The Murder of Kathleen Peterson

After a month-long blogging hiatus (thanks, spring break!), we’re back with a fresh case that’s produced one of the weirdest – but actually plausible – theories on whodunnit.

Before we get into investigation mode, I also have to give a shoutout to Criminal, a podcast produced in my own hometown (!) that first alerted me to this case (and turned me on to true-crime podcasts). You can listen to their episode on the case here.

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A live look at writing this week’s blog

THE CASE

The year was 2001. Kathleen Peterson, a rising executive with telecommunications company Nortel, and her novelist husband Michael lived in a quiet neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina.

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Michael and Kathleen Peterson, from the Spotlight on Law blog.

The Petersons’ House

On the night of December 9th, 9-11 operators in Durham received a panicked call from Michael Peterson, claiming that his wife had fallen down the stairs in their home and was unconscious. Kathleen died from her injuries later the next day.

Michael originally told police that his wife had likely fallen due to consuming a mix of alcohol and valium, which she was taking to calm nerves about an ongoing corporate restructuring in her company. However, the amount of blood at the scene immediately raised officers’ suspicions of foul play. Additionally, the autopsy showed that Kathleen had multiple lacerations to the back of her skull, which many officials involved with the case believed were inconsistent with the claim that she fell down the stairs.

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A lawyer points out Kathleen’s injuries. Photo from NBC News.

While the autopsy did show that Kathleen’s blood alcohol content level was .07, almost the legal limit, other questions emerged surrounding Michael’s potential involvement in his wife’s death. Although this case has never been definitively solved, there are two prevailing theories on this case that we’ll explore in this post – either that Michael, or an owl, killed Kathleen.

THEORY 1: MICHAEL DID IT

As the only other person in the house on the night of Kathleen’s death, Michael was immediately considered the prime suspect for her murder. In addition to the autopsy’s results suggesting homicidal blunt force trauma, the more investigators uncovered about Michael Peterson, the less perfect his relationship with Kathleen appeared to be.

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Michael Peterson at trial, from ABC News.

The original theory as to why Michael killed his wife was that he wanted to cash in on Kathleen’s life insurance policy. While this argument did poorly in Michael’s first trial, the investigators found a different evidence that dropped a bombshell in later court proceedings.

Michael was bisexual, and according to reports, had an interest in gay porn and hiring a gay escort. Search results from Michael’s computer around the time of Kathleen’s death suggest that this may have been the trigger for the violence. If Kathleen had found the searches, or found out about an affair with a gay lover, it may have led to an argument in which Michael turned violent and beat her.

This is not to mention that Kathleen’s death wasn’t the first time Michael had been semi-involved with a stairs-related “accident“. In 1985, Michael and Kathleen were in Germany having dinner with a friend, Elizabeth Ratliff, and Michael stuck around after dinner to help put Elizabeth’s children to bed. The next morning, the Ratliffs’ housekeeper found Elizabeth dead at the bottom of the stairs, supposedly from falling down them. Elizabeth’s body was exhumed after Kathleen’s death, and was found to have blunt force trauma injuries similar to that on Kathleen.

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A comparison of Elizabeth and Kathleen’s injuries, from the Spotlight on Law blog.

Given all of this evidence, the state made a quite convincing case against Michael Peterson. But – Michael maintains his innocence, and a few other people in the community have another theory that, although wild, has shed enough doubt on Michael’s guilt to win him his freedom.

THEORY 2: AN OWL DID IT

Yes – a flying, hooting, mouse-eating owl.

The theory first came to life when T. Lawrence Pollard, an attorney who actually lived near the Petersons, noticed that the case documents mentioned that a feather was found at the crime scene. Pollard investigated further, finding that Kathleen had clumps of hair in her hands when she died, with one of her hands also having pine needles stuck on it, while the other also held three small feathers.

After becoming obsessed with the case, Pollard developed his own theory for the murder – that it was a Barred Owl, not Michael, that killed Kathleen.

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A Barred Owl, from BarredLife.com.

The theory essentially goes like this: Kathleen was in her home when a Barred Owl, which are common in the Durham area, flew through a window, or through an open front door, and attacked Kathleen’s head, which is where most owls attack humans. The owl’s sharp talons got tangled in Kathleen’s hair, causing Kathleen to panic and try to get the owl off. The panic caused Kathleen to tear at her hair, thus causing her to grab clumps of her own hair and a few of the owl’s feathers. When the animal finally took off, it took huge pieces of Kathleen’s scalp along with it. Buzzed on valium and alcohol, Kathleen tried to climb the stairs to get help for her wounds. She made it to the top of the stairs, but then became weak because of her injuries. Kathleen then fell back down the stairs, where Michael found her.

