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‘This Is a Target-Rich Environment’: Inside the Rhine Research Center’s Parapsychology Probes

Five minutes from Duke Hospital, in a quiet office park that also houses the offices of U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a real-estate agent, a financial coach, and a dentist, the Rhine Research Center is open for its eighth decade of business.

At first glance, the space could pass for the home of any other association—cookie-cutter office chairs, fluorescent lights, and shelves of old volumes collecting dust. It’s the details that suggest something different. A bust of J.B. Rhine, the center’s long-deceased founder, glowers at visitors across from a kitschy glass goblet full of bent spoons, and every now and then the phone rings, with someone calling to report a paranormal experience.

John Kruth stands in the “receiver’s room” at the Rhine Research Center. This is where research subjects attempt to perceive observations made by people in another room, a process that is being revised. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

John Kruth, the executive director, sits at a table with his laptop and cell phone. Wearing glasses, a goatee, two silver rings and a turquoise collared shirt, Kruth doesn’t look like a stereotypical scientist. HIs phone’s ringtone is a Star Trek sound effect. He refers to the movie “Ghost” a lot, usually in a derisive way. Kruth has spent the past ten years researching in a field most people believe to be pseudoscience. The Rhine Research Center investigates parapsychology: extrasensory perception, psychokinesis, precognition, hypnosis, and energy healing, among other phenomena. He feels like he’s found his calling, and his work at the Rhine is only getting started.

Kruth has had an interest in parapsychology since his childhood growing up in Pittsburgh, but says conversations with skeptics inspired him to wonder how to communicate about parapsychology with people who don’t know anything about it. That’s when he realized he needed a science degree, and earned an M.S. in research psychology.

“I actually grew up in a family and a community where it was very well accepted, these types of activities. I was practicing hypnosis and meditation from the time I was a very, very small child, and did visualization techniques, had different people in my family who were healers and doing energy healing, so it was not uncommon for me,” Kruth says. “But when I tried to talk to other people about it, they thought I was nuts!”

Kruth moved to Durham from Philadelphia in the 1980s because the Rhine was located here, but it took him years to first walk through the door. Kruth has now been at the Rhine for 10 years and executive director for seven, and he says he’s doing what he’s wanted to do his whole life: researching parapsychology and communicating the findings to as many interested people as possible.

The Rhine Center is still one of the leading parapsychology laboratories in the country. It’s also one of the few left. But there was a time when the laboratory was cutting-edge science and one of Duke University’s claims to international fame. Parapsychology arose from late-19th century English research into communication with the dead and apparitions. In 1930, Duke became the first American university to grant parapsychology a foothold, largely under the leadership of William McDougall. A British eugenicist and well-known social psychologist, McDougall became head of Duke’s psychology department in 1927 and brought with him to Durham two telepathy and clairvoyance researchers, though they were botanists by training: Joseph Banks Rhine (who Kruth calls “J.B.” in conversation) and his wife, Louisa E. Rhine.

In 1933, Duke awarded the first American doctorate in parapsychology. The student, John F. Thomas, later published the thesis as a book called “An Evaluative Study of Mental Content of Certain Trance Phenomena.” For his thesis, Thomas tested different psychic mediums, primarily a woman named Gladys, to see how accurately they could transmit messages from his own wife, who died nine years before he received his doctorate. Thomas’s research found an overall success rate of 92 percent.

Two years later, with the support of University President William Few, McDougall created the country’s first parapsychology lab, appointing Rhine, “mop-haired ex-Marine sergeant,” as director. The lab quickly captured a great deal of media attention, with The Chronicle reporting in 1937 that “nearly every important journal in England and France during the past year has given accounts to the researches in extra-sensory perception carried on by Dr. J.B. Rhine.”

After McDougall’s death in his home on East Campus in 1938, Rhine dreamed of cleaving the lab from the psychology department, where his colleagues found him to be overly self-promotional. In 1947, the Rhine Lab split from the department but continued on campus with support from the Duke statistics department, which generally found his analysis to be sound. In 1962, Rhine established the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man in a big building a stone’s throw from campus. Though he retired from Duke in 1965, he continued working until 1976, searching for a suitable successor. Rhine died in 1980. His last words to his wife Louisa were reportedly, “The work must go on.”

The work goes on. Sometimes, there are experiments in the labs upstairs. At other times, the center hosts educational events, plus two monthly meetings: the psychic experiences group and the dream studies group. This month, its very Web. 2.0 site advertises two events, one called “Are you an Empath in a World of Chaos?” and the other “Healing through Qigong – Creating Balance.” Four days a week, the book collection, one of the largest parapsychology libraries in the country, is open to all. There’s a small section on aliens, a lot on ESP, plus a complete set of the Journal of Parapsychology, a peer-reviewed journal published in Durham since 1937. On the website, 15 donors have donated $1,040.00 toward a $5,000 fundraising goal to “keep the library current.” (Dr. Sally Rhine Feather, J.B. and Louisa’s daughter, celebrated her 89th birthday in January and is executive director emerita of the center.)

The Rhine Research Center Past collects past issues of the Journal of Parapsychology, which it publishes. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Along with Rhine’s bust, the library is decorated with old technology like Zener cards and the goblet of bent spoons. The cards, which you might remember from the opening scene of “Ghostbusters,” were developed by Karl E. Zener, a Duke professor, for use in ESP experiments. The spoons are leftovers from the Center’s “PSI games,” which Kruth describes as a more entertaining throwback event when compared with the rest of the Center’s business. Kruth says about a third of the participants in PSI games are able to usual visualization techniques to find the strength to bend the spoons. Some people bend so many that they leave them behind at the Center.

