Once again, McGinniss depicts death in a small-town family


October 02, 1991|By New York Times News Service

In the annals of crime, there are serial murderers, and then there are serial authors. Perhaps there was a moment when Joe McGinniss -- author of "Fatal Vision," the grisly story of an Army doctor who killed his pregnant wife and two daughters, and then "Blind Faith," another grisly story about a wife-killer -- felt like scrawling across his bathroom mirror, "Stop me before I write again." If there was, it passed.

In his latest book, "Cruel Doubt," to be published this month by Simon & Schuster, Mr. McGinniss, who is 48, has once again immersed himself in the details of a small-town family murder. This time, he has focused on Chris Pritchard of Washington, N.C., who with two college friends in 1988 planned the stabbing of his stepfather, Lieth Von Stein, and narrowly missed killing his own mother, Bonnie Von Stein. And once again, a stricken family entrusted Mr. McGinniss -- exclusively -- with their most private thoughts and innermost fears.

But this time, those Mr. McGinniss wrote about did not complain of betrayal after they read the book. As Mr. McGinniss put it, rather carefully, "In dealing with people who are not convicted criminals, I've tried to be very conscious of my obligation that there be no unpleasant surprises at the end."

Mr. McGinniss said he had changed as a result of the lawsuit filed by Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor, after his 1979 conviction. MacDonald contended that Mr. McGinniss had violated their contract by allowing MacDonald to believe the book would exonerate him, while in fact it strongly supported his guilt.

The suit was settled after a seven-week trial in 1987 that ended with a hung jury. The writer Janet Malcolm wrote a highly unflattering description of Mr. McGinniss' reporting technique in the New Yorker, which led Mr. McGinniss to add a rebutting afterword to later editions of "Fatal Vision." Mr. McGinniss, who lives in Williamstown, Mass., said he was emotionally drained by that case and by that of Robert O. Marshall, a suburban New Jersey insurance salesman who coldly plotted the murder of his wife in 1989. Both best sellers were made into television movies. "Cruel Doubt" was bought by NBC before the book was completed.

"I had sworn that if someone approached me with anything to do with a crime, or anyone getting hurt, even slightly," Mr. McGinniss said, "I would say, 'I'm not interested.' "

Yet when Wade Smith, a North Carolina lawyer whom Mr. McGinniss had befriended when Mr. Smith served as local counsel for MacDonald, called to ask the writer to meet another client, Bonnie Von Stein, Mr. McGinniss agreed, despite the deja vu.

"I couldn't resist," he said. Mrs. Von Stein told him she had read "Fatal Vision" and wanted its author to find out the truth about her family's experience.

She did not expect him to exonerate her son, and she promised to hold back nothing and to cooperate only with Mr. McGinniss.

"Cruel Doubt" describes how Pritchard, a troubled 19-year-old deeply involved in drugs and the fantasy game Dungeons and HTC Dragons, plotted to kill his parents to inherit $2 million.

The book is unambivalent about Mrs. Von Stein's innocence, but hometown gossips are not. "You'd be surprised," said Washington's police chief, John Crone, "how many people still think Bonnie had something to do with it." Pritchard is serving a life sentence, as is his friend Neil Henderson. The third accomplice, James Upchurch, is on death row.

At the time he was approached by Mrs. Von Stein, Mr. McGinniss had been working on a book about Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, research he said he has since put aside. He said he was partly put off by the "barricades" erected by the senator and his family.

"Would I ever get close enough to share his pain? I don't know," he said.

With Mrs. Von Stein, Mr. McGinniss had unrestricted access to pain. The woman Mr. McGinniss described as intensely private gave the writer permission to interview herself, her daughter, her son, her lawyer and her son's defense team, as well as her own and her son's psychiatrists.

She did not ask, as MacDonald had, for a share of the royalties, nor did she demand a chance to review the manuscript before it appeared, something that Mr. McGinniss never granted MacDonald, but that he elected to do for the sons of Marshall.

Mrs. Von Stein, who did not cooperate with another account of her son's crime, "Blood Games," by a North Carolina reporter, Jerry Bledsoe, declined to be interviewed for this article.

And there were few complaints from other people who featured prominently in "Cruel Doubt" and received advance copies. Mr. Crone, who helped solve the case, said he was dismayed that the book suggested that the police may have "bungled" the collection of evidence at the crime scene, a claim made by Mrs. Von Stein.

"To this day, I am not aware that evidence was bungled," he said, but added cheerfully, "I guess that is what writers do to juice up their books."

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