Cruel Doubt by Joe McGinniss

February 16, 2011

Summary: In this book, true crime writer Joe McGinniss gives readers an in-depth look at the Lieth Von Stein murder, which took place in 1988. Von Stein was brutally beaten and stabbed to death in his North Carolina home on July 25 of that year. Wife Bonnie suffered life-threatening injuries in the attack, but managed to survive. The ostensible motive was robbery, as a few items, including guns, were stolen, but it didn’t take investigators long to dismiss that theory.

Instead, the cops ended up focusing on the family members: Bonnie’s two children from a previous marriage, Chris and Angela Pritchard, and Bonnie herself. That’s because it turned out that Lieth had recently inherited about $2 million in cash, stocks, bonds, and other assets–all of which would go to Bonnie if he died, and then the kids if she died. That was plenty of motive for one of the family members to have done the deed.

At first, there were complications in trying to prove the theory that one of the family members did it. For one thing, Bonnie’s injuries were so severe that she might have died if paramedics hadn’t reached her in time. It wasn’t likely that she would have injured herself that severely if she orchestrated the whole thing. Second, Angela claims to have been sleeping at the time of the murder and not to have heard a thing. Though that seemed unlikely at best, there was no way to disprove what she said. And finally, Chris was in a friend’s dorm at NC State when his stepfather was killed.

But a few clues, such as finding the charred remains of a map to the Von Stein house with Chris’ handwriting on it, soon brought the focus of the investigation on Chris. When faced with more questioning and more evidence, Chris eventually confessed that he arranged for two of his friends, James Upchurch III and Neal Henderson to kill Von Stein and Bonnie in exchange for some cash and sports cars once Chris inherited the money.

Soon Henderson also caved, and admitted that he had been the driver that night, though he denied having a direct hand in the killing. That let Upchurch as the murderer, and he was eventually convicted despite never confessing and there not being a single shred of physical evidence to place him in the Von Stein house that night. Chris Pritchard and Neal Henderson served about 20 years in prison, while James Upchurch is serving a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in 2022.


  • McGinniss does a good job of laying all the facts out there and giving readers an idea of where the initial investigations went. I’d never heard of this case before picking up this book, but feel that I came away with a thorough understanding of what happened and why.


  • To be honest, I didn’t think this case was interesting enough to warrant coverage in a “true crime” book. I mean, this was a murder and attempted murder in a regular, middle-class family. Not to belittle Von Stein’s death, but that sort of thing happens all the time, does it not? I guess one could argue that the crime was a bit sensational at the time because the perps were so into Dungeons & Dragons and used that game as an excuse for their deeds. But seriously, it just doesn’t hold up as a decent read after 20 years.
  • Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by all the CSI-type shows out there now, but was there really enough evidence to convict Upchurch? He was basically put away based on the testimony of Pritchard and Henderson, as there was zero evidence linking him to the crime scene. Is that all that’s necessary to send someone to prison for life? (Clearly I’m no legal expert, so I’m really asking a question here.)

I’d read a few reviews calling Cruel Doubt by Joe McGinniss things like “suspenseful” and “riveting”, but I found it anything but. There was no suspense because there were never any viable suspects outside of Chris. It wasn’t riveting because the murder-for-money motive is as played out as they come. I guess this book might have made a splash when it was released in 1991, but it is not something that I’d recommend to today’s readers. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

One Response to “Cruel Doubt by Joe McGinniss”

  1. I thought the book was very good but what I found compelling about it was the mother’s absolute conviction her son could not be involved.I felt for her as she realized that the people she loved the most had done this to her. But yes you have been ruined by silly crime shows. there is almost never the amount of evidence that you see on these shows and many people are rightfully convicted under those circumstances.Remember in 1991 trace evidence wasn’t as carefully collected and dna was unheard of. Many jurisdictions didn’t even try for anything beyond footprints and fingerprints. Even today most cold cases are solved by someone who knows something confessing.Eyewitness testimony is all you need for a jury if the jury believes you.

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