“Typically it gets soft, and they become very easy to manipulate and bend,” Kruth says. “My first thought is, oh, they’re using their strength. But the first time we did a session here, we had a woman who was walking from station to station, she had an oxygen tank. Every time we got there she would have to sit down—she was very weak, she was an older woman. And when it came time for the spoon bending, she had two bent spoons. And I was like, ‘There’s no way she used her muscles to do this. This woman can’t even stand up for more than 10 minutes at a time.’”

The center has a sense of humor about itself, but Kruth wants people to know that the research itself is serious.

“I always say this is a target-rich environment,” he says, smiling. “There’s a lot of opportunity, there’s a lot of things that could be studied. There aren’t a lot of parapsychologists in the world who are trained in the scientific aspect of it, and who are trained in the language of math and statistics and the scientific method, and who can also understand the phenomena really well.”

Kruth says that the scientific community can be “dogmatically materialist” in its thinking, and that this paradigm is also generally accepted by the public. Because of this, Kruth says, he doesn’t try to win over dyed-in-the-wool skeptics. But many people are eager to share their own psychic experiences when they find out what he does for a living. Others, he admits, can be derisive.

“One of my very good friends who I spend a lot of time with, as soon as she found out I was here, she was like, ‘You don’t believe that crap, do you?’” Kruth remembers. “She was completely on the materialistic side, but she had no scientific background, had no knowledge of any of the studies, no information about anything that was being done.”

Kruth can’t identify when he first developed an interest in parapsychology. It’s always been a part of his life. Growing up, he and his siblings played with a set of Zener cards, pre-Ghostbusters fame. They would warn friends not to read the answers in Trivial Pursuit silently before they guessed, because otherwise, the Kruth siblings would “get the answer from somewhere.”

“We played games a little different from other people did,” Kruth says with a laugh. He also practiced self-hypnosis and visualization as a child. He recalls a trip to a baseball game where, amid the chaos of a van filled with kids, he sat quietly.

“Somebody asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m doing my visualization for the game. I’m visualizing what’s gonna happen,’” Kruth says. “It surprised me that they didn’t understand what I was talking about and that they thought I was weird for doing this. I thought they were weird for not doing it. To me, this was just what you do; it’s how you make your performance better.”

Today, Kruth runs studies in the Rhine’s lab on whether visualization really can improve real-life goal realization. His primary research interest, however, is energy healing, or bioenergy. He compares parapsychology to quantum physics: Both fields step outside the materialist paradigms, and observer effects are part of both. Kruth predicts that ideas in parapsychology will soon permeate quantum physics, and perhaps his research will be a part of that.

Kruth knows how kooky the notion of energy healing can sound. But he says he’s observed healers emitting low levels of ultraviolet light as they work. He links the light emitted by living organisms, called biophotons, to recent findings in physics and biology. Biophotons are a type of bioluminescence—the same biological process that allows fireflies to produce their own light—though biophotons, unlike firefly bioluminescence, are not visible to the human eye.

“We’re using standard physics and equipment to do this. What it seems that we’re detecting is something that could related to the type of energy that people have been describing for so many years,” Kruth says. “When I have chi masters in there, I can see that some of them can carefully control the light emissions in the studies that we’ve done.”

John Kruth walks through the Rhine Research Center towards rooms where the he and others probe the paranormal. Portraits of former researchers and study subjects line the walls. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Kruth wants to bring younger researchers into parapsychology. In addition to their groups and PSI games, the Center hosts two online courses, one on “advanced field investigations,” which Kruth says is not like T.V. ghost-hunting, and one taught by himself on qualitative analysis methods, a type of research method gaining popularity in the social sciences which uses information impossible to quantify, like interviews and observation. Kruth estimates that the Center has taught more than 500 students via online classes, mostly people who “want to know the real evidence” for the existence of paranormal phenomena.

“For so many years that the work has been done in this field, it has been either marginalized or pushed aside, and a lot of it has to do with the publicity that the skeptical movement has gotten recently,” Kruth says. “This is why we’re kind of changing the way people look at it, and letting them know we’re doing serious science here. We have peer-reviewed journals, we have replications that are going on all the time, and we’re trained as scientists. We’re not just sitting in our basement trying to do this; this is a formal research facility.”

When Kruth considers which phenomena he’s observed in his lifetime has been most surprising to him, you can almost forget he’s not just another materialist scientist in an orthodox discipline.

“We design experiments for our lab. We’re very careful about the way we design them. We’re blinded, we try to make sure there’s no way to cheat: we’re very careful and controlled and everything about how we set them up. We’re so careful about it, that we second-guess ourselves over and over again,” Kruth says. “I’ve done everything I could to make it impossible for someone to do this, and it happens anyway? It surprises me every time. This is why I’m doing this work, I guess. It’s phenomenal, the things that I see. It’s amazing that these things actually happen.”

Immaculata Catholic School shut down after gay City Council member’s talk is canceled

The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church campus is usually buzzing busy on Fridays. Teachers and students fill Immaculata Catholic School; parishioners stream to Mass and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

But campus was empty Friday, shut down with one day’s notice. A church official said the school had been threatened with protests after inviting, and disinviting, an openly gay Durham City Council member to speak.

In a letter to Immaculata student families, Immaculate Conception Pastor Chris VanHaight said he made the dramatic move to protect children. “I cannot place our Immaculata students into this contentious environment,” he said.

Vernetta Alston, the council member, had been invited to speak as a part of the school’s Black History Month celebration kickoff. Alston, a black woman, is an Immaculata alumna, a lawyer and a mother. She is also married to a woman.  

Vernetta Alston was elected to the Durham City Council in 2017. (Photo: Joel Luther)

Alston, who has worked for the non-profit Center for Death Penalty Litigation, was set to speak to the entire school, which teaches grades kindergarten to eight, for eight minutes, said Kaaren Haldeman. She is a member of the African-American Heritage Committee that planned the school’s Black History Month celebration. 

