This story is a mind-blower. Michael Peterson, a former newspaper columnist, has a fascinating military history ... Incidentally, the star-crossed Petersons were neighbors of another prominent North Carolina media figure, SIOUX WATSON, publisher of Durham's conservative Independent Weekly, a paper that has defamed me in the past. You know, I'm only a crummy liberal ...

- AC

Dec 23, 2001 12:01 AM
Modified: Oct 23, 2005 05:06 PM

Petersons seen as vibrant, devoted - Friends dispute his murder charge


DURHAM - Christmas Eve will not be the same this year on the stately old streets of Forest Hills without Kathleen Peterson delivering her homemade croissants late into the night.

Since she arrived in the neighborhood southwest of downtown in the early 1980s, she had impressed her neighbors with thoughtfulness and energy that seemed boundless.

"She was a very generous person," neigh-bor Maureen Barry said. "She came to clean your chandelier on your birthday for you."

Skilled at everything she did - in the telecommunications industry, philanthropy, cooking, sewing and giving parties - Kathleen and her husband of 4 1/2 years, novelist and raconteur Michael Peterson, were a perfect match for Durham's high-society circles.

But this Christmas, their neighbors, relatives and friends are hollow with the loss of the 48-year-old woman in a sudden and violent death, and the arrest of her husband on a charge of premeditated murder.

Peterson, 58, was indicted Thursday despite his insistence that his wife accidentally tumbled down a staircase in their mansion sometime after midnight on Dec. 9 while he relaxed outside by the pool.

Their circle of friends are rallying around Peterson, a decorated war hero who often boasted of the exotic adventures in his past, and who made a name for himself locally as a combative critic of police and city officials. His supporters say there is nothing in the couple's past that could have predicted this ending.

"My brother-in-law is an amazing man and I am standing by his side," Kathleen's sister Candace Zamperini said. "He's innocent -- he did nothing but love my sister, and she loved him."

Even under the worst circumstances, many of their friends say, they cannot imagine that Mike Peterson meant his wife harm.

"Where's the motive?" asked longtime friend and neighbor Andy Widmark, a commercial real estate company owner who has known them both for many years. "First-degree murder just sounds so absolutely absurd."

Mike and Kathleen were part of a close-knit group of about 16 neighbors, going back to when they each lived there while married to other spouses. Many in the neighborhood play bridge and have parties together, and the Petersons frequently opened their mansion for socializing.

Although the couple had no children together, they brought five of them into the family: two sons of Mike's from his first marriage, two girls that he had taken in after their parents died, and Kathleen's daughter from the previous marriage. The last of the children grew up and moved out this year; three are in college.

Kathleen often put the children to work whitewashing the brick walls at the driveway entrance and power-washing the slate patio, while she tended to three dozen, multicolored rose bushes, Berry said. She was a gourmet who had no trouble putting together 11 different desserts in a single day.

The 14-room mansion -- used as a set in the movie "The Handmaid's Tale" -- was also home to as many as five dogs; now there are two bulldogs, Wilbur and Portia. Mike, who became the neighborhood association president in June, was adept at negotiating differences between some of the older and newer residents, longtime neighbor Sioux Watson said.

To everyone, the Petersons seemed like proud parents and an enviably happy couple, attentive to each other in public, exploring new restaurants and shopping at Costco every Tuesday morning. "They finished each other's sentences, they were eccentric in the same way -- they were made for each other," Zamperini, of Lancaster, Pa., said.

They also loved to drink fine wine -- lots of it, several friends said.

"Both of them were real party, social animals," Widmark said. "It's that kind of neighborhood, for one thing."

'Girl of the Year'

Kathleen's talent and ambition had surfaced long before she graduated at the top of her high school class in Lancaster, where she also had been voted "Girl of the Year" and "Lancaster Lass" in civic events in the 1960s.

"She was absolutely an amazing person; I'm still in awe of her," Zamperini said. "She was an amazing executive and scholar and she could cook and sew. She taught me how to clean house, not my mother: The first thing she did in the morning was make her bed."

