All in the family: Notorious NC murders that struck close to home

Portrait of the Lawson Family
Portrait of the Lawson Family NCDCR

When pressed, many true crime fans will admit their fascination with murder stems from their own fears and a desire to understand the whys and hows of the crimes in an effort to avoid the situations that have befallen others.

But when considering violent crime statistics, it’s apparent that avoiding personal violence isn’t always as easy as staying out of darkened alleyways. We all know to be aware of stranger danger, but the fact is that we’re often more likely to be hurt by a family member or acquaintance.

A study released in 2005 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 22.9 percent of murders during the four-year time period studied were committed by family members. And when you consider women as victims, the numbers are even worse. A study released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed homicide as one of the leading causes of death for women 44 years of age or younger, and nearly half of the female homicides were committed by a current or former male intimate partner.

Now that we’re all looking sideways at that family member across the room, let’s consider some of North Carolina’s most infamous family murders. And in the spirit of the holidays, our first one — possibly the most infamous murder in our state’s history — happened on Christmas day.

An article on the front page of The News & Observer on Dec. 27, 1929. The News & Observer

A Christmas Day family massacre

The Crime: On Christmas Day in 1929, Stokes County tobacco farmer Charles Lawson brutally murdered his wife and six of his seven children — and his motive for the massacre has become one of North Carolina’s greatest mysteries. According to reports, Lawson owned a farm near Germanton and because they struggled financially, the family lived a very no-frills lifestyle. Yet, in the weeks before Christmas, Lawson drove his family to Winston-Salem and bought new clothes for everyone and had them sit for a family portrait, something extremely out of character for the frugal farmer.

On Christmas morning, sometime after oldest daughter Marie baked a special cake topped with raisins, the oldest son Arthur went into town to buy ammunition for a hunting trip. While Arthur was gone, Lawson killed the entire remaining family by shooting and bludgeoning them to death. The victims were: Fannie, 37; Marie, 17; Carrie, 12; Maybell, 7; James, 4; Raymond, 2; and Mary Lou, 4 months old. After killing his family, Lawson walked into the nearby woods and shot himself to death.

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The Outcome: The entire family was buried in a mass grave in Germanton. Interest in the murder was so extreme that Charles Lawson’s brother began charging 25 cents for admission to tour the crime scene, and sightseers traveled there from miles around to walk through the Lawson home. Some tourists even stole souvenir raisins from the top of the Christmas cake, which had sat undisturbed on the kitchen table. A glass dome was placed over the cake and it sat on display in the home for years. Surviving son Arthur died in an automobile accident in 1945 at age 31. Charles Lawson’s motives in the killings remain a mystery, but some point to a head injury he suffered in the years before the murder, which family members said changed his personality.

A more likely answer comes from a 1990 book on the crime, “White Christmas, Bloody Christmas,” which cited Lawson family members revealing an old family rumor that Charles Lawson had gotten his daughter Marie pregnant, and killed the family to hide the horrible secret. Books, songs and poems were written about the Lawson murders (a bluegrass song about the crime became so popular that mothers reportedly sang it to their babies instead of lullabies) and the story has been repeated on popular true-crime podcasts, including “Criminal” and “My Favorite Murder.”

News of Rufus King, the Clinton, NC, farmer who murdered his six children, made newspapers across the country in October 1956.

A ‘berzerk’ farmer slays children

The crime: Eerily similar to the Lawson murders is perhaps the most infamous crime to ever take place in Sampson County. In October, 1956, just outside of Clinton, a quiet tenant farmer named Rufus A. King, 34, murdered his six children by gun and ax in the family’s home, before shooting himself between the eyes in a nearby cornfield.

According to Associated Press reports published in newspapers across the country, the bodies of the children were discovered when sheriff’s deputies went to the home to serve a warrant charging King with “wife-beating.” His wife was at the home of her brother during the massacre.

