15 Facts About The Staircase, Netflix’s New True Crime Docuseries

Netflix
Netflix

At 2:40 a.m. on December 9, 2001, Durham, North Carolina-based novelist Michael Peterson made a frantic call to 911 to report an accident. His wife, Kathleen, had fallen down a flight of stairs and was unconscious, but still breathing, in a massive pool of her own blood. Michael, who claimed he had been sitting out by the pool, was not sure how it had happened—he just knew that he needed help. By the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late. But the police weren’t convinced that Kathleen had fallen, or that her death was an accident at all.

Within two weeks, Michael Peterson would be indicted for the murder of his wife, and the case—which stretched on through 2017—only got stranger from there.

There’s not a lot one can say about The Staircase without giving too much away. So if you’ve yet to watch all 13 episodes of the compelling docuseries, which is now streaming on Netflix, bookmark this page and come back once you have. For those of you who have powered through it all and are thirsting for more details on the case, read on.

1. IT’S NEW TO NETFLIX, BUT IT ORIGINALLY PREMIERED IN 2004.

If you had a sense of déjà vu while watching The Staircase, it could very well be because you’ve seen it before—at least most of it. A truncated, two-hour version of the miniseries, which is directed by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, first premiered on Primetime Thursday in the summer of 2004. The completed docuseries made its television premiere one year later, first in England and then in America (on the Sundance Channel). In 2012, de Lestrade released a two-hour follow-up that continued the story. Netflix’s rendition includes all 10 of the original episodes, plus three brand-new ones, which follow some more recent developments in the case.

2. FILMING BEGAN SHORTLY AFTER MICHAEL PETERSON WAS INDICTED.

In 2001, de Lestrade directed the Oscar-winning Murder on a Sunday Morning, which highlighted the case of Brenton Butler, a black teenager who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Jacksonville, Florida. De Lestrade was on the lookout for his next project, and he had a very specific idea for his follow-up: another documentary that would dissect the American criminal justice system, but this time from the perspective of a white defendant who could afford a top-notch legal team. De Lestrade told The Ringer that he and his team spent five months reviewing about 300 cases, which is how they found Michael Peterson. (That both Peterson and his lawyer, David Rudolf, were willing to offer the filmmakers unfettered access to their preparations for the trial was obviously a bonus.)

But de Lestrade had a feeling that there was something unusual about Peterson’s case that would make for a compelling story. “When [Michael] was talking about his love with Kathleen, I really could feel that sincerity,” de Lestrade said. “But, at the same time, there was a kind of mystery about this man. It was a strange feeling.” Peterson was indicted for the murder of his wife on December 21, 2001; shooting on the series began shortly thereafter.

3. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE A TWO-HOUR DOCUMENTARY.

Though de Lestrade knew that there was something different about Peterson’s case, even he couldn’t imagine the number of turns it would take over the next 15-plus years. It didn’t take long for the director to realize that his original plan to make a two-hour documentary on the case would barely even scratch the surface.

“When we started shooting in February 2002 and when David Rudolf gave us access and the judge gave us access in the court room and we started to shoot and shoot and shoot then we realized how big it could be,” de Lestrade told Metro. “Because in the beginning it was supposed to be a two-hour film. It wasn’t supposed to be an eight-hour documentary series. But after six months of shooting, I knew we couldn’t tell the story in two hours.” Fortunately, the film’s distributors were receptive to the idea of a miniseries.

4. JEAN-XAVIER DE LESTRADE VOWED TO NEVER MAKE ANOTHER DOCUMENTARY AFTER COMPLETING THE FIRST SEGMENT.

Michael Peterson in 'The Staircase' (2018)
Netflix

Reflecting on The Staircase and Michael Peterson’s case for The Daily Beast in 2013, de Lestrade revealed that he never intended to come back to the story once the original series was in the can. “When I finally completed The Staircase in September 2004, I felt as emotionally drained as David Rudolf did at the end of the film,” he wrote. “I told myself that I would stop making documentary films—just as David had vowed that the Peterson trial would be his last criminal-defense case. It was wrenching to watch as Michael Peterson, bound at the wrists, was swept into the car that would take him to prison for the rest of his life. I couldn’t bear Martha and Margaret’s endless tears. It was harrowing to try to comfort a family shattered by a tragedy that seemed so senseless.”

