Every true true-crime enthusiast knows The Staircase. The documentary series that originally aired in 2004 takes audiences inside the home, family discussions, and legal defense of Michael Peterson, who was accused of brutally murdering his wife Kathleen at the foot of a staircase. Documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade began shooting shortly after Peterson’s indictment. And over the years, he has added to the series twice. In 2013, new episodes followed the release and retrial of Peterson, pending corruption in the original investigation. And on June 8th, three new episodes are coming to Netflix, along with the 10 that preceded them.
The series is a stern affair that gives Peterson ample time to plead his innocence. But one theory that might exonerate him is determinedly ignored, though it is a favorite among true crime fans. Not because it’s likely, but more because it’s so outlandish. But first, a little bit of background.
Kathleen Peterson was a successful 48-year-old executive whose life ended abruptly on December 9, 2001, when she was found bruised and bleeding at the foot of the stairs of her stately historic home in Durham, North Carolina. Upon first glance, one might assume she’d taken a fatal tumble down the 15 or 20 stairs. But the blood that was splashed along the walls and tracked across the floor, the blood on her feet, and the blood and hair clump in her hand spoke to something more violent and vicious. The coroner’s office would quickly determine the cause of death to be blunt force trauma to the back right of her head, from an object they imagined was spiked like a fireplace poker. And all of this meant trouble for her husband Michael, who claimed to have come upon her bleeding out and unconscious, with no idea what happened to his wife.
A novelist who’d drawn inspiration from his service in the Marines during the Vietnam War, Michael painted a dreamy yet disturbing picture of the last time he saw his wife. He recounted to the police that the pair had spent the night sipping wine poolside, but that Kathleen had turned in before him. Presumably, he fell asleep out near the pool, because around 3AM as he headed to the bedroom, he was shocked to find her crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, blood everywhere.
His frantic call to 911 can be heard in “Animal Instincts,” the first episode of the podcast Criminal. Breathless, he yelps his address and tells the dispatcher, “My wife had an accident! She’s still breathing. She fell down the stairs.” He begs for an ambulance to be sent immediately, but Kathleen will not be rescued.
When a spouse dies, their partner is typically looked at as a prime suspect. And Michael had some strikes against him out the gate. For one thing, the coroner determined this was no accident, but that she had died by an attack. Michael had access to his wife. And some say he had motive, as he’d been cheating on Kathleen, and her life insurance policy could bring $1.5 million his way. The prosecution painted Peterson as a duplicitous cad who killed his wife to fund a new life. He would be convicted, but one person barely connected to the matter felt justice had not been done because a tiny piece of evidence had gone ignored: an owl feather.
Lawyer Larry Pollard was not involved in the trial, but was following the case quite closely, in part because the Petersons were his next-door neighbors. Pollard is no owl expert or even a birdwatcher. But looking over the public files on the case—out of morbid curiosity perhaps—he saw that a microscopic owl feather had been found in the clump of bloody hair that Kathleen was clasping when she died. So began a theory some may think is bird-brained.
What if Michael Peterson was telling the truth? What if—despite their marital troubles, that big life insurance check, and his problematic past that included another dead woman found in a stairwell—he had just slept through an owl attacking his wife, its talons snatching at her scalp like as if it were a scurrying mouse? What if on her way into the house, his wife was clipped by an owl on the hunt? In her shock, she reached an exploratory hand up to her scalp and was shocked to find it wet with blood. Perhaps she raced into the house to apply first aid. This would explain the blood tracked across the floor to the stairs, and the clump of blood, hair, and single teeny owl feather found in her hand. But, losing too much blood from this predatory blow to her skull, she passed out on her way up the stairs and fell where her husband would find her.
It sounds absurd of course, but in the Criminal ep, Pollard warns people to remember, “Don’t be misled to believe these are sweet songbirds that can’t hurt you. They can hurt you.” The lawyer endured laughs from the police and the press when he proposed this theory. But he pushed ahead. Two more owl feathers were found on Kathleen’s person, as well as pine needles on her hand that could suggest she had fallen outside before she made it indoors. Pollard began reading up on owl strikes on humans, and found most often—90% of the time in fact—owls aim for the head, and more specifically the right back section of the head, which is where Kathleen was fatally struck.
Speaking to the Audubon Society about the Owl Theory in 2016, Michael Peterson’s defense attorney Mary Jude Darrow, said, “When you look at her injuries, they do appear consistent with being made by an owl’s talons. But I would hate to risk my client’s life or future on that argument.”
There’s a tragic whimsy to The Owl Theory that’s long fascinated murderinos (true crime fans). I suspect because it’s almost enchanting to imagine Kathleen’s death as a fluke than as another case where a woman was betrayed and slain by the partner who should have loved her most. But it’s also incredibly unlikely. So to discover who is to blame for Kathleen’s untimely demise, we’re left to listen once more to her could-be killer.
The Staircase comes to Netflix with all-new episodes June 8th.