Beyond ‘The Staircase’: Some of NC’s other notorious true crime stories

Clockwise, from left: The scene of the explosion in Greensboro in 1985 that ended the "Bitter Blood" murder spree; Jeffrey MacDonald; Velma Barfield; Blanche Taylor Moore; Henry Louis Wallace.
Clockwise, from left: The scene of the explosion in Greensboro in 1985 that ended the "Bitter Blood" murder spree; Jeffrey MacDonald; Velma Barfield; Blanche Taylor Moore; Henry Louis Wallace. Greensboro News & Record / Associated Press / News & Observer

The 21st-century citizen with 24-hour access to information continues to be obsessed with things he cannot know. Stories of true crimes are especially intriguing, leaving an audience to wonder: What could drive another person to acts of such immense inhumanity?

North Carolina’s judicial history is filled with captivating true-crime tales. They have inspired ballads, books, television series and movies. Many have drawn national attention and set legal precedent.

Netflix’s “The Staircase,” about the Michael Peterson murder case in Durham, has sparked renewed interest this summer in other such memorable crimes.

Here are some of the most memorable cases.

‘Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs.’

Jeffrey Robert MacDonald: A native New Yorker who went off to Princeton University on a scholarship, Jeffrey MacDonald married his high school sweetheart, Colette Kathryn Stevenson, after she got pregnant with his child. He went to medical school at Northwestern University in Chicago and, in 1969, joined the U.S. Army and moved to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he became a surgeon in the 6th Special Forces Group.

Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald carries a briefcase before attending a hearing July 7, 1970 on charges against him in a Ft. Bragg, N.C file photo. MacDonald was convicted of the stabbing deaths of his pregnant wife and two daughters. AP Photo/File

The victims: Early on the morning of Feb. 17, 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald called military police at Fort Bragg to report a stabbing at the apartment where he and Colette lived with their daughters, Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2. Officers arrived to find MacDonald on his bedroom floor next to wife’s body.

Colette had been beaten with a piece of wood that broke both her arms, and she had been stabbed 37 times with an ice pick and a knife. Kimberly was found dead in her bed. She also had been beaten in the head and stabbed in the neck at least eight times. Kristen lay dead in her bed, stabbed 48 times with a knife and an ice pick.

MacDonald had facial injuries, superficial cuts on his abdomen and a more serious stab wound to the chest, caused by a different weapon from those used on others in his family. He was charged with the murders.

The outcome: Starting in July 1970, the Army held Article 32 proceedings. MacDonald claimed that intruders — three men and a woman with long blond hair who was chanting, “Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs” — attacked the family during the night. Prosecutors argued that MacDonald had concocted the intruder story after reading a magazine story about the 1969 Manson Family killings. A civilian defense attorney tore apart the military’s investigation of the killings and tried to give credence to MacDonald’s claims of intruders. The Army dropped the charges, and MacDonald moved to California to work in a hospital emergency room.

In 1975, after continued pressure from Colette’s father, a U.S. Justice Department attorney presented a case against MacDonald to a grand jury in North Carolina.

A 2017 People magazine cover story about the Jeffrey MacDonald case.

MacDonald went on trial in July 1979 and was convicted of first-degree murder in Kristen’s death, and of second-degree murder in Colette’s and Kimberly’s deaths. He was given three life sentences.

Attorneys have appealed, asked for a retrial and argued that MacDonald should be exonerated. The last was in 2017, when they said that a piece of hair from the scene belonging to someone other than MacDonald and that statements by two witnesses, both now deceased, point to someone else having committed the murders.

MacDonald, now 74, is housed at a medium-security federal prison in Cumberland, Md.

Learn more: “Fatal Vision” was a 1983 best-seller by Joe McGinnis, who had extensive access to MacDonald and his defense team over a four-year period. McGinnis concluded that MacDonald was guilty. In 2012, filmmaker Errol Morris set about proving MacDonald was innocent and published, “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald.”

— MQ

Convicted, acquitted, then convicted again

Timothy Hennis: Former U.S. Army soldier Timothy Hennis quickly became a suspect in the murder of a Fayetteville woman and two of her young daughters in 1985. Hennis, then 27, had been to the home a few days before the killings to adopt a dog. He was convicted in state court and sentenced to death in 1986, but he was given a new trial in 1989 when the N.C. Supreme Court found that gory crime scene photos shown on the wall above Hennis’ head during his first trial were inflammatory.

