, and it was like it was coming true.
It was my worst nightmare in the world coming true.
It's horrible.
And the fact that we had to sign it, too, was traumatizing.
You know, we had to sign this sheet that would release her It would have them dig up our mother, and examine her body, and it's horrible, it's the most horrible thing I could ever have imagined.
My first gut reaction was, "No.
No way.
There's no chance in hell.
I'm not gonna let this happen," but then I sat down and thought about it, and realized that You know, and Dad didn't even talk to us about it.
He just told us, you know, asked us, basically, whether it was OK with us.
And when I talked to Martha, I just realized that we had to.
I mean, obviously, it would show that Dad didn't do anything.
You know, it would give even more proof to the fact that Dad is innocent of everything.
[David] "The last trip Liz Ratliff nee McKee made was in a hearse.
She had ridden in others.
The first after she died in 1985.
She had been transported from her home, where she died, to the hospital, for her autopsy.
Then, there was a hearse ride from the hospital to the airport for her return to the United States.
And what presumably was her last hearse journey from the mortuary to the grave.
However, 18 years later, she made another trip.
This one, a 1,200 mile journey across Middle America in the back of a hearse, traveling from her grave to North Carolina, for another autopsy.
" [Ron] What they're looking for, I'm really not sure.
The woman's been buried for 17 years.
The autopsy, the investigation, everything that was conducted back in Germany ruled that it was an accident, she had a cerebral hemorrhage.
This is crazy.
Absolutely crazy.
Disturbing a woman after 17 years for some wild guess, I guess.
We're not concerned about it, 'cause we know what happened.
We're disturbed that they feel it necessary to exhume the body and disturb her peace.
The two girls, Martha and Margaret, are pretty well disturbed about it.
[Ron] A little bit farther down.
Oh, the flat headstone? OK.
I think I see it right here.
There's four stakes in the ground.
Who's buried next to her? George? OK.
They were married for a very short period of time.
They've been laying together here side-by-side for 17 years, and now they're gonna move her out.
I know that captain would raise hell.
This is crazy.
[hydraulic whirring] Three, two, one.
The DA thinks there's enough similarities between the two deaths, that they've had Elizabeth Ratliff's body exhumed from the Chap Blah, blah, blah.
Chapel Hill? I didn't know we were back in North Carolina.
North Cackalacky! Three, two, one.
The DA thinks there's enough similarities between the two deaths that they've had Ratliff's body exhumed from a cemetery here in Texas, and brought to the medical examiner's office in Chapel Hill.
[hydraulic whirring] A little water in there.
- That's mostly condensation.
- Yeah.
That's in great shape.
What a relief.
Adrian's coming around.
This is my first.
My first! Ratliff's body will be guarded the entire time it heads back to Chapel Hill.
That vehicle will be followed by Durham investigators, and even when they spend the night in Alabama tonight, there will be guards looking over the body.
She's expected to be back here No "she.
" I can't say "she.
" Three, two, one.
Now you got a long drive back? We have a very long drive back.
- Anything else you wanna tell us? - No.
[laughs] Thank you.
Well? - [interviewer] Looks OK? - Y'all ready? In which shape is? It's in great shape.
- Great shape.
- Great shape.
We didn't know what to expect, but things went well.
Things went very well.
Up till the death of Kathleen, I really didn't know who Michael Peterson was, other than being a writer.
And a military veteran.
I didn't know him personally, didn't know his character.
Who can do something like that? Somebody's that's got a very, very bad temper.
Talking with witnesses, and some of Elizabeth Ratliff's family members, he's got a very bad temper.
A lot of people that I interviewed said they were the perfect couple.
"I wish I had a husband like that," but going back to the materials that we found in his computer and in his home, he was not a happily married man to Kathleen Peterson.
[cell phone rings] Hello? Hey, how are you? Everything went swell.
The vault was intact, as well as the casket.
We're in Louisiana.
No, no, no, no.
The casket has not been opened.
We're not touching that.
No, no.
That'll be opened Wednesday.
Anyway, I'm very optimistic about what our findings are going to be Wednesday.
That was Elizabeth's sister.
[cell phone beeps off] Margaret Blair.
She lives in Rhode Island.
I expect him to be found guilty of killing his wife.
And I think after the autopsy tomorrow, people will have issues, I think, with the results of that, as far as his involvement with the death of Elizabeth Ratliff.
[chuckles] We home.
We home.
They could have had that autopsy done in Texas.
We suggested that they do it in Texas, with a neutral forensic pathologist, and there are some world-class forensic pathologists there in Texas who could have done that.
Instead, what the prosecutors did was they spent thousands of dollars transporting her body 1,200 miles from Bay City, Texas to Chapel Hill, in order to allow Deborah Radisch, who had already concluded that Kathleen Peterson's death was not accidental, to perform the autopsy on Elizabeth Ratliff.
[police siren] [police radio chatter] [camera shutter clicks] [theme music plays]