How Did Kathleen Peterson Die? Watch an Exclusive Clip from An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase

Investigation Discover
Investigation Discover

Michael Peterson was living the American dream: With a successful writing career, a beautiful family, and a picturesque home in Durham, North Carolina, he and his wife Kathleen seemed to have it all … then everything changed.

In the early morning hours of December 9, 2001, Michael called 911 to report that his wife was unconscious and lying in a pool of blood after possibly falling down "15, 20, I don't know” stairs in their home. Michael claimed it was a tragic accident and said that his wife had been drinking and taken some Valium. But the police, and armchair detectives around the world, had other ideas—namely, that Michael was to blame.

For nearly 20 years, the mystery surrounding Kathleen Peterson’s death has only grown, especially in the wake of Michael’s trial—where he was found guilty, but later managed to walk free—and the number of sometimes-odd theories that have sprung up to explain what happened (including the idea that she was attacked by an owl).

The case has been featured on a number of true crime series, including Dateline and Forensic Files, and spawned a 2004 docuseries, The Staircase, directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Now, Investigation Discovery is going back to the scene of the crime for a three-part series, An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase, which will premiere on Sunday, April 8 at 10/9c.

“The death of Kathleen Peterson is one of the most confounding cases in history,” Henry Schleiff, group president of Investigation Discovery, American Heroes Channel, and Destination America, said in a press release. “There are so many pieces to this puzzle—from Michael’s salacious secrets to investigator misconduct to the odd owl theory—so, we are eager to bring our viewers the first complete look at this fascinating crime and subsequent trial.”

Another theory? The “blow poke” theory, which Kathleen’s sister Candace explains in this exclusive clip below.

An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase will premiere on Investigation Discovery on Sunday, April 8 at 10/9c.

The 50-Year Journey to Solve the Murder of Harvard Student Jane Britton

Jane Britton
Jane Britton
Middlesex District Attorney File [PDF] // Public Domain

On the morning of January 7, 1969, anthropology graduate students at Harvard University gathered to take their general examinations—one last hurdle they’d have to jump before beginning their doctoral theses. One student, however, was missing: 23-year-old Jane Britton.

It wasn't like Britton to miss a test, especially one this important. Her parents, a Radcliffe College vice president and a medieval history scholar, had raised her to take her education seriously, and she had graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1967. At Harvard, she served as a teaching assistant, helped discover the remains of a Neolithic community during an archaeological dig in Iran, and dazzled everyone with her quick wit. In short, she was more than a model student.

Her classmate and boyfriend, James Humphries, called her—but she didn’t answer. So he set off for her fourth-floor apartment at 6 University Road and knocked on her door just after noon.

Again, no answer.

Humphries’s knocking was loud enough to draw Britton’s neighbor and fellow anthropology student Donald Mitchell from his nearby apartment, and the two men decided to enter Britton’s unlocked residence.

They found her lying facedown on her bed in a blue nightgown, her body partially obscured by blankets and a fur coat. Mitchell uncovered her head, realized she was caked in blood, and promptly called the Cambridge police, who, upon arrival, asked medical examiner Dr. Arthur McGovern to come to Britton’s apartment as well.

McGovern soon confirmed the worst: Britton was dead. It was obvious that she had been the victim of a brutal murder, but there was no murder weapon in sight. With no weapon, no eyewitnesses, and the public demanding answers, detectives embarked on an arduous and baffling hunt for the truth—one that would last half a century.

The Night Of

The night before her murder, Britton and Humphries joined some classmates for dinner at the Acropolis Restaurant and ice skating at Cambridge Common. She and Humphries retired to her apartment for hot cocoa around 10:30 p.m., and, when Humphries left an hour later, Britton visited the Mitchells to retrieve her cat, Fuzzy, and enjoy a glass of sherry before returning to her own apartment at about 12:30 a.m.