Coroner Coleman Carter said Mr. and Mrs. King had been quarreling the day before the murders and King took his wife to her brother’s house, but she returned home that night, worried about the children. The next morning she cooked breakfast for the family and then had her husband take her back to her brother’s house. There, Rufus King and his wife’s brother, Robert Tyndall, argued. King returned home and ushered the children, who were playing in the yard, into a bedroom, where he killed them. Carter said the children had been shot in the head with a .22 rifle and then their heads were beaten with the butt of the rifle and an ax.

The victims were Alice Grey King, 10; Joseph Allen King, 9; David Melvin King, 7; Ella Ruth King, 5; Jerry Thomas King, 3; and Sue Ellen King, 2. Rufus King’s body was found with the aid of bloodhounds. Allen McCullen, who operated a store at Keener, near the King home, told the Associated Press: “It’s the terriblest thing that ever happened in this community.”

The Outcome: Coroner Carter said the murder was motivated by “spite hatred” of the wife and her brothers. A mass funeral for the father and six children was held at Crumpler-Honeycutt Funeral Home in Clinton, where Rufus King had purchased funeral insurance. Friends said the distraught widow, who was not named in the articles we viewed, whispered “why did you do it?” to her husband’s dead body.

An article on the front page of The News & Observer from Jan. 25, 1990 on James Upchurch being found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1988 stabbing death of Lieth Von Stein. The News & Observer

The Dungeons & Dragons murderers

The crime: In 1988, N.C. State student Chris Pritchard convinced two of his friends to help him murder his own family, promising to share his inheritance with them if his mother Bonnie Von Stein, and his stepfather, textile executive Lieth Von Stein, were killed. Lieth Stein’s family owned the Camel City Dry Cleaning chain in Winston-Salem, and his estate was worth $2 million. On July 25, Neal Henderson drove James “Bart” Upchurch to Washington, N.C., where Upchurch entered the Stein home and attacked Lieth and Bonnie while they slept. Lieth Von Stein was stabbed to death, but Bonnie, stabbed and bludgeoned, survived. Chris Pritchard’s sister, Angela, was asleep in another part of the house and told police she slept through the whole thing. She was later cleared of any involvement. Chris Pritchard remained on the N.C. State campus the night of the attack in order to establish an alibi.

The outcome: The three boys were all arrested and charged in July 1989 and the trial took place in January 1990. Chris Pritchard, whose mother stood by him, admitted to being the mastermind of the scheme, and Henderson pleaded guilty to reduced charges. Both Pritchard and Henderson testified against Upchurch, who was found guilty of several charges, including first degree murder. Upchurch will be eligible for parole in 2022. Pritchard was convicted of aiding and abetting in the assault against his mother and was sentenced to life in prison, but was paroled in 2007. He later became a born-again Christian. Henderson was paroled in 2000.

The case got national attention because of the students’ interest in the role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons,” which was emphasized in media accounts of the crime (apparently, the three students were known to get high and then act out the game with real weapons in the steam tunnels underneath N.C. State’s Raleigh campus).

The case is the subject of two true crime books: “Blood Games” by North Carolina author Jerry Bledsoe, and “Cruel Doubt” by Joe McGinnis.

Ann Miller, left, pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of her husband Eric, right, in 2005. News & Observer file photos

A poisonous union

The crime: One of the most talked-about murders to ever take place in Raleigh is the case involving Ann and Eric Miller. In the beginning, Ann and Eric seemed like the perfect couple. The two beautiful college students were smart, driven and in love. They married and moved to Raleigh in 1993 to attend graduate school at N.C. State, and after graduating, Eric Miller became a pediatric AIDS researcher at UNC and Ann Miller took a job as a chemist at GlaxoSmithKline. They had a baby daughter. But their relationship became strained as they fought over money, and Ann Miller began having an affair with a coworker, Derril Willard.

In November of 2000, Ann plotted with Willard to poison her husband with arsenic lifted from Willard’s lab. Willard dosed Eric Miler’s beer during a bowling outing, and Eric became sick. He was hospitalized several times before dying. It was determined that Ann had continued poisoning Eric until he died.

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The outcome: After police began investigating Ann Miller and Derril Willard, Willard killed himself in the garage of the home he shared with his wife and child. It took Raleigh police four years to get enough evidence to arrest Ann Miller, who had by then married a Christian rock musician and moved to Wilmington. A legal battle that twice went to the N.C. Supreme Court required Willard’s attorney to testify about things Willard told him before his death.

