As they slept in their North Carolina home, wealthy Lieth Von Stein and his wife Bonnie suffered a vicious assault with a knife and a baseball bat. Bonnie barely survived. Lieth did not. The crime seemed totally baffling until police followed a trail that led to the charming stepson, Chris Pritchard, and his brilliant, drug-using, Dungeons and Dragons–playing friends at North Carolina State University.
“Haunting . . . Addictive, chilling and a masterpiece of reportage,” Blood Games is the true story of depraved young minds and a son’s gruesome greed turned to horrifyingly tragedy (Patricia Cornwell). Jerry Bledsoe masterfully reconstructs the bloody crime and its aftermath as he takes us into the secret twisted hearts of three young murderers.
“Mr. Bledsoe goes straight to the bigger issues.” —The New York Times Book Review
“In Mr. Bledsoe’s hands, a mega-load of inert facts becomes a human story of hurricane force.” —The News & Observer
“Devastating . . . A brilliant account.” —Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
Jerry Bledsoe is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Bitter Blood and others. Among the many publications in which his work has appeared are Esquire and the New York Times. Bledsoe lives in North Carolina and Virginia.
Kevin Stillwell is an actor, voice talent, and Earphones Award-winning audiobook narrator. His film and television credits include Looper and Drop Dead Diva.
Read an Excerpt
Terror in Smallwood
WHO DOESN'T DESIRE HIS FATHER'S DEATH?
Approached from the south on U.S. 17, the Coastal Highway, the town appears suddenly beyond a tree line at the drawbridge that marks the end of the Tar River and the beginning of the murky and quickly broadening Pamlico. Hunkered on the north bank, its back to the river, the town has a low profile broken only by the spires of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches and the skeletal tower that identifies the telephone office.
Little Washington, the town is called throughout the rest of North Carolina, that to distinguish it from the seat of national government three hundred miles to the north. But the townspeople prefer to call it "the original Washington." It was, after all, the first town to be named for George Washington. Originally called The Forks of the Tar, the town named itself for General Washington in 1776, the year of independence, thus gaining the distinction of being the first town in the new nation to bestow such an honor on the man who would become the country's first President.
Situated just twelve miles upriver from Bath, North Carolina's first town, Washington is proud of its history but has few historic structures. Most succumbed to two fires that swept the town, the first set by retreating Union forces in 1864, leaving the townspeople with a lingering resentment of northerners and the federal government. The town was rebuilt, only to be devastated again by a fire started by a faulty flue in 1900. But a few antebellum homes, including one dating to 1780, survived, most near the riverfront, proudly maintained and decorated with historic markers so that passing tourists might find them easily.
A town of twenty-five lawyers countered by twice that many churches, Washington is the civic center of Beaufort County, a county of farming and fishing and ever dwindling expanses of wooded and boggy wilderness; the county's forty-five thousand residents depend more and more on the industries that have settled in Washington and other nearby towns. For much of its history, Washington was a trading town, dependent on river traffic, but river commerce had gradually died in the twentieth century, leaving the town with a waterfront eyesore of decaying wharves and abandoned warehouses, all swept away by urban renewal in the '60s and replaced by a broad waterfront parkway lined with flowering cherry trees, park benches, and tall streetlights that double as flagpoles.
With a population of about ten thousand, Washington prides itself on its waterway location, its relative isolation, its friendliness, its quiet and slow-paced lifestyle. A good place to raise a family, most townspeople agree. "A sleepy little town," the town manager called it.
And in the predawn hours of Monday, July 25, 1988, the town was largely asleep. It was a sullen, sultry night as most midsummer nights are in coastal Carolina, the temperature still in the seventies, the humidity nearly unbearable after showers earlier. Only an occasional vehicle passed along the strip of fast-food restaurants, convenience marts, and motels on Highway 17, almost all of them closed. On military pay weekends, the traffic at this hour on Monday morning usually would be heavier, with marines rushing back to their bases farther south from weekend passes in Norfolk and other points north, easy targets for speeding tickets from police officers with little to do, but payday was still a week away.
Four police officers were watching the town this night, three patrol officers assigned to separate zones and a patrol sergeant who backed up all calls and to whom decisions of any magnitude were left. As four-thirty approached, only one of those officers, Danny Edwards, actually was on patrol. He was assigned to Zone B, which included the downtown area, now deserted as he slowly eased his car east on Main Street, one block north of the river.
The other three officers were only a couple of blocks away. David Sparrow, a plump and friendly man of twenty-two, had just settled into a chair in the county jail in the basement of the courthouse to eat the country ham biscuit he'd picked up at Hardee's, which operated the only all-night drive-through in town. Sparrow usually took his thirty-minute break at the jail so that he could bring food to the two jailers, who were as confined as the sleeping prisoners they watched over.
Sergeant Bradford Tetterton and Patrolman Ed Cherry were across the alley from the jail at the communications center in the back of the Beaufort County Law Enforcement Center, chatting with the dispatcher, Michelle Sparrow, David's wife. Cherry, a close friend of the Sparrows, had followed David through the Hardee's drive-through to pick up a country ham-and-egg biscuit and Tater Tots for Michelle's breakfast.