Though Donald Mitchell and his wife, Jill, hadn’t seen or heard anything suspicious, two other residents had [PDF]: A neighbor heard noises on Britton’s fire escape that night, and someone else reported seeing a 6-foot-tall, 170-pound man running in the street below at 1:30 a.m. Unfortunately, neither of these testimonies gave authorities much to investigate, and they couldn’t even be certain that the murderer had in fact used the fire escape to gain access into Britton’s apartment—they saw no evidence of forced entry, and her front door had been unlocked.

As police continued their inspection of Jane's apartment, Dr. George Katsas autopsied Britton’s body at Watson Funeral Home and determined her cause of death to be “the result of multiple blunt injuries of the head with fractures of the skull and contusions and lacerations of the brain.” It was later confirmed that Britton had also been the victim of sexual assault, and a toxicology report proved that since the sherry had never entered her bloodstream, she must have died within an hour of having returned to her apartment that night.

The fact that Britton’s door was unlocked caused something of a public outcry, because it wasn’t the first time that someone had been killed in the building. Just six years earlier, Boston University student Beverly Samans had been stabbed to death in her apartment by Albert DeSalvo, better known as the Boston Strangler. After Britton’s murder, The Harvard Crimson reported that the front doors of the “littered and dingy” building didn’t even have locks, and that Britton’s apartment door was often left unlocked not out of negligence, but because it was “almost impossible to lock.” Students had allegedly complained about the lousy security in the past, though a university representative denied those claims.

A Trail of Dead Ends

Meanwhile, police were considering the possibility that someone from the university had committed the crime. They started questioning members of Harvard’s anthropology department, some of whom were Britton’s companions on the dig in Iran during the previous summer.

While canvassing the crime scene, police had found traces of red ochre—a powder-like clay—sprinkled both on Britton’s body and around her apartment. Since red ochre was once used in ancient Persian burial rites, investigators were looking for a suspect likely to have an in-depth knowledge of the subject.

It wasn’t the only reason that Jane's former companions seemed like a promising place to start: According to some media reports published in the wake of the murder, there had also been hostility among the nine participants. But, as the interrogations failed to produce any viable suspects, investigators were forced to conclude that the media reports had been exaggerated.

“There were complaints about too much tuna fish,” Professor C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky told The New York Times when asked to address the rumors. Hardly a compelling motive for cold-blooded murder. The perplexing presence of red ochre turned out to be insignificant, too—it was later determined to be nothing more than residue from Britton’s paintings.

With a bone-dry suspect pool, police focused instead on evidence from the crime scene. Though they had managed to find traces of semen left behind by the killer during the sexual assault, the existing technology wasn't advanced enough for them to use that DNA to locate a match. They also discovered that a sharp stone—perhaps sharp enough to kill— Britton had received as an archaeological souvenir from the Mitchells had gone missing from her residence.

Then, just two days after Britton’s body was found, Cambridge Chief of Police James F. Reagan announced a black-out on any further news of the investigation until he himself decided to release more information, citing inaccuracies in media coverage of the crime. He wouldn’t elaborate, but he did give one last parting update: They had located the sharp stone.

As for any other details—where they found it, for example, or if it happened to be smeared with blood—Reagan didn’t say. The public was left to assume that the potential murder weapon was yet another dead end.

Remembering Janie

In the absence of any official updates, people looked back on Britton’s life both to honor her memory and search for some clue they might have missed. She was a bright, spirited young woman who rode horses, played the piano, and decorated her apartment walls with drawings of animals.

“She could interact with a lot of different types of people very well,” Jill Mitchell told The New York Times. “She had manners, yet was very down to earth.” While Britton's varied hobbies and active social life made her a well-rounded, well-liked young woman, she was also exceptionally focused on her career goals: She specialized in Near Eastern archaeology, and planned to become an archaeologist after graduation.

Some considered the many accounts of Britton’s all-around winning personality proof that her assailant must have been a complete stranger.

“The police have a mass of material and I think it will all lead to the conclusion that no one would want to kill Janie,” her friend Ingrid Kirsch said.

Others, however, simply generated the kind of ugly gossip that so often rears its head during tragedies. One popular conspiracy theory suggested that Britton’s murder was connected to her alleged involvement in the counterculture movement of the time.

