An army brat-turned-marine, he saw combat in Vietnam, and returned a decorated soldier. An avid reader, his dreams of being an acclaimed novelist came true. His desire to find love was fulfilled when he married brilliant executive Kathleen Atwater, the first female student accepted at Duke University's School of Engineering. The Petersons seemed the ideal academic couple- well-respected, prosperous, and happy.
All that came crashing down in December of 2001, when Kathleen apparently fell to her death in their secluded home in an exclusive area of Durham, North Carolina. But blood spattered evidence and a missing fireplace poker suggested calculated, cold-blooded murder. Her trusted husband stood accused. Prosecutors introduced evidence at trial that sixteen years earlier, Peterson was one of the last people to see his neighbor alive before she was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her home in Germany. A dramatic trial followed in the explosive final chapter of a life that no novelist could ever have conceived...
Written in Blood is a 2006 Edgar Award Nominee for Best Fact Crime.
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About the Author
Diane Fanning is the author of many books of true crime, including the best-selling Mommy's Little Girl, A Poisoned Passion, The Pastor's Wife, Gone Forever and Through the Window. Written in Blood was an Edgar Award finalist. She has been featured on 48 Hours, 20/20, Court TV and the Discovery Channel, and has been interviewed on dozens of radio stations coast to coast. Before becoming a nonfiction writer, Fanning worked in advertising, and she earned more than 70 Addy Awards. She lives in New Braunfels, Texas.
DIANE FANNING is the author of the Edgar Award finalist Written in Blood: A True Story of Murder and a Deadly 16-Year-Old Secret That Tore a Family Apart, as well as several other true-crime books (available from St. Martin’s) and the Secret City mystery series. She lives in Bedford, Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
Written in Blood
A True Story of Murder and a Deadly 16-Year-Old Secret that Tore a Family Apart
By Diane Fanning
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Diane Fanning
All rights reserved.
For Mary Allen, December 9, 2001, started as a long and lonely shift in the 9-1-1 call center in Durham, North Carolina. Another night spent on the outskirts of tragedy, aware of its presence but barely touched by its shadows.
At 2:40 A.M., she responded to an incoming call. Mary had no idea that she just took the first step onto the world stage of a long-playing drama.
"Durham 9-1-1. Where is your emergency?"
Breathing heavy, Michael Peterson responded: "1810 Cedar Street. Please!"
"What's wrong?" Mary asked.
"My wife had an accident. She's still breathing!"
"What kind of accident?"
"She fell down the stairs. She's still breathing! Please come!"
"Is she conscious?"
A bewildered Peterson did not seem to understand the question. "What?"
"Is she conscious?" Mary repeated.
"No, no, she's not conscious. Please!"
"How many stairs did she fall down?"
Calmly, Mary repeated the question. "How many stairs did ... "
"The back stairs!"
"How many stairs?"
"Oh, ah, ah ..." His voice quaked with each syllable.
"Calm down, sir. Calm down."
Without warning, the heavy breathing ceased and Peterson responded in an off-hand manner, "Oh, fifteen, twenty. I don't know." Then the hysterical tone consumed his voice again. "Please! Get somebody here, right away. Please!"
"Okay, somebody's dispatching the ambulance while I'm asking you questions."
"It's off of a ... It's in Forest Hills! Okay? Please! Please!"
"Okay, sir," she continued as Peterson whimpered. "Somebody else is dispatching the ambulance. Is she awake now?"
"Oh my," he moaned.
"I didn't mmmm ..." Peterson's words disintegrated into an inarticulate blur of noise.
"Hello?" Allen asked again.
He whispered, "Breathe. Oh, God." Incomprehensible mumblings burbled on the line. "Breathe," he whispered again. All Mary could hear now were strained and rapid inhalations and exhalations that sounded like the panting of a dog.
Then there was silence — followed by the blare of a dial tone that mocked Mary's efforts to assist.
