WASHINGTON, NC — While manufacturing executive Lieth Von Stein and his wife Bonnie slept during the early hours of July 25, 1988, an intruder slipped into their bedroom.
The third party — armed with a house key, a map of the home, a knife, and a club — unleashed hell on the couple. The killer bludgeoned and stabbed Lieth until brain matter splattered the sheets. He also severely maimed and wounded Bonnie to the point that she just barely survived.
Angela Pritchard, Bonnie’s teenage daughter from a previous relationship, said she slumbered through the attack. Christopher Pritchard, Bonnie’s son, told police he’d been playing cards in his dorm at North Carolina State University. One of them was lying.
Shortly before the attack, Lieth Von Stein came into a bit of a fortune, ratcheting up his estate’s worth to just over $2 million (about $4.2 million today). Investigators took note. Suspicion fell fast on Bonnie and Angela, at least until they both passed polygraph tests — a process to which Richard refused to submit. The case then shifted focus.
Detectives ultimately exposed not just the killer’s identity, but also an intriguingly odd family dynamic and Christopher Pritchard’s extravagant LSD use and apparently unhealthy obsession with the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
To be blunt (like the killing weapon itself): Christopher Pritchard planned, organized, and oversaw what was supposed to be the double-murder of his mother and stepfather in order to get their money. He and a friend, Neal Henderson, drove a fellow UNC student James “Bart” Upchurch to Pritchard’s family home to carry out the hit. Upchurch agreed to the crime for a piece of Pritchard’s inheritance.
The grand scheme fell apart first when Bonnie lived through her attempted execution and, finally, after Neal Henderson, who boasted a genius-level IQ, cracked under police interrogation.
The three D&D devotees went on trial in January 1990. It captivated the public with details that emerged regarding the family’s seeming peculiarities (Lieth drank beer a case at a time; Bonnie kept chickens and often watched television with them), as well as the possibility that Dungeons & Dragons could damage players’ minds. The latter had been a hot topic during the then-current 1980s “Satanic Panic.”
Prosecutors and journalists suggested that the mounting and execution of the slaughter may have seemed like just another game to the three young conspirators, all of whom engaged in live-action Dungeons & Dragons sessions with real weapons in the steam tunnels under the UNC campus.
Pritchard and Henderson cut deals and testified against Upchurch. Pritchard got life plus 20 years and was paroled in 2007. Henderson got 46 years and walked free in 2000. Upchurch, who denied all charges to the end, was initially sentenced to death, but, two years later, his term was commuted to life in prison. He’ll be up for parole in 2022.
Cruel Doubt by Fatal Vision author Joe McGinniss and Blood Games by Jerry Bledsoe, two true-crime accounts of the case, simultaneously hit best-seller charts in 1991. Both books reported heavily on the D&D angle and each was made into a TV movie the following year, Cruel Doubt on NBC and Honor Thy Mother (adapted from Blood Games) on CBS that even more dramatically connected the game to the deadly assault.
Bonnie Von Stein reconciled with her son Christopher before his trial. He now reportedly lives as a born-again Christian. According to Cruel Doubt, Angela Pritchard didn’t cry when talking to police immediately following the attack, but she wept openly in court when Upchurch received the death penalty. No one has ever connected her, though, to Dungeons & Dragons.
To learn more about this case, watch the “Death Is in the Heir” episode of Investigation Discovery’s Blood Relatives on ID GO now!
Main photo: Christopher Pritchard/YouTube video [screenshot]