This week’s True Crime 101 explains why some believe a man was incorrectly imprisoned for over eight years for murder of his wife and that the perpetrator of was in fact a feathered bird of prey.
Don’t be alarmed, this is Owl Theory.
Kathleen Peterson is found dead by paramedics at the bottom of the staircase of the home she shared with her husband Micheal Peterson in Durham, North Carolina on 9 December 2001. Michael frantically calls 911. He claimed the couple had been outside, by the pool, where they had spent the night drinking wine and relaxing. Kathleen had headed in and when Micheal entered the house a little later – around 2am – he found her at the bottom the stairs, unconscious and bloody but still breathing. He claimed she had potentially fallen down roughly 15 or 20 steps.
Kathleen’s autopsy confirmed that she had died from blood loss 90 minutes to two hours after sustaining injuries which included a fracture of the thyroid neck cartilage and seven lacerations to the top and back of her head. These lacerations were thought to be caused by blunt force trauma, yet Kathleen’s skull was not fractured and she had not suffered any brain damage. A toxicology report showed she had a blood alcohol level of 0.07% – which, in the UK, Canada and US, is just under the alcohol limit for drink driving which stands at 0.08%. At 0.07% you would probably be impaired – self control and caution are reduced and your judgment, reasoning and memory is impacted.
Foul play was suspected. Forensic pathologist, Deborah Radisch, noted the injuries were consistent with death by homicide and there was a subsequent investigation and trial. In October 2003 after one of the longest trials in North Carolina history, Micheal was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life without possibility of parole as the jury believed the attack was pre-meditated.
The investigation, trial, subsequent appeal and plea bargain, is covered by the Netflix documentary “The Staircase”. A lot of information is provided in the documentary including the death of a family friend on a staircase in Germany, the subsequent adoption of that friend’s two children, Micheal’s potential extra-marital affairs with men, and a whole lot of blood splatter analysis.
The documentary team follow Peterson’s legal team and Micheal himself through preparing for and during the trial and produced eight episodes that were released in 2005. Two further episodes look at his appeal and his release from prison in 2011 after a judge ruled that blood evidence from one of the prosecution’s key witnesses was misleading. Peterson was granted a new trial but the last three episodes follow the submission of the Alford plea to avoid retrial, and these episodes were released in 2018. Some people think the documentary is bias – one of the editors was romantically involved with Peterson during filming.
In an Alford Plea, the criminal defendant does not admit the act, but admits that the prosecution could likely prove the charge. The court will pronounce the defendant guilty. The defendant may plead guilty yet not admit all the facts that comprise the crime.
Without a confession or a real conclusion to this matter there are four theories on how Kathleen died that night:
- She fell down the stairs – which is the defence’s argument.
- Michael beat Kathleen to death in the stairway – which was the prosecution’s argument.
- An intruder assaulted Kathleen – Micheal’s defence attorneys argued that this could not be ruled out. The Petersons had been the victims multiple vehicle property crimes.
- An owl did it.
Before you think that last point could 100% not have happened, you need to hear us out.
T Lawrence Pollard, is a lawyer who lived in Durham, near the Petersons. He didn’t have any involvement in the trial but theorised that Kathleen Peterson was in fact attacked by an owl.
Now, I know what you are thinking and we thought the same when we first heard of owl theory. We thought it was preposterous. An owl did it? This is ridiculous.
But, our mate T Lawrence Pollard, might be on to something. He theorised that an owl could have attacked Kathleen, and this owl’s talons left deep gashes in the back of her head, consistent with the injuries she sustained. Two of the seven lacerations look like tridents. Millie Hersner, a Durham based attorney, who is a proponent of Owl Theory, notes that the “the expert witness who said that it was blunt force trauma, could not explain how many blows to the head would be made by this trident form”.
There were also microscopic feathers and a sliver of tree bark found in her left hand, and cedar needles found on her body. She also had some of her own hair in her hands – 38 hairs in one hand, 25 hairs in the other which could be argued to be consistent with trying to disentangle an owl from your hair. Her hair was a long bob, just touching the tops of her shoulders. If she had been attacked by her husband or an intruder, would she more likely have had someone else’s hair in her hands or have her own hair in her hands?
Pollard believes she was attacked outside, and stumbled inside, which would account for the blood found in the walkway and near the front door.
The executive director, Kate Davis, of an organisation called “Raptors of the Rockies” conducted an experiment using one the organisation’s barred owls – they covered a metal salad bowl in clay and the owl did create deep gashes that were similar to those suffered by Kathleen. Barred owls are prevalent in the area when Kathleen and Micheal Peterson lived, they can attack humans, and do have these tiny microscopic feathers which start on their legs and go all the way down to their talons. And their talons are BIG.
Joe Bargmann, a reporter and bird enthusiast, notes that raptors will dive bomb when feeling threatened, will target the head, and could definitely cause blunt force trauma. Further a victim of a barred owl attack noted that it was similar to taking a baseball bat to the head.
In March 2017, David Rudolf – Peterson’s lead defence attorney, filed a motion to obtain the feathers found in Kathleen’s left hand but there was no funding available to have them tested.
Michael Peterson on Wikipedia
Staircase Murder Theories on Popsugar
Typical BAC Limits Around the World on BacTrack
Most Read Stories for June 2018 on Wired.com
Netflix short on Owl Theory on Youtube
Inside Edition – Is an owl to blame for mysterious death in Netflix series
Featured image: Barred Owl (Strix varia) – Whitby, Ontario (Canada) by Mdf