The theme: how Immaculata shaped her life of service.

“Our theme was influential black women,”  Haldeman said. “She was perfect.”

Haldeman said her committee was not contacted ahead of the decision to change plans for Friday. Not welcoming Alston to speak “does not reconcile with our community values” her committee said in a statement posted on Facebook Friday morning.

Church and school officials did not return multiple phone calls Friday. The Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, led by Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama, did publish a short statement supporting VanHaight’s decision.

“Bishop Zarama continues to support the recent decisions Fr. Chris made in this matter and looks forward to further supporting him in inviting constructive dialogue with the school, parish and broader community,” it read.

Alston released a statement too, on city letterhead. First she thanked those who supported her invitation to speak at her old school, which she said “built the scaffolding” of her character and values.

Then she voiced disappointment.  

Catholic leaders are “sending a sad, regressive, and life-altering message to our children — that the voices and experiences of those within the Black community can be canceled and that inclusion is not valued by some who are charged with shaping their character,” Alston wrote.

They are “depriving the students at Immaculata of the chance to honor Black history, and in doing so, condemning the lives and rights of the LGBTQ community,” she also wrote.

The LGBTQ Center of Durham also released a statement expressing disappointment in the school’s decision to disinvite Alston.

Haldeman, the committee member, said the only call for protest against Alston’s appearance at Immaculata she saw online came from an out-of-state, radical conservative Catholic blog.

“I think it’s filled with hate,” Haldeman said, describing the blog. “It comes from a position of hate.”

One post that 9th Street found by Restore-DC-Catholicism called the prospect of Alston speaking “an atrocity” earlier this week. The page linked contact information for Immaculata staff and Zarama’s office.

The post urged readers to call and demand the event be canceled and protest if it were to take place. An update added on Tuesday observed that Alston’s name had been removed from the school’s website.

A sign taped to a glass door at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church Friday alerted parishioners that the church, school and offices were closed Friday.  (Photo: Jake Sheridan)

Immaculate Conception Church is known in Durham for its emphasis on social justice, not a conservative stance on social issues. New Ways Ministry, a group that  “educates and advocates for justice and equality for LGBT Catholics and reconciliation within the larger church,” lists Immaculate Conception as one of four LGBT-friendly parishes within the state of North Carolina.

“This is not what we are about,” Haldeman said.

The church’s African-American Heritage Committee plans to talk with school and diocese officials to learn what happened and to move forward together, she said. They still hope Alston will speak at the school, and Alston has said she is open to doing so, Haldeman added.

“We want her back,” said Haldeman. “We want her to be here because it’s important that our kids hear her voice.”

Other Black History Month speakers were also affected.

NC District Court Judge Shamieka Rhinehart was to teach eighth graders at Immaculata about the constitution on Friday. Mayor Pro Tempore and City Council member Jillian Johnson had been invited to talk to students later in the month about gaming.

Both women are black and their invitations to speak were also rescinded, Haldeman said. Immaculata added a policy this week that disallows political leaders from coming to the school, Haldeman said.

At around noon on Friday, there were no protests at the church campus. No cars were parked near the sanctuary. None at the church office, either.

Swings were empty on the playground and the doors to the sanctuary and the chapel were locked.

A sign on the door to sanctuary said Mass and adoration were canceled, in English and in Spanish.

Inside the ambitious plan to bring back the spirit of Durham’s Black Wall Street

At the turn of the 20th century, downtown Durham’s Parrish Street was the hub of Black Wall Street, with NC Mutual Life Insurance Company at the forefront of a thriving black entrepreneurial culture.

At the time, Durham had the highest concentration of black millionaires in the country.

But other than a couple historical markers and a historic forum, Parrish today is just another downtown street, home to businesses like a bike shop with beer bottles on display that sells bikes starting around $300.

Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton wants to bring back the glory days. He’s undertaking an ambitious plan to bring back Black Wall Street’s spirit of entrepreneurship, which was quashed after Highway 147 cut through the historically black Hayti district in the 1960s. This time, he says the initiative won’t be as tethered to real estate.

“We don’t have Parrish Street anymore. It has to be an ecosystem,” Middleton said.

Middleton’s long-term vision includes job training, partnering with businesses to redevelop, and targeted tax incentives and grants to promote black entrepreneurialism.

The rise and fall of Black Wall Street

Right next door to what is now Seven Star Cycles, a bike shop focusing on bike repairs on Parrish Street, lies the former headquarters of the Durham Reformer, a newspaper published by NC Mutual—which became the world’s largest black insurance company.

Its first floor now houses a black-owned dentists shop, and on its upper floor, a graphic design company co-founded by a North Carolina Central University graduate.

NC Mutual was founded in 1898 by John Merrick and Aaron Moore, among others. The company’s goal was to provide life insurance and other services to blacks who couldn’t otherwise get them.

“If you look at most of the black-owned businesses of this time, they’re basically meeting needs that whites have no interest in or for racist reasons wouldn’t support,” said Robert Korstad, a professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who has studied the history of Durham.

NC Mutual was a complicated place, Korstad said. On one hand, it created an abundance of jobs, including professional jobs and opportunities for black women, Korstad said.

However, Merrick also made significant profit from developing substandard rental houses for black workers, Korstad said.

Merrick, also a barber and founder of the Durham Textile Mill, was a jack of all trades, like many of those who were at the forefront of development on Parrish.

Moore, the first black medical doctor in Durham, founded Lincoln Hospital in 1901, a hospital where black doctors could treat patients. He also founded Bull City Drug Company in 1908, which was right next door to what is now the dentist and the graphic design company.

