As many INDY readers may recall, the novelist Michael Peterson returned to Durham in the late 1980s where—as an outspoken newspaper columnist, and, in 1999, an unsuccessful candidate for mayor—he became a well-known man about town. Then, in 2001, his wife, Kathleen, was found dead in the family’s Forest Hills home at the base of a staircase.
Given my experience covering murders on both U.S. Coasts, beginning with racial injustice and death penalty cases in North Carolina in the 1970s, this case should have been my story. I missed intersecting with Peterson at the Duke Chronicle by just a year, in the mid-1960s. In 1995, I joined the staff of the Orlando Sentinel, covering religion for a change. With family responsibilities in Central Florida—marriage, mortgage, and young children—I didn’t feel free to return to Durham to cover the case and the trial.
Nonetheless, I did follow it and could feel the pull, even if I was unable to act on it.
From a distance, though, the case’s trajectory to media prominence was familiar. Murders like these often generate a kind of perverse civic pride in middle-sized cities. Although I didn’t participate, I watched this media dynamic unfold at close hand in 2008 in Orlando with the Casey Anthony murder case, where a petite young white woman murdered her two-year-old daughter and, possibly with the assistance of her parents, buried the body in the woods. Anthony was acquitted because of a botched investigation and inept prosecution.
National and international attention to the case was unceasing, especially from cable crime-meister Nancy Grace. Of course, the truth was that if Casey Anthony had been a poor Black woman and her daughter a Black child, there would have been no sensational coverage. Similarly, it seems to me, if Mike Peterson hadn’t been an outspoken white writer and decorated veteran—Silver and Bronze Stars, but no documentation for the two Purple Hearts he claimed—and a Durham personality, the story would have been unlikely to attract interest beyond the Triangle.
Sensational murder cases like the Peterson case have always attracted their share of true crime groupies and opportunists. But in recent years the explosion of interest in true crime has spawned a whole subculture of amateur sleuths who use the internet to crowdsource their own parallel investigations. And wherever passion, popular culture, and commerce intersect in this way there are those who will exploit it.
Which brings us—at long last—to the owl, and a new book, Death by Talons: Did an Owl ‘Murder’ Kathleen Peterson? by Tiddy Smith, from Wild Blue Press. With this book, Smith has parlayed what was essentially a ludicrous footnote into his ticket to the true crime show. He tries to make a serious case for his thesis, but it largely rests on a shaky structure of owl feathers, pine needles, and bits of talons—now mostly missing (or, he says, hidden.)
After 40 years away, I moved back to Durham in 2021 and was recently asked to review Death by Talons. My initial reaction to the request was that I was being asked to go after an ant with a ball peen hammer. In 300 pages, Smith explores in granular detail what was, at first glance, perhaps the most ludicrous theory of how a murder was committed: An avian attack. The theory was developed and championed by Larry Pollard, a respected North Carolina prosecutor and Peterson’s next-door neighbor at the time of the murder.
In brief, Pollard believes that Kathleen Peterson was the victim of an owl attack in the front yard of her Forest Hills mansion. The raptor, he claims, continued its attack as Peterson ran through her front door, collapsing and then bleeding to death at the foot of her staircase. His chief evidence is that, viewed in a certain way, the lacerations on Peterson’s scalp roughly line up with barred owl talons, and what could have been fragments of avian feathers were found around her. Also, two fragments—never analyzed—that may have been chips of an avian talon embedded in Kathleen’s skull.
Smith, the author, is a New Zealand philosopher of religion, now living in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he specializes in animism and the relationship between science and religion. While it’s not clear if he has forensic training (or ever visited Durham), Smith has at least marshaled and presented the theory with skill. No one can own a subject.
Smith states his theory of the case on the book’s first page: Let me be brief: an owl killed Kathleen Peterson.” Still, he acknowledges, after viewing The Staircase docu-series,“my first impression of the case had been that Michael Peterson probably killed his wife. Hell, it was the only sensible conclusion.” The only alternative, Smith implies, was that, drunk, Kathleen fell down the stairs. “If it wasn’t a fall, then Michael did it.”
