The unusual death of Kathleen Peterson in her home in Durham, North Carolina has attracted a tremendous amount of media attention since it occurred in December, 2001. It was first brought to international prominence by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's docuseries The Staircase, released in 2004. It was later rereleased in extended form on Netflix. A more recent drama miniseries (also confusingly titled The Staircase) has once again brought the case into the public eye.
The reason the case remains so mysterious is that it is extremely difficult to explain how Kathleen actually died. She was found at the bottom of a staircase with her blood smeared and splattered all over the walls of the stairwell. Her head was sliced to shreds. Her husband Michael claimed he was beside the pool the whole time. Several theories have been put forward.
The police believed that Kathleen had been beaten to death with a weapon: a brass fireplace blow poke. Michael Peterson argued that his wife must have fallen on the steps, striking her head against their edges and bleeding out while he remained outside the house.
But easily the strangest theory of all, Larry Pollard, a neighbor of the Petersons, argued that Kathleen had been attacked by an owl. She ran inside after the attack before fainting in the stairwell and bleeding to death.
Larry's incredible theory is the topic of my new book DEATH BY TALONS: Did An Owl 'Murder' Kathleen Peterson. In it, I extend upon Larry's theory, arguing not only that a bird of prey was involved in Kathleen's death but 1. It made its way inside the house and 2. The authorities knew of this fact.
Larry's owl theory has received much mockery and ridicule, and I expect my own theory to get much much more, but is the theory of a life-threatening bird attack really so unbelievable?
To answer this question, we really need to understand how powerful and ferocious owls can be. And, for the theory to get any real support, we need to look at prior owl attacks on humans. We need to investigate their frequency and the sorts of injuries that are typically inflicted.
Owl attacks on humans happen every single year in North America. The injuries are often serious and sometimes even life-threatening to their victims. While most walk away with only a deep slice or two to the scalp, many victims have lost eyes or had arteries gashed open. Hospitalization is far from unheard of. Permanent disfigurements or injuries are not unknown. And incredibly, there has been at least one prior fatal owl attack. A trucker named Robert Schmidt was killed by an owl in 1985.
Schmidt's death mystified investigators at the time. He had been found dead on a California roadside, just outside the small settlement of Los Banos. His big rig was still purring over in idle, a few hundred yards from his body. It had a deep dent in the hood. His body was covered in a series of what the medical examiner later called "chicken scratches". His face and chest bore the majority of the wounds.
Given that Schmidt had no broken bones or bruises, and given that all his injuries were all lacerations or tiny needle-like puncture wounds, the best theory available was that he was the victim of an animal attack. Given the time of his death (after midnight), it was most likely an owl. For reasons that are no longer clear, authorities even felt they could pin down the precise breed of bird: a common barn owl.
The dent in his truck's hood and the distance between his body and the vehicle altogether suggested that he had struck an owl as he travelled back to his native San Jose, some time after midnight. It was speculated that he had pulled over and gone to retrieve the poor creature to bring it to some kind of shelter. Schmidt was well-known by friends and family as a serious animal lover.
Although the owl hypothesis was the best theory the county coroner, Joe Sabo, had to work with, he found it plainly implausible. To get extra input, he conferred with ornithologists at the Fresno Zoo, trying to gather more information about owl attacks. The ornithologists were adamant that there was nothing poisonous about an owl's scratches. The coroner then asked whether Schmidt's blood could be tested for rattlesnake venom. He seemed to believe that while Schmidt tussled with the owl, he may also have trodden on a rattlesnake. But there was no way to test the blood. And besides, there was no other indication of a snake’s involvement.
The coroner eventually concluded that Schmidt had died from shock after an owl attack. This doesn't mean that Schmidt was terrified or frightened to death. This just means that the owl attack caused a sudden lack of blood flow to Schmidt's brain. Indeed, shock is ultimately the medical reason underlying every human being's death. We all die from shock.
So, surprising as it may seem, owls can kill. Robert Schmidt was a big man: Nearly 6 ½ feet tall, 35 years old, strong, healthy, and with no underlying medical conditions.
And if it could happen to Schmidt, then it could have happened to Kathleen. A fatal attack has at least one historical precedent.