In November 2005, Ann Miller Kontz pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and was sentenced to between 25 and 31 ½ years in prison. The Miller case has been the subject of a book — “Deadly Dose” by WRAL reporter Amanda Lamb — and numerous true crime television shows, including the Investigation Discovery series “Fatal Passions” earlier this year.

Jason Young, left, was convicted in 2012 for the 2006 murder of his wife Michelle Young in their Raleigh home. News & Observer file photos

Drive all night

The crime: On Nov. 3, 2006, the body of 29-year-old Michelle Fisher Young was found by her sister, strangled and bludgeoned in the Raleigh home Michelle shared with her husband, Jason Young, and their toddler daughter, Cassidy. Michelle, pregnant at the time, had been struck in the head more than 30 times. Cassidy, at home at the time but uninjured in the attack, was left alone there and had tracked the blood of her murdered mother through the house. There were no signs of forced entry in the Enchanted Oaks home. Jason Young was away on a business trip, staying at a hotel in southwest Virginia at the time of the murder. But when police asked for Young’s help in the case, he refused to cooperate. Investigators eventually concluded that the software salesman, who they said had a history of domestic violence and extramarital affairs, disabled a security camera in a side entrance stairwell of the hotel, made the 169-mile trip back to Raleigh to kill his wife, and drove back to Virginia.

The outcome: In early 2009, Michelle Young’s mother won a wrongful death lawsuit against Jason, and Michelle’s sister was awarded custody of Cassidy. Jason Young was arrested in December of that year and charged with murder. He pleaded not guilty. His first trial, in 2011, ended in mistrial, with the jury deadlocked 8-4 in favor of acquittal. He was found guilty in a second trial in March 2012. He is serving a life sentence. A key witness for the prosecution was a convenience store clerk in King, N.C., who testified that she sold gas to Young at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of Michelle’s murder. In August 2017, a Wake County judge denied Young’s request for a third trial. This case got a lot of national attention, even making the cover of People magazine in 2007.

Brad Cooper, left, and Nancy Cooper. News & Observer file photos

Affairs, debt and murder

The crime: In July 2008, Nancy Cooper of Cary was reported missing by a friend, nearly 8 hours after Nancy’s husband Brad said she went out for a jog and didn’t return. Two days later, her body was found in an undeveloped area near the Coopers’ Lochmere neighborhood. She had been strangled to death. As police investigated her death, a picture of a troubled marriage emerged. Brad Cooper described Nancy, a stay-at-home mother, as a shopaholic who strained the family’s budget. Her friends said Brad, a Cisco Systems engineer, was neglectful, unfaithful and controlling. Cooper admitted to an affair with one of Nancy’s best friends and said the couple, deeply in debt, had recently decided to separate. Police found unexplained scratches on Brad Cooper’s neck and said he cleaned the house and the trunk of his BMW the morning his wife went missing.

The outcome: Brad Cooper was arrested in October 2008 and charged with first-degree murder, and temporary (later permanent) custody of his daughters went to Nancy’s family in Canada. At Cooper’s trial in April 2011, a detective testified that investigators found on Brad’s laptop zoomed-in satellite images of the wooded dirt road where Nancy’s body was found. The investigators said the images were timestamped before Nancy went missing. Cooper’s attorney claimed the police planted that evidence and later called the judge “biased.” The jury delivered a guilty verdict on May 5, 2011.

The case received international attention and was featured on NBC’s “Dateline.” Cooper’s attorneys appealed the verdict and he was granted a new trial in early 2014. But before the trial could happen, he took a plea deal and admitted to killing his wife. He was sentenced to at least 12 years in prison but had already served five years at that time. According to the N.C. Department of Corrections, Cooper has a projected release date of Nov. 23, 2020.

Brooke Cain is a North Carolina native who has worked at The News & Observer for more than 20 years. She writes about TV and local media for the Happiness is a Warm TV blog, and answers CuriousNC questions for readers.