Timothy Hennis, center, is lead to his first court appearance on May 20, 1985. The Fayetteville Observer

Hennis was acquitted in the second trial and went back into the Army, retiring in 2004. Though modern DNA testing in 2006 linked him conclusively to the crime scene, he could not be tried again in state court. So the Army called him back to active duty to court-martial him on the charges, though the murders were committed off post.

The victims: Kathryn “Katie” Eastburn, 31, was home with her three daughters in a rental house in Fayetteville while her husband, Gary, a U.S. Air Force captain at what was then Pope Air Force Base, attended military training in Alabama. A neighbor called police on Mother’s Day after noticing that newspapers had piled up in the driveway though Katie’s car was parked at the house.

Police found that Katie Eastburn had been raped and stabbed and her throat had been slit. Her daughters, Erin and Kara, ages 3 and 5, had been slashed and were dead. The 22-month-old baby, Jana, had not been attacked but had been without food and drink for days.

The outcome: A military jury — at his third trial — found Hennis guilty of the murders and sentenced him to death. He is being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while his attorneys appeal. He is the only U.S. citizen so far to have been sent to death row by a civilian court, exonerated, then sent back to death row via military court.

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Hennis’ case was one of those N.C. Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake cited when pushing for reformation of the N.C. justice system, which helped lead to the creation of the state’s Actual Innocence Commission. Attorneys in North Carolina still consider the Hennis case when determining whether and how to display crime scene photos at trial.

To learn more: The New Yorker magazine has a thorough summary of the case through 2011. Newspaper reporter Scott Whisnant, who covered Hennis’ trial, published a book, “Innocent Victims” about the case, in 1993 and a newer edition has updates. The book was made into a TV miniseries in 1996.

— MQ

The ‘Bitter Blood’ murders

Susie Newsom Lynch and Fritz Klenner: Susie Newsom Lynch, along with her first cousin and lover Fritz Klenner, killed nine people, including themselves, in 1984 and 1985. Lynch was the daughter of R.J. Reynolds executive Bob Newsom and was named after her maternal aunt, Susie Sharp, the first female North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice.

Susie Newsom grew up in Winston-Salem and married Tom Lynch, the son of a high-ranking GE executive, whom she met while the two attended Wake Forest University. Susie and Tom split in 1979 and she gained custody of their two sons, John and Jim. In 1980, she became reacquainted with her cousin Fritz, whose mother was also the sister of Judge Susie Sharp. Fritz worked in Reidsville with his father, Dr. Fred Klenner, while pretending to be in medical school at Duke.

Law enforcement officers investigate the scene where Fritz Klenner's Chevy Blazer blew up during a police chase, killing himself, Susie Newsom Lynch and her two children on June 3, 1985. Greensboro News & Record

The victims: In July 1984, Delores Lynch and Janie Lynch, the mother and sister of Tom Lynch, were shot at close range with a high-powered weapon inside Delores’ home in Kentucky. Police said it looked like a professional hit. The shootings came days before Tom was supposed to take John and Jim to Kentucky to visit their grandmother.

On May 18, 1985, Fritz, having convinced 21-year-old Ian Perkins of Reidsville that he was in the CIA, recruited Perkins to assist him in killing what Klenner alleged were communist drug traffickers in Winston-Salem. Perkins drove Fritz to a wealthy Winston-Salem neighborhood to carry out his mission. Those “drug traffickers” were actually Susie’s parents and grandmother: Bob and Florence Newsom, and Bob’s mother, Hattie.

The Newsoms, who lived directly across the street from poet and author Maya Angelou, had been assisting Tom Lynch in getting more visitation rights for his sons, which had enraged Susie. Perkins went on to wear a wire for the police in an effort to catch Fritz.

The outcome: On June 3, 1985, unmarked police cars from various agencies — Forsyth County deputies, Greensboro Police, SBI agents and Kentucky State Police — followed Fritz Klenner to Susie’s Greensboro apartment. They watched Fritz and Susie load a Chevy Blazer with camping supplies and then John and Jim and the family dog.

As the Blazer got on the road, police surrounded it and waved for Klenner to stop. He fired a 9mm submachine gun at officers, injuring a Greensboro police officer and a Kentucky detective. Klenner took off again, then turned east on N.C. 150 and pulled over. Residents heard more gunfire, then clicks, then an explosion. Susie and Fritz had blown up the Blazer and everything inside it. It was later determined that John and Jim were dead before the explosion, having been poisoned and shot in the head by their mother.

