Death on the staircase

Death on the staircase

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I will start off with the Netflix documentary ?the staircase? which is where I first found out about this case. My opinion of this documentary is quite low. It?s a drawn-out documentary, it focuses far too much on the defence and it misses lots of crucial evidence. As a result I decided to trawl through autopsy reports, websites devoted to the case, appeals, videos and anything I can find on the case to piece together what happened that night. We will never know how Kathleen Peterson died and there are still multiple theories surrounding it. It may have been a fall down the stairs, an intruder, Michael Peterson himself or an owl may have attacked her along with later falling down the stairs.


At the time of her death Kathleen Peterson worked at Nortel and Michael Peterson was a published author. It all began in 2001 when Michael Peterson phoned 911 to say that Kathleen had fallen down the stairs. He phoned twice that night and when emergency services arrived at the house Kathleen was dead. Inside the house blood covered the walls and was on the steps of the staircase. In the trial that followed Michael Peterson was found guilty of murdering his wife. He later entered an Alford plea and was released from prison. This means that while he maintains that he is innocence he admits that the evidence would be sufficient to convince a jury that he is guilty.



Michael Peterson lies a huge amount. Supposedly there was an injury he picked up through military action and he was given two purple hearts as a result. These injuries actually came from a car crash. Michael Peterson also said Kathleen Peterson was still breathing when he found her yet it later turned out she had been dead for hours.

Money worries

Kathleen Peterson had an insurance policy of $1.4 million so it is possible Michael Peterson wanted the money to pay off his credit card debts of $143,000. Michael Peterson had no real money of his own so if Kathleen left him or lost her job which looked quite likely then he may end up losing all of the money.

The issue is one of his books was being turned into a movie which does bring the idea that financial difficulties pushed him to murder into question when he was actually getting his own inflow of cash. They were also not poor and had a net worth of $2 million so they could have paid off the debts. As a reason for murder it seems unlikely. In the end however the money went to Michael Peterson, just to her first husband and her daughter Caitlin.


Michael Peterson had gay porn on his computer and Kathleen Peterson opened an email at around midnight having left her computer at work. She may have found out about his affairs during their marriage and later confronted him about it. Thats backed up by the pictures of porn found in the house and a used condom that was found may show Michael Peterson could have been caught in the act. It?s unclear whether she knew about his affairs but if she didn?t and threatened to break up with him then it may have caused him to worry about how he would survive financially. Michael Peterson supposedly logged onto his computer and mumbled about emails after Kathleen Peterson was found dead.

O.J. Simpson

He had an O.J. Simpson notebook. It could be that he was trying to find out about a famous murder case where someone was given a not guilty verdict. As the prosecution didn?t use it, it seems more likely that it could just be another book he was writing. Interestingly enough Henry Lee who was on the O.J. Simpson case also helped to defend Michael Peterson.


Clayton had credit card debts and he was almost sent to prison for planting a small bomb. This shows his life at home may have been more difficult than it was made out to be but its not really a reason for Michael Peterson to murder his wife.

The evidence

Trident wounds

Image for postA drawing from the autopsy reports of Kathleen Peterson

The cuts on the back of Kathleen Peterson?s head are strikingly similar to owl talons. There are a number of coincidences here; the cuts have the same number of lacerations extending out from the centre as the number of talons an owl has, the same number of feet as an owl and they look about the right size for an owl. Also unlike the linear cuts the trident shaped cuts have some very thin lacerations.

The original prosecution said a weapon was used however it?s unclear what kind of weapon would cause this kind of injury. A blow poke just doesn’t look like it would cause such an injury without fracturing her skull. Falling down the stairs is also unlikely as they look too large to cause lacerations that thin. Even if he grabbed her by her hair with his hands and then hit her head against the stairs it?s unlikely this would have caused marks that thin or would have not fractured her skull. The other theory is it may have also been caused by hitting the door frame. This would however likely only cause three parallel marks rather than converging marks.

?Kathleen?s head injuries are not consistent with her having been beaten by a blunt object or on a stair, as she had no brain injury or swelling, no subdural hematoma, and no skull fracture?.

Linear cuts

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There are four large cuts which actually look like a fall down the stairs as they are essentially straight cuts. These could have been caused in multiple ways; either through her head hitting stairs, the skirting board at the bottom of the stairs, the stair lift, the owl?s talons striking across her head at speed when it initially landed or a murder weapon similar to the blow poke. Due to the simple nature of the cuts it?s hard to pin it on a specific thing.

Puncture wounds

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The Puncture wounds found on the face and arms of Kathleen Peterson are all of around the same size so it would be difficult to inflict those injuries, it?s most likely to be the owls beak as the wounds were all the same size.

