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Netflix‘s The Staircase examines the bizarre death of Kathleen Peterson, which may have involved an owl. In 2001, she was found dead at the bottom of the stairs, presumably beaten to death by her husband, Michael. Now, the story is getting a dramatic retelling in the HBO Max series The Staircase, bringing the owl theory to light again. Learn more about the theory, how HBO touches on it, and why Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase didn’t. 

Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) and his wife Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) in the fictional story 'The Staircase'
Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson | HBO Max

Real killer in ‘The Staircase’ could be a bird of prey

As Michael Peterson’s lawyer David S. Rudolpf explains on his website, Kathleen died from exsanguination. “Not blunt force trauma to her brain, not a fractured skull, not strangulation,” he writes. “Loss of blood.”

“We thought in 2003 [her wounds] were due to the scalp’ splitting’ when her head hit a flat surface, such as a wall or a floor, as explained by Werner Spitz in Episode 1 [of Netflix’s The Staircase],” Rudolf writes. “But in 2003, none of us [thought] any of those scalp wounds might have been inflicted by a bird of prey. It just never crossed my mind. I wish it had.”

Rudolpf also lists the evidence that supports the owl theory. Barred owls are common in the woods near the Peterson residence. They also have a reputation for attacking people.

What’s more, the wounds on Kathleen’s face were consistent with an owl’s beak. Medical examiners found twigs and feathers on her body. 

Rudolf later told Vulture: “The first time it ever crossed my consciousness was a day or two before my closing argument. Even if I was willing to come in after six months of saying it was a fall and say, ‘Sorry folks, it wasn’t a fall, it was an owl that first caused these wounds,’ I couldn’t do that because there was no evidence of that in the trial.” 

HBO Max’s ‘The Staircase’ hints at the owls attacking Kathleen 

HBO Max’s limited series The Staircase began with three episodes on May 5. The owl theory doesn’t come up in the dialogue of these episodes, but owls are hinted at. In the premiere of The Staircase, medical examiners pull a pine needle from between Kathleen’s (Collette) fingers during the autopsy. 

In episode 2, they find claw markings on Kathleen’s head, which the prosecutor wants to link to a missing blow poke. Later, in the third episode of the HBO Max series, the camera pauses to show Kathleen looking up at the sky as owls screech in the distance. 

There are still five more episodes of the HBO Max series. Tune in weekly on Thursdays to see how much of the owl theory comes up. 

Netflix’s ‘The Staircase’ focuses on the criminal justice system, not owls

The Netflix true crime series only mentions the idea of an owl attacking Kathleen Peterson in a digital feature — it never comes up in the episodes. Instead, the Netflix docuseries focuses on the flawed criminal justice system. As Rudolf explains: 

“For me, the importance of The Staircase is not whether an owl was involved in some way in Kathleen Peterson’s death. I believe the importance of the documentary lies in exposing the flaws of the criminal justice system in general and junk science in particular.” 


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Lestrade echoed that sentiment to Vulture. “If there would have been another trial, I’m sure that the owl theory would have been examined inside the courtroom,” he said. “But because it was never introduced inside the courtroom, I decided not to talk about that theory. It’s really a mystery, the way she died.” 

The Staircase is available on Netflix. Watch The Staircase on HBO Max.