What Is ‘The Owl Theory’ From ‘The Staircase’ Case?

The mind-boggling case of Michael Peterson‘s wife Kathleen’s death is about to get a whole new look on HBO. A dramatization of the case, which has been famously dubbed “The Staircase” over the years thanks to a French documentary filmmaker’s groundbreaking work, will come to life in HBO’s aptly named The Staircase series, which airs this spring. Of course, many people are aware of the case and the conviction of Michael Peterson, but not many people are aware of the bizarre (but also not super far-fetched) theory known as The Owl Theory.

For context: in 2001, Peterson called 911 after allegedly finding his wife Kathleen dead at the bottom of the stairs in their home. Kathleen was covered in blood and her body was mangled, which caused many to believe her death was not an accident. The investigation brought about many twists and turns, mostly due to the mishandling of the case and the crime scene itself by authorities. Eventually, Peterson was tried for murder amid rumors of an unhappy marriage and a bad temper. He was convicted in 2003 to life in prison for her murder, and he has since been released after a plea bargain, and maintains his innocence. But if he didn’t do it, who did?

Here comes the seemingly absurd theory that actually could be plausible: an owl did it.

The Owl Theory is actually backed by some experts, who think that the night went as follows: Kathleen was sitting outside by the pool drinking, when a barred owl attacked Kathleen, leaving talon marks on her skull (which were found in the autopsy). A bleeding and confused Kathleen rushed inside, which is why blood was found on the door, and eventually bled out at the bottom of the stairs where her husband found her. Authorities actually found pine needles and owl feathers in her hair when they first examined the body, but nobody thought to investigate further, despite the fact that owl attacks are not uncommon in the area of North Carolina where the Petersons lived.

In a post on his website, David Rudolf, Michael Peterson’s lead attorney during his original murder trial, laid out some of the main aspects lending credence to this theory.

— Barred owls were living in the woods by the Peterson house
— Barred owls are aggressive and can be dangerous, as explained in: https://www.audubon.org/news/was-owl-real-culprit-peterson-murder-mystery.
— Barred owls have attacked people on numerous occasions
— There were drops of blood on the outside walkway leading to the front door of the house, as shown in police photos
— There was a large smear of blood on the outside of the front door frame as shown in police photos
— At least two of the wounds on Kathleen Peterson’s scalp are in the shape of the talons of a barred owl, as shown on autopsy photos
— The tiny wounds on Kathleen’s face are consistent with the tip of an owl’s beak
— A feather was found on Kathleen Peterson’s body
— A twig was found in dried blood on Kathleen Peterson’s body
— There were numerous strands of Kathleen Peterson’s head hair, which the roots indicated had been pulled out (not cut), found in dried blood on her hands
— Kathleen’s head injuries are not consistent with her having been beaten by a blunt object or on a stair, as she had no brain injury or swelling, no subdural hematoma, and no skull fracture.

Sure, the theory kind of sounds like something out of a Final Destination movie, but the evidence is there, despite how seemingly absurd it is. The theory was dismissed by police, which is why it was never taken further in the investigation.

We will have to wait to see HBO’s take on the story, but according to director Antonio Campos, they took the owl theory “as seriously as any other theory.”