5. DE LESTRADE HAS NEVER STEPPED AWAY FROM THE STORY.

Though de Lestrade has worked on a handful of other projects since The Staircase’s original release, he has never stopped working on the project since he first began filming in 2002. When asked by Metro what it felt like to “return” to the project, the director was quick to make it clear that, “I never quit The Staircase. I have been obsessed by the story and by the character. It has been my obsession to go through the legal process. And to end the series when the justice system gave an answer to the case.”

6. FOR DE LESTRADE, IT WASN’T ABOUT PROVING PETERSON’S GUILT OR INNOCENCE.

In April 2018, Netflix’s three new episodes of The Staircase premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Following the screening, de Lestrade held a Q&A in which he explained that determining Peterson’s innocence—or guilt—was never part of his grand plan for the film. “The purpose has never been to look for the truth,” he said. “Or to look for what happened that night. It was just to look at the way the justice system would treat the case, and it took 17 years.”

7. BUT FOR THE RECORD: DE LESTRADE DOESN’T BELIEVE THAT PETERSON IS GUILTY.

Though de Lestrade wasn’t looking to uncover the truth about Peterson's guilt or innocence, he did form an opinion: He does not believe that Michael Peterson killed his wife. “We weren’t there that night so we can’t pretend we know what happened,” de Lestrade told the Tribeca Film Festival audience. “We may have an opinion or a feeling, but to me, there is no strong evidence presented that Michael Peterson killed his wife. That’s where I stand.”

8. THE CASE HAS BEEN A FRUSTRATING ONE FOR THE DIRECTOR.

The Peterson family in 'The Staircase' (2018)
Netflix

Writing for The Daily Beast, de Lestrade admitted that the long road—and contradictory evidence—that has been presented throughout Peterson's seemingly endless legal battles has been difficult to reconcile at times:

“It has been immensely frustrating that the truth of this story has remained so obscure for so long. I never believed the prosecution’s murder theory. The evidence contradicted it. It’s impossible to kill someone by hitting them over the head without inflicting either skull fractures or cerebral contusions. On the other hand, the fall scenario put forth by the defense didn’t entirely satisfy me either. The lacerations on Kathleen's scalp are difficult to reconcile with an accidental fall down the stairs.”

9. AS BIZARRE AS THE “OWL THEORY” SEEMS, MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE IN ITS PLAUSIBILITY.

The Staircase puts forth a number of possible theories about what could have caused Kathleen Peterson’s death, the most bizarre one being that she was attacked by an owl. More specifically: that an owl got tangled in her hair and, in an attempt to extricate itself, ending up causing her death. It may sound strange, but the autopsy report did note that Kathleen had pine needles stuck to one of her hands, clumps of her own hair in both hands, and a few small feathers entangled in one of those clumps.

“When you look at her injuries, they do appear consistent with being made by an owl’s talons,” Mary Jude Darrow, Peterson’s attorney, told Audubon in 2016. “But I would hate to risk my client’s life or future on that argument.” Several animal experts agreed in the theory's plausibility, as did the film’s director … eventually.

“At face value, this theory seemed absurd, so I treated it with a great deal of caution,” de Lestrade wrote. “Yet, today, I have to admit that numerous facts favor this owl theory. Two years ago, I met with a well-known neurological surgeon. After a careful look—over several days—at Kathleen’s injuries, he told me, ‘These injuries are not consistent with any form of blunt instrument used as a weapon. These injuries could not be produced with a pipe, hammer, knife, tire iron, or even a hand claw such as would be used in the garden. These wounds, however, are most consistent with lacerations caused by a large raptor or bird of prey. Four punctures wounds converging to a point via jagged lacerations, without associated scalp contusions, must be considered to have been inflicted by a raptor talon until proven otherwise. Furthermore, these specific lacerations are of the dimensions of a barred owl’s talons.’”

The idea, according to that same surgeon, is that the owl attack happened outside the house, which led to Kathleen fainting, “most likely on the staircase, leading to a fall either down the stairs or at the foot of the stairs, suffering a fractured thyroid cartilage as she fell. This is followed by a period of unconsciousness, during which she either hemorrhages to death or asphyxiates to death.”

10. PETERSON CALLS ACCEPTING AN ALFORD PLEA “THE MOST DIFFICULT DECISION” HE HAS EVER MADE.

Given that the newest installments of The Staircase involve Peterson entering an Alford plea (a plea deal in which the defendant maintains his or her innocence, but acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them) to the charge of voluntary manslaughter, and walking free, it’s doubtful we’ll see new episodes of the series. But Peterson told Dateline’s Dennis Murphy that entering that plea was “the most difficult decision I ever made in my life … And I’m talking, you know, joining the Marines, anything I did in my life, this was the most difficult decision I made. And I did it because the second most difficult thing I ever did in my life was to live through that trial and listen to all of those lies and perjuries, the nonsense.”