Owl feathers

There were three microscopic owl feathers found in the hairs that Kathleen Peterson had ripped out of her head. This certainly points towards an owl attack as these kind of hairs are found on the feet of owls.

Ripped out hair

She had ripped out her hair and it later was found in her hands. It makes little sense had she fallen down the stairs unless it was purely due to pain. She may have ripped hair out trying to get Michael Peterson off of her or it could have been trying to get the owl out of her hair.

Pine needle

A pine needle was found at the scene where they may have been transferred from the owl to her hair as it attacked her. It could have also have been simply picked up as she walked to the house.

Blood evidence

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There was a spec of blood on the counter near where the wine glasses were. This could have been when Kathleen Peterson walked back into the kitchen disorientated after being attacked by the owl. It could have also been Michael Peterson trying to set the scene to make it look like Kathleen was drunk when she fell down the stairs by placing wine glasses out.

Blood was also on the front door frame and just before the front door. It could have been from Kathleen running through the door after being attacked by the owl or the murder weapon being carried away.

Kathleen had blood on the bottom of her feet and this may explain how she fell down the stairs. She was attacked, started bleeding, ran indoors and slipped on the blood coming from her wound. It?s less likely had it been an attack as Michael would have had to leave her there long enough for her to get up whilst bleeding heavily.

Candace Zamperini also tried to clean away the blood on the staircase which means the evidence was contaminated. This may explain some of the washed away blood on the staircase rather than being an attempt by Michael to wash it away.

The missing blow poke

Michael Peterson brought three more blow pokes before the supposedly missing one was found on the property. The return of the missing blow poke was most likely not the real one. The issue for the prosecution here however is that David Rudolf who was part of Michael Peterson?s defence team claimed that the police had already found it.

Neck injuries

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Kathleen Peterson?s neck cartilage was fractured which may have been a result of strangulation or hitting the side of the stair lift as she fell down the stairs.

Chipped tooth

She has a chipped tooth which most likely also came from the fall down the stairs. It could have also come from being hit by Michael Peterson.

The shorts

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On the insides of Michael Peterson?s shorts there was blood. As he said she was still conscious when he found her she may well have coughed blood on him which could explain it or he may have run towards her and slipped over in her blood landing on her.


Image for postA footprint from Michael Peterson?s trainer

A footprint from Michael Peterson?s trainer was found on the back of Kathleen Peterson. The question is how she received these. It could have been kicking Kathleen Peterson down the stairs or it could have also been Michael Peterson running towards Kathleen Peterson and slipping on the blood around her.


There were flip-flops by the stairs but not on Kathleen Peterson?s feet. These could have been removed by Michael Peterson when he found her at the bottom of the stairs or he could have also planted them there to make it look like she had fallen down the stairs by wearing bad footwear.

The German staircase

Image for postAn drawing from the autopsy reports of Elizabeth Ratliff

The German staircase is the death of another person who was married to Michael Peterson at one time, Elizabeth Ratliff. There are multiple coincidences here; both were found at the bottom of a set of stairs, Peterson received money from both and was in-charge of both of their estates, both looked very similar to each-other, both supposedly left lots of blood on the walls when they died and Peterson was the last person they saw before they died.

Michael Peterson supposedly had objects from her flat in his new house and he adopted her two daughters afterwards. There were also reports that he was seen coming away from her house.

?The male witness voiced his belief that Ratliff may have walked up the stairs, blacked out at the top of the stairs and fallen down them as a result. The male witness seemingly wanted to dominate the interviews and interject the ?correct? information. I asked about Ratliff?s consumption of alcohol during the evening prior to which a witness related she may have had a glass of champagne or wine.?

? Steve Lyon?s notes

The fact is this evidence relies on fatal falls down staircases being rare when they are infact not uncommon. 1,000 people a year in the UK die from falls down staircases and 100,000 are injured. In the US falling on stairs has killed around 12,000 people a year. This is not like lightning striking twice.

Red Neurons

Red Neurons meant that ?2 to 4 to 6? hours before she died, Kathleen Peterson was being starved of oxygen. This doesn?t add up to the 45 minutes that Michael Peterson says he was outside before he found Kathleen Peterson at the bottom of the stairs. Firstly it should be noted that both had been drinking, it may well be that Michael Peterson simply didn?t keep track of time. Secondly the temperature outside was 12 Celsius which would be cold to sit outside in. However this may be more bearable with the effect that alcohol has to make people feel warmer. The question is however, if she lay bleeding on the floor for so many hours why didn?t Michael Peterson clean up the scene of the crime as he had supposedly done in Germany to make it look more like a fall?

The 911 call

Michael Peterson phones 911 twice with a gap of around six minutes. In the first phone call she is still breathing and then in the second she is not. He doesn’t mention blood. He may have also been drunk at the time of the call.


