Durham County

Tiny feather gives wings to owl theory evidence found on Kathleen Peterson

Larry Pollard at a press conference in front of the Durham County Courthouse in 2008. Pollard, a former neighbor of convicted murderer Michael Peterson, was attempting to bolster his hypothesis that an owl killed Peterson’s wife, Kathleen, instead of Peterson.
Larry Pollard at a press conference in front of the Durham County Courthouse in 2008. Pollard, a former neighbor of convicted murderer Michael Peterson, was attempting to bolster his hypothesis that an owl killed Peterson’s wife, Kathleen, instead of Peterson. News & Observer file

Larry Pollard is banking on a microscopic feather to give weight to his theory that an owl swooped down and killed Kathleen Peterson.

Novelist Michael Peterson is spending his life behind bars for the 2001 murder in Durham, but Pollard insists he has hit upon a State Bureau of Investigation report that could spring his former neighbor.

Durham District Attorney David Saacks has doubts.

Pollard, a lawyer and businessman, hopes to change the prosecutor's mind with evidence that was handed over to Peterson's defense team before the 14-week trial in 2003 that resulted in a guilty verdict.

With stuffed owls as his props, Pollard stood outside the Durham County Courthouse before a small crowd of local TV news crews and newspaper reporters to bring new attention to his hypothesis.

The French film crew that produced "The Staircase," a documentary of Peterson during the highly publicized trial, also chronicled Pollard's news conference.

For more than four years, Pollard has postulated that an owl, not a fancy fireplace poker as prosecutors said, caused the blunt-force trauma and head wounds that drained the life from Kathleen Peterson in December 2001.

"The District Attorney's Office dismissed it as absurd, citing the absence of feathers, and most people labeled it as ridiculous," Pollard said at the news conference Thursday morning. "Always the same question was asked by the authorities and the press: 'Where are the feathers?' Well, folks, we are here today announcing the feather has been found."

An SBI report lists the presence of a microscopic feather mixed in with hair that Kathleen Peterson had clutched in her left hand.

Pollard dismissed the possibility that the small piece of evidence could have been goose down, often found in pillows and comforters. It would be unusual for a goose to be inside the Peterson mansion, Pollard said, poking critics who questioned how an owl might have gotten into the house, a claim he has not made.

"It's not often you have goose down floating around in the middle of the night," Pollard added.

Pollard has been spending years gathering information about owls and Peterson. His fascination with the case, he says, is as a lawyer who thinks evidence has been overlooked.

But Pollard also has empathy for Peterson's children. When Pollard was 12, his father, Forrest Pollard, was charged with killing a Durham man and later convicted of manslaughter.

Pollard insists that experience has little to do with his persistence in the owl theory.

"My father's case was over 50 years ago," Pollard said. "I really believe it's ... [not] germane. I will say that I do know what it's like to have a father in prison, and if [Peterson] didn't do this, it's both unfair for him and the boys and girls."

Theories abound

Pollard is not the only person to develop theories about the Peterson case. One man has studied the blood on the wall and the staircase and come up with his own scenario that Kathleen Peterson was fatally banged up by a banister-mounted chair lift.

Roger Lane, a historian at Haverford College in Pennsylvania who has written about the societal fascination with murder, said the cultural phenomenon can be traced back in this country to the 18th century, when Charles Brockden Brown, called the father of the American novel, wrote about murder.

For many years, Lane said, a staple of the penny press was homicide cases and courtroom dramas.

In his research, Lane has come across many theories for homicide cases. But one had escaped him until this week.

"I had never heard of an owl theory," Lane said Thursday.

With stuffed screech and barred owls as props, Pollard laid out what he thinks happened Dec. 9, 2001, the night Kathleen Peterson was found dead inside her 11,000-square-foot home.

Pollard contends that an owl swooped down on her outside her home and sunk its sharp, bony talons covered with microscopic feathers into the back of her head, The attack knocked her down, he said, and then sent her running for cover inside.

Pollard speculates that Kathleen Peterson, in a drunken and injured state, eventually passed out inside, got up once, maybe twice, splattering blood on the walls and staircase, and then bled to death.

Defense lawyers for Michael Peterson had tried to persuade jurors that Kathleen Peterson lost her balance while going up a stairwell, fell backward, hit her head, then tried to stand but slipped in her blood and fell backward again, hitting her head again.

In January, two months after the state Supreme Court upheld Peterson's conviction, Pollard got a call from Peterson, who is serving a life sentence in Nash Correctional Institute.

A local TV station had aired a story about two Apex businessmen who had been attacked by a territorial owl, and the assault had been caught on videotape.

Peterson encouraged Pollard to push ahead with his theory.

Kris Cox, one of the victims of the owl attack in Apex, was at the news conference Thursday to try to lend credence to Pollard's theory.

Cox, 32, a Cary resident who owns a graphics company, said Pollard had showed him autopsy photos that made him question whether a fireplace poker had caused Kathleen Peterson's injuries.

"In my opinion, something doesn't add up," Cox said. "I believe an owl can do some serious damage."

Raptor experts across the country have said they know of no fatal owl attacks. Still, Pollard has compiled a notebook with photos and information about the sharp-taloned birds, hoping to persuade prosecutors to free Peterson.

Saacks, who was not the district attorney when the case was tried in 2003, said he doubts evidence of a microscopic feather will make much difference.

"It still seems to us that this is a far-fetched theory to say the least," Saacks said. "To me, it's not consistent with all the evidence at the scene.

"I will always follow whatever the evidence shows," Saacks added, "but I don't think microscopic slides will make a difference."