Michael & Kathleen Peterson Had A Real 'Modern' Family

by Megan Walsh

When Michael and Kathleen Peterson were married, it was a second marriage for both of them. They formed a new family together, and while they didn't share any biological children, the kids they did have viewed both as their parents. When Kathleen died in 2001, it split the family into opposing sides, one supporting their late mother and others supporting their father's innocence. But how many kids did Kathleen and Michael Peterson have? (Romper reached out to Michael Peterson's representatives and Netflix for additional statements.)

Altogether, they had a large blended family that totaled five children. Kathleen had a daughter named Caitlin Atwater from her first marriage to Fred Atwater, and Michael had four kids of his own. He had two sons named Clayton and Todd from his first marriage to Patricia Sue Peterson, as well as adopted daughters Margaret and Martha. The circumstances of their adoption would prove to be important to the case against Michael when he was arrested and convicted for Kathleen's murder.

As you might know already, Kathleen's cause of death has been debated over the years. She was found bloodied and bruised at the foot of the stairs in the home she shared with Michael, and many initially believed it was an accident. The autopsy revealed otherwise: the wounds inflicted on Kathleen were not consistent with a fall down the stairs, but with an attack. Though Michael was convicted of first degree murder, he always maintained his innocence and his four children continued to support him throughout his trial and jail time. Kathleen's daughter, Atwater, did too, but she eventually changed her mind.


AP News reported that Todd, Clayton, Martha, and Margaret have all stuck by their father for the last 17 years. Presumably, they believe that Kathleen's death truly was an accident: that she fell down the stairs after drinking a little too much, as it was reported by In Touch Weekly that she and Michael had been drinking the night she died. (Romper reached out to Michael Peterson's representatives and Netflix for additional statements.)

It seems that Atwater originally shared her siblings' position, but information that emerged during Michael's 2003 trial gave her a different perspective. Michael had lived in Germany during his first marriage, which was where he became close friends with George and Elizabeth Ratliff. Both Ratliffs passed away within a few years of each other, and Michael received custody of their two daughters, Margaret and Martha. It had been assumed for years that Elizabeth died in an accidental fall down the stairs, but Kathleen's death put the situation in a totally new light — because Elizabeth had also been found at the bottom of the stairs.

Elizabeth's body was exhumed and an autopsy performed. The autopsy results claimed that her death had been more than an accidental fall, but it appeared she was beaten to death, according to CNN. Much like Kathleen, she also had unexplained blunt force trauma to the head. While Elizabeth's murder remains unsolved, it certainly cast a suspicious light on Michael. It also caused Atwater to reconsider, according to CBS News. She filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Michael and WRAL reported that she was awarded $25 million in a settlement.


The News & Observer reported that the Peterson children now live all over the country. Martha lives in Colorado, and Margaret in California; Clay resides in Maryland with his two children. Todd has relocated to Tennessee, while Atwater is in Northern Virginia with her children. None of them seem particularly interested in stepping into the spotlight, and their opinions on what happened have long been formed. As Atwater told Indy Week:

And after the closing arguments, when all was said and done, I felt confident that I knew what happened. I knew what happened to my mom. While there's no true closure that can ever come for an event like this, for a loss this deep, I was ready to walk away and start moving forward with my life.

The case was explored in the 2004 docuseries The Staircase, which will be continued and expanded upon for Netflix on June 8. Many of the Peterson children appear in it, so they just might provide more insight into how they feel about Kathleen's death now that so many years have passed.