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Surviving Bitter Blood

Those who survived the Klenner-Lynch killings look back three decades after the events that scarred local communities and decimated two families.

  • 8 min to read

Thirty years ago Wednesday afternoon, Fritz Klenner’s Blazer exploded on a highway in Summerfield.

The force of the blast killed Fritz and his first cousin/lover Susie Newsom Lynch and revealed the deaths of Susie’s two young sons.

The explosion was the final act in a saga that took the lives of nine people, all members of two prominent families.

On the anniversary of that explosion, the News & Record talked to some of the people who were affected by Fritz and Susie’s bloody crime spree.

The Father

For years, Tom Lynch would disappear each June 3, in body and in spirit.

He would stay home from work, go for a hike in the mountains around Albuquerque, N.M., maybe play a round of golf, always alone.

All he could think about was John and Jim. Those two sweet boys, dead in Fritz Klenner’s Blazer, let down by everyone who was supposed to protect them.

Today, the retired dentist has something else on his mind:

A dental appointment. He’s kind of dreading it, too.

Does it surprise you that Lynch, 67, prefers to mark today’s anniversary by leading a normal life?

Spending time with his wife, Kelly.

Playing with their bright, athletic and strong-willed daughter, Ari, who Lynch insists is “13 going on 35.”

Doing something as work-a-day as going to the dentist.

It shouldn’t. Lynch’s boys are never far from his mind, today or any day.

For the most part, this is a healthier and happier time for Lynch, who for years let grief and anger consume him.

He has married for a third time and is a father again.

He remains active, in good health. A former guard at Wake Forest University, he hasn’t played a pickup game in several years, since he blew out his ACL.

He doesn’t know what to do with himself since he closed his dental practice in December. He putters in the yard, dreams of getting a smaller place.

All standard stuff for a man his age.

But those old feelings easily can return, particularly when he’s reminded of all that he lost in those 10 months from 1984 to 1985.

“I’m still bitter about the way things happened,” Lynch said in a series of telephone interviews from his home in Albuquerque. “My sons shouldn’t have been killed.”

The targets of Lynch’s acrimony haven’t changed over the years.

Judges and attorneys. Law enforcement. The boys’ mother, Susie Newsom Lynch.

Even himself.

Lynch said he was a victim of “frontier justice” as he sought help from the courts to win more visitation rights with his sons.

He believes former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Susie Sharp, the aunt of his ex-wife, used her power and influence to limit his time with John and Jim.

Lynch said that particularly was evident by the actions of now-retired Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Peter McHugh.

Lynch believes McHugh took advantage of a delay in the proceedings to enter a permanent order, one that gave Lynch less visitation than he had requested.

McHugh failed to notify Lynch and his attorney the order was coming, Lynch claimed.

“I’m as upset about that as anything,” Lynch said. “I don’t know if that’s illegal or unethical or what.

“I just know it’s not right.”

If McHugh had awarded Lynch more time with the boys, Lynch said he might have been able to stop the chain of events that ended so tragically.

“He (McHugh) has to know he made a mistake,” Lynch said. “A lot of people were killed because of his actions.”

McHugh, now a court-appointed mediator, declined to discuss Lynch’s claims.

“I do not believe that it is appropriate to engage in recriminations or to attempt to re-litigate the action after the passage of three decades,” McHugh said in an email to the News & Record. “However, I will tell you unequivocally that I based my rulings solely on the submissions of the parties and the evidence presented in open court.”

Lynch said he remains angry about other aspects of the case.

He has long questioned the SBI’s actions on June 3, 1985, specifically watching Fritz and Susie load the boys into the Blazer and then drive away.

Those agents and officers from three other jurisdictions followed Fritz from the apartment and then returned fire when he shot at them with his Uzi on West Friendly Avenue.

Why didn’t SBI officers attempt to arrest Fritz earlier, before he had John and Jim in the Blazer?

“Those guys were not only appallingly incompetent, but a little bit cowardly,” Lynch said.

He had warned various local law enforcement agencies that Fritz was dangerous, he said. But none heeded his warnings.

Lynch’s phone conversation is interrupted by daughter Ari, who is demanding his attention. Lynch’s subsequent sigh sounds more joyful than exasperated. Having a teenager in the house has made him happier than he has been in years.

But sometimes, even that is not enough.

“All my friends have grown children,” he said. “Some of them have grandchildren.

“I’m not going to get that.”

The Philosopher

To those who followed the “Bitter Blood” saga, Ian Perkins is frozen in time at 21.

Naive. A dupe. Gullible.

Perkins called himself all of those things and worse after discovering that he helped Fritz Klenner kill Susie Newsom Lynch’s mother, father and grandmother on May 18, 1985 — not assassinate international drug smugglers in a covert CIA operation, as Klenner had said.

But 30 years of self-reflection ages a man, wises him up.

Perkins is 51 now. A husband and father of two boys.

An honors graduate of UNC-Greensboro, honorably discharged from the National Guard.

A techie with a good job and a home in Guilford County.

And, he said, someone who believes he’s “more than the sum total of my failings.”

“Most of the time, I’m a little surprised I made it through more or less whole,” Perkins wrote in an email interview this week, only the second time in 30 years he has spoken to the media about the murders.

