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Death By Talons author Tiddy Smith: Changed Larry Pollard’s mind about The Staircase owl theory (Image: Archi Banal)
Death By Talons author Tiddy Smith: Changed Larry Pollard’s mind about The Staircase owl theory (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksOctober 21, 2023

In the grip of The Staircase owl theory

Death By Talons author Tiddy Smith: Changed Larry Pollard’s mind about The Staircase owl theory (Image: Archi Banal)
Death By Talons author Tiddy Smith: Changed Larry Pollard’s mind about The Staircase owl theory (Image: Archi Banal)

Did a bird of prey really kill Kathleen Peterson? We talk to the New Zealand author of a new book that makes the case for the most ridiculed theory in true crime.

Lockdown in Jakarta was long and tough. Confined to a small apartment with his family, Tiddy Smith spent his days teaching philosophy classes at the University of Indonesia over Zoom. By night, he would return to the computer to pore over evidence from a 20-year-old murder case – and eventually come to the conclusion that the killer was in fact a bird of prey. 

“It took me a very long time before I realised that there were feathers right in front of me,” he says of the late nights spent interrogating every frame of a blurry crime scene video filmed in Durham, North Carolina in the early hours of December 9, 2001. “That’s when I truly worried that I was going mad.”

The death on the staircase

This all began with Judge Judy. For a while, old episodes of the courtroom reality show were Smith and his wife Ingrid’s go-to – something easy to put on at the end of a long day. But when Ingrid admitted she was growing bored of the endless parade of low-stakes cases that appeared before Judge Judy Sheindlin, Smith suggested a different type of courtroom drama. And so they started watching The Staircase.

The 2004 French documentary miniseries followed the trial of Michael Peterson, an American novelist accused of murdering his wife Kathleen. Her body was discovered in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs to their bedroom, and the trial considered two possibilities: either she accidentally tripped and fell, or she was killed by her husband.

Kathleen and Michael Peterson (Photo: Netflix)

Smith first watched the series around 2010, long before it had its second wind on Netflix. “I guess I remember thinking that it was a well-made documentary, but that it was kind of grasping at straws to make a case for Michael Peterson’s innocence,” he says. “I also remember really enjoying the opening theme music.” 

By the final episode, Smith had arrived at the same conclusion as the jury: it seemed more likely than not that Michael Peterson had murdered his wife. But the case wouldn’t have become the true crime sensation it did without some unresolved questions and lingering doubts. 

‘A real one-percenter’

Larry Pollard, an attorney who lived next door to the Petersons at the time of Kathleen’s death, followed his neighbour’s court case with interest. Towards the end of the trial, in late 2003, he approached police with a third possibility: that his neighbour had been attacked by an owl. He pointed to the autopsy photos, which showed scalp wounds closely resembling the marks left by the talons of a bird of prey, and drops of blood found outside the house. 

Pollard’s “owl theory” quickly became the subject of ridicule in local media. “Absurd”, wrote the Durham Herald-Sun. “A flight of fancy that famed oddball and movie director Alfred Hitchcock might have dreamed up after smoking a dime bag of wacky weed”, wrote the Raleigh News and Observer. 

As The Staircase attained cult status around the world, so too did the owl theory. “I think I just cocked an eyebrow and said ‘ooookay’,” Smith says of his initial reaction to hearing about it not long after watching the documentary for the first time. “Like, this sounded like a pretty wild outside chance. A real one-percenter.” 

Larry Pollard in The Staircase (Photo: Netflix)

But the head wounds did look quite a lot like talons. And by this stage there was further evidence available on Pollard’s website. Maybe it wasn’t so outlandish after all, he decided, and then barely gave it another thought for the next decade.

That all changed the moment he finished rewatching The Staircase, and told Ingrid about the owl theory. “Obviously she thought it was ridiculous.” So he showed her Pollard’s evidence – the head wounds, the puncture marks on the elbows, the blood in unusual places… “She was still unconvinced.”

“Really, it started with me trying to convince my wife that the theory was plausible. But then this rabbit hole opened and I started collecting all this evidence, all these photos, all these video files, all these interviews and news articles. And soon I had this strange digital library of case evidence. And I just kept looking at it.”

‘This story needed to be told’

The more he looked, the more Smith became convinced: “Beyond a doubt, this was a bird of prey.”

It wasn’t just the extremely talon-like head wounds. There was also a suspected talon shard found embedded in one of the stairs, which was taken as evidence but went missing mid-trial. Most curiously, what appeared to be bird droppings were found on top of the blood at the bottom of the stairs. 

Then there’s the feathers. One of the main arguments against the owl theory has always been the lack of feathers: if a tussle between a bird and a human really had taken place, wouldn’t there have been feathers everywhere? It’s hard to tell from the grainy crime scene footage, but Smith is adamant that if you look closely there actually were feathers everywhere – had the police investigating the suspected murder simply ignored them as potential evidence? (In an interview earlier this year, Michael Peterson refuted this, saying: “I was there. There were no feathers.”)

Michael Peterson (Photo: Netflix)

A picture of what happened that night began to form in Smith’s mind – and it was different to the version of events Larry Pollard had been proposing for the last two decades. Pollard always thought an owl had attacked Kathleen outside the house, before she ran inside and fell while climbing the stairs. Smith’s theory is that the owl attack actually continued inside the house.

Why had none of the evidence that might have proven this been investigated properly? Why was hardly any of it presented during the trial? Were the police merely incompetent? Or was it something more sinister? 

