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Recording of 911 call brings tears to Michael Peterson trial

By John Springer

Todd Peterson comforts his sister Margaret Ratliff Wednesday during the replaying of a 911 call in the Michael Peterson murder trial.
Todd Peterson comforts his sister Margaret Ratliff Wednesday during the replaying of a 911 call in the Michael Peterson murder trial.

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DURHAM, North Carolina (Court TV) -- Michael Peterson broke down in tears Wednesday as he heard a recording of a frantic telephone call he placed to 911 on December 9, 2001.

Peterson told the dispatcher, Mary Allen, that he thought his wife, Kathleen Peterson, had fallen down 15 or 20 steps and was unconscious. "Please, please ... Get someone here," he wailed into the telephone.

As he listened to the tape being played for the jury by prosecutors in his first-degree murder trial, Peterson first stared at the floor and then looked straight ahead. Then he removed his eyeglasses and cried.

Behind him in the gallery of Judge Orlando Hudson Jr.'s hushed courtroom, the two women Peterson raised after their own mother died in 1985 were consoled by one of Peterson's two biological sons. Todd Peterson, 27, put his arm around Margaret Ratliff. Her sister, Martha Ratliff, covered her mouth with her right hand as she listened to the tape.

Prosecutors contend that Michael Peterson, a 59-year-old author and former newspaper columnist, killed his 48-year-old wife for money and made her death appear to be an accidental fall. They also believe Peterson may have somehow been connected to the death of Elizabeth Ratliff, Margaret and Martha's birth mother, a family friend Peterson met while living in Germany.

Like Kathleen Peterson, Elizabeth Ratliff was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in 1985. Whether prosecutors will be able present evidence about her death to bolster their case against Michael Peterson is uncertain.

Defense attorney David Rudolf asked the dispatcher whether she typed the word "hysterical" into a computer to describe Michael Peterson's demeanor during his call to 911 about 2:40 a.m.

"Hysterical ... That's what you put in that form ...  Because that's the way he struck you," Rudolf said, looking for confirmation.

"Yes, sir," Allen replied.

Michael Peterson, seen during Wednesday court testimony, is on trial for the December 2001 death of his wife.
Michael Peterson, seen during Wednesday court testimony, is on trial for the December 2001 death of his wife.

Emergency operator Tonya Pearce testified about a second call Peterson placed to 911 asking where the ambulance was. Prosecutor Jim Hardin Jr. honed in with a question that suggested Peterson could have been putting on an act.

"If the caller was feigning ... would you have any way of knowing that?" Hardin asked.

"No, I would not," Pearce answered.

Jurors also heard Wednesday from one of the first Durham, North Carolina police officers to reach the Peterson home after the defendant called 911. Cpl. J.C. McDowell testified that something didn't seem right to her from the start.

McDowell said that after being told Kathleen Peterson was dead and seeing a large amount of blood, she called for detectives and crime scene technicians. "It didn't look consistent with someone falling down steps," she testified just before court recessed for the day.

When the defense cross-examines McDowell sometime Thursday, lawyers for Peterson are expected to grill her about the apparent failure to secure the death scene and prevent people from walking through the house. Last week a firefighter who had been a deputy sheriff testified that he suggested McDowell should keep people away because the area might become a crime scene.

The defense has attacked the handling of the scene, arguing that traffic through the house could account for blood found in places one would not expect to see if Kathleen Peterson had really died from a fall.

The testimony of the 911 communications personnel and the first in a series of police officers who will take the stand marks a new chapter in the trial. Prosecutors and defense lawyers previously spent several days arguing about whether Michael Peterson had a financial motive to kill his wife of four and a half years.

North Carolina Bureau of Investigation Agent Raymond Young told jurors that the Petersons were spending more than they took home in income, but the defense worked on cross-examination to show that Young's assessment was skewed.

For example, Young testified that his analysis showed that the couple had a net worth of about $1.6 million but carried $142,000 in credit card debt. The defense countered that Young, who was brought into the case by prosecutors just before jury selection, made assumptions and decisions that lowered the couple's net worth at Kathleen Peterson's death by about $500,000.

Defense lawyer Thomas Maher used multiple exhibits to show the jury that prosecutors indicted Michael Peterson within 11 days of his wife's death but did not begin actively investigating the couple's finances until January 2002.

"All this information was being collected more than a month after Michael Peterson was arrested and put in jail for Christmas, correct?" Maher said.

The testimony was allowed over the objections of prosecutor Freda Black, who complained it was not relevant when Young was brought into the case. The defense said the testimony showed that the investigation was biased and the judge agreed that the jury could hear it.

The defense then went through Young's financial analysis point by point and got the state's witness to agree that the couple's net worth could have been as much as $500,000 higher than he had calculated it.

"You would agree that if someone is facing life in prison without parole, it's important to be fair in your analysis?" Maher asked, putting his hand on Michael Peterson's shoulder as he spoke.


"I try to be fair every time I do an analysis," Young said.

To bolster his argument that Young's testimony and presentation was not objective, Maher noted that Young chose the color red for a large exhibit showing the couple's net worth to be $1.6 million. Young acknowledged that phrase "in the red" means someone owes more than they hold in assets, but denied that he was trying to influence the jury with his color schemes.

"You could have chosen green or some other color, couldn't you?" Maher said.

"Yes, I could," Young testified. "I like red."

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