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Image showing how an owl claw fits in Kathleen Peterson’s wounds. From Reddit.

Although owl attacks are relatively rare, they have happened in the past, and several experts have supported Pollard’s theory, including large-bird experts who have seen attacks before.

I think that this is one case where the truth is really too bizarre to know. While the owl theory seems strange, it seems to explain many anomalies in the case, and how Kathleen’s murder could seemingly occur out of the blue. I’m personally torn on what actually happened to Kathleen, and may never actually figure out exactly what happened.

THE END?

Today, Michael Peterson is a free man.

Originally sentenced to life in prison for his wife’s murder, Michael took on his neighbor Pollard as his attorney, and was successful in showing prosecutorial misconduct in his case as well as other incidences of corruption. Because of this, Michael was granted house arrest in 2014, and a new trial set for May of 2017. However, instead of going to trial, Michael entered an involuntary manslaughter Alford plea, essentially saying that he won’t admit to guilt, but he thinks another jury would find him guilty of the crime. Although listed as a felon, Michael gets to walk free.

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Mike Peterson after his release, from WRAL.

What do you think? Was Michael unfairly jailed for a freak act by a killer owl? Or is he now a killer walking free?

That’s it for this week – remember to check back next week for a new case, and remember, never stop seeking truth.

P.S.: A NOTE ON INFLUENCERS

This week, we were challenged to try to reach out to an influencer that could bump viewership and reach our blog post.

It’s no secret that I get many of my ideas about cases – and the idea for the blog in the first place – from investigative true crime podcasts. So, when I write a post based off of a case I heard on a podcast, I typically try to reach out to that podcast in a tweet when I promote the post myself.

This week, I mentioned the Criminal podcast in my tweet about this week’s post.

Although this tweet hasn’t been published for a full 24 hours as of writing this addendum, it has not gotten any engagement from the podcast’s twitter account, and only has 73 impressions (out of my 700+ Twitter followers).

I’m not sure if it’s time or content that matters in this case, or if Criminal just gets *that* many other engagements from its fans that my tweet just slipped through the cracks. Not to mention, the case I wrote about was from the podcast’s first episode, which was published over two years ago.

However, this hasn’t been my only experience with reaching an influencer.

When I wrote my first post about Tara Grinstead’s case, I tagged the Up and Vanished podcast that brought the case to my attention in my tweet about the post.

The Up and Vanished account liked the tweet, and both the tweet and the post it referenced have been some of my best performing content around this blog.

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In that case, I think not only did the like from the influencer help boost the tweet and the post, it was also timely. I had no idea that a few days after I published the post, there would be a crack in the case and internet searches around Tara’s name would go up, most likely catching my content in there with the results.

So I think there are two takeaways for me from these experiences with influencers:

1 – Make sure the content you are trying to get them to pick up is relevant. It just so happened the entire Up and Vanished podcast was based around one case, while the Criminal podcast had already moved on from the case I wrote about, and would make it less relevant on their page.

2 – Never underestimate the power of SEO and using tags to help boost your content in search results.

2 thoughts on “The Murder of Kathleen Peterson

  1. Hi Lauren! I thought the embedded Google map worked perfectly here. It was so eery to see the Peterson’s house. Although I want to believe the owl theory, I have no doubt that Michael Killed Kathleen, especially after the other woman was found dead with almost identical injuries. I recently finished watching The People vs. O.J. Simpson, and it amazes me how crazy defense theories can become so believable with the right rhetoric. I think it would have been great if you could have included a video clip of Michael or his attorney talking about the theory (based on the picture you used, it appears there was some type of press conference). I also appreciated the lengths you went to to contact influencers on Twitter. Luckily for me, an influencer responded right away–but I did not get any likes/recognition from people outside my network.

    Like

  2. I can’t believe an owl theory was put into question. I agree, there is no doubt that Michael killed Kathleen, especially with the similar death of Elizabeth. Did anyone investigate her death or Michael’s involvement in that? It cannot be a coincidence. And why would he lie about Kathleen being drunk when she was basically the legal limit? I can’t believe he was set free. I too watched The People v. OJ Simpson and think it’s crazy that someone with so much physical evidence against them can get away with these crimes. With that much trauma to Kathleen’s head, it seems pretty clear to me it was not an owl who killed her. Cases like this continue to make me question how corrupt our justice system is. Another great post, I’m looking forward to the next one!

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