With no “centrally located” pharmacy that blacks could use in Durham, Moore had to run a pharmacy out of his garage for blacks until he opened Bull City Drug’s doors, Korstad said.

The Parrish Street businesses showed great promise.

But just a few decades later, it all came crashing down.

In the 1960s, the city decided it needed a highway to drive business to Durham and provide a pathway to the Research Triangle and Raleigh, Korstad said.

The cheapest and easiest place to put what is now Highway 147 was straight through the historically black Hayti neighborhood, Korstad said. The idea was sold as a way to lift the Hayti community out of its “dilapidated” housing by tearing it down and later putting in better housing, Korstad said.

That never happened.

Instead, it was devastating for black businesses.

“I’m not sure they initially intended to destroy the black business district as they did,” Korstad said. “However, since it happened the same way in virtually every southern town, that the black business community was destroyed as well as the residential community, made me think that was part of what it was all about.”

The highways effects were brutal for Henry L. Gunn III, who left Durham for Vietnam in the 1960s to join the Air Force. When he returned from duty nearly 20 years later, his neighborhood was completely gone.

His son, Joshua Gunn, hip-hop artist and vice president of member investment at the Durham Chamber of Commerce, says the highway is “a scar for him because he has no way to go back to and tell us about his childhood and his youth. The physical space is gone. Black Durham never really recovered from that. Many people never recovered from their homes quite literally being destroyed.”

Today, black people account for more than 60 percent of those in poverty in Durham, despite representing more than a third of the city’s population.

Middleton aims to right wrongs

Applying the lessons of the past, Middleton hopes to break the racial gap and inspire black entrepreneurship.  

Middleton hopes to provide tax incentives and grants.

“We should be as precise in targeting for communities for help as communities were targeted when [Highway] 147 was built,” Middleton said. “Everybody knew who lived in that neighborhood when [Highway] 147 decimated the Hayti community. It was black folk. Whoever was most impacted by those policies should be the folk we’re most targeting to help.”

Although his vision of reviving the spirit of Black Wall Street is less tied to physical real estate on Parrish Street, he also hopes to work with private developers to create a “demonstration project.” That may entail building an anchor project on Hayti’s Fayetteville Street, perhaps at a former housing project that the city bought a few years ago, Middleton said.

Middleton also helps to bring apprenticeships and vocational training back to local high schools. This would help create high-paying jobs, he says.

These changes won’t come overnight, Middleton acknowledges. But he hopes that in the short term, the city will make a significant commitment to stimulating black entrepreneurship. He noted that the city put $2.4 million aside for a participatory budgeting initiative, and hopes the city will put at least that much into bringing back the spirit of Black Wall Street.

Korstad is not optimistic about the possibility being able to come to fruition.

“A lot of it is about money and capital and access to credit. There are a lot of African Americans with great ideas and a certain amount of business skill and stuff, but unless you can go to the bank or a venture capitalist and get credit to build a big development or start a new business, it’s very hard to see something like that developing again,” Korstad said. “Wealth inequalities in the black community—black people got no savings and no money on average….I’m pretty dubious about it.”

Gunn hopes the city steps up to spur black business ownership.

“It’s time for people to put their money where their mouth is, especially for the city and county of Durham, which benefit greatly from the story of Black Wall Street, to begin to use their resources to help finance this,” Gunn said.

Owls, wooden reindeer and the ‘Staircase’ murder: Inside Larry Pollard’s quest to clear Michael Peterson

Inside the gates of the Durham estate where Kathleen Peterson lived with her husband Michael are a pair of Christmas decorations that could have led to her death: two white wooden reindeer with red ribbon around their necks.

The reindeer are part of attorney Larry Pollard’s theory that an owl attacked Kathleen.

The reindeer may have been stored in a nearby barn where the owls grew up, Pollard said, so the owls could have become imprinted and associated the reindeer with their mothers. An owl may have seen Kathleen as a threat to its mother—and pounced on her with its talons to protect its mother. Kathleen then could have run inside to the safety of her home before she fell down a staircase and died.

Pollard and his wife own the reindeer now. They bought them when Peterson had to auction off his belongings to pay legal fees.

In a trial that put Durham on the Court TV map just a few years before the Duke lacrosse case, Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife after the prosecution argued he beat her. Interest in the case and the owl theory has picked up after “The Staircase,” a 13-episode documentary on the case, was released on Netflix last summer.

Peterson served time in prison from 2003 until 2011, when a judge ruled that jurors were misled about blood evidence by one of the prosecution’s key witnesses. Peterson was granted a new trial but decided to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2017 to avoid more prison time. The 75-year-old has continued to maintain his innocence.

Pollard, who still lives next door, says he has served as an attorney for Peterson on the case, submitting motions, although none have succeeded.

The owl theory has become Pollard’s obsession. Pollard said he has helped out Peterson without taking a penny.

“It says in the Bible to love your neighbor as yourself. If your neighbor needs help, help him.”

“Owls are mystical”

In his office with red and grey carpet and ceiling-high mirrors in the lobby, Pollard displays his degrees, owl books, stuffed owls, mannequin heads, life-sized marlins—and one cartoon that suggests he has a sense of humor about some of the criticism about the theory.

It shows Pollard standing at a podium with a flying pig next to him.

“If we learn it wasn’t an owl that killed Mrs. Peterson,” a portly caricature of him says, “we have an alternate explanation!”

Pollard, 70, has lived on the same street in Durham for his whole life. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his law degree from Wake Forest and has practiced law for more than 40 years, he says.

He attended the Northwestern School of Prosecuting Attorneys and became an Associate Attorney General in the Department of Justice assigned to the special prosecution division of the North Carolina Attorney General’s office, where he took part in trials and appellate cases.