It had been one of the slowest nights in recent memory. Central Communications received calls for seven rescue squads, sixteen fire departments, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Department, and the Washington City Police, but only a few calls had come this night, none of any consequence, and Michelle, an avid reader, had passed much of the night so far with a Stephen King novel, Misery.
Normally, Michelle didn't work the radio. She had been promoted to communications supervisor and worked regular daytime hours. But one of the regular dispatchers was on vacation this week and the other scheduled for duty Sunday night had called in sick. Michelle had no choice but to come in and work the late shift, 10:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M. She really didn't mind. After all, her husband was working the same shift. In another week they would have been married for three months, and Tetterton was teasing her about it when the telephone rang at four-twenty-four.
"Beaufort County Central Communications," Michelle answered.
"This is an emergency," said a soft female voice, so low that Michelle couldn't understand it.
"Can I help you?" Michelle said.
"Yes," came the whisper again. "This is an emergency."
"Well, what do you need, ma'am?"
"I need the police and ... and an ambulance."
"Where do you need 'em?"
"One-ten Lawson Road."
The voice was barely audible, and Michelle strained to hear it.
"One-ten, what road?"
"One-ten Lawson Road?"
"I can't hear you, ma'am. Could you speak up?"
"I'm sorry. The intruder may still be in the house."
Michelle's senses quickened. "Okay, why do you need an ambulance?"
"My husband may be dying and I think I may be, too."
"Your husband did what?"
"My husband may be dying, and I may be dying, too."
Was this one of the regulars? A mentally disturbed woman frequently called the dispatchers, usually late on full-moon nights, to report that awful acts were being committed upon her. Indeed, she had called just the week before, claiming her husband had tied her up in her bathing suit and was killing her. But this voice was so faint that Michelle couldn't tell if it might be the same person.
"Okay, what is your name, please?" she asked.
"I am bleeding."
"Okay, what is your name, please?"
"Bonnie Von Stein."
No, this was not the regular.
"Okay, Bonnie, hold on just a minute and I'm getting an officer on the way. Okay? Don't hang up on me, all right?"
Tetterton had started back outside to his patrol car, carrying a handful of forms he'd come to pick up, but he stopped when Michelle called anxiously to him.
"Sergeant, I don't know what we've got here, but there's a woman on the phone says she's got an intruder in the house and she and her husband may be dying. I don't know whether she's crazy or for real, but it's one-ten Lawson Road."
Tetterton left the building at a run, calling to Ed Cherry, who headed to his own patrol car. Michelle returned to the telephone.
"Yes, I'm here," said the weak voice.
"Okay, is someone in your house?"
"I don't know if they are still here or not."
"Okay, did someone — where are you bleeding?"
"In the chest. I've been beaten and stabbed, I think."
"Okay, is your husband, has he been beaten and stabbed also?"
"Okay, I have an officer on the way ..."
"C-thirty-three is ten-seventeen Lawson Road," Michelle heard Cherry say over the radio, giving his code number and reporting that he was en route.
"And I want you to stay right with me," Michelle was telling Bonnie. "Don't hang up until the police get there."
"I don't know where my daughter is," the woman said.
"Ten-four," Michelle said into the control board microphone, acknowledging Cherry. "She advised she and her husband have been beaten and stabbed. She advised her daughter is also in the house and she doesn't know where she's at."
Danny Edwards heard the call on his radio just as he was reaching Market Street on Main.
"What's the address, Central?" he called.
"One-ten Lawson. One-ten Lawson."
Market Street was a straight shot to Lawson. He turned left onto it, switched on his blue light and siren and floored the accelerator, his car leaping forward with a roar in the quiet downtown streets.
David Sparrow heard the radio talk on his handset in the jail. Lawson Road was in his patrol zone, C, on the northern edge of town, away from the river. He knew that it ran through the town's plushest subdivision, Smallwood. People in Smallwood did not have intruders who beat and stabbed them in the night. Such a thing was almost inconceivable. He abandoned his coffee and ham biscuits and yelled to the jailers to slide open the heavy, electronically operated doors and free him.
Michelle had never heard patrol cars leaving in such a rush. Now she heard the squealing tires of her own husband's car as he sped from behind the courthouse. At Fifth Street, in front of the fire department, where sleeping rescue squad members were about to receive a call from his wife, he saw the blue lights of three other police cars streaking ahead of him blocks away. In the communications room, Michelle Sparrow heard Bonnie Von Stein whisper into the telephone: "Please hurry."
"Okay," Michelle told her. "They're getting there just as fast as they can and I am going to stay with you, okay? I hear the sirens going out right now. You just hold on."
"I'll try," Bonnie said.
The weekend at 110 Lawson Road wouldn't have been out of the ordinary if Chris hadn't come home Friday night, unexpected. He hadn't been home much at all during the summer, so his mother was pleased when he called after dinner to say he was driving in from Raleigh for no special reason.