Elizabeth Poole's dispatch scratched out on the airways. "See an unconscious person 1810 Cedar Street. Engine 5, Medic 5. Unconscious person, 1810, 1-8-1-0 Cedar Street from East Oak Drive to Sycamore Street. Female fell down, fifteen to twenty stairs, hysterical caller is not able to give much further information, just advised it was accidental. OPS channel 2, OPS 2, Engine 5."
From their vehicle, Jayson Crank and Andrew Johnson of the Durham Fire Department responded, "Engine 5 is 10-17."
"10-4, no further," signaled Elizabeth. "Medic 5, did you copy your call to 1810 Cedar Street?"
"10-4, en route," came loud and clear from the EMS vehicle bearing Jay Rose and Ron Paige.
"Medic 5, 10-4."
At 2:46 A.M., Michael Peterson called in again. Once again, Mary Allen answered, "Durham 9-1-1. Where is your emergency?"
"Where are they?" Michael Peterson gasped. "This is 1810 Cedar — wh ... She's not breathing! Please! Please, would you hurry up!"
In response, dispatcher Linda Gant sent out a Code 5 message indicating that the patient's condition was critical. This change of status meant Durham police were now on their way to the scene, too.
"Sir?" Mary asked.
His voice jumped up an octave. "Can you hear me?"
"Calm down. They're on their way. Can you tell me for sure she's not breathing?"
A small click was the only answer she received.
A dial tone echoed in her ear. "Hello ...? Hello ...?"
Over the next few hours, each person entering 1810 Cedar Street was shocked by the copious amount of blood. Blood on the walls. Blood on the floor. Blood on Kathleen.
Blood. A word that Michael Peterson left unspoken.CHAPTER 2
Two minutes after receiving the call, Jay Rose and Ron Paige were on their way, with Paige behind the wheel. Their siren split the silence of the night. They divided up the duties they needed to perform on the scene. Rose's responsibilities were greater because it was his turn to ride in the back when transporting the patient to the hospital. A couple of minutes later, they barreled their cumbersome vehicle down the narrow roads of the exclusive neighborhood of Forest Hills and killed the siren.
A Christmas wreath hung on the front door of 1810 Cedar Street, obscuring the house number. The truck shot past the residence. As soon as they saw the street number on the next mailbox, they realized their mistake. Paige turned the truck around and pulled into the Petersons' circular drive. This was no ordinary house call — the EMS responders arrived at a million-dollar mansion with a magnificent swimming pool and other trappings of a wealth they would never know.
From the back of the truck, Paige grabbed the Thomas Pack, a bag filled with equipment, Band-Aids, pads and other medical supplies needed for emergency treatment. Rose snatched up the Life Pack, consisting of a monitor to determine the electrical activity of the heart and a defibrillator. They rushed down the elegant slate sidewalk.
By curious coincidence, Todd Peterson, Michael's adult son, arrived at the same time as the first responders. He brushed past them and into the open door of the home. Paige and Rose heard a man sobbing inside as they approached the entrance.
Walking over a burgundy, gold and black rug, they saw the bottom half of Kathleen's body protruding from the stairway to the left. Michael Peterson crouched over her body crying. No one was making any attempt to administer CPR, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, a standard first aid procedure.
The paramedics were prepared for broken bones or paralysis from a broken neck. They were not prepared for what they found. In his career, Rose had responded to thirty or forty falls and he never once saw so much blood. He was stunned. It looked more like the scene of a massacre than a tumble down the stairs.
Kathleen's body sprawled across the hardwood floor of the hallway, her legs spread wide. Drying blood covered the soles of her bare feet. A red-splattered roll of paper towels lay by her left foot. Next to the roll and a few wadded used towels, sat one of Michael Peterson's athletic shoes — splatters of blood standing out in sharp relief on the white leather.
Dried blood splotched over both legs of Kathleen's gray sweatpants. Between her spread legs, a pair of blood-spotted socks lay on the floor. At her hip and waist area, her pants were soaked to capacity with a dark, wet red. A scarlet pool flowed across the floor from under her body.