He was Peterson’s neighbor for nearly 10 years, and while they were not close friends by any stretch, Pollard said Peterson was congenial and active. The last time he saw Kathleen alive, in late November 2001, she was walking off from Pollard’s house hand-in-hand with Peterson. Kathleen died Dec. 9, 2001.

Pollard first floated the owl theory when he saw Kathleen’s wounds on television during trial coverage—he thought they looked like talon marks. Owls were fresh on his brain: just over a month before, an ornithologist had brought birds of prey—including owls—to a family reunion to entertain the kids. While the ornithologist presented, other adults stood around socializing.

“I was sitting there watching and drinking my lemonade,” Pollard said.

He called up the ornithologist, who noted that owls have been known to attack humans. From there, he has talked to countless experts on birds and been an avid consumer of owl information, although his theory has not helped Peterson in appeals.

“People say that owls are mystical,” Pollard said. ‘When you hear them from the right, it means good things will happen. If you hear them from the left, bad things will happen.”

A look at the Peterson property—”Wonderland”

On a brisk fall day, Pollard, donned a dapper hat, a suit jacket, a vest and tie, and took me to the gates of “Wonderland”—the old Peterson home—to detail his theory.

We weren’t allowed inside the house—Biond Fury, a psychic and the current owner, didn’t want photographs taken on the property, Pollard said. Brenda Pollard, Pollard’s wife, tagged along, adding details at times—usually trumpeting Pollard’s work.

The house, which has changed owners twice, looks a lot different than it did when the documentary was filmed in just after the turn of the millennium. The pool, featured in many shots in the Netflix episodes, is empty.

When the Petersons lived there, there was no fence. After Kathleen was killed, the house became a marvel. People came from miles away to see where she had died, even cruising up the driveway to try and get a glimpse inside.

The residents after the Petersons, the man who co-owned Mad Hatter’s restaurant before selling it, put up gates that say “Wonderland” in gothic letters, plus a separate privacy fence, Brenda said. Now, another sign has been added that reads “NO TRESPASSING” in red lettering.

Larry Pollard in front of the gate to the estate formerly owned by Michael Peterson.


Elsewhere, fences may be normal, Brenda said, but not in this cozy neighborhood in Durham.

In their sprawling Southern neighborhood lined with oak and pine trees, it felt like Trump putting up a wall, she said.

“You just aren’t inviting,” Brenda said.

As we walked up the winding driveway towards the white mansion, Pollard pointed to an old wooden building between his property and what used to be the Peterson’s. It’s a barn where the owls probably roosted, he explained. His dogs used to bark at the owls constantly.

“I used to think someone was hiding in the bushes,” he said, but then concluded it was the owls.

They made their homes in the barn, the same one that the Petersons may have used to store wooden reindeer that they put near their driveway for Christmas. He still sees them fly around the property.

The Pollards bought the wooden reindeer from a public auction of the Petersons’ belongings.

His theory is that owls may have been confused by the wooden deer, which were stored in the barn. The owls, which are known to strike humans, may have associated those big eyes with their mother’s.

So Pollard theorized that when Kathleen came out front and adjusted the reindeer, the owls could have taken it as a threat to their mother. Blasted with floodlights from the front of the home, the glasses on her head may have also given off a flicker of white—a color owls are attracted to, he says.

Owls make mistakes for a number of reasons and don’t actively try to strike humans, Pollard said.

But Matt Larson, an owl researcher at the Owl Research Institute, told the 9th Street Journal that an owl striking Kathleen due to imprinting or the glint of the glasses would be unlikely.

Imprinting mostly influences sexual preference, Larson said. So if a bird of one species was fostered by a mother of a different species, it may prefer a mate from its mother’s species, or the one it imprinted to over its own species. Larson also said that he has never observed or heard of owls defending their parents from predators.

“Adult owls will often aggressively defend their nests from potential predators, including humans. But I’ve only ever observed this during the breeding season and around the immediate nesting area.” Larson said. “To my knowledge, chicks don’t defend their predators or siblings.”

As to attacking Kathleen after seeing the glint of her glasses, Larson said that owls could strike if the glint was prey, but they have excellent vision in low light.

“I’ve never seen an owl go after glinting light (or anything like it), but I suppose it’s possible,” Larson said.

Owl talons strong

The late-night timing also gives a reason why an owl might strike, Pollard said. The pool in the backyard is an owl “grocery store.” Small critters come out in the safety of night for water and make perfect snacks.

He believes that after Kathleen was attacked, she ran inside and tried to go upstairs. But after having taken Valium and had some wine, she fainted and collapsed, smearing blood on the walls of the staircase and leaving a layer of blood that later was found dry, he argues. She later became conscious and tried to stand up, but fell over again, hit her head and got knocked out again, Pollard says, pointing to a second wet later of blood and wound evidence. There, she bled to death.

He has studied owl talons and concluded that the wounds match up with the wounds the talons would inflict.

When owls strike, they grip at 280 pounds of pressure, while humans grip at just 28 pounds, Pollard said. Their talons strike in a unique way—the outside digits go sideways, peeling “the meat off the bone.”

“It’s like a spoon going through mashed potatoes or a box of ice cream,” Pollard said.

The wound is much different than what would have been inflicted by a fireplace tool, which was the prosecution’s theory.

A microscopic feather was also discovered in Kathleen’s hair—something Pollard said only owls have. He called it his smoking feather, although he has declined to conduct a DNA test on it.

“Why should I try to disprove my own case?,” he said. “The evidence is clear and convincing. It is circumstantial in some ways, but it is also factual.  When you use a medical examiner’s report, that’s a factual document. This is real stuff. When you use a trace evidence report, that’s a factual document. This is real stuff. It was all in there from the get-go.”

