Murders and mysteries: North Carolina’s 12 most famous true-crime cases

·29 min read

Society’s fascination with real-life murders and mysteries is not new, despite the relatively new and ubiquitous “true crime” label it has received.

But the dramatically increased interest in the genre is evidenced by — and likely fueled by — our increased access to the stories. Multiple cable TV and streaming outlets are now devoted entirely to telling true crime stories, not to mention hundreds of podcasts and tens of thousands of books and news stories (like this one).

North Carolina’s judicial history is filled with captivating true-crime tales, and many have drawn national attention and set legal precedent.

In chronological order, here are some of the most memorable cases in our state’s history.

The Lawson family murders: A Christmas day massacre

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. 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.

The victims: 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.

A portrait of the Lawson family of Germanton, N.C., taken in December 1929, days before patriarch Charlie Lawson murdered all but the eldest son (Arthur) in his family. Clockwise from top left: Arthur (16), Marie (17), Charles (43), Fannie (37) holding baby Mary Lou, Carrie (12), Raymond (2), Maybell (7) and James (4).
A portrait of the Lawson family of Germanton, N.C., taken in December 1929, days before patriarch Charlie Lawson murdered all but the eldest son (Arthur) in his family. Clockwise from top left: Arthur (16), Marie (17), Charles (43), Fannie (37) holding baby Mary Lou, Carrie (12), Raymond (2), Maybell (7) and James (4).

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). Ad the story has been repeated on popular true-crime podcasts, including “Criminal” and “My Favorite Murder.”


Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald (center) arrives at the US District Court in Raleigh, N.C. flanked by his lawyers Wade Smith (left) and Bernard Segal (right) July 17, 1979.
Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald (center) arrives at the US District Court in Raleigh, N.C. flanked by his lawyers Wade Smith (left) and Bernard Segal (right) July 17, 1979.

The Jeffrey MacDonald case: ‘Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs.’

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.

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 his 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.

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. 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

Feb. 27, 1984--Velma Barfield in her cell at the N.C. Correctional Center for Women in Raleigh, Feb. 27, 1984.
Feb. 27, 1984--Velma Barfield in her cell at the N.C. Correctional Center for Women in Raleigh, Feb. 27, 1984.

Velma Barfield: NC’s ‘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.

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

Susie Newsom Lynch & Fritz Klenner: The ‘Bitter Blood’ murders

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.

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

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

Timothy Hennis: Convicted, acquitted, convicted again

In 1985, U.S. Army soldier Timothy Hennis quickly became a suspect in the murder of a Fayetteville woman and two of her young daughters. 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.

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.

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.

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

Barbara Stager: Two dead husbands

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.

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.

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 a “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.

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 killing of Lieth Von Stein: Dungeons & Dragons murderers

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. Chris Pritchard remained on the N.C. State campus the night of the attack in order to establish an alibi.

The victims: 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.

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).

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


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.
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.

Blanche Taylor Moore: NC’s Black Widow killer

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.

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

Deputies lead condemned serial killer Henry Louis Wallace to a van to transport him to Central Prison in Raleigh on in January 1997.
Deputies lead condemned serial killer Henry Louis Wallace to a van to transport him to Central Prison in Raleigh on in January 1997.

Henry Louis Wallace: ‘The Taco Bell Strangler’

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 sometimes 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 and nearly all of his victims were employees there, or friends and co-workers of his girlfriend at Bojangles’. Wallace stole from nearly all the victims to fund his crack addiction.

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.

Undated file photos of nine of the women that Henry Louis Wallace strangled over 20 months. 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.
Undated file photos of nine of the women that Henry Louis Wallace strangled over 20 months. 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.

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.

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 places Charlotte in South Carolina, it does a good job of laying out all the clues and patterns overlooked by police.

— BC

Pete Lucas Moses Jr.: The Durham cult leader

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.

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 backyard 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.

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

Michael Peterson (center) is surrounded by family members and reporters as he walks into the Durham County Courthouse to turn himself in for in connection with the death of his wife Kathleen Peterson.
Michael Peterson (center) is surrounded by family members and reporters as he walks into the Durham County Courthouse to turn himself in for in connection with the death of his wife Kathleen Peterson.

Michael Peterson: Durham’s never-ending ‘Staircase’ saga

For decades, the Jeffrey MacDonald case was North Carolina’s most famous crime, but the notoriety surrounding the mysterious death of Durham’s Kathleen Peterson and the murder trial of her husband, Michael Peterson, may have changed that.

The victim: Kathleen Peterson, a Nortel Networks executive, died in a pool of blood at the bottom of the back staircase of the couple’s Durham mansion in the early morning hours of December 9, 2001. Michael Peterson — a novelist, a Durham Herald-Sun columnist and a former mayoral candidate — called 911 and told the operator that his wife had fallen down the stairs but was still breathing. When police arrived, Kathleen was dead and the bloody scene prompted police to treat the death as suspicious. An autopsy found that Kathleen’s death was a homicide, the result of blunt force trauma to the back of her head.