Understandably, given the circumstances, the owl theory became the subject of widespread ridicule when Pollard championed it. At the time, Smith writes, he was no exception. His first impression was that “it was a crazy idea. Let me rephrase that: batshit crazy.”
But then he came to be persuaded. The result, the well-written Death by Talons, may reduce the ridicule, but it does not do much to enhance its credibility. Smith repeats one of the most famous—and overused—of Sherlock Holmes quotes: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” No disrespect to the sage of Baker Street, but barring a confession from the owl, I am not persuaded.
Along the way, Smith makes some valid observations: For one, when investigators settle on a likely scenario of any crime, it is almost impossible to shake them from it, as in the Peterson case. In support of his thesis, Smith goes into great detail about the chaos of the crime scene and the many mistakes police and investigators made. To anyone who knows anything about murder scenes this is not news, much less revelation: Lives are often in the balance in the critical minutes before a crime scene becomes a death scene.
Clearly, officers of the Durham Police Department did not cover themselves with glory in processing the Peterson crime scene. In this case, the charge—often repeated by criminal defense attorneys—that they handled the crime scene like “Keystone Cops” seems justified. Their work at the Peterson house that day was incompetent, if not something more sinister. Smith charges that they conspired to conceal and tamper with evidence to build a case against Peterson, theorizing that some of these investigative mistakes may have been intentional suppression—payback for Peterson’s outspokenness. He had, after all, made his feelings about the Durham police abundantly clear well before his wife’s murder, both in print and on the stump. Then there is the issue of whether Peterson himself staged the death scene. Well, anyone who writes novels is certainly capable of staging a murder scene.
These lingering inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case tempt an amateur like Smith to try to solve the case. However, I have learned in covering murders for half a century, and have to acknowledge that, essentially, I, too, am an amateur, a civilian in this racket, albeit one with a lot of experience in the field. This insight has served me well, because amateurs are what jurors are. I am not a cop or a lawyer, nor do I have a desire to be one. It is true that patterns of human behavior repeat, although not immutably.
So, I understand the urge of Smith and other true crime buffs. My first book-length examination of an unsolved, cold case murder, Met Her on the Mountain, dealt with the unsolved kidnap, rape, and murder of VISTA worker Nancy Morgan in Madison County. I’m now working on my third book, a trial I covered for the Los Angeles Times in 1992. One of the things I’ve learned along the way is that even in the most tightly constructed prosecution cases there are inexplicable loose ends, often unresolved and unexplained. Naturally, these are exploited by defense attorneys arguing reasonable doubts to juries. And so it is with the apparent owl-like lacerations and owl feather fragments, if that is what they are.
As one might expect, there is a certain amount of non-owl padding in the 300-page book. Smith relies heavily on speculation rather than scientific analysis. This padding takes the form of lengthy sections about the investigation and trial that have nothing to do with the owl theory. In it, Smith builds a brief for Peterson’s innocence. Of one element of the State’s case, he writes, “At best, this was circumstantial evidence of the weakest sort.” Implicitly at first, and then explicitly later, the author says this supports the Pollard-Smith owl theory of the case.
As his Death by Talons narrative unfolds, Smith is much less categorical in his conclusions than he is on the opening page: “The owl theory may sound improbable to an intelligent person, but at least it is not impossible.” He acknowledges and accepts the consensus that Peterson is a liar and a self-aggrandizing blowhard, writing later that “Michael’s alibi strains credulity. It is almost certainly false.” Nevertheless, Smith writes: “When the evidence is seen for what it is, the hypothesis that Kathleen was killed by a bird of prey outcompetes any other theory.”
The book’s end is—and is fatally undermined by—a chapter that imagines and recreates a tortured scenario that accounts for all the physical evidence found at the scene. This is where the implausibility of the owl theory is brought into sharpest relief with a scenario that is also dependent on police conspiracy to remove evidence of the owl attack, “painstakingly clearing the scene of reddish-tan feather quills, one at a time.” The owl takes its time deciding how and when to exit the Peterson house.
In Scottish courts, jurors have a third option of verdicts besides guilty and not guilty, one that I think applies to the Pollard-Smith theory that a fatal owl attack killed Kathleen Peterson, Death by Talons. That is: “Not proven.”
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