The true cause of Kathleen Peterson’s death is the biggest mystery of ‘The Staircase’. Was she murdered? Or was it a tragic accident? These are the three most plausible theories as to how Kathleen ended up dead at the bottom of a staircase in her mansion.
Netflix’s The Staircase has become everyone’s newest true-crime obsession and has everyone asking: what really happened to Kathleen Peterson? The mother and wife was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her mansion in Durham, North Carolina, on Dec. 9, 2001. Kathleen’s death made headlines across the country. Kathleen’s husband, Michael Peterson, now 74, was later convicted of murdering her. He served 8 years before he was granted a new trial. In 2017, Michael entered an Alford plea on the reduced charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to time already served and is now free.
The documentary series, which first debuted in 2005, is now streaming on Netflix. The Staircase brings the theories surrounding her death back to the forefront. We’ll likely never know exactly what happened to Kathleen, but these theories are the closest thing anyone has to answers.
1. Kathleen simply just fell down the staircase. Michael claims that he and Kathleen spent the night of her death drinking wine and lounging by the pool. Kathleen decided to go inside, while Michael stayed by the pool for a while longer. When Michael walked back inside the house, he claims he found Kathleen at the bottom of a set of stairs. He called 911, but it was too late. This theory claims Kathleen tripped and fell walking up the staircase.
2. Kathleen was killed. The prosecution believed that Michael killed Kathleen. She had unexplained lacerations on the back of her head that did not coincide with a fall down the stairs. The prosecution argued that Michael likely killed her with a fireplace poker. Michael was initially convicted of murdering Kathleen, but he has maintained his innocence. To add even more weight to the theory that Michael killed Kathleen, a close friend of Michael’s named Elizabeth Ratliff was found dead at the bottom of a staircase years before. Her body was exhumed during the trial, and a new autopsy said her cause of death was homicide as well. Michael’s bisexuality was also revealed during the investigation, but he claims Kathleen knew about that. The prosecution argued that she did not know and confronted him about it.
3. An owl caused her to fall down the staircase. This is by far the strangest theory regarding someone’s death — ever. The theory, first proposed by attorney Larry Pollard, states that an OWL attacked Kathleen and caused her to fall down the staircase. During a new investigation in 2009, a three small feathers were found in a clump of hair that had been pulled from Kathleen’s head. “The other wounds that are on her body seem to give a compelling case to this having been done by an owl,” Larry said in an interview with a Raleigh news station, according to The Audobon Society. “The injuries to the eyes, and the injuries to the elbows, and the little pock marks on her wrists, here and here, all are consistent with her having her hands over her head, holding onto her hair, because something is grasping that hair.” Michael’s defense attorney, Mary Jude Darrow, also noted to Audobon: “When you look at her injuries, they do appear consistent with being made by an owl’s talons. But I would hate to risk my client’s life or future on that argument.”