Getting there took time.

In May 1985, detectives stunned Perkins when they revealed the truth about Klenner’s actions that night Perkins dropped him off in the Old Town section of Winston-Salem.

Fritz Klenner killed Bob and Florence Newsom, and Bob’s mother, Hattie Newsom, in Hattie’s home.

Perkins, a student at Washington and Lee University who aspired to become a government agent, had believed the spy story concocted by Klenner, his lifelong friend and mentor.

After learning the truth, Perkins helped the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Department by recording conversations with Klenner for three consecutive days, the last conversation just hours before the Blazer exploded.

He served four months in prison for being an accessory after the fact. The judge offered leniency because Perkins risked his life talking to Klenner.

Perkins spent the decade after his release earning a degree in philosophy, completing his National Guard service, feeling “that I had to be twice as good as anybody else,” he said.

His superiors in the National Guard in Virginia could have kicked him out because of the conviction, he said.

Instead, they stuck with him.

“They went to bat for me and found a way to avoid an automatic discharge,” Perkins wrote.

“I’ve never forgotten that, and it forms the core of the life I have tried to build.”

His family in Reidsville, Perkins wrote, offered support that he called “solid” and “ever-present.”

“I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for my parents and my sister, or how I would handle it if one of my boys were in a similar position,” he wrote.

“I shudder to think of it.”

His family, along with the Guard officials and a close friend, persuaded him not to become Fritz Klenner’s 10th victim by letting guilt and embarrassment consume him.

“Susie’s two boys and the Newsoms didn’t deserve to die, and neither did any of Fritz’s other victims,” Perkins wrote, “but there I was, not dead and not in prison for years.”

He got married in 2001 and adopted his wife’s 2-year-old son.

Perkins’ past made the process difficult.

In 2005, Perkins asked then-Gov. Mike Easley for a pardon, hoping it would ease the process of adopting a second child.

His lawyer was Don Vaughan, a member of the Greensboro City Council.

Easley, a former prosecutor, never responded.

The Perkinses never adopted, but they had a child of their own in 2006. Their older boy is almost 15. The couple, like most parents, have “much angst about the looming prospect of driver’s ed ... and high school,” he wrote.

Perkins said he absorbed the code of conduct at Washington and Lee: A gentleman never lies, cheats or steals.

He works hard to be a good example to his sons.

And he reminds himself that he can’t live his life looking backward.

The way, he wrote, is forward:

“It’s not an easy thing to live with the fact I helped Fritz kill three people. It seems like a lifetime ago, but the universe gave me a chance and I’ve done my best to be worthy of that chance.”

The Orphan

In a Winston-Salem courtroom in July 1995, Robert “Rob” Newsom III, the brother of Susie Newsom Lynch, likened himself to a Holocaust survivor.

Both parents and a grandmother — murdered.

Two young nephews — poisoned then shot to death.

His sister and first cousin — blown apart by a bomb.

Four generations — gone.

“I don’t think that we’ll see life in quite the same way that we did before,” he said at the trial of Ian Perkins, who unwittingly drove Fritz to kill the Newsoms.

“What we’ve lost is an awful lot to lose. At this point, I can’t foresee a time when we’ll be free of all of this,” he said.

The News & Record wasn’t able to reach Newsom for this article.

Newsom, then a lawyer, co-wrote the 1988 book, “Deadly Kin,” telling his version of events.

A former Guilford County public defender, Newsom was disbarred in July 1992 for allegedly backdating a convicted client’s appeal.

He agreed never to practice law in North Carolina again.

He switched careers and became a nurse.

In 1999, he told the News & Record that talking about his losses only compounded his grief.

“There’s not a lot to say,’’ Newsom said, “except that it was astounding and sad.’’

The Survivor

Former Greensboro Police Sgt. Tommy Dennis is a stoic sort, not prone to bluster.

So when Dennis, 68, describes surviving Fritz Klenner’s Uzi on June 3, 1985, it sounds like lines from a police blotter.

l He answered a call to help with a felony stop near Friendly Avenue and New Garden Road.

l He made a U-turn, pulled behind a black Blazer and then skidded into the Blazer while avoiding an unmarked police car.

l He was struck twice by spray from Fritz’s 9-mm submachine gun — once in the chest, once on his belt buckle — from 10 feet away.

l He was wearing a bullet-proof vest, something his wife, Sandi, insisted that he do every day.

End of story.

Press Dennis further, however, and you’ll learn it was more harrowing than his demeanor betrays.

For starters, he had frequent nightmares for a couple of months afterward. Sandi said he would wave his hands in the air, as though knocking something to the ground.

Another thing: He quit the police force soon after the shooting, at his family’s insistence.

And this: Fritz looked Dennis square in the eye before he fired. And smiled.

Dennis stayed in the protective services after he left the police force. He supervises security at the Guilford County Courthouse.

He has a few scars underneath his skin from where the impact of the Uzi shredded his chest and shoulder.

He’s a proud father and grandfather, still grateful that Sandi made him wear that vest.

He doesn’t relish his role as a surviving victim of Fritz Klenner.

But he’ll tell you about it.

“If you keep it in you, it’s actually worse,” Dennis said. “Get it out.”

Just don’t expect a lot of drama.

The Storyteller