The fourth episode of HBO Max’s crime series ‘The Staircase’ centers around the prosecution’s attempts to connect Michael Peterson’s friend Elizabeth Ratliff’s death to that of his wife, Kathleen. Hardin and Fredda try to establish that the two women’s deaths are eerily similar since both were found dead at the bottom of the stairs with lacerations on their heads.
The two attorneys bring Agnes Schafer, Martha and Margaret’s former nanny, as a witness in the trial to draw parallels between the two deaths. Agnes’ testimony creates an impact in the trial as it challenges Michael’s statement regarding his friend’s death. Intrigued by Agnes and her testimony, we have taken a look at the possibilities of the character having a real-life origin. Well, here are our findings!
Is Agnes Schafer Based on a Real Person?
Yes, Agnes Schafer is based on a real person. The character is primarily based on Barbara Malagnino, who served as Martha and Margaret’s nanny while the two of them were living with their mother, Elizabeth Ratliff, in Germany. On the morning of November 25, 1985, Barbara arrived at the Ratliff’s house, only to encounter Elizabeth’s dead body. The prosecution presented Barbara during Michael Peterson’s trial and she testified that she had seen Elizabeth’s body lying on “a pool of blood,” with blood visible “all the stairway.”
Barbara went to the Petersons’ house and informed Patricia, Michael’s first wife, about what she had seen. In her testimony, Barbara said that she returned to Elizabeth’s house with Michael and went to check in on Martha and Margaret, who were still asleep. Upon checking, Michael told her that Elizabeth is dead. As per Barbara’s account, Michael told him that she still felt Elizabeth warm, only for him to reply, “the warmth comes from the floor heating.”
Barbara also testified that Michael tried to cover Elizabeth’s body with a sheet and blanket. While Agnes is a fictionalized counterpart of Barbara, the inspiration behind the character may not be limited to the nanny alone. The character can be also inspired by Amybeth Berner, a family friend of the Ratliffs. The show depicts Agnes testifying in the trial that Michael proclaimed a brain aneurysm as the cause of death.
However, in the actual trial, the same testimony was given by Amybeth. “Michael said that she [Elizabeth] had a brain aneurysm. She had this, um, and that she must have fallen down the stairs,” Amybeth stated in the trial, which is similar to Agnes’ words in the show. Thus, from what we can tell, Agnes is likely a character primarily based on Barbara and partially based on Amybeth.
Where is Agnes Schafer Now?
Barbara Malagnino and Amybeth Berner have chosen to keep their lives private, possibly due to the widespread attention they garnered as witnesses in Michael Peterson’s trial. At the time of Michael’s trial, Barbara was staying in Germany. Amybeth, on the other hand, had appeared in Investigation Discovery’s ‘True Crime with Aphrodite Jones,’ specifically in the 2010 episode titled ‘Staircase Killer: Michael Peterson.’ In 2017, both the women appeared on the ‘Dateline NBC’ episode entitled ‘Down the Back Staircase.’
Barbara and Amybeth were two of the closest acquaintances Elizabeth had while living in Germany. Her sudden and mysterious death had unsettled the two of them severely. Even though Michael wasn’t officially charged with Elizabeth’s murder, Barbara and Amybeth’s testimonies were crucial parts of his trial.