11. THE DOCUMENTARY’S EDITOR BEGAN A RELATIONSHIP WITH MICHAEL PETERSON.

Though the documentary is full shocking moments and revelations, one of the most surprising events happened off-screen: During the course of production, The Staircase editor Sophie Brunet and Michael Peterson fell in love. “This is one of the incredible things that happened during those 15 years,” de Lestrade told L’Express. “Life is really full of surprises. They had a real story, which lasted until May 2017. But she never let her own feelings affect the course of editing.”

12. IT'S TAUGHT IN LAW SCHOOL CLASSROOMS.

Michael Peterson and David Rudolf in 'The Staircase (2018)
Netflix

Thomas B. Metzloff, a law professor at Duke University who was one of Michael and Kathleen’s neighbors at the time of her death, told The News & Observer that The Staircase is required viewing for his students—though he disagrees with the documentary’s suggestion that Peterson did not get a fair trial.

“I don't think the average person who followed the trial closely in real time comes away with a reaction of 'Oh, my gosh, here's an innocent man who is being victimized,'” he said. “Having been to the trial, it was a fair trial. It was a good jury. The evidence was presented and David Rudolf was able to point out the weaknesses. For example, his cross-examination of [SBI blood expert] Duane Deaver, which I attended, was very powerful. So there was evidence to support the verdict. Whether there should have been reasonable doubt is for people to judge based on the evidence.”

13. IT HAS A LINK TO MAKING A MURDERER.

The Staircase has a coincidental link to Netflix’s first big true crime docuseries hit: Rudolf was the UNC clinical law professor of Jerry Buting who, along with Dean Strang, defended Steven Avery in Making a Murderer.

14. A PSYCHIC PURCHASED THE PETERSON HOME FOR $1.3 MILLION IN 2008.

Michael Peterson no longer lives in the Durham home he shared with his late wife Kathleen; it has passed through two owners since first being sold for $640,000 in 2004. The second, and current, owner is a psychic named Biond Fury, who said he had no knowledge of Peterson’s trial or the home’s history. According to WRAL, “he was attracted to the house because of its architecture and layout.”

15. NBC'S TRIAL & ERROR IS A PARODY OF THE STAIRCASE.

Anyone who has watched NBC’s Trial & Error, starring John Lithgow, has likely noticed the many nods to The Staircase in the mockumentary sitcom (there was even a reference to the owl theory).

“The genesis of this was around five years ago in the writers’ rooms across Warner Bros … a documentary called The Staircase was going around,” Trial & Error co-creator Jeff Astrof said at the 2017 Television Critics Association. “And I remember I watched it with my wife—and at the time I wish I had said John Lithgow for this story to work—[but instead] I said, ‘If this guy was played by Steve Carell, this would be the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen.’ And my wife gave me as much encouragement as any time she ever has, and she said, ‘Yeah, maybe.’”

7 Fast Facts About RollerCoaster Tycoon

Amazon
Amazon

For Windows gamers, 1999 was dominated by RollerCoaster Tycoon, a now-classic strategy and building game that tasked users with erecting an amusement park and gauging the popularity of rides while maintaining a profit margin and keeping patrons from barfing all over the landscape. For the game’s 20th anniversary, check out some facts about its origins, its association with pizza, and how it became a pinball machine.

1. The first RollerCoaster Tycoon sold 4 million copies.

RollerCoaster Tycoon was the brainchild of Scottish programmer Chris Sawyer, who had enjoyed success with his line of Transport Tycoon games in the 1990s that allowed players to build and operate their own railroad, truck, and ship lines. Sawyer decided to marry that concept with his love of roller coasters. An independent effort—Sawyer enlisted only two collaborators, artist Simon Foster and musician Allister Brimble—the first Tycoon game that was released in 1999 sold a staggering 4 million copies.

2. RollerCoaster Tycoon came free with frozen pizza.

In the early 2000s, packaged food companies offered products that came with promotional offers for CD-ROMs. In 2003, Pillsbury offered a free copy of RollerCoaster Tycoon to anyone who sent in proof of purchase barcodes from specially-marked boxes of Totino’s Pizza Rolls or Pillsbury Toaster Strudel.