Learn more: Jerry Bledsoe’s book about this case, “Bitter Blood: A True Story of Southern Family Pride, Madness and Multiple Murder,” is one of the best in the true crime genre. The Greensboro News & Record, where Bledsoe worked at the time of the killing spree, revisited the case in 2015 on its 30th anniversary, with an excellent synopsis of the case and a look at where survivors are now. The synopsis is culled from Bledsoe’s news stories, which were the basis of his best-selling book. In 1994, a TV movie based on “Bitter Blood” aired on CBS. “In the Best of Families: Marriage, Pride and Madness,” usually called “Bitter Blood” in cable TV reruns, starred Kelly McGillis, Harry Hamlin and Keith Carradine.

— BC

Death Row Granny

Velma Barfield: Margie Velma Barfield was born in South Carolina in 1932 but raised in Robeson County, where she lived nearly her whole life. She was convicted of killing her fiance, but eventually made official confessions to killing three others. She is suspected of killing at least two additional people.

Barfield 1984.JPG
Velma Barfield in a 1984 photo News & Observer file photo

The victims: Barfield was convicted in 1978 of poisoning and killing fiance Rowland Stuart Taylor by mixing Singletary Rat Killer or Terro Ant and Roach Killer into his beer and tea. Barfield also confessed to poisoning and killing her mother, Lillian Bullard, in 1974; Dollie Edwards, an elderly woman for whom Barfield was a caretaker, in 1976; and John Henry Lee, the husband of a woman for whom Barfield was a caretaker, in 1977. In each case, Barfield had been stealing money from her victims to fund her addiction to pills.

Barfield’s first husband, Thomas Burke, died in a house fire in 1969. Just before her execution, it is reported that Barfield told her son Ronnie Burke that she “probably” killed him because she left a lit cigarette at the foot of the bed where he lay drunk.

Jennings Barfield, Velma’s second husband who died in 1971 less than a year after their marriage, was exhumed after Taylor’s death and found to have arsenic in his system. (Jennings’ grandson, singer-songwriter Jonathan Byrd, wrote the song “Velma” about Velma Barfield.)

Barfield is also suspected of killing Montgomery Edwards, the husband of Dollie, who died of the same symptoms as Dollie.

The outcome: Barfield, who became known as the “Death Row Granny,” was convicted of Taylor’s murder and executed on Nov. 2, 1984. During her time in prison, Barfield got off drugs, became a born-again Christian and received praise from Billy Graham for ministering to prisoners. She was the first woman in the United States to be executed after the 1976 resumption of capital punishment and the first since 1962. She was also the first woman to be executed by lethal injection. Barfield’s last meal was a bag of Cheetos and two 8-ounce glass bottles of Coca-Cola.

Learn more: North Carolina writer Jerry Bledsoe wrote a great book about Barfield’s life and crimes: “Death Sentence: The True Story of Velma Barfield’s Life, Crimes, and Execution.”

— BC

NC’s Black Widow

Blanche Taylor Moore: Often referred to as North Carolina’s Black Widow, Blanche Taylor Moore was charged in 1989 with killing her first husband and her boyfriend, and trying to kill her second husband, all by putting arsenic-based ant killer in their food.

She was born in North Carolina in 1933, one of seven children. Her father was an itinerant Baptist preacher described by investigators as an alcoholic who cheated on his wife and prostituted Moore when she was a child. Moore got a job at Kroger in the 1950s and worked there until she was arrested.

Blanche Taylor Moore seen in a 1997 photo during a hearing. Moore is on N.C.'s death row for poisoning her boyfriend with arsenic more than three decades ago. Jessica Mann Winston-Salem Journal

The victims: It was the Rev. Dwight Moore’s sudden and severe illness within days of his marriage in April 1989 that attracted police attention to Blanche Moore and got them wondering about the deaths of several men in her life over several decades. Toxicology tests showed Dwight Moore had ingested more than 100 times the amount of arsenic normally found in humans. When they were finished digging up bodies, police also had charged Blanche with killing her first husband, James N. Taylor, and a longtime Kroger coworker and former boyfriend, Raymond Reid.

Dwight Moore survived the poisoning and testified against Blanche, who also was suspected by police of having poisoned her father, who died in 1966, and the mother of her first husband, both of whose exhumed bodies showed elevated arsenic levels.

Prosecutors said that while Raymond Reid was in the hospital suffering from what would later be identified as arsenic poisoning, Moore was bringing him food laced with more arsenic. Her favorite source of the poison was said to be a brand of insect killer called Anti-Ant. Investigators believed Moore was motivated by potential insurance and estate proceeds and a deep hatred for men who shared the same vices as her father.