Bloodstained, half-clenched hands rested in an awkward position in her lap. Her shoulders contorted at an artificial angle against a bottom step. Her head fell backward — leaving her neck exposed as if on a sacrificial altar. The expression that greeted the emergency responders was one of abject horror.
Dried blood caked her hair in clumps as it lay on a stack of bright red towels — their original snowy whiteness disguised by a recent baptism in blood. All around her, dark red smears and spatter covered the stairs and the doorjamb and rose up high on the walls.
On the way to their patient, the paramedics asked her age and how long it had been since her fall. Mike Peterson only said, "I just went outside to turn out the lights and came in." Then he wandered away from the stairwell and into the kitchen.
Behind the paramedics, men from the Durham Fire Department entered the house. Firefighter Jayson Crank was the first one in. He turned and pulled back the door for the others to enter. He noticed a smear of blood on the inside of the door beneath the spot where his fingers held it. But no blood lifted to his gloves — it was too dry to transfer.
The fire department personnel did not go near the body. They stood three abreast between the entranceway and the stairwell, blocking Kathleen's body from view and preventing any civilians from entering the area from that direction.
The emergency medical technicians knelt beside Kathleen — Rose on the right side, Paige on the left. The coppery scent of spilled blood permeated the air they breathed. They worked the rapid assessment protocol with efficiency and with few words exchanged. Each man moved in rhythm to the actions of the other as if each step were choreographed for the stage. Their instinctive timing and teamwork were impeccable.
Kathleen's pupils were dilated to 6 mm, indicating a lack of oxygen to the brain. There was no verbal activity from their patient, no motor response, no spontaneous eye movement. They determined her level of consciousness score was 3 of 3 — the lowest possible score on the Glasgow Coma Scale. Kathleen had no pulse, no respiration, no blood pressure.
Paige put cardiac monitor leads on Kathleen just as he heard Todd Peterson say, "She's dead, Dad. The paramedics are here."
Todd may have made his assessment a bit quicker than the professionals on the scene, but he was right. No response registered on the cardiac monitor. There was zero electrical activity from her heart. Kathleen Peterson was dead — "very dead" according to Ron Paige. And it appeared as if she was dead long before Paige and Rose ever got the call to respond.
Paige stood guard by the body while Rose sought out Michael Peterson. He found him outside on the patio by the pool. The newly widowed husband was no longer crying. He was barefooted, wearing a tee shirt and shorts, and covered in blood. Small drops were scattered up and down his arms and legs and on his hands. Although his shirt was a dark navy blue, the large amount of blood on its surface was still obvious. On his khaki shorts, large red stains created a more dramatic contrast on both the front and back sides. All the blood on Michael Peterson appeared to be dry.
Rose asked Mike for Kathleen's birth date. Peterson just gave him a blank stare. When asked for her medical history, Peterson did not respond.
Rose returned to Kathleen's side. The two paramedics stayed by the body protecting her and the scene until they were relieved by Durham police officers.
Corporal Juanita McDowell and Officer Victor Figueroa of the Durham Police Department were the first officers on the scene. They entered the house where the emergency medical technicians were still checking for vital signs. McDowell saw Michael Peterson in the kitchen area with Todd's arm around his shoulders.
The officers saw a chair lift attached to the wall of the stairwell. The seat was folded up, but still they wondered if it played a role in the incident. They also made the mistaken assumption that Kathleen was disabled. They did not know the lift had been installed by the previous owner and simply was never removed by the Petersons.
In less than ten minutes McDowell knew that this scene did not look like a typical accidental fall. There was too much blood — and it no longer had the sheen she always saw where the blood was freshly spilled. She called the criminal investigations division on her radio.