Carla Dove, a forensic ornithologist and Program Manager of the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian Institution, said other birds have feathers on their talons, including golden eagles, but wasn’t sure if other birds have microscopic feathers.

Dove looked at microscopic photographs of the feather from Kathleen that police investigators discovered and signed an affidavit saying she could not identify which bird the feather is from.

One of the photographs wasn’t in focus well and key identifying features were not visible.

“The problem with the feather is that it’s only a partial barb,” Dove said. “It could be that it’s an owl or it could be that it’s a duck or some other bird that is used to stuff pillows or clothing. It was unidentifiable.”

Pollard: Follow the blood to prove the owl theory

Pollard keeps a diagram of the Peterson house in his office with red thumbtacks to indicate blood spots.

The prosecution argued Peterson beat Kathleen in the staircase and took the bloodied murder weapon out to hide, leaving blood droplets outside. No murder weapon has been found. The prosecution alleged it was a missing fireplace tool called a blow poke, but it was later found and had no blood on it.

But Pollard said wounds and the blood splatter are consistent with a possible attack from a bird of prey. There was not much blood higher up the stairs, mostly just splatter on the walls. He said that if it were a beating, there would be more evidence of blood higher up the stairs.  

In his office, which he called his “war room,” he demonstrated with a mannequin head how blood from a wound could soak hair and splatter the walls when Kathleen fell.

It’s a pattern he has observed as a hunter.

“Any self-respecting deer hunter in North Carolina will tell you a blood trail starts with one drop. It takes time for blood to come out of the wound, reach an edge and drip off,” Pollard said.

For Pollard, this was the culmination of an unusual combination of things, including his knowledge of brain injuries that came from his brother’s tragic death in a plane crash and his love for hunting.

“As corny as this sounds,” he said, “I’ve always thought there was something spiritual about this case.”

“Pure fantasy”

Some people think the owl theory is preposterous.  

WRAL-TV anchor David Crabtree, who covered the trial, called the theory “pure fantasy.”

Crabtree said when he walked into the Peterson house and saw the vast amount of blood staircase, he knew it was no accident.

“Larry Pollard is a great guy and a man of integrity,” Crabtree told the 9th Street Journal, but  “that owl theory is one of the most far-fetched things I’ve heard.”

Pollard has been subject to ridicule for his theory.

Pollard brought the theory to David Rudolf, Peterson’s defense attorney, just before closing arguments. But evidence had already been closed for the trial—and Rudolf had argued for months that Kathleen had died in a fall.

In hindsight, Rudolf noted several apparent inconsistencies with Kathleen falling. He said Pollard’s theory became more credible over time.

“I had tunnel vision,” Rudolf said at a talk Oct. 3 at Durham’s Carolina Theatre. “I had a theory that it was a fall, and anything that was inconsistent with that theory or might have been, I came up with my own explanations for.” Rudolf said the theory is now plausible.

After being skeptical at first, Peterson has also become a believer in the owl theory, Pollard said.

Pollard said he will continue to push to clear Peterson’s name—he says all he has to do is file evidence that a judge rules “clear and convincing.”

He owes it to his friend and neighbor. And there’s still a killer at large.

“On the day I die, I wouldn’t want my family to think, ‘well there goes the killer.’”  

Katie Nelson contributed reporting.


How a Durham taxi driver survives in the age of Uber and Lyft: personal service

It’s 9:13 a.m., and Ashraf Yousif, 43, is parked on Chapel Hill Road in Durham’s Best Cab Co.’s taxi #100. After an hour of waiting, he gets a request on his phone from an address he immediately recognizes. A student at Jordan High School. “He probably missed the bus,” he says.

Ash, as he prefers to go by, has been working as a taxi driver in Durham since 2005, after he immigrated from Sudan in 2004. He loves being part of people’s lives, a member of their community.

“You know everybody, find out everything. Who is pregnant, where people are traveling,” he says with a smile as we pull up to the rider’s address seven minutes later. A young man wearing a bright blue Duke hoodie and a backpack steps out—sure enough, he is the high schooler late for class that Ash had expected. He knows the boy’s parents, (“They’re Yemeni.”) and knows that they prefer their son take rides from a driver they trust, rather than, say, call an Uber.

This may be how the taxi business can survive in the age of Uber and Lyft.

Like other taxi companies, Durham’s Best Cab Co. has suffered from the rising popularity of ride-share apps. In the last five years, the company has gone from having over 60 taxi cabs to 31, and had to create their own app for calling and scheduling rides in order to keep up with the technological culture shift. Cab companies like Durham’s Best have found their niche by providing personal service to populations that desire special attention, such as immigrant families and young teens.

Today, prospects for the taxi industry across the country are bleak, but Ash’s dedication to his local immigrant community have allowed him to maintain success as a driver in Durham even after a few difficult years.

In order to stay in business, the company also had to take more serious measures to cut costs and stay afloat. “For two weeks, we were about to close,” Ash said, but then they outsourced their dispatcher system in 2015 and ended up saving thousands of dollars per month. Customers like the Jordan High student make survival possible.

A shift in customer demographics

Taxis still have unique appeal for families and seniors, largely because these groups tend to be more cautious about who they get into a car with.

“If you need to send your kids to school, or if you’re traveling somewhere and leaving your house empty for two weeks, you want to be in the car with someone you know you can trust, because you never know what can happen,” Ash says.

Since Uber launched its first smartphone app in 2010 (then named UberCab), there have been questions raised about how well the company can guarantee safety for its drivers and riders. The company’s image has been hurt by incidents of sexual harassment, drunk customers, and even scamming by drivers abusing the system. Ash and Durham’s Best say they offer a safe and friendly alternative for customers who might be particularly worried about their safety.