The outcome: Moore was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Raymond Reid and was sentenced to death by lethal injection in 1990. She remains on death row, where she is one of three women. Dwight Moore, who ingested what was at the time one of the highest doses of arsenic any person was known to have survived, died in 2013. Janet Branch Downing, the lead prosecutor at Blanche Moore’s trial, stepped into traffic on Interstate 485 in Charlotte in 2015 and was killed. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Learn more: True-crime writer Jim Schutze published “Preacher’s Girl: The Life and Crimes of Blanche Taylor Moore” in 1993. That year, Elizabeth Montgomery (“Samantha” from “Bewitched”) played Moore in a TV movie called “Black Widow Murders,” based on the book.

— MQ

The Taco Bell Strangler

Henry Louis Wallace: Henry Louis Wallace is a serial killer who raped and murdered 10 women in Charlotte and one woman in his hometown of Barnwell, S.C., from 1990 to 1994. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1985 and was honorably discharged in 1992 after he was caught stealing.

Wallace is also called The Charlotte Strangler and The Taco Bell Strangler. He worked as a manager at the Taco Bell on North Sharon Amity Road in Charlotte. Nearly all of his victims were employees there, or friends and co-workers of his girlfriend at Bojangle’s. Wallace stole from nearly all the victims to fund his crack addiction.

Deputies lead convicted serial killer Henry Louis Wallace to a van waiting to transport him to Raleigh's Central Prison. Christopher A. Record/The Charlotte Observer

The victims: Wallace’s last nine victims all had a seemingly obvious connection (the Taco Bell where Wallace worked and the Bojangles where his girlfriend worked), but the clues were somehow ignored. The Charlotte Police Department was criticized during this time for being slow to act on the high numbers of missing and murdered lower-income black women. Police Chief Dennis Nowicki later apologized for not recognizing a link between all of the murders earlier. Here are Wallace’s victims:

1. Tashonda Bethea, a young woman in Wallace’s hometown of Barnwell, S.C. He killed her and dumped her body in a lake, where it was discovered weeks later.

2. In May 1992, not long after moving to Charlotte, Wallace beat to death Sharon Nance, a sex worker whom Wallace had refused to pay after soliciting her services. He dumped her body by railroad tracks.

3. Wallace raped and strangled Caroline Love at her apartment in June 1992 and then dumped her body in a wooded area in Charlotte. (Wallace later confessed to visiting the remains three times.) Love was a friend and roommate of Wallace’s then girlfriend, Sadie McKnight. Both women worked at Bojangles. Wallace later went with McKnight and Love’s sister to file a missing persons report. Her body was discovered nearly two years later.

4. In February 1993, Wallace had sex with Shawna Hawk at her home and then strangled her. Hawk and Wallace both worked at Taco Bell. Wallace attended her funeral.

5. Wallace raped and strangled another Taco Bell co-worker, Audrey Spain, in June 1993. He later told police he thought Spain might have the combination to the safe at Taco Bell.

6. In August 1993, Wallace raped and strangled Valencia M. Jumper, a friend of Wallace’s sister. This time he set the body on fire to cover up his crime. Wallace accompanied his sister to Jumper’s funeral.

7. Wallace killed Michelle Stinson, a frequent Taco Bell customer who became friendly with him, in September 1993. Stinson was a college student and single mother of two small sons. Wallace raped her and then strangled and stabbed her in front of her 3-year-old son.

Undated file photos of nine of the women that Henry Louis Wallace of strangling over a 20-month period. Top row, from left: Betty Jean Baucom; Shawna Hawk; Brandi June Henderson; Valencia M. Jumper and Caroline Love. Bottom row, from left: Vanessa Little Mack; Sharon Nance; Debra Ann Slaughter; and Michelle Stinson. AP Photo/Charlotte Observer,File

8. On February 20, 1994, just weeks after being arrested for shoplifting, Wallace strangled the sister of one of his employees at Taco Bell, Vanessa Little Mack. Mack had two young daughters.

9. On March 8, 1994, at The Lake apartment complex, Wallace robbed and strangled Betty Jean Baucom, one of his girlfriend’s friends and coworkers at Bojangles. He also stole her TV and car, then returned to her apartment later to steal her VCR.

10. Later that night, Wallace returned to The Lake apartment complex and murdered Brandi June Henderson, the girlfriend of a friend. He raped Henderson while she held her baby and then strangled her. He also strangled her son, but the baby survived.

11. By March 12, 1994, Charlotte police were onto Wallace and there was a citywide hunt for him. Even so, Wallace robbed and strangled Debra Ann Slaughter, another of his girlfriend’s coworkers at Bojangles. He stabbed her 38 times in the stomach and chest.