The trial: Michael Peterson was charged with his wife’s murder and the trial, carried live each day on Court TV, became one of the longest murder trials in North Carolina history. The case drew interest from around the world because of its many twists and turns, including but not limited to:

  • The revelation of the death of family friend Elizabeth Ratliff, also found dead at the bottom of a staircase in Germany in 1985. Ratfliff’s body was exhumed by Durham investigators and an autopsy was performed, and her death was determined to be the result of blunt force trauma.

  • The revelation of Michael’s bisexuality (and the question of whether Kathleen knew) and his multiple affairs.

  • The late-case courtroom surprise discovery of “the missing blow poke,” a suspected murder weapon.

Michael Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder in 2003.

More twists and turns: But the story doesn’t stop there. Here are just a few of the other twists and turns, which never seem to stop coming.

  • Peterson’s defense team’s planning and the trial were recorded by a French documentary film crew, who had unprecedented access to Peterson’s family and attorneys. At some point during the editing of the series, the editor Sophie Brunet fell in love with Peterson and began a relationship with him, traveling from Paris to North Carolina to visit him in prison, and even lived in Durham for a time.

  • In 2008, Peterson’s neighbor, Larry Pollard, held a news conference announcing his theory that an owl attacked Kathleen Peterson and that she died as a result of those injuries.

  • In 2011, citing misconduct in the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation — involving agent Duane Deaver specifically — Judge Orlando Hudson granted Peterson a new trial and he was released from prison.

  • In 2017, Peterson entered an Alford plea, pleading guilty to manslaughter while not admitting actual guilt, and was free with time served. He continues to live in Durham.

Learn more: Watch the 13-part French documentary series on Netflix (the final installments were released in 2018) and the eight-part scripted HBO series — both projects are titled “The Staircase.” For full coverage of HBO Max’s “The Staircase” and other background on the death of Kathleen Peterson and the murder trial of Michael Peterson, visit:


Faith Hedgepeth, a 19-year-old college student at UNC-Chapel Hill, was murdered in her off-campus apartment in 2012.
Faith Hedgepeth, a 19-year-old college student at UNC-Chapel Hill, was murdered in her off-campus apartment in 2012.

Faith Hedgepeth: A tragic murder in Chapel Hill

UNC college student Faith Hedgepeth was found beaten to death on Sept. 7, 2012 inside the off-campus Durham/Chapel Hill apartment she shared with another student.

Police collected tons of forensic evidence from the scene (including the murder weapon and DNA), performed hundreds of DNA tests and even generated a composite image of the killer based on DNA, but the case went unsolved for nearly 20 years.

In September 2021, police arrested and charged 28-year-old Miguel Enrique Salguero-Olivares of Durham, but no information has been released about how he knew Hedgepeth and why police think he killed her. No trial date has been set.

Since the case is technically unresolved, here are some facts about Hedgepeth and the national attention on the case:

About Faith Hedgepeth: Hedgepeth grew up in Hollister, North Carolina, a small community on the Warren-Halifax County border. She was a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribal community. Her parents are Roland and Connie Hedgepeth. An older sister, Rolanda Hedgepeth, was 18 when Faith was born, and was like a second mother to her.

Hedgepeth was a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill when she was killed. She was at UNC on a Gates Millennium Scholarship for advanced minority students. Her dream was to become a pediatrician and return to her community to work. There is now a Faith Hedgepeth Memorial Scholarship fund, which helps Native American women from a North Carolina tribe earn a higher education.

The night Faith Hedgepeth died: On Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, the day before Hedgepeth was killed, she went with friend and roommate Karena Rosario to a Chapel Hill nightclub on Rosemary Street called The Thrill. Surveillance footage shows them arriving at 12:40 a.m. and surveillance footage shows them leaving the club at 2:06 a.m. They returned to Rosario’s apartment. Around 4:25 a.m. Rosario told police that she left the apartment, picked up by a male friend, leaving Hedgepeth home alone and asleep in the bedroom. Rosario told police that she left the door unlocked. Rosario got a ride back to her apartment the next morning with a friend, Marisol Rangel, and they arrived around 11 a.m.

How Faith Hedgepeth died: Rosario and Rangel discovered Hedgepeth on the bed with blood under her head. Rosario called 911 at 11:01 a.m. and told the dispatcher that her roommate was unconscious and that there was “blood everywhere.” According to an autopsy report, released to the public in September 2014, Hedgepeth’s head was bludgeoned so severely that medical examiners concluded her cause of death to be blunt-force trauma.

Learn more: Hedgepeth’s case has been covered extensively. “20/20” aired a special in 2016 called “Love, Hope and Faith: The Faith Hedgepeth Murder.” In 2018, the Investigation Discovery series “Breaking Homicide” looked into Hedgepeth’s murder. In 2019, former newspaper columnist Tom Gasparoli released a 10-episode podcast series about the Hedgepeth murder called “Pursuit.” In May 2020, an Investigation Discovery Special called “Who Killed the Co-Ed? An ID Murder Mystery” aired. Investigation Discovery shows are usually available to stream on discovery+. Get more details on Hedgepeth’s case in the full Hedgepeth timeline published at