She always had felt a special closeness to Chris, her firstborn. He was shy and sensitive and gentle, although she knew that some might not realize that about him, and she had always tried to fill his special need for love and attention without pampering him. He'd been away at college for nearly a year now, and she worried constantly about him, calling him frequently to make sure that everything was all right. She was a worrier when it came to her children, and she worried especially when Chris was on the road. She knew that he drove too fast.
She realized that she probably wouldn't see much of Chris on his visit. On the weekends that he'd come home during the past year, he either brought some new college friends with him, or he wanted to spend time with old high school buddies who were still in town. This weekend likely would prove no exception, but she was comforted just knowing that he would be at home.
He arrived late, and after giving his mother a hug and chatting briefly, he hurried out to visit friends and cruise the mall and the waterfront to see what was happening. He stayed out late, but his mother was relieved that he was in good spirits, that everything had seemed all right, that apparently there was no ulterior motive for this visit. He'd caused her a lot of concern recently. After a rocky first year at N.C. State University, he'd changed his major, got a part-time job, enrolled for both sessions of summer school. Although he'd had a problem with his class in the first summer session, a misunderstanding that had kept him from receiving any credit, she was hopeful that he was getting on a more even keel now.
She didn't have much chance to see him Saturday either. He didn't get up until about nine, and after breakfast he announced that he was going to "check out the town" and left. She had to run errands that morning, and afterward, she and Lieth drove twenty miles west to Greenville to have a late breakfast at the Waffle House, their weekend ritual. They stayed a while in Greenville to look at mobile homes. They were planning to buy one and put it in a nice, wooded trailer park, Maryanna Mobile Estates, on the western edge of Washington, so that Lieth could put an office in it and they would have someplace for Bonnie's many relatives to stay when they came to visit.
When they got back home early Saturday afternoon, Chris was still out, and his sister, Angela, who'd graduated from high school only a few weeks earlier, had gone off to the beach for the day with her friend Donna Brady.
The unusual phone call came later that day. A stranger was on the line, the mother of a high school student who lived in a town near Raleigh. She wanted to know why Chris had written a check to her son for thirty-five dollars the previous afternoon. Her son had tried to get her to cash it, but she was suspicious. He had told several stories about the check: that it was for yard work, which was what Chris had written on the check; that he'd helped Chris move some stuff into a dorm; that he'd given Chris money to get home on because Chris was broke and couldn't get a check cashed. She suspected instead that it might have something to do with drugs.
The call upset Lieth, and they confronted Chris about it after he came in late in the afternoon, but he maintained that the boy had helped him with some work at school. Lieth didn't believe that, just as he had not believed the cockamamy tale Chris had told about how he had spent the three days when he had disappeared earlier that month, prompting his worried mother to report him missing to the campus police.
"If you're getting involved with drugs, I'm going to kick your ass," Lieth had told Chris angrily, but Chris had known that he didn't mean it, for although Lieth had a temper, he was not a violent man.
Later, after further questioning from his mother, Chris admitted that he had given the boy thirty-five dollars in cash and a check for another thirty-five for half an ounce of marijuana that the boy was supposed to bring back to him. But the boy had ripped him off, left him waiting for hours in a shopping center parking lot Friday before he came home. Chris acknowledged that he had been smoking a little pot at school, but at State, he maintained, it was almost impossible not to smoke it. As he told it, the dorms were virtual dope dens, and almost everybody, except for him, of course, was dealing drugs of some sort.
His mother and Lieth had thought that this might be the case. Chris's actions in recent weeks had caused them to wonder if he might be using drugs. They were perturbed to learn that their fears were justified, but eventually, his mother recalled later, they settled down and talked reasonably about it. After all, it was only marijuana. It could be much worse. And Lieth, a student in the '60s, had smoked pot in college himself without any ill effects. To condemn his stepson for doing it would make him a hypocrite. Finally, as Chris recalled it later, they had told him that if he was going to smoke pot, he should do it in his own room, not get caught, not overdo it, and never do it and drive. And they didn't want him spending a lot of money on it, especially any of the fifty-dollar allowance they gave him each week. He should buy it with the money he was making from his clothing store job. And he'd better not sell it, either. That could get him in deep trouble.
That evening, Chris suggested he grill hamburgers for supper, and dinner had been pleasant, the family all together, along with Angela's friend Donna. Right after dinner, Chris said that he had to return to N.C. State to work on an important paper that was due Monday morning. His mother tried to talk him into staying until Sunday, but he insisted on going back.
She walked him to his car, a classic '65 Ford Mustang fastback that Lieth had bought him for his sixteenth birthday, and as she was bidding him good-bye, she spotted the gaping hole with dangling wires in the car's dashboard.
"What happened to your radio?" she asked. She and Lieth had bought him the expensive JVC stereo radio and cassette player for Christmas the year before.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Blood Games"
Copyright © 1991 Jerry Bledsoe.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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