If you’re a true crime fan, you’ve probably watched (or perhaps are currently watching) Netflix’s latest docuseries craze ‘The Staircase.’
‘The Staircase’ documents the events following the death of Kathleen Peterson, a woman found in a pool of her own blood at the bottom of a staircase in the Durham, North Carolina mansion she shared with her husband Michael. Naturally, Michael is accused of being responsible for her suspicious death, and the documentary follows his journey as he defends his innocence in the untimely passing of his wife.
After watching ‘The Staircase,’ I was left feeling immensely torn. I just couldn’t fathom how Michael cold have beaten Kathleen to death without causing any fractures to her skull. At the same time, the photos of Kathleen at the bottom of that staircase seemed far too bloody to constitute an accidental fall down a couple of steps. And then I found what I am almost ashamed to admit may be the most plausible theory surrounding the death of Kathleen: she was murdered by an owl.
In 2008, Larry Pollard, an attorney and neighbor of the Petersons, proposed what has come to be known as the “Owl Theory.” He believes Kathleen suffered injuries from an owl attack that led to her death at the bottom of the stairwell.
If you watched the documentary, you’ll recall the struggle between prosecutors and the defense to explain the large lacerations to Kathleen’s scalp without any associated skull fracture. The prosecution argued Michael had beaten Kathleen over the head with a blow poke while the defense claimed she sustained this injuries during an accidental fall down the stairs. Pollard proposes a third explanation by stating that these lacerations actually occurred from an owl swooping down onto and attacking Kathleen on that fateful evening of December 9, 2001.
According to Pollard, Kathleen was attacked by an owl (not an uncommon occurrence, apparently) as she arranged reindeer Christmas decorations outside. He believes the owl may have mistaken the decorations as prey, leading it to initiate the assault. Kathleen ran into the house to take cover, attempted to go up the stairs, but fell backward down them. He suggests that in her drunken, injured and partially conscious state, she tried to get up several times, causing the infamous blood splatter on the walls of the stairwell.
As crazy as this may seem, maybe it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. According to the SBI report, Kathleen actually had a microscopic feather and sliver of wood from a tree limb in her hand, along with her own hair, when they examined her body. Assuming they had nothing to do with her death, examiners disregarded these findings.
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the director of ‘The Staircase,’ also views the owl theory as being a possibility. According to Lestrade, “The first time I heard about the owl theory, I really laughed. But when I started looking at it and I met with Larry Pollard… It might be the more plausible explanation. How can you explain all the cuts and lacerations and the absence of fractures? When you start thinking about the owl theory, and the kind of injuries she had, you start thinking maybe there is something there.”
Even Michael Peterson’s lead defense attorney, David Rudolf, said the following regarding the owl theory: “When you step back and really start getting familiar with the fact that there have been literally scores if not hundreds of documented instances of owl attacking the heads of people… and you look at the wounds and you compare them with the talons of an owl, it starts having some real credibility.”
The theory has also been backed up by multiple expert witnesses. University of Minnesota professor of veterinary medicine Dr. Patrick T. Redig, who stated such an attack is “entirely within the behavioural repertoire of large owls.” Kate P. Davis, director of Raptors of the Rockies, reported that the lacerations “look very much like those made by a raptor’s talons, especially if she had forcibly torn the bird from the back of her head.” Davis goes on to say this would also explain why Kathleen’s body presented with her hand holding clumps of her hair that also contained the feather and wood sliver.
And, as I stated above, owl attacks are not uncommon, especially in Durham. On NBC’s Dateline episode of the Peterson case, they interviewed a man who was once attacked by an owl. He stated the attack felt like being hit with a baseball bat, and that he bled so much he thought he had lost his eye.
If you are interested in learning more about Pollard’s owl theory, I highly recommend listening to episode 9 of the podcast Beyond Reasonable Doubt?. The episode is only 17 minutes long but thoroughly explores this bizarre yet surprisingly plausible theory.
All in all, it appears as though the only person who knows what happened in the stairwell the night of December 9, 2011 is buried beneath a beautiful rose bush in Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery. If only walls could talk — what would they say?