Uber has been a classic “disrupter” to the taxi business. Its presence in cities around the U.S. resulted in a fall in income of around 10 percent among taxi drivers and chauffeurs, though it has had a worse impact in certain locations. Los Angeles saw Uber and its younger competitor Lyft “deal a swift, brutal blow to the Los Angeles taxi industry.”

Ash, by catering to late-snoozing high school students, immigrant families, and cautious seniors, seems to be a survivor.

He has a wife and two young boys, and just got an IT certification as a systems administrator from My Computer Career, a computer training school in Raleigh. He says he got the highest grade point average in his class, and also had perfect attendance.

Back in Sudan, he obtained a law degree, and though he misses the practice he knows he will never be able to work as a lawyer in America because of the language barrier and difference in legal systems. He likes being a taxi driver, especially because of the flexibility it gives him and his family, since he can adapt his schedule to ensure that someone is always home to care for the kids.

He works every day of the week, but he spends a lot of that time in parking lots, waiting. It’s now 9:45 a.m., and he’s in another lot after having dropped off the Jordan student.

Not just a company, but a community of immigrants

Durham’s Best Cab Co. has its roots in Sudan. Most drivers and shareholders are also Sudanese, as the company was founded in 1999 by a group of immigrants from the North-African country who were working for ABC Cab Company and decided to start their own taxi service.

Ash belongs to a wave of Sudanese immigrants that poured into the United States between 2000 and 2010. The company’s founders arrived during an earlier surge between 1990 and 2000, when the state’s foreign-born population more than tripled.

Ash says Arab communities tend to be tight-knit and supportive, so it was natural place to start working at Durham’s Best shortly after he moved to North Carolina with his family.

Now, he is one of the company’s 31 shareholders, 15 of which are also drivers. If they are not from Sudan, they’re from Egypt, Morocco, or Syria. “The cultures are all so close. There are differences but it still feels like we are all at home, with the same traditions, the same religion.”

Finding stability in Durham

Ash is happy knowing that his customers trust him. They could be paying less for Uber but will pay the extra few dollars as long as he’s in the driver’s seat.

“This city is beautiful,” he says, looking the windshield at the color-changing trees. It is a chilly Friday in Durham, but the sun has emerged after several days of rain, and only a few slim clouds line the bottom of the bright blue sky.

He doesn’t seem to mind that his shift has been going for two hours, and he has only given one 10-minute ride that earned him less than twenty dollars. He says that Fridays are always particularly slow, but business picks up when it’s raining, when it’s extremely cold, or whenever there’s an event or festival.

Still, for all of its waiting and uncertainty, he loves this job. He does it because to him, Durham’s Best Cab Co. “is like a family,” and he is a valued member of that family, trusted with ensuring customers’ safety and comfort, assuring they make it to class – or wherever – on time.

At 10:52 a.m., Ash gets another ride request. He doesn’t recognize the address this time, but he knows how to get there.

Durham offering free bus rides to vote in midterm elections

Durham voters who still need to cast their ballots in Tuesday’s elections can get a free bus ride to the polls.

For the second straight year, GoDurham buses will be free while the polls are open, from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

The fare-free service was supposed to be approved during a City Council meeting Monday night, but a power outage at City Hall postponed the meeting until Thursday.

City Manager Thomas Bonfield told the 9th Street Journal that he approved the free service for Tuesday and the City Council will confirm it Thursday at his direction.

Scooters coming to Durham, but questions linger

A scooter swarm will soon be coming to Durham.

After weeks of deliberations, the City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to regulate the use of motorized scooters Monday night. At least 100 Bird scooters will hit the streets once the company receives permits—although there could be more.

“It always depend on the size of city,” said Servando Esparza, senior manager of government relations for Bird. “Our deployments and growth are based on demand.”

Residents can “realistically” expect to be able to ride scooters in 2019, transportation planner Bryan Poole told the Durham Herald-Sun.

Many questions still have to be worked out, though.

Esparza couldn’t give a definitive answer on whether Bird would be able to accept Faith ID’s—identification for undocumented, Spanish-speaking residents, provided by

El Centro Hispano, a local Hispanic advocacy and social services organization.

That frustrated council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, who said he had pushed Bird representatives for an answer to that question during the council’s work session Oct. 4.

“This council was very concerned the accessibility of the scooters, and ID was one of those factors that could curtail access. A lot of people don’t have driver’s licenses,” Middleton said.

Esparza also said that he couldn’t give an estimate on when he would be able to provide the council with an answer. The ordinance does not have a requirement that permittees accept certain forms of identification.

“We have to continue to push vendors to make scooters as accessible as possible,” said council member Charlie Reece.

Companies will be required to drop a “sufficient number” of scooters within “low and moderate income areas…as defined in the permit.” The city will also require companies to accept diverse payment types, including methods for those without smartphones or credit cards.

There also had been controversy about whether scooters would be defined as mopeds under North Carolina law, but that was not resolved by the new ordinance.

Scooters may be deemed mopeds, which would require them to have license plates, lights and rearview mirrors. Bird and Lime bikes do not have rearview mirrors or license plates, but they do have lights.

The ordinance was changed to define the scooters as “‘vehicles’ (without reference to mopeds).”

However, it still requires the companies to “comply with applicable local, state and federal laws, including state equipment and registration requirements.”

Senior City Attorney Fred Lamar says that it is up to the state, not the city,  to regulate vehicle use on the roadways.

“We have not heard anything definitively from the DMV,” Lamar said. “There are lawyers that don’t think it’s a moped.”

The ordinance requires that riders wear helmets.

But it’s not clear how much the police will actually enforce that provision or any other aspect of the law. The police department said in a statement that it will “address violations of the law that present an obvious and immediate risk to public safety.

