Dateline   |  April 03, 2014

'Reversal of Fortune', Part 4

A friend of Michael Peterson, Elizabeth Ratliff, was also found dead at the bottom of a staircase sixteen years earlier in Germany.  Was this a simple coincidence?  

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> in police work a good tip can make your day. and it can also make your life a lot more complicated. just such a tip came to the desk of the detective working the kathleen peterson case.

>> i think it was two or three days after her death is when i first had contact with the family members of elizabeth rally.

>> elizabeth rally was the mother of the two girls that michael peterson was raising, margaret and martha. elizabeth 's relatives had a story to tell about what had happened to her, another woman in michael peterson 's life on another staircase. let's leave the house on cedar street for a few moments and go back in time, almost 20 years. across the atlantic to germany. frank furt in the early 1980s . michael peterson was living with his first wife patty and their two sons near a u.s. air force base. michael was working on a novel while she taught grade school to children of the military. margaret and martha's mother elizabeth worked alongside patty.

>> michael and patty were our parents' best friends . i remember actually patty was saying that our birth mother was like a sister to her.

>> whether the girls' father and air force officer died on a mission, the peterson 's and the rest of the community stepped up to help. it took for a couple of years for the widow to pull herself together. but just as she rediscovered some zest in life, death found the ratliff family again. it was november 24th , 1985 . elizabeth and her young daughters had gone to the peterson 's for dinner. later michael peterson brought them home. the next morning another good friend of the circle and her husband were summoned to elizabeth 's town house by the girls' hysterical call. come, there is a horrible accident. she already rounded up michael peterson a few doors down.

>> as we walked in, michael was at the bottom of the staircase. liz was covered with a coat. there was a puddle of blood going from where she was laying all the way down under the staircase.

>> elizabeth ratliff was dead. she skid him what happened.

>> he said she probably had an aneurysm like her father. when i started to think about someone falling down the stairs , i thought well that's possible. the stairs are, you know, pretty aneurysm like her father. when i started to think about someone falling down the stairs , i thought well that's possible. the stairs are, you know, pretty steep and, you know, they're slippery and wooden.

>> but as amy thought about it, there was just too much blood for a slip and fall. blood not just where elizabeth lay but high up along the staircase walls, too.

>> if you fell down the stairs , why would there be blood splurted up the side of the wall? it didn't make any sense to me.

>> and she said there were household details out of order. like the table that liz set out every night with the girl's breakfast plates. it was bare. the snow boots she left by the front door, still on her feet.

>> liz never wore her boots in the house. she always took her boots off. that was another clue to me that something was wrongment she was either running for someone or trying to escape.

>> had elizabeth been attacked before? had her death not been by natural causes ? amy beth thought a full fledged investigation would ensue, but as she tells it, michael peterson spoke to the news that day and said she had been complaining of severe headaches and she had a hereditary bleeding disorder. perhaps she had a stroke and fallen down the stairs . the questions amy beth expected to be asked never were.

>> i thought why aren't they talking to people? why aren't they asking questions? no one did.

>> later that day, peterson phoned elizabeth 's sister margaret blare in rhode island with the dreadful news.

>> margaret , there's been an accident. liz fell down the stairs and died. what you are saying? i just totally went numb.

>> margaret could not believe it.

>> i mean my sister. he's saying she died. she's young. she has two beautiful little children . babies, really. and, of course, i have a thousand questions afterwards.

>> but any questions regarding foul play in elizabeth 's death were laid to rest by the results of an autopsy performed at a u.s. army hospital in germany. elizabeth died, the examiner said, from a brain recommendage, natural causes . her body was flown to texas for burial beside her husband. at the funeral, sister margaret anxious for further details wasn't going to hear anything more from michael peterson .

>> michael was very aloof and very strange.

>> did he speak?

>> no. he didn't really say a lot at all. he never talked about what happened to liz .

>> liz 's will had designated the petersons and not her family as the girls' legal guardians .

>> you didn't that i was strange?

>> well, actually, you know, i can understand how that could happen. this was her world now. liz loved these people. and trusted him.

>> not long after the new peterson family now with two boys and two girls moved back home to north carolina . the marriage of patty and michael though wouldn't last. michael struck up a relationship with kathleen . then there was their decade together raising kids, his best seller , her business success , her social world . fast forward. to december 2001 and comes the uncanny, eeri parallel involving another death on another staircase. margaret , elizabeth 's sister, got a call from one of the girls.

>> she said, margaret , there's been an accident. kathleen fell down the stairs and died.

>> i'm like, do you know what you're saying? the same thing happened to elizabeth . she said, i know.

>> margaret decided she had no choice but to pick up the phone and call the detective working the kathleen peterson case.

>> do you know that my sister in 1985 had an accident. she fell down the stairs and died and michael was the last person to be with her?

>> its detective did not know that.

>> here i have two women that appear to die the same way. two women that are associated with mike peterson .

>> the detective started digging into the elizabeth ratliff story. he learned that pathologist who attributed elizabeth 's death to natural causes back in 1985 couldn't say for certain what had caused her brain hemorrhage . had she been the victim of a stroke, a fall, or foul play ? the north carolina authorities decided the only way to know for sure would be to have the body exhumed from the grave in texas and look for themselves. disturbing what they found.