Avoiding the stairwell area, McDowell walked the long way around to the kitchen and asked Todd Peterson for a telephone. He stepped to the edge of the stairway and plucked a portable phone off a step there before Paige or Rose had a chance to object. McDowell then put Todd and Mike out on the patio.
At the door, firefighters contended with the arrival of Todd Peterson's friends, Ben Maynor, and Heather Whitson. Todd phoned Maynor minutes earlier and told him to come to the house, and to bring Heather, a medical resident at Duke University.
In a loud voice, an intoxicated Maynor insisted, "Get out of the way. Get out of the way. She's a doctor, she can help."
The firefighters turned to the sober Whitson, dressed in a burgundy top and black pants for the casual holiday party she had just abandoned. "I'm a doctor. Is there anything I can do?"
"No. It's too late for that. You need to wait outside."
Todd came to the door and intervened. Telling the firefighters it was all right, he ushered Ben and Heather inside. "Please look at my dad, Heather," Todd requested. "He is in shock."
The medical resident went out on the patio where Michael Peterson sat with a blank look on his face. At her arrival, he stood up and paced back and forth, crying and moaning.
The Petersons' two English bulldogs, who had been placid earlier, were now growling at the emergency responders and trying to push their way into the house. At McDowell's request, Christina Tomasetti, who had arrived at the house with Todd Peterson, corralled the dogs and put them in a closed room.
Christina caught a glimpse of Kathleen Peterson at the foot of the stairs. She jerked her head away from the bloody scene. She had no desire for a closer look. As she put the dogs in the den, she learned that Kathleen was dead.
McDowell stepped outside and awaited the arrival of the investigators.
1810 Cedar Street was now a crime scene.CHAPTER 3
ID Tech Dan George knocked on the closed side door and was told to come in. From the kitchen, he observed the victim from a distance of four or five feet. He saw large quantities of blood all over the floor, the wall and the victim's hands and feet. He realized that the blood on the floor was congealed and what was on the wall was smeared and dried. To his experienced eye, the evidence did not appear to point to an accidental fall. He left the house to contact the criminal investigation division (CID).
As he exited, he saw a drop of blood on the slate porch. He went to his car to get a flashlight and continued his search for more blood. He found a trace on the mortar between the bricks of the sidewalk about six feet away from where he saw the first drop. He put small pieces of paper by the blood and moved a planter into the path to avoid inadvertent trampling of the evidence.
Todd Peterson came out of the house to move his car. McDowell asked him, "Is the victim handicapped?"
"No," Todd said. "She drinks a lot and did a lot of drinking four hours earlier."
When she asked him who was in the house at the time, he told her that only his dad and his stepmother were at home.
Ben Maynor stumbled out of the house. He reeked of alcohol and his speech was slurred alerting police that he was too intoxicated to be moving vehicles out of the way as he planned. He was sent back inside. The presence of Todd's drunken friend added a layer of chaos to a complicated scene filled with dozens of officers and first responders who were trying to do their jobs.
Sergeant Terry Wilkins arrived and took charge of the scene. He spotted the lower half of a body at the foot of the back stairs. He continued foward until he saw the large area of blood outside the staircase in the hallway. He stopped moving — he realized the scene needed to be secured with more crime-scene tape.
Wilkins noted a large spot of blood outside the staircase in the hallway near the front of the door. It had a glazed surface with no sheen of wetness. It was then that he got his first look at Michael Peterson — he was covered with blood and in an apparent state of shock. Wilkins said nothing to Peterson at the time. He was too focused on analyzing and securing the scene.
Peterson went into the kitchen and stood in front of the sink. He turned on the water and put his hands under its flow. Wilkins ordered Peterson to stop and he complied. Mike and Todd Peterson and Ben Maynor were then sent out onto the patio with an officer. Between the door and a table, they walked past a splash of spilled liquid and a silver tea kettle — an odd location for an item that seldom escaped the kitchen.
