I've been on a true crime roll lately, reading lots of books about murder. Most of the books I've been reading have been about famous cases. I just read one book, however, that was about a case I hadn't heard about. And I should have heard something about this case because it took place in a rural town in eastern North Carolina just one state south of my native Virginia. I happened to find Joe McGinniss's 1991 book Cruel Doubt on my last book raid at the Fort Belvoir thrift shop. Joe McGinniss penned Fatal Vision, his well known book about Dr. Jeffrey McDonald, an Army doctor who was convicted of murdering his wife and two children at Fort Bragg back in 1970. I read Fatal Vision a couple of years ago and was impressed by how well written and researched it was, so when I saw Cruel Doubt on the shelf, I figured it was a good bet. Then I saw that no one else on Epinions had reviewed it, so it was an even better bet!
Cruel Doubt is the sad story of Bonnie Von Stein and her family. In Washington, North Carolina on July 25, 1988, Von Stein's second husband, Lieth, was savagely murdered as he slept in their bed. Bonnie Von Stein was also critically injured. Somehow, she was able to call for help as she lay bleeding in her bed next to her dead husband. Von Stein's daughter from her first marriage, Angela Pritchard, slept undisturbed in the next bedroom. Von Stein's son, Chris Pritchard, was in Raleigh attending summer school at NC State University.
As soon as her husband was murdered, Bonnie Von Stein became a rich woman. Her husband, Lieth, had inherited over a million dollars from the recent death of his parents, plus Lieth's life was insured to the tune of $700,000. Although she was grievously injured, the police immediately turned their suspicions to Bonnie Von Stein and her children. She was a newly rich woman who had not only managed to survive a brutal attack on her life, but was also able to call for help just in the nick of time. Her husband had not been lucky to live through the attack, during which he was stabbed eight times and bludgeoned with a baseball bat. On the night of the murder, Bonnie Von Stein had been watching a documentary about infamous serial killer Ted Bundy. She'd also read a romance novel with a murder scene that was surprisingly much like the one she'd survived in real life. It all seemed awfully suspicious, even if it was just a coincidence.
The police were also interested in Angela, who had somehow managed to sleep through the noise of the entire incident, even though her stepfather had screamed several times. Von Stein's son, Chris, had an alibi for the night of the murder, but his behavior since the murder and attempted murder had been very strange. He was very drunk when his sister called to tell him about the attack. He lost his car keys and had to be driven to his hometown by NC State campus police officers. He had acted very jittery and nervous, rather than devastated.
The whole family had been acting strange, according to the police. As McGinniss tells it, Bonnie Von Stein happened to be the type of woman who kept her emotions private. Her son and daughter also didn't act the way detectives thought they should have. It wasn't long before the whole family was called upon to take lie detector tests. All three surviving family members passed the polygraph tests. In fact, Bonnie Von Stein's result seemed to indicate that she didn't have anything at all to do with the crimes that were committed.
Although he was at NC State when the murder and assault happened, it soon became clear that Chris Pritchard had something to do with his stepfather's demise. Pritchard frequently took a lot of drugs, drank a lot, and played Dungeons and Dragons, a popular role playing game. Chris was flunking out of school and Lieth had given him a hard time about paying tuition when the young man brought home terrible grades. Pritchard did not get along too well with his stepfather, who had basically taken over his absent biological father's parental role.
By McGinniss's account, Chris Pritchard dreamed of the easy life that he imagined he'd have if he had money. He wouldn't have to work. He could sit around all day, smoke dope, play Dungeons and Dragons, and make all of his dreams come true. Chris had told all his friends at NC State that his parents had a lot of money. The premeditated murder had started out as a joke. But as Pritchard and his friends sat around drinking, taking drugs, and playing Dungeons and Dragons, the plan gained more momentum. Before too long, what started as a joke turned into terrifying reality.
Joe McGinniss writes very well. He has a compelling style that kept me turning the pages. I found myself empathizing with Bonnie Von Stein. Even before the murder, she'd led a hard life. Lieth Von Stein was not a perfect man, but his wife had loved him. The couple did not like living in Washington, North Carolina and were making plans to retire in Los Angeles. She was a victim of a crime. She had lost her husband to a brutal murder in her own home, in her own bed, as she slept. The police initially blamed her for the crime, and then moved on to her son. Bonnie Von Stein was in the unenviable position of not only being a crime victim, but also being the mother of one of the perpetrators. Though Bonnie Von Stein was newly wealthy, she no doubt spent a lot of money on lawyers for herself and her son. This woman, in my view, has lost everything.
Though I felt a bit sad for Bonnie Von Stein, I also found Cruel Doubt to be a fascinating thriller. McGinnis offers an interesting look at this case from several different perspectives. He presents this case from Bonnie Von Stein's point of view, but also offers viewpoints from lawyers and the police. Although Bonnie Von Stein was a crime victim, she was also a mother who loved her son and could not believe that he'd had anything to do with his stepfather's murder. Indeed, even though Chris Pritchard wanted to confess to her, his lawyers wouldn't allow it until they had secured a plea bargain deal. McGinniss does a masterful job of capturing the fundamental conflict between a young man who, along with his so-called friends, has committed a crime and wants to make amends to his victim, and the complexities of the American legal system, which compelled him to stay quiet. McGinniss also includes the stories of the other young men who were involved in the crime, seamlessly weaving their stories into the main one involving Bonnie Von Stein and her tragically fractured family.
The one thing Cruel Doubt is missing is a photo section. There are a four pictures on the inside of the book's front and back covers, but there isn't a section in the middle of the book. I found myself really wanting to put faces to the people I was reading about, especially Bonnie Von Stein. Also, if you're sensitive to swearing, you might want to skip this book. McGinniss uses plenty of off color language. It didn't bother me because I thought it was used appropriately, but readers with more refined sensibilities may not like it.
Cruel Doubt also looks like it might be out of print. I looked on Amazon.com, though, and found that many used copies are available and priced at a mere penny. If you like true crime and don't mind haunting the library or used book store, you might enjoy Joe McGinniss's account of a truly bizarre murder case from the 1980s. Just don't go expecting this book to end with all loose ends tied up neatly. Just like real life is not often tidy, this book about a real murder case may leave you with more questions than answers.