Addressing violations may entail notice to the Transportation Department so that it may pursue civil penalties against the business owners/operators,” the statement read

However, since scooter riders aren’t required to carry a license, the police department is limited in the type of citations it could issue. The statement continued, “ … the Police Department does not anticipate being the primary agent for the regulation of these devices.”

Although Durham’s ordinance only requires that scooter drivers be 16 years old, Bird’s policies require drivers to be 18 years old. The ordinance leaves the decision for any age requirement above 16 up to the company, Poole said—a policy Bird does not plan on changing, Esparza said, noting that in most cities, the age requirement is 18.  

The new ordinance also attempts to address the piles of scooters that may be left behind—something painfully familiar to what the city saw with Lime and Spin bikes. Companies will be required to move their scooters before they are parked in the same spot for 72 hours.

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission noted in a Sept. 18 letter that the Transportation Department is planning to create designated parking spots for shared bikes and scooters.

The city will charge $1,000 for companies to apply for permits and will charge $100 per shared scooter that hits the streets. It also will charge $50 for electric-assisted bikes and $25 for bikes that aren’t blessed with electric assistance.

In Durham, protecting the bears and wolves from Hurricane Florence

Correction, Sept. 17: This story has been corrected to clarify that the museum has four red wolves, not two as originally reported.

Only a few at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham remember when Hurricane Fran hit: three staff members, a couple of turtles, and Misha the red-tailed hawk.

The morning after that 1996 storm, animal caretaker Sherry Samuels returned to the museum to find fences for several enclosures crushed by fallen trees and the bear house filled with water.

“I swam down a road rather than walked down a road. It was that much water,” she said.

The museum had no power, and only a fraction of the staff got to work that day.

The staffers who made it sprang into action. They drained the flooded enclosure and fed warm apples to the shivering bears.

Now, Samuels is the director of the animal department, and she’s leading the museum’s preparation for Hurricane Florence.

When the first forecasts showed Florence heading toward the Carolinas last weekend, staffers at the museum made 80 sandbags to stack in front of areas that might flood. They stocked shelves, inventoried medicines and began planning what to do with the animals.

Virginia, pictured here, and other bears at the Museum of Life and Science should fare better in this weekend’s storm because of lessons from Hurricane Fran in 1996. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Life and Science)

“There are wonderful things about living in captivity: You get access to health care and food, but you don’t have space or the same choice, and in extreme weather, space and choice is critical,” she said.

Samuels said that this time around, the four black bears will be locked in their house. The lemurs and farm animals will also be kept indoors.

The museum’s four red wolves – two adults and their two juvenile pups – are her primary concern. They’re part of a breeding program to conserve the critically endangered species native to the southeast.

“The wolves are really nervous, shy animals, so it’s always a judgment call of whether to leave them where they are or crate them up and bring them inside, which is very stressful on the wolves and people,” Samuels said.

Before the storm hits, she’ll have to decide if they’ll stay in their six-acre enclosure or come inside.

When designing its new Explore the Wild exhibit to house the bears and wolves, the museum took into account lessons learned from Hurricane Fran.

The bear house was built on a site three feet higher, and the drains were revamped to better control flooding.

“Everything — from procedures to protocols to training to infrastructure — is all better now,” Samuels said. “Does that mean we’re going to ride out the storm and not have any issues? No, each storm has a life of its own, but we can try to prepare.”

Fearing power outages, Durham residents rush to library for old-school entertainment

“Tennessee,” a guide on the state’s attractions by Margaret Littman more than 500 pages thick, was at the top of Jeffrey Petrou’s stack of books as he left the Southwest branch of the Durham County Library Tuesday evening.

“In case we’re evacuating to Tennessee,” Petrou, a local entrepreneur, said when asked why he chose the book.

With the threat of power outages this weekend due to Hurricane Florence, a steady parade of Durham bookworms followed Petrou out of the library with their own stacks Tuesday evening. Most chose books more for pleasure than practicality.  

Real estate advisor Kelsey Berland chose 10 books, mostly novels, to prepare for a possible power outage.

Real estate advisor Kelsey Berland, 42, carried 10 books out of the library, saying she sought out “fluffy” page-turners like mysteries and true crime stories, including the late Michelle McNamara’s new book, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.” But she was most excited to open up Tom Hanks’ “Uncommon Type,” a collection of lighthearted short stories that all involve an antique typewriter — and yes, that Tom Hanks.

“I’ll go volunteer if I need to, but otherwise, it’s like, ‘Nope, I’ve got all my books at home,’” Berland said. “Somebody was telling me you should be ready for up to seven days of no power.” She seemed confident her 10-book stockpile would be enough.

Stacks of books even taller than Bertrand’s were common. Some patrons toted full bags of books in both hands to feed the whole family. Durham School of the Arts eighth grader Theo Reeves was weighed down by the stack of 17 he lugged alongside his mother.

The middle schooler came just to get the next novel in the series he is reading, “Darke” by Angie Sage. But he decided it was better to be safe than sorry and emptied the shelves of everything interesting he could find.

Retired talk radio producer Mona Gauthier followed the Reeves family out with just one paltry book, the detective novel “Nine Dragons” by Michael Connelly, and felt the need to justify her scarce supply.

Mona Gauthier chose a new detective novel to keep herself occupied.

“I already have five books at home,” she said. “I’m going to make sure I don’t get bored.”

Inside, librarian Larry Daniels said regulars were calling the front desk, wanting to renew their books for a little bit longer.

Thunder rumbled outside. A young boy shouted, “I can tell the hurricane is coming,” and ran out the door with his parents chasing after him.

The rain held off as the real storm swirled off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean. The boy was ready with a book in each hand.