Did An Owl Commit The Michael Peterson 'Staircase Murder'?
DURHAM COUNTY, NC — For years, Michael Iver Peterson lived a respected, colorful life as an esteemed novelist and decorated Vietnam War veteran who once ran for mayor of his beloved city of Durham. More, however, would be revealed — to increasingly head-spinning results.
First off, according to the book ‘Till Death Do Us Part: Love, Marriage, and the Mind of the Killer Spouse by Robi Ludwig and Matt Birkbeck, Peterson had to admit he exaggerated the circumstances under which he won a Purple Heart. Later, prosecutors alleged that he was bisexual and that he’d had affairs while married to his second wife, Kathleen Peterson.
Thus, when Kathleen turned up with her head and neck mangled, lying dead at the bottom of some stairs in 2001, the police naturally arrested Michael as her killer, believing he acted in order to protect his many secrets. The case became well known as “The Staircase Murder.”
In 2003, a jury found Michael Peterson guilty after which a judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. From there, 14 years of legal proceedings followed, with Peterson ultimately entering an Alford Plea and walking free from jail in 2017.
In his wake, Peterson left numerous unanswered questions and possible speculations as to who then, if not him, killed Kathleen. The wildest, and most weirdly credible, has come to be known as the ” Owl Theory.”
The Owl Theory initially took flight in 2009 while Michael Peterson was lobbying for a new trial. T. Lawrence Pollard, an attorney who had lived near the Petersons, decided to take a look through the court papers and was struck immediately by the mention of a feather being found on Kathleen’s broken, torn-up body.
Pollard had not worked the original case, but he knew the area well and, as such, he knew what havoc the local winged wildlife could be capable of inflicting — especially the owls. Pollard proposed that an owl could have attacked Kathleen and severely wounded her, causing her fatal tumble.
Initially, as one might expect, Pollard’s idea met with mockery. In short order, though, the Owl Theory grew wings and proved to be airborne.
Residents and authorities alike acknowledged that owl attacks routinely happened in the Petersons’ neighborhood. From there, experts joined in the chorus of proposing that The Staircase Murder could, in fact, be a case of “hoot done it.”
Some of Kathleen’s hair had been torn out by the roots and, in it, examiners found microscopic owl feathers, a tree limb splinter, and cedar needles. Her scalp wounds were shaped like marks from predatory bird talons. Blood smears and spatter patterns indicated she bled outside first, prior to slamming a door shut and then falling down the steps.
Among the animal experts Pollard consulted were Dr. Patrick T. Retig, a University of Minnesota professor of veterinary medicine, and Kate Davis, a Montana-based wildlife authority who runs Raptors of the Rockies. Both Retig and Davis said the damage looked, in particular, like it may have come courtesy of a barred owl — a creature common to the Peterson’s residential area.
In fact, barred owls had previously been cited in attacks on humans around the Durham suburbs, including joggers who were considerably larger than the 120-pound Kathleen.
After examining Kathleen’s medical records, Dr. Patrick T. Retig officially wrote:
“In my professional opinion, the hypothesized attack to the face and back of the head resulting in the various punctures and lacerations visible in the autopsy photographs is entirely within the behavioral repertoire of large owls.”
While laying out the Owl Theory for a local TV station, Pollard described how Kathleen had been drinking wine with her husband outside and said:
“The other wounds that are on her body seem to give a compelling case to this having been done by an owl. The injuries to the eyes, and the injuries to the elbows, and the little pockmarks on her wrists, here and here, all are consistent with her having her hands over her head, holding onto her hair because something is grasping that hair.”
Raptor specialist Kate Davis also endorsed the owl angle, but pointed out:
“The owl didn’t kill Kathleen Peterson. The owl just knocked her in the head. She would have been fine if she’d gone up and crawled into bed and slept it off.”
Regardless, the Owl Theory did not win Michael Peterson a new trial. It did, however, catch on in the popular consciousness and contribute to the growing public interest in the Staircase Murder.
As mentioned, Michael Peterson was convicted of murdering Kathleen Peterson, but his conviction was overturned in 2011. In 2017, on the eve of a new trial, Peterson entered an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter.
For more on Michael Peterson, watch Investigation Discovery’s An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase on ID GO now!