Last week I covered the 1992 murder of Lisa Ziegert in Massachusetts. This week, we go a bit south to North Carolina where Chris Pritchard enlisted two friends in a plot that left his stepfather dead.
Chris Pritchard and his younger sister, Angela, were the children of Bonnie von Stein. Bonnie and the children were living in Washington, North Carolina with her second husband, Leith von Stein. Both Chris and Angela were known drug users, and both had a difficult relationship with their stepfather. Overall, the von Stein household wasn’t a particularly tranquil one.
Chris was a devotee of the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons (this was the 1980s). He complained frequently to his fellow players at North Carolina State University. His chief lament was that Leith, who had recently inherited over a million dollars, wasn’t spending enough of it on Chris.
A Botched Robbery?
On July 25, 1988, police got an emergency call from the von Stein residence. At the scene, they found what appeared to be a burglary gone wrong. The house showed signs of a ransacking and both Leith and Bonnie had suffered beatings and stab wounds. Leith was already dead while Bonnie clung tenuously to life (she survived). Angela, in the next room, claimed to have slept through the brutal attack.
It was apparent to detectives that someone had staged to scene to suggest robbery. They had little to go on but soon caught a lucky break. A nearby farmer noticed a fire around the time of the murder. In the remnants, investigators found a hunting knife and some clothing. They also found a partially burned piece of paper with a map of the von Stein’s neighborhood on it.
As 1988 became 1989, Chris Pritchard started to look more like a suspect. His mother and sister had both passed polygraph examinations while Chris refused to take one. Polygraphs are not admissible in court for good reason; there’s no scientific evidence that the biological metrics they use can detect lies. However, police use polygraphs as an investigative tool. Failing or refusing to submit to a polygraph examination raises their antennae.
Chris Pritchard the Mastermind
Investigators heard interesting whispers from Chris’s crowd at NC State. Friends hinted that Chris Pritchard and two of his friends, James “Bart” Upchurch and Neal Henderson might be involved in some sort of plot.
Detectives managed to “flip” Neal Henderson. This persuaded Chris to plead guilty to aiding and abetting the murder. He had, after all, instigated it. Furthermore, he testified at Upchurch’s trial that he’d supplied a key and the map to Upchurch. It was Upchurch who actually killed Leith von Stein and attacked Bonnie.
James Upchurch went on trial for first-degree murder in June 1989. Despite his not guilty plea, the court found him guilty. He received a death sentence, although that sentence was set aside in October 1992. He was resentenced to life imprisonment.
Chris Pritchard pleaded guilty to second-degree murder (aiding and abetting) and to aiding and abetting the assault on his mother. He received a life sentence for murder and a 20-year sentence for aiding and abetting.
Neal Henderson also pleaded guilty plea to second-degree murder (aiding and abetting). As a result, he received a 40-year sentence, plus 6 more years for aiding and abetting assault with a deadly weapon.
Neal Henderson got out on parole on December 11, 2000. Chris Pritchard’s parole came on June 2, 2007. He and his mother have reconciled, and he now professes to be a born-again Christian.
James “Bart” Upchurch is eligible for parole this year (2022) but he remains in prison as of this writing.
The murder and trial were the subject of two books, Cruel Doubt by Joe McGinniss, and Blood Games by Jerry Bledsoe. Both books were adapted for television as a movie and a two-part miniseries, both titled Honor Thy Mother. Both television adaptations significantly overplayed the role that Dungeons and Dragons had in the case.
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