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'Owl theory' flies again in Mike Peterson case

Posted March 9

Great horned owl returns to sky

— Long put forward as an alternative hypothesis to Kathleen Peterson's death 15 years ago by those who believe her husband didn't kill her, the so-called "owl theory" has resurfaced a week after Mike Peterson pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the case.

Peterson's defense attorney, David Rudolf, filed a motion last Friday seeking access to evidence of feather fragments collected after Kathleen Peterson's Dec. 9, 2001, death so that they can be examined by an expert at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Kathleen Peterson was found in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in the couple's Durham mansion. Although Mike Peterson has maintained that his wife died after falling down the stairs, he was found guilty following a three-month trial in 2003 of beating her to death and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Michael and Kathleen Peterson WRAL.com archive: Mike Peterson case

After more than eight years in prison, he was granted a new trial in December 2011 when Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ruled that a key prosecution witness had lied on the stand during the original trial.

That trial never came to pass, however, as the 73-year-old novelist and one-time Durham mayoral candidate entered an Alford plea on Feb. 24 to a charge of voluntary manslaughter. Under an Alford plea, a defendant can maintain his or her innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction.

Hudson sentenced Peterson to 64 to 86 months in prison and gave him credit for the 89 months he had already spent behind bars, allowing him to walk out of the courthouse a free man.

"Although Mr. Peterson has entered an Alford plea to the crime of voluntary manslaughter, this plea has not put an end to the question that has loomed over this case from the beginning: what caused the unusual wounds to Kathleen Peterson's scalp that led to her death from loss of blood," Rudolf wrote in the motion.

Several "raptor experts" have suggested the wounds were the result of an owl attack. Kathleen Peterson was putting Christmas decorations on her lawn the night she died, and an owl could have mistaken the decorations for prey and gone after her because she was near them, according to the motion.

"Although this hypothesis has been scoffed at and made into a joke by those who believe in Mr. Peterson's guilt, it is supported by some of the physical evidence found at the scene," the motion states, such as drops of blood on the front walk, hair pulled out by the roots in Kathleen Peterson's hands and bloody twigs and two feather fragments in her hair.

Rudolf wants to give the feather evidence to Carla Dove, a forensic ornithologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, to identify their source. Peterson's family would pay for her services and any costs associated with transporting the evidence to her and back to Durham County without breaking a chain of custody.

"In light of Mr. Peterson's Alford plea, the state cannot be prejudiced by this examination of feathers by Dr. Dove," the motion states.

Peterson's defense has never previously mentioned Kathleen Peterson was putting up Christmas decorations before she died. In the past, they have said the couple was drinking by their pool late into the night, and an intoxicated Kathleen Peterson then went inside by herself and tumbled down the stairs.


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  • William Jones Mar 10, 10:31 p.m.
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    his first wife is still alive.

  • William Jones Mar 10, 9:05 p.m.
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    Mr. Patterson, your ignorance is astounding. No, I do not believe an owl killed her but owls can and have inflicted serious injuries to humans including loss of eyes, head and face lacerations requiring stitches and hospitalization, and knocked people to the ground. Try educating yourself on the matter instead of relying on your very limited personal experience. The power in a Great Horned Owl's talons is about 5 times as strong as a man's grip or about equal to the bite of a German Shepherd dog.

  • William Patterson Mar 10, 4:05 p.m.
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    suggesting that a bird that weighs as much as a chicken (about 3 and a half) pounds killed this woman is beyond absurd ....i have handled about every kind of bird there is including a Great Horned Owl who sunk his talons into my hand .....she might have gotten a few scratches at worst ....the bird is not capable of killing an adult human even under ideal circumstances to do so ...this is just playing on peoples ignorance of the natural world ...its like suggesting a black snake bit her and killed her

  • Jim Frei Mar 10, 3:29 p.m.
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    If you read the autopsy, the scratches on her head look consistent with the talons of a owl or other big bird. There's no skull fractures which you would expect if she was beaten with a metal rod (or blowpoke). The report even considered "fell down stairs". I contend she was drunk, and fell backwards down the narrow staircase, got up after several minutes, and fell again.

    If you have stairs in your house, stand on the 2nd or 3rd step from the bottom and imagine falling backwards against a door frame.

  • Carol Ross Mar 10, 3:01 p.m.
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    I am not saying he did or he didn't but I googled "has an owl ever attacked a human" and found this article: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/feb/25/european-eagle-owl-attacks-dutch-town-purmerend

    States that "The latest aerial assault on Tuesday evening saw two members of a local athletics club attacked, with one runner requiring stitches for six head wounds caused by the nocturnal bird of prey’s talons."

  • Teresa Lovell Mar 10, 1:03 p.m.
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    It is silly that they are going to try to prove the owl killed Kathleen Peterson. People came and tracked through evidence before Mike Peterson called the police. Maybe one of those persons who concocted the owl theory suggested putting the owl feathers on her. When Mike Peterson hit her in the head she could have reached and pull loose bloody hair out. It is a shame she is dead and he is out free. God bless Kathleen's family. I also pray that justice be served.

  • Teresa Lovell Mar 10, 12:50 p.m.
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    It really makes me mad that they

  • Thomas White Mar 10, 10:05 a.m.
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    The case of Clayton Johnson in Canada would have been the best defense. In that case Mr. Johnson was accused of killing his wife with a 2 x 4. After about 18 years in jail it was shown that if Mrs. Johnson had fallen over backwards her injuries could have been caused. Her injuries were similar to Mrs. Peterson's.

    The prosecution said it was over money and showed the Peterson's debts. The problem is if you took what Mr. Peterson made on advances for his books he made as much in one payment that his wife made in 10 years. Yes she made more money then him on a yearly basis, but over time not really. The other excuse of him looking at gay porn and trying to hook up with an escort is a sad excuse as he never seemed very masculine and I am sure his wife knew of his exploits.

    I believe Mr. Peterson killed his wife, but believe he had poor representation. Look at all the stories of the missing blow poke.

  • Mike Trekker Mar 10, 9:38 a.m.
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    Jeffrey can you prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did do it. He did serve time consistent with a 2d degree murder charge. The DA got his 50# of flesh, and the defense got him to be allowed to go home after 7 years and 5 months. Prison is no picnic and he did 7 years. Both sides walked away declaring victory.

  • Mike Trekker Mar 10, 9:38 a.m.
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    Jeffrey can you prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did do it. He did serve time consistent with a 2d degree murder charge. The DA got his 50# of flesh, and the defense got him to be allowed to go home after 7 years and 5 months. Prison is no picnic and he did 7 years. Both sides walked away declaring victory.