Wilkins sent home the neighbors who had been drawn to the house by the flashing lights. A few minutes later, Wilkins saw Christina Tomasetti again. She had attended a party with Todd earlier that evening and was now in the foyer area by the foot of the spiral stairs with Heather Whitson. He directed them into the den. He advised them not to talk to each other so that the perceptions each one had were not tainted by the memory of the other one.
At 3:09, Investigator Art Holland stirred from his sleep at the sound of the page from CID Sergeant Fran Borden, who was on the scene but had not yet entered the house. With his many years of experience in criminal investigation, it was not unusual for him to receive a call in the middle of the night. He was a committed officer and loved working homicide. Some cases were hard to believe, some were hard to solve, but he welcomed the challenge and relished the added knowledge that every case brought to him.
He thought this call to the wealthy, older community of Forest Hills would be a routine matter. To the best of his knowledge, an elderly woman fell down a flight of stairs in a wheelchair — a tragic accident, but nothing more. He figured he'd make a brief appearance, assess the situation and return home to his bed. He told his wife that he'd probably be back in an hour. It would be twenty hours before he saw her again.
When Sergeant Borden entered the residence, he observed smeared blood on a kitchen drawer and on the glass-front cabinet above. That was the first red flag for this seasoned investigator — the first indication that things were not as they seemed.
Excerpted from Written in Blood by Diane Fanning. Copyright © 2005 Diane Fanning. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Elizabeth Mckee Ratliff,
Elizabeth Mckee Ratliff,
Kathleen Hunt Atwater Peterson,
Michael and Kathleen,
Don't Miss These Other Fascinating,
True Crime Accounts by Diane Fanning,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Durham County court reporters are still trying to finish a final transcript of the Michael Peterson saga, but as far as I'm concerned -- with the publication of Diane Fanning's book, 'Written in Blood,' the official record is now complete. Fanning provides a full account of the epic Peterson murder mystery. Her writing is superb. Most importantly, Diane Fanning has written a true-crime book focused more on the truth than on the crime, and in that sense, her work honors the spirit of the victim, Kathleen Hunt Atwater. Rich with devastating details and ironic insights into the stranger than fictional world of Michael Peterson, Diane Fanning's book is a triumph. She has untangled the impossibly complex and grotesquely contorted story of money, malice and murder and laid it bare for all to see. 'Written in Blood' fills in the familiar framework of the notorious North Carolina case with important new details (the strange death of George Ratliff) and bits of dialogue (Peterson to Candace: 'I can either turn the heat on or buy four plots. I can't afford to do both.'), and a treasure trove of background information. (The secret of the red carnation.) Diane even manages to out-Peterson Peterson, with her vivid rendering of his anxiously offered heroics in battle during the Vietnam War. Not content to merely expose the decades of deceit, petty greed and random violence that led to Michael's premeditated murder -- Diane Fanning goes on to give a nearly day by day account of the contentious, 5-month trial. The cynical showboating and underhanded courtroom strategies of deluded defense teammates, Rudolf and Maher, are painfully rendered. Accounts of Caitlin Atwater's dawning horror throughout the legal ordeal are particularly effective. Diane's summation of the marathon murder trial forces her reader to feel every stinging insult Peterson's courtroom charade added to the vicious injury he caused Kathleen Peterson and so many, many others. Diane Fanning's 'Written in Blood' is a beautifully written record of the truth. I believe her superbly crafted monument will bring some measure of satisfaction to Kathleen Peterson and Elizabeth Ratliff's family and friends, and to those of us who never knew Michael Peterson, but who agonized over his senseless killing during the disconcerting courtroom drama. The truth is marching on and we move on with it. Thank you, Diane. The book is perfect. As with the brilliant work of columnist, Tom Gasparoli, it is most ironic that Michael Peterson's evil fictions would finally serve as the subject of such masterful writing. Onward! Vance Holmes, February 2005