3. There’s a RollerCoaster Tycoon pinball machine.

A pinball machine released to coincide with 2002’s RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 took the spiraling coasters of the game and put them under glass. Players could try and direct the pinball—a substitute for the park guest—around and through coasters like The Flying Ghost and The Rocket.

4. RollerCoaster Tycoon helped inspire Minecraft.

If you or a loved one has spent countless hours absorbed in the popular world-building game Minecraft, you have RollerCoaster Tycoon to thank. Minecraft creator Markus Persson was a fan of Tycoon for the way it allowed players to construct elaborate designs. He also enjoyed Dungeon Keeper, which had a fantasy element. Together, the two games encouraged him to develop Minecraft. The game debuted in 2009 and went on to become one of the biggest interactive success stories of all time.

5. RollerCoaster Tycoon inspired real roller coaster designers.

The laborious construction undertaken by players of RollerCoaster Tycoon weaned a number of players on the excitement of the amusement industry. Park designers hoping to break into the industry have used screen shots from the game as examples of their design prowess at trade shows.

6. You can get a spooky update of RollerCoaster Tycoon in time for Halloween.

Atari distributes an Android and iOS version of RollerCoaster Tycoon for mobile phone users. For 2019, the company is offering a Six Flags Fright Fest update to the game that adds a Halloween component. Players can add Skull Mountain, an actual Six Flags coaster, as well as a Demon Rock statue.

7. A RollerCoaster Tycoon fan spent 10 years building a park.

In 2017, a Reddit user declared he was finished building out his own custom park on RollerCoaster Tycoon 2. The 34 coasters and 255 attractions were all minutely detailed, offering a sprawling virtual park with themed areas covering everything from Egyptian attractions to a forest. In comparison, it took only four years to build the actual Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

10 Wild Scooby-Doo Fan Theories

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

For 50 years, the hard-working teens (and dog) of Mystery, Inc. have been investigating the paranormal. What began as a single Hanna-Barbera cartoon series—Scooby Doo, Where Are You!—in the 1960s quickly morphed into a franchise with multiple spin-off shows, comic books, and a few questionable movies. That adds up to a lot of spooky stories, which have inspired fans to come up with their own creepy (or just plain crazed) tales about Scooby and the gang. Here are some of their best theories, including one that somehow connects to Patrick Stewart.

1. Scooby is a Soviet space dog.

For all the cases that Fred, Daphne, Velma, and Shaggy solved, they never got to the bottom of the show’s most enduring mystery: How and why does Scooby Doo talk? Some fans think he can’t really speak—that it’s just something his buddy Shaggy imagines while he’s high. But one Redditor has a much more complicated and compelling theory based on the show’s 1960s setting. At that time, America and the USSR were locked in the so-called “Space Race,” competing to see who could claim the first achievements in spaceflight. The Russians famously shot Yuri Gagarin into the stratosphere in 1961, but he wasn’t the first Soviet in space. Canine cosmonauts like Laika beat him by several years, and if the USSR was willing to put a dog in a rocket, who’s to say they didn’t experiment on him first?

According to this fan theory, Scooby is a runaway from the Soviets’ classified space dog program, designed to breed pups capable of operating satellites and understanding radio commands. Scooby was the best of the bunch, the rare test subject who could understand and imitate human speech. Naturally, one of the scientists got attached and defected with Scooby to the USA. When that scientist died, Scooby found a new family with a group of friendly teenagers. But the CIA never stopped searching for this Soviet wunderpup, which is why Mystery, Inc. is constantly traveling by van—and why the original show is called Scooby Doo, Where Are You!

2. The show takes place during an economic depression.

A still from 'Scooby Doo, Where Are You!'
Warner Home Video

A classic Scooby-Doo mystery might take place at a theme park, museum, or mine—so long as it’s grimy and deserted. That’s a weird coincidence when you think about it: why are all these places so rundown? Well, that tends to happen when you’re weathering a financial collapse, and many clues indicate that’s just what’s happening in the world of Scooby-Doo. The towns he and his friends visit never seem to be doing well. No one has any money: Not the many scientists posing as monsters for cash, not the operators of every haunted attraction the gang investigates, and certainly not Shaggy and Scooby, who gorge on dog treats and lose their minds whenever they so much as smell a burger.