Their father stressed the value of a good education for the brother and three sisters, and instilled a sense of self-confidence and success, especially in the girls, Zamperini said.

She had no trouble getting into Duke University, where she was the first female student accepted into the engineering school, earning a master's degree there in 1975. Soon after, she married Fred Atwater, a physicist with a love of sailing. Although they separated when their daughter, Caitlin, was 4 years old, Atwater remained involved in his daughter's life.

Kathleen's career took off quickly, and she eventually became director of information services at Nortel Networks, a job that at one point put her in charge of 3,000 people as she managed offices in Dallas, Ottawa, Toronto and Research Triangle Park.

She flourished in the Forest Hills neighborhood, where her friends called her "a 48-hour-per-day woman," Berry said. "By that, we meant she fit more things into 24 hours than any of us ever could."

She served on the board of the Durham Arts Council and hosted fund-raising parties at her home for the American Dance Festival, the Carolina Ballet, the Durham Art Guild and the Mallarme Quartet. She had been invited to attend a special viewing of "The Nutcracker" at the Executive Mansion three days after her death.

On the day she died, Kathleen was supposed to participate in a holiday function for 100 underprivileged children.

Author, soldier, columnist

By the time Kathleen graduated from high school, Michael Peterson had already been through the Vietnam War, which would inspire his later novels.

Born in Nashville, Tenn., to an Army officer, he and his two younger brothers and younger sister moved about every four years. Peterson later recalled his early years in newspaper columns he wrote for the Herald-Sun in Durham with a sense of adventure. "I lived in Asia 14 years. I lived in Europe 12," he wrote. "I can get by, linguistically and culturally, in most countries of the civilized world."

He enrolled in Duke University and became editor of the school paper and president of his fraternity. He finished in 1965 with a bachelor's degree in political science and took a job as a systems analyst with a defense consulting firm in Washington.

He married his first wife, Patricia Sue Balkman, the next year at Fort Belvoir, Va. Shortly after his wedding, he was sent to Vietnam to study troop strategies.

As a result of that experience, he enlisted the next year in the Marines and was back in Vietnam as a lieutenant by 1968. There he earned a Silver Star and a Bronze Star -- but he also claimed to have won two Purple Hearts, saying he was shot once and was severely injured when a mine killed his radio-man. In reality, Peterson was injured in Japan in a car accident, and many say the publicity of that lie cost him the Durham mayor's race in 1999.Peterson returned home in 1971 after being discharged as a captain and began to write a novel. He moved back and forth between Durham and Germany, where his wife taught in a Department of Defense school. An Air Force friend of Peterson's died in Panama, leaving two toddler daughters; their mother died six months later of a brain aneurism; and Peterson took the children in, eventually becoming their legal guardians.

In 1983, he published his first book, "The Immortal Dragon." By 1990 he published "A Time of War," which was a best seller. Friends said NBC wanted to make a miniseries out of the movie and bought the rights three separate times for several hundred thousand dollars.

The books allowed Peterson to buy the Cedar Street mansion, which he filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of antiques and collectibles, including 200-year-old furniture from Germany and Japan, carved vases from ancient Chinese dynasties, art and Christmas decorations from around the world.

David Perlmutt, a reporter with the Charlotte Observer, met Peterson about 1994. They shared an interest in Charlie Tsui, who after World War II was a Chinese boy who endeared himself to a company of Marines stationed in China at that time, and is now a Chapel Hill restaurateur. Perlmutt and Peterson spent two years together writing a book about it -- "Charlie Two Shoes" -- and talked almost every day.

About 1992, Kathleen moved into the Cedar Street mansion with him, although Peterson did not officially divorce his first wife until 1996. Perlmutt describes Peterson as a brilliant, frenetic man who loved his wife and family. "He adored her," Perlmutt said. "He was constantly talking about her.

"The first round of bad publicity to strike the family came in 1994, when Peterson's son Clayton was arrested for planting a pipe bomb at Duke University and sent to federal prison for several years. He graduated last weekend from N.C. State University and was the class valedictorian.