Not once, during either of two frantic calls to Durham 9-11 did Michael Peterson mention the blood...and there was a lot of blood. During the early morning hours of December 9th, as Kathleen lay dying on the stairs, police and rescue personnel rush to the home on Cedar Street. Connecting the complex sequence of dots that convinced a jury of his peers that Michael Peterson was indeed guilty of murder would have been the easy part, because the evidence had been painstakingly detailed during the five month trial. But, Diane Fanning takes the reader behind the carefully orchestrated performance in the court room and delivers the journey through the raw, unfiltered eyes of those who lived it. Detailing the crime scene, police procedure, the autopsy and the trial I fully expected, however, this book is chock-full of extras. Intimate conversations between Kathleen and her beloved sister, details concerning the exhumation and autopsy of Elizabeth Ratliff, the suspicious death of George Ratliff and much more. There's also eight pages of photographs that give the reader a glimpse of the Peterson's before, during and the aftermath is punctuated with a single photo of Kathleen's headstone. During the trial, the defense displayed an air of arrogance both in and outside the courtroom. And much to the chagrin of Peterson's few remaining supporters, the author pulls no punches describing the showboating behavior of David Rudolf and Thomas Maher, the mysterious discovery of the missing blowpoke and the effect these antics had on the grieving families. Superb, unflinching, emotionally gritty at times, Written in Blood is a stinging, in your face novel that paints a haunting picture of the madness that often lurks behind the gates of the nicest communities or in the home right next door. And reminds us all that the monster hiding in the shadows is easily recognized in hindsight...but, that's too late! Although the last chapter of this story will be written by the North Carolina Supreme Court, Written In Blood is as complete a history of the Peterson saga as could possibly be written. If you enjoy reading a true crime novel that goes behind the scenes and beyond the glare of the cameras, Written In Blood does not disappoint! Happy Reading!
Very well written book, my prayers to the victims family.....
I'm a fan of Diane Fanning and I enjoyed this book. I love how she goes into the detail and background of the victims and makes you feel like you know them. She is very Ann Rule-esque in that way. This book was fascinating but tragic. My prayers go out to the victims' families in this case and I hope resolution is brought to the family of Liz Ratliff.
Not once, during either of two frantic calls to Durham 9-11 did Michael Peterson mention the blood...and there was a lot of blood. During the early morning hours of December 9th, as Kathleen lay dying on the stairs, police and rescue personnel rush to the home on Cedar Street. Connecting the complex sequence of dots that convinced a jury of his peers that Michael Peterson was indeed guilty of murder would have been the easy part, because the evidence had been painstakingly detailed during the five month trial. But, Diane Fanning takes the reader behind the carefully orchestrated performance in the court room and delivers the journey through the raw, unfiltered eyes of those who lived it. Detailing the crime scene, police procedure, the autopsy and the trial I fully expected, however, this book is chock-full of extras. Intimate conversations between Kathleen and her beloved sister, details concerning the exhumation and autopsy of Elizabeth Ratliff, the suspicious death of George Ratliff and much more. There's also eight pages of photographs that give the reader a glimpse of the Peterson's before, during and the aftermath is punctuated with a single photo of Kathleen's headstone.During the trial, the defense displayed an air of arrogance both in and outside the courtroom. And much to the chagrin of Peterson's few remaining supporters, the author pulls no punches describing the showboating behavior of David Rudolf and Thomas Maher, the mysterious discovery of the missing blowpoke and the effect these antics had on the grieving families.Superb, unflinching, emotionally gritty at times, Written in Blood is a stinging, in your face novel that paints a haunting picture of the madness that often lurks behind the gates of the nicest communities or in the home right next door. And reminds us all that the monster hiding in the shadows is easily recognized in hindsight...but, that's too late! Although the last chapter of this story will be written by the North Carolina Supreme Court, Written In Blood is as complete a history of the Peterson saga as could possibly be written. If you enjoy reading a true crime novel that goes behind the scenes and beyond the glare of the cameras, Written In Blood does not disappoint!Happy Reading!-RJ