3. Mystery, Inc. is actually a cult.

Let’s break down the core members of the gang: You have Fred, the handsome and friendly frontman of the group. Then there’s Daphne, the fashionable and pretty one who mostly follows Fred around. Velma has the brains and Shaggy has full-blown conversations with a dog. When you really think about, doesn’t this all sound a bit like a cult? Fred would obviously be the cult leader, who recruits groupies like Daphne to obey his every command. Velma’s intelligence makes her a useful addition, and she could also be seeking acceptance from the “cool” kids. As for Shaggy, well, men who claim dogs can talk to them have a famously disturbing history—much like cult members.

4. They’re all draft dodgers.

Scooby Doo, Where Are You! premiered in 1969. Also happening that year? The Vietnam War. As able-bodied men (seemingly) over 18, Fred and Shaggy would both be eligible for the draft, which begs the obvious question: is Mystery, Inc. just a bunch of draft dodgers? The boys could be driving that van straight to Canada to avoid deployment, along with Fred’s fiancée Daphne and their antiwar activist friend Velma. Scooby’s stance on the war remains unclear, but he’s along for the ride.

5. Scooby Snacks alter your genes.

What if Scooby’s preferred treat is really a steroid capable of editing genetic code? It would explain why Scooby—and other members of his canine family, like Scrappy-Doo and Scooby-Dum—can talk, as well as their ability to perform “completely ridiculous stunts.” (Also, if Scrappy-Doo is on steroids, it would explain why he’s always trying to fight.) But what about its effect on humans? As far as we know, Shaggy is the only person who eats Scooby Snacks, and he seems to have a freakishly high metabolism, considering the mile-high sandwiches he eats and his super skinny frame.

6. Fred drives the Mystery Machine because the real owner is too high.

Whenever the gang piles into the Mystery Machine, there’s only one person behind the wheel: Fred. Mystery, Inc.’s de facto leader is constantly driving his friends from one haunted house to the next, which would imply that the Mystery Machine is his car. But why would a clean-shaven, preppy kid like Fred own a lime green van with flowers plastered over the doors? That car obviously belongs to a hippie, and in this group, that’s Shaggy. His hippie lifestyle, however, may be the reason Shaggy never drives. He’s either lost his license from driving under the influence, or Fred is worried he will, so someone else serves as his designated driver.

7. Shaggy is Captain America’s son.

This theory starts with small coincidences, like the fact that Norville “Shaggy” Rogers and Steve Rogers share a last name. Then it builds to something bigger when you factor in a detail from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While out on a morning run, Sam Wilson (a.k.a. Falcon) claims that Steve can run 13 miles in half an hour, a rate that breaks down to 26 mph. Shaggy, meanwhile, frequently keeps pace with Scooby, a Great Dane. Those dogs run up to 30 mph. Ergo, Shaggy is Steve’s son.

8. Monsters really do exist in the Scooby-Doo universe.

A still from 'Scooby Doo, Where Are You!'
Warner Home Video

Each time the gang catches a new “monster,” it always turns out to be a human in disguise, grumbling about how they “would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.” Monsters, the show tells us over and over again, are not real. But this Reddit theory poses an important question: If monsters don’t exist, why is there a business dedicated to catching the fake ones? The fact that Mystery, Inc. keeps getting calls implies that “supernatural fraud” is an entire category of crime, one that wouldn’t make sense or work if people didn’t believe in monsters. Everyone in the Scooby-Doo universe also seems to accept monsters as a normal and everyday occurrence, suggesting that monsters are real—the gang has just never caught one.

9. Shaggy and Scooby are actors.

When danger calls, Shaggy and Scooby tend to run the other way. But what if the group’s most cowardly members were actually actors pretending to be scared of ghosts, monsters, and other paranormal entities? According to this fan theory, Shaggy and Scooby are faking their over-the-top fear in order to draw the monsters out. By posing as easy targets, they know they’ll get spooked first, and thus make it easier for Mystery, Inc. to trap the ghost/witch/pirate. That’s why Fred always pairs Shaggy with Scooby when they split up to investigate, and it’s why after many years of investigating the supernatural, the two of them still don’t seem remotely used to it.

10. Green Room is just a gritty Scooby-Doo reboot.

The 2015 horror movie Green Room is about a band with a van that squares off against an evil old Nazi. The Scooby-Doo franchise is about a team (that was supposed to be a band) with a van that squares off against evil old men (who could also, theoretically, be Nazis). You do the math.

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