While it was confirmed by a test in the Netflix series Michael couldn?t hear shouts for help from the pool wouldn’t he have seen the owl attack her? It?s possible he may not have as she was behind the water fountain and most likely out of sight.


Kathleen Peterson had consumed alcohol and the autopsy report shows that she was almost in a state where she was too drunk to drive. This may have contributed to slipping down the stairs if she had been attacked by an owl and was already bleeding heavily.

The owl theory

The Staircase | The Owl Theory | Netflix

I think the most important theory for how Kathleen Peterson died is the owl theory. To set off the series of events there are a number of things to take into consideration. Firstly owls are known to attack people and give them bloody wounds on the head and one attack ?managed to slice the back of his head, causing heavy bleeding?, secondly the owls nested just next to the Peterson house and thirdly she was hit in the back right corner of her head which is where 90% of owl strikes occur.

Here is the series of events in order. Michael Peterson is outside by the pool and Kathleen walks away to go indoors. The pool is likely attracting smaller animals to the area which are the prey of owls. As Kathleen gets to the door she puts up some reindeer decorations as it?s close to Christmas. An owl spots the reindeer and dives for them at speed, mistaking them for small animals like the ones by the pool. It swoops down and becomes entangled in her hair locking its talons, only being set free after it ripped away a lot of the skin and had left a microscopic owl feather in her hair. This caused the trident lacerations to the back of her head. It also strikes her with its beak on her face and arms when she tried to fend it off and it left a pine needle on her. Michael Peterson can?t hear this with the water fountain there and being so far away. Confused and disorientated she stumbles inside leaning against the door and then she goes to the kitchen. Finally she tries to go up the stairs wearing only sandals and possibly slightly tipsy. As she is walking up the stairs it is only really a minute since the owl attacked. She then slips on her own blood which is now on her feet and falls down the stairs. She first hits the stair lift which fractures her neck and causes her to chip her tooth. Then she hits the skirting board which causes the three straight lacerations in her head. She probably then briefly woke up and felt her head at which point her hair was easily pulled out, it may have also been pulled out due to pain. There were no lower body injuries because she likely fell near the bottom of the stairs. She was there for around an hour until Michael Peterson walks in to find her. Upon seeing her body he runs towards her slipping over dousing his shorts in her blood and leaving a footprint where he slid onto her. He phones 911 after about fifteen minutes to an hour of panic and the emergency services arrive.

The prosecution is very good at establishing motive with money worries, Michael Peterson?s lies, his homosexual relations and the O. J. Simpson notebook that wasn?t really used much. Motive doesn’t mean murder however, this is not proof Michael Peterson murdered his wife. As for the German staircase it?s really not that unusual for people to fall down stairs to their deaths. It seems like neither the blow poke or for that matter any other weapon would work as a murder weapon and would cause the trident lacerations. The owl theory is probably the only theory that explains all the evidence and is therefore the only workable theory for the death of Kathleen Peterson.

An ending

At the end of this I feel the owl theory is by far the most convincing theory for how Kathleen Peterson was killed. The owl theory can do what no other theory really does, it can explain the trident marks. Reasons to commit a crime are not proof thats someone committed a crime. As there really isn?t any evidence to support an intruder and a fall down the staircase can?t explain the trident marks on her head we are left with one option. David Rudolf, the defence lawyer for Michael Peterson, also seems to agree that an owl was the most likely cause of Kathleen Peterson?s death. Is it certain it was an owl, no. Is there reasonable doubt here, absolutely.


There are three main lessons I take away from this case:

Firstly, there is always doubt. No matter how certain we feel that the right person is in jail there may be evidence that hasn?t been found or theories that haven?t been tested. The owl theory is proof of that even if you don?t think it?s what happened, it?s still a possibility. Had I not known about the owl theory and I had to judge this then I?m not sure how I would have voted. Therefore there will always be innocent people locked up, the system isn?t perfect and probably never will be.

Secondly justice should always sway towards innocence when there is any doubt. If we don?t side with innocence and we accidentally lock innocent people up then the justice system will become less and less effective. There is no point in being innocent if innocence doesn?t stop you from being imprisoned.

Thirdly is the coverage of the events after Kathleen Peterson?s death. It became a show, almost as if this was some kind of murder mystery. Not only does the coverage often forget someone has died but it ends up as a media circus. The owl theory was distorted with misinterpretations such as the owls being inside the house. Sadly in a murder mystery there is often a need to have a murder, real or not.

Useful sources

Michael Peterson Trial || Staircase Killer Commentary by Vance Holmes — Poetic Justice

michael peterson, Freda Black, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, Denis Poncet, staircase, blowpoke, murder, accident, david?

Behind The Staircase — Jean-Xavier de Lestrade Peterson Documentary

Exposing Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s tendentious film, the Peterson murder documentary: Death on the Stairacse.


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