“What I discovered was, quite honestly, fucking terrifying,” Smith says. “It is clearly a cover up of something, even if you doubt it was an owl.”

This is when he decided the story needed to be told – and it was going to have to be a book. “It was going to take many chapters to explain effectively. It wasn’t going to be a blog post.” (It was also going to be quite a departure from his previous book, based on his PhD thesis, titled The Methods of Science and Religion: Epistemologies in Conflict.)

A handful of books have already been published about the case – including one by Michael Peterson himself. But they all focused on the personal stories behind the tragedy, instead of taking a proper deep dive into the evidence, Smith says. “The evidence in this case is so bizarre, and quite creepy actually, that a book really was needed. The public just doesn’t know anything about how the evidence actually sits.”

Author Tiddy Smith (Photo: Supplied)

The man behind the theory

Smith approached a number of people connected to the case for the book. For a variety of unsurprising reasons, almost all of them declined the invitation to speak with him. This included Michael Peterson, who was released from prison in 2017 after entering an Alford plea – where a defendant pleads guilty while still asserting their innocence – at his retrial. 

Peterson has always maintained his innocence, and has said shruggingly that an owl could have been responsible for his wife’s death. But Smith’s goal in writing the book was never to clear Michael Peterson’s name. “Frankly, I wouldn’t trust Michael as far as I could throw him,” he says. “I don’t know if he is innocent or not. Almost everyone in this story is shady and suspicious. There are lies everywhere.”

Aside perhaps from the police, whose actions on the morning of Kathleen’s death and throughout the subsequent trial raised so many questions, the person Smith was most interested in talking to was Larry Pollard. And the man who has faced 20 years of ridicule for suggesting that an owl might have killed his neighbour was willing to talk. 

Only, it wasn’t quite that simple. Pollard is in his 70s now and notoriously technophobic – to get to him, Smith had to go through his wife and staunchest defender, Brenda, who set up and sat in on all their Zoom calls.

Smith purposefully didn’t tell the Pollards what angle he was taking with his book when they started talking. “For that reason, they often lashed out at me,” he says. “They thought I might be trying to do a hack job on them. I didn’t blame them.”

Across multiple Zoom sessions, Smith spent more than 10 hours interviewing the Pollards. “After one particular session, I think I collapsed into my wife’s arms in tears. Another session ended in a storm of anger and yelling on both sides. It was an incredibly tense time.”

Larry Pollard has since read the book, and given it his formal endorsement. It even changed his mind about how the events unfolded – he now agrees with Smith’s thesis that the owl attack took place inside the house. 

“For him to change his mind, to convert to my view, after 20 years of defending his theory, I could hardly believe it,” Smith says. “I’m really happy that I can now call the Pollards friends. You know, water under the bridge.”

‘Pretty believable’

Published earlier this year by American true crime specialists WildBlue Press, Death by Talons presents a thorough and detailed account of the facts surrounding Kathleen Peterson’s death, carefully laying out the arguments for and against each theory. It’s also a total page-turner – Smith’s writing is closer to Stephen King than the dry academic prose he deals with in his day job. Larry Pollard’s is not the only mind to have been changed after reading.

“I’ve actually been surprised at how positive the reviews have been, even from sceptics,” Smith says. “People are beginning to admit that there is evidence to support the theory, that it’s not just a bonkers conjecture from a total madman.”

After years of ridicule, the owl theory does finally seem to be finding some mainstream acceptance. The 2022 HBO dramatisation of The Staircase, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette, included an episode that presented the owl theory in a “pretty believable” light. Pollard made a fresh round of media appearances in the aftermath of the episode, and found a far more sympathetic set of ears for his long-maligned theory.

But by then, of course, it was entirely academic. Michael Peterson is already a free man, and any chance to reexamine the case in court died when he entered his Alford plea in 2017. Who knows if the evidence in Smith’s book might have produced a different outcome had it been presented before a judge and jury.

This is the unsatisfying dead end that so many riveting true crime mysteries ultimately reach. We’ll never know for sure whether or not a bird of prey really did kill Kathleen Peterson. Or, barring some kind of surprise deathbed confession, whether or not Michael did either.

A book in every house

Tiddy Smith lives in Indonesia now, but he grew up in Dunedin in the 1990s – a decade which saw the city gripped by a murder case with a few similarities to the one he’s been immersed in for the last three years. “You have a highly publicised trial with some very eccentric characters, a police story about staging the scene, open questions about sexuality and sexual secrets, bad police behaviour at the scene in the early morning hours…”

When it comes to the Bain family murders, though, he sees no conspiracy or cover-up. “The fact is, I think David did it. The gloves, the key to the gun lock, his injuries, the washing machine. I think it’s ultimately pretty clear. However, I’m not sure he believes he did it.”

Smith’s first brush with true crime as a genre would have been as a teenager reading about the Bain case – Joe Karam’s David and Goliath, and James McNeish’s The Mask of Sanity. “I loved how they discussed the evidence and actually showed you the pictures. That’s something that my book does as well. You have to let people understand a case through all their senses, not just through their intellect.”

Neither The Mask of Sanity (which contended that David Bain was guilty) nor David and Goliath (which contended that David Bain was innocent) conclusively put the case to bed either. But for a while it felt like just about every household in Dunedin owned a copy of one or both of those books.

“If I could have one wish, it would be to have a similar situation going on in Durham, North Carolina,” Smith says. “Every house should have a copy of Death by Talons. Everyone in Durham needs to know how the evidence really sits.”

Death by Talons (WildBlue Press) is out now.

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