The outcome: Wallace was finally arrested on March 13, 1994, and he confessed in detail to the 10 murders in Charlotte and one in Barnwell. Wallace was tried for the last nine murders and found guilty on Jan. 7, 1997. He received nine death sentences.

There have been a number of appeals attempting to overturn the death sentence — even to the U.S. Supreme Court — but the decision has been upheld. There is no date set for his execution. In 1998, Wallace married prison nurse Rebecca Torrijas, 23 years his elder. They were married in the room next to the execution chamber.

Learn more: Crime Magazine has a detailed account of Wallace’s crimes. Even though the story puts Charlotte in South Carolina, it does a good job of laying out all off the clues and patterns overlooked by police.

— BC

While he slept

Barbara Stager: Barbara Stager is a Durham county native who was convicted in the first-degree murder of her second husband in 1988. An investigation revealed that Stager’s first husband had died in a very similar way, but Stager was only tried for the death of her second husband.

A Lee County deputy sheriff leads Barbara Stager out of the courtroom in 1989 after Stager was given the death penalty for the murder of her second husband, Russ Stager. News & Observer file photo

The victims: Barbara Stager shot Russell Stager, a well-loved baseball coach at Durham High School, in the head with a handgun while he slept on Feb. 1, 1988. Barbara told police the gun was kept under her husband’s pillow and that it accidentally went off in her hand as she was moving the gun.

It was Russ’ first wife, Jo Lynn Snow, who told police about Russ and Barbara’s many financial and marital troubles; about the circumstances of the shooting death of Barbara’s first husband, Larry Ford; and about Russ’ fears that Barbara was trying to kill him. Russ had even made audiotapes about his suspicions, noting that his wife would wake him up at 4:30 a.m. to give him sleeping pills.

Russ Stager, who was shot and killed in February 1988. His wife Barbara Stager was convicted May 17, 1989. 1989 News & Observer file photo

During the investigation, police also asked Barbara if she would reenact what happened the night Russ died. In a chilling scene, she crawled onto the bed and reenacted the shooting for the detective (you can see it on this “Forensic Files” episode).

The outcome: The Durham jury deliberated just 44 minutes before finding Barbara Stager guilty of first-degree murder. Stager was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later reduced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

It was reported in September 2017 that Stager participates in a Community Leave program that allows her to leave the N.C. Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh for lunch as long as she is with a prison-approved sponsor. She is next eligible for parole in August 2018.

Learn more: The whole sordid story is detailed in “Before He Wakes: A True Story of Money, Marriage, Sex and Murder,” a true-crime book by Jerry Bledsoe. The story has also been the subject of multiple TV shows such as “Forensic Files” and “American Justice.” A TV movie based on Bledsoe’s book starred Jaclyn Smith.

— BC

The Durham cult leader

Pete Lucas Moses Jr.: Police described Pete Lucas Moses Jr. as the leader of a religious cult whose members lived with him at a house in Durham. Moses called the women his wives, and they often called him “Lord.” Moses was affiliated with the Black Hebrews, a religious sect that teaches that black people are the descendants of ancient Israelites.

Peter Lucas Moses Jr. was sentenced to two life terms for his role in the 2009 murders of 5-year-old Jadon Higganbothan and Antoinetta McKoy. News & Observer file photo

In 2011, Moses was accused of killing a 5-year-old boy whose mother was one of his followers, and of directing members of his group to kill a woman who wanted to leave the fold.

The victims: Jadon Higganbotham, 4, was the son of Vania Rae Sisk, a member of Moses’ cult. Police said Moses shot and killed the child in the garage of the home in the fall of 2010 because he thought the boy was gay.

Antoinetta McKoy, 28, wrote in a diary that she feared Moses would kill her after she found out she could not have children. She tried to run away in December 2010, but she was tackled outside the house by some of the other women, who dragged her back in. She was beaten by Moses and the others and then shot. Her body and Jadon’s both were found buried in the back yard of a vacant rental house in June 2011.

The outcome: Moses pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder to avoid a trial and the possibility of the death penalty. Four other people in the cult — Jadon’s mother, Vania Rae Sisk; Lavada Quinzetta Harris; LaRhonda Smith and Moses’s brother, P. Leonard Moses — pleaded guilty to related charges. Pete Moses, 34, remains in prison in Columbus County.

To learn more: There may be as many as 50,000 people around the world who identify as members of different sects of Black Hebrews, including several thousand living in Israel, which they consider their ancestral homeland though they are not recognized as Jews or given most rights of citizenship. The group in Israel has been a source of strife in the past between the U.S. and Israeli governments, because it was started by immigrants from the U.S. who settled there illegally.

— MQ

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