Peterson became a vocal critic of Durham government and ran unsuccessfully for city council and mayor once. He needled city officials in his newspaper column and later on his web site,

He was a visible partner to his civic-minded wife, but neighbor Watson said the couple's philanthropy wasn't just for appearances' sake. She says last summer he helped out a troubled teenager in danger of falling into gang life by paying for him to attend a Marine camp.

"I think he did stuff like that all the time without asking for any kind of recognition," Watson said.

Stress and misfortune
This year, the holidays began to swirl around the Petersons amid a series of misfortunes and their usual hectic schedule: Kathleen Peterson had to lay off employees at Nortel; their house and cars had been broken into several times; and she had just returned from throwing a Thanksgiving feast for two dozen at her mother's house in Florida. A week before she died, her own supervisor was laid off, and Kathleen was devastated, her sister said.
"She very much felt the stress of the company regrouping," Zamperini said. "It broke her heart every time she had to let someone go."
Kathleen complained that the stress might have caused fainting spells during which she fell, according to a friend, Robert Cappelletti, vice president of an architectural millwork firm. She told him that she had recently blacked out while sitting on her bed, he said.
"She said, 'Thank God it happened then and not somewhere else, because God knows what could have happened,' " Cappelletti said.

This summer, Cappelletti saw her driving her Jaguar wearing a neck brace and found out later that she had fallen during a party, he said.

Cappelletti and his wife had dinner with the couple a week before she died, and she said she didn't have time to see a doctor about the fainting spells until after the holidays. The season was in full swing: Two nights before her death, the couple learned that the book about Charlie Two Shoes had been optioned as a movie, and so it was with buoyed spirits that they went to the annual Christmas party for The Independent weekly newspaper.

Watson, the publisher of the paper, said she and Kathleen eagerly sampled the food while her husband tagged along asking about a mutual friend. "They just enjoyed each other's company," Watson said. "It was really clear how close they were and what fun they had together."

On Saturday night, several people said, the Petersons stayed home to celebrate the movie deal. Perlmutt said one of Michael Peterson's sons told him afterward that the couple had been drinking a lot of champagne that night.

Mike Peterson said he was relaxing outside by the pool when his wife left to go to bed. He said he found her at the bottom of the stairs with blood puddling around her. Sobbing, he called 911. He cradled her body in the stairwell long after she was pronounced dead, witnesses told his attorneys.

Friends who readily offer the Petersons' drinking as a plausible explanation for how Kathleen might have lost her balance and fallen down the stairs, are just as quick to insist the couple never fought when they drank.

"They were both fairly heavy drinkers -- not drunks," Widmark said. "Those are the kind of people who don't hide anything. When you're sitting there drinking a bottle of wine, you have a hard time keeping your emotions to yourself.

"I have been there many, many times when there were parties, there was lots of wine being drunk by everybody. Even under those circumstances, I never once heard them in a tiff, much less an argument."

Cappelletti said the rear staircase is narrow and drops to a landing with an automatic chair lift. Kathleen could have struck her head on the chair or its railing, he says.
"They were celebrating, and I know the way they celebrated and know it was either a horrible accident or she fainted," Cappelletti said. "I can't believe Mike can go on, she completed his life so much."

A pathologist, however, testified before a grand jury that Kathleen's injuries did not appear to have been caused by a fall, but rather by a blow to the head. Police have refused to disclose what other evidence they might have, but a defense motion suggests it could include what they deduced from the pattern of blood spatters around her body.

Police as well as family and friends are awaiting the final autopsy results, which won't be complete until next month.

For now, Michael Peterson will spend the holidays in jail. Everyone else will be left at a loss.

"My mom has the tree up and candles in all the windows and presents under the tree," Caitlin Atwater said Friday. "I don't know what we are going to do. My mother and Mike had a loving relationship and never would have wished harm on each other."

News researcher Susan Ebbs contributed to this report.

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