“She knew a lot of odd people in Cambridge—the hangers-on and acid heads who you would not call young wholesome Harvard and Radcliffe types,” an unnamed friend, who had known Britton in 1966, told The New York Times. “She went to a lot of their parties and was very kind to them.”

But time wore on without any news from the police department, and eventually, even the foundationless rumors petered out.

The murder of Jane Britton became another cold case. Her parents passed away—her mother, Ruth, in 1978, and her father, J. Boyd, in 2002—without knowing the truth about their daughter's tragic death.

A Belated Breakthrough

Then, in 2017, several public requests for the district attorney’s office to publicly release the case file prompted investigators to pore over the materials once again, and they decided to test the DNA sample using the latest forensic technology.

Incredibly, they found a match: Michael Sumpter, a convicted murder and rapist who had died in 2001. Without new DNA from Sumpter to verify their findings, they turned to the next closest thing—a DNA sample from his brother, whom they located through services like Ancestry.com.

The sample from Sumpter’s brother matched the original sample, ruled out 99.92 percent of the male population, and proved within reason that Michael Sumpter was in fact responsible for the rape and murder of Jane Britton.

According to the Middlesex district attorney’s office, Sumpter was no stranger to Cambridge. He lived there as a child, worked just a mile from Britton’s apartment in 1967, and was convicted of assaulting a woman in the area three years after Britton’s murder.

In November 2018, Middlesex district attorney Marian Ryan confirmed that, after nearly 50 years, Britton’s case was closed.

“A half-century of mystery and speculation has clouded the brutal crime that shattered Jane’s promising young life and our family,” Britton’s brother, Reverend Boyd Britton, said in a statement [PDF]. “The DNA evidence match may be all we ever have as a conclusion. Learning to understand and forgive remains a challenge.”

When Ohio Outlawed Seduction

Lee Tracey/BIPs/Getty Images
Lee Tracey/BIPs/Getty Images

"Hot for Teacher" may have been a major hit for Van Halen back in 1984, but the very idea of a personal relationship between teacher and student—regardless of age—was nothing to sing about for Ohio lawmakers back in the 19th century. On April 22, 1886, the Buckeye State passed a law that made it illegal for any man over the age of 21 to put the moves on a woman he was instructing. Those who dared try would face the possibility of spending up to a decade in the clink.

To be clear, while the statute quite rightly made it illegal for an adult male teacher to engage in an inappropriate relationship with one of his young students, the wide latitude of the law went far beyond that, stating:

A male person over twenty-one years of age, who is superintendent, tutor or teacher in a private, parochial or public school, or seminary or other public institution, or instructor of any female in music, dancing, roller skating, athletic exercise, or any branch of learning, who has sexual intercourse, at any time or place, with any female, with her consent, while under his instruction during the term of his engagement as superintendent, tutor or instructor, shall be imprisoned in the penitentiary not more than ten years nor less than two.

Translate that to today's standards and what it means is that, even if you're an unmarried thirty-something looking for Mr. Right, you'd be wise to keep your hands off your personal trainer, lest he be arrested for reciprocating your romantic interests. (And yes, the same goes for your roller skating instructor.)

But Ohio was hardly the first state to pass such a law. In Virginia, dangling the prospect of marriage as a way to get some nookie was a no-no with "any unmarried female of previous chaste character" and again punishable by up to 10 years in prison. (The lawmakers were generous enough to note that the "chastity of the female shall be presumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary.") New York instituted a similar law in 1848, but considered the crime a misdemeanor (whereas Virginia classified it as a felony).

Georgia, too, had a seduction law, which reads very Jackie Collins-esque with phrases like "induce her to yield to his lustful embraces" and "allow him to have carnal knowledge of her." Any man charged with the crime had one of two choices: take his chances in court and risk spending two to 20 years in prison—or marry the gal! The written law noted that, "The prosecution may be stopped at any time by the marriage of the parties, or a bona fide and continuing offer to marry on the part of the seducer." Which was certainly one way to snag a husband!

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