How did Michael Peterson's wife Kathleen Peterson die? Death and owl theory explored ahead of Colin Firth's The Staircase 

Michael Peterson and his wife Kathleen (Image via Raleigh News and Observer)
Michael Peterson and his wife Kathleen (Image via Raleigh News and Observer)

The trial of Michael Peterson in the death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson, saw untold twists and turns, and the new HBO miniseries The Staircase, starring Colin Firth as Michael and Toni Collette as Kathleen, will blow the whole incident wide open again.

Kathleen Peterson was Michael's second wife. Before marrying her, Michael was married to Patricia but he divorced her in 1987. He met Kathleen, who was a telecoms executive, while he was still married to Patricia. The couple moved in together in 1989, and married in 1997.


All about Kathleen Peterson's death

On December 9, 2001, Kathleen Peterson passed away after suffering a heavy injury to the head from falling down a staircase. Michael Peterson was present at the time of the incident and had called 911 saying he had found her unconscious in their home in Durham.

According to him, the couple was spending time by their pool that evening when Kathleen headed inside while he stayed out to smoke a pipe. When he came inside, he found Kathleen splayed out on the floor unconscious on the landing of the staircase. Investigations began and the incident was soon considered a case of homicide.

Peterson claimed that Kathleen had stumbled down the stairs under the influence of alcohol and Valium, but the toxicology report refuted his claims. A bottle of wine and two glasses were laid out in the kitchen, but Kathleen’s fingerprints were on found on none.

Shortly after, the medical examiner found that Kathleen was bludgeoned to death and suffered multiple lacerations to her scalp. The blood on her head had dried, implying she was left in that predicament for some time. Peterson, who was the only other person present in the house at the time, became the prime suspect.

In the trial that proceeded, Michael was found guilty of murdering his wife by pushing her down the stairs when Kathleen discovered more than 2,000 pictures of naked men and emails between Michael and a male escort on his computer. On October, 2003 the jury found Michael guilty and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.


Owl Theory explored

Many possible theories were explored following the murder, but one bizarre and not very well known one was the owl theory. The theory was put forward by a neighbor who claimed that Kathleen Peterson could have been attacked by an owl which led to her accidental death.

Owls were a menace in that area and had been attacking joggers. That could be a viable explanation.

Further investigations into the crime scene revealed that Kathleen Peterson was holding clumps of her own hair in which microscopic feathers, wood splinters and cedar needles were found.

Even the lacerations to Kathleen's head appeared to be shaped like a trident resembling the feet of a bird which may have been an owl. It was theorized that Kathleen was attacked by an owl outside as blood was found outside too and she stumbled and was disoriented which led to an accident.


Catch The Staircase on HBO Max this May 5, 2022, to learn more about the Peterson case.

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Edited by Somava