If you're new to The Staircase — the long-running true crime docu-series that first premiered in 2004 but is now available on Netflix — hooboy, are you in for a treat.
Long before The Jinx and Making a Murderer helped usher in a new era of true crime obsession, The Staircase changed the game when Oscar winner Jean-Xavier de Lestrade began tailing novelist Michael Peterson only weeks after Peterson's wife Kathleen was found dead at the bottom of the staircase of their home in December 2001. Providing viewers unprecedented access to Peterson, his family and defense team, the original eight-part series debuted in 2004 and followed Peterson from shortly after his frantic 911 call reporting Kathleen's bloodied body through standing trial for her murder and ultimately being convicted in 2003, receiving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Peterson always maintained his innocence, but when it was revealed that a close female friend of his was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in Germany years prior with startlingly similar injuries to Kathleen, it seemed too much of a coincidence for many to buy his story that his wife must have just slipped down the stairs and died accidentally. The case appeared to be closed after Peterson's conviction, but five years ago The Staircase was updated with two new episodes which detailed a surprising turn in Peterson's case.
After serving eight years in prison, Peterson was released on parole in 2011 when the testimony of one of the prosecution's key witnesses, forensic investigator Duane Deaver, came under question. Now, the entire series — including three new episodes detailing Peterson facing down a potential second trial — is coming to Netflix, bringing to a close one of the most engrossing and provocative true crime docu-series ever made.
But if you only watch the series and haven't done deep dives on the internet about alternative theories for Kathleen's murder, then you're missing out on one of the wildest aspects of an already wild case. Because if you ask Staircase fans for their ideas on Kathleen's cause of death if Peterson didn't do it and she didn't just fall down the stairs, there's a good chance they'll throw out this shocking theory: maybe an owl did it.
Yes, an owl. A nocturnal bird typified by their flexible necks and their large, round eyes. It's unclear just how many people who discuss The Owl Theory take it seriously as a viable alternative and how many people just like to imagine a world in which an owl was behind such a complex, emotionally-wrought murder case. Either way, it's impossible to fully understand or appreciate The Staircase without discussing the controversial theory that an owl killed Kathleen, as outlandish as that might sound.
The Owl Theory began when Peterson's neighbor, attorney Larry Pollard, looked at Kathleen's autopsy report, in which it was revealed that her left hand was clutching clumps of her own hair as well as three small feathers, similar to feathers which cover owl feet. In addition, Pollard said that the seven lacerations on Kathleen's head didn't suggest a fireplace blow poke, which was identified as the likely murder weapon by the prosecution, but that they were inflicted by owl talons.
The suspected owl, an adult barred owl, weighs on average between one and two-and-a-half pounds and can fly at speeds of up to 40 miles an hour. There's no doubt that if a barred owl were to have attacked Kathleen, it would have been able to cause significant blunt force trauma.There are also numerous examples of barred owls attacking humans and they most often aim for the head during these attacks, matching up with where Kathleen was injured.
"The lacerations on Mrs. Peterson's scalp 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," Kate P. Davis, executive director of Raptors of the Rockies, previously said in an affadavit. "That would explain the feathers found in her hand and the many hairs pulled out by the root ball, broken or cut. The size and configuration of the lacerations could certainly indicate the feet of a Barred Owl."
Per Pollard's theory, an owl may have attacked Kathleen in the house's front yard, out of earshot of Peterson. Dazed, she then could have entered the house, explaining the blood found on the front steps, and climbed the stairs only to fall backwards or collapse once she reached the top of the staircase, causing her to tumble to her death. Pollard also points to pine needles found on Kathleen's hands as further evidence of an owl attack, claiming the needles imply that Kathleen fell outside the house before making it indoors.
"The other wounds that are on her body seem to give a compelling case to this having been done by an owl," Pollard reportedly told Raleigh news station WRAL in 2016. "The injuries to the eyes, and the injuries to the elbows, and the little pock marks 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."
Based on all this, The Owl Theory is definitely possible, but is it plausible? According to one of Peterson's defense attorneys, Mary Jude Darrow, yes. But that doesn't mean this theory would ever make a strong defense in court. "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," Darrow told the Audubon Society in 2016.
In the new installments of The Staircase, one of Peterson's original attorneys David Rudolf also emphasizes that The Owl Theory, while not outside the realm of possibility, isn't high on his list of likely causes of death. "If you ask me what's the most likely scenario? I'd say it's a fall," Rudolf says in the series' penultimate episode. "Can I rule out that it's an intruder? I can't. No one can. You can say there's no evidence of that, but it's well known that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so we don't know. Can I say 100 percent that it wasn't some raptor who flew down and inflicted those scalp wounds without causing a skull fracture or any brain injury? I can't say one way or another."
While the evidence of The Owl Theory is fascinating to dig into, for many, it just isn't enough to counter the mountain of evidence that suggests Peterson did it. In addition to the similar death of the woman in Germany, the prosecution painted a picture of Peterson as a duplicitous husband who cheated on his wife with male sex workers and killed her in order to get her $1.5 million life insurance policy after she found out about his affairs.
But as absurd as The Owl Theory sounds, there is also a bit of a wish fulfillment aspect to it because it gives true crime fans something they rarely get: a conclusion to the case that doesn't remind you of the worst in humanity. If you choose to believe The Owl Theory, you're also choosing to believe Peterson's story that he loved his wife despite their marital troubles and that he never would have harmed her. You're choosing to believe that hey, maybe just this once, the husband didn't do it. But you're also naming an owl as the killer behind one of the most notorious true crime cases in recent memory which is, at the end of the day, never going to fly in any court of law or serious debate. Pun fully intended.
The Staircase is available to stream in its entirely on Netflix now.