true crime

All The Staircase Murder Theories, Explained

Michael Peterson, an owl.
Michael Peterson, an owl. Photo: Getty Images

On Friday, Netflix is bringing back one of the most intriguing, bizarre murder cases of the century: the death of Kathleen Peterson.

In the very early hours one December morning in 2001, the 48-year-old business executive was found dead in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in her North Carolina home. Her second husband, novelist Michael Peterson, was arrested shortly after his wife’s death, convicted of her murder, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In 2011, after a blood analyst’s testimony was discovered to be faulty, Peterson was granted a new trial. By 2017, he decided to enter an Alford plea, a guilty plea which the defendant asserts innocence but acknowledges there’s enough evidence to convict. He was granted time served and, today, Michael Peterson, now 74, is a free man.

The case garnered widespread attention, in part, because of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s remarkable true-crime docuseries The Staircase, which Netflix will be airing in full, along with three brand-new installments. (While we’re here, let’s take a moment to reflect on the fact that Peterson went on to freaking date the series’ editor for a while. I know!)

To this day, we still don’t really know how Kathleen Peterson met her end at the bottom of those stairs. But before the new episodes air, here’s a refresher on the main theories. Spoilers ahead, including one very important one involving an owl.

Theory 1: Kathleen just fell down the stairs.

Obviously, this is what Michael Peterson’s defense team went with. Peterson said that he and his wife had spent the night drinking wine and then relaxing by their pool; Kathleen then opted to go inside while he stayed outside for some time longer. At 2:40 a.m. he frantically called 911, tearfully telling the dispatcher that he had found his wife at the bottom of “15, 20” stairs. Peterson said that she likely tripped after mixing booze with Valium.

Peterson also frequently wrote articles for his local newspaper, the Durham Herald-Sun, that were critical of the police and the district attorney, leading him to claim that they were especially biased against him for that reason.

Plausibility (on a scale from 0 to 10): 2
Amount Michael Peterson wants us to believe this: 10
Owls: 0

That all still wouldn’t explain the sheer bloodiness of the scene, though. Which brings us to …

Theory 2: Michael killed her.

In many ways, this does appear to be one of the most blatant “the husband did it” crimes in a genre absolutely rife with such cases. A massive life insurance payout? Check. ($1.4 million, to be exact.) The last person to see her alive? Check. Then there were the seven unexplained lacerations on the back of her head and the massive blood loss, neither of which would coincide with simply falling down a set of stairs. The prosecution argued that Peterson had beaten her to death, possibly with a missing fireplace blow-poke — an instrument that was later discovered and presented in court without any dents.

And in one of the case’s major twists, it was revealed that Peterson was bisexual and sleeping with men — including an ongoing affair with a male escort — outside of his marriage. It was something he claimed Kathleen knew and accepted, and that the prosecutors believed she had only recently discovered and confronted him about.

Casting further suspicion on Peterson was the case of Elizabeth Ratliff, an old close friend of his (he even adopted her children after she passed). She had been found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her house years before — and when her body was exhumed during his trial, a new autopsy marked her cause of death as a homicide too.

Plausibility: 8
The-husband-did-itness: 10
Owls: Still 0

Theory 3: An owl did it.

Finally, we have arrived at the Owl Theory, my personal favorite hypothesis in any murder case ever. For this hootdunit (I will not apologize), let us turn to the experts at the Audubon Society because They Know Birds. In 2009, a second look at the evidence discovered that Kathleen had been found with feathers in her hands and hair, while the lacerations on her head appeared as if they could’ve been inflicted by an owl’s talons. Thus the owl theory was born: a Barred Owl swooped in and attacked Kathleen outside of the house, and she fell upon coming inside. “An owl strike can definitely cause blunt force trauma,” Audubon writes. “What’s more, the raptors are known to dive-bomb humans when they feel threatened, almost always targeting the head.” Why would the owl commit such a heinous act, though? For this, I present my own, still scientifically uncertified, theory: The owl was having an affair with Michael Peterson and became jealous. And then the tiny flying murderer took off into the night, gone forever.

Plausibility: 5
Bad press for birds: 11
Owls: At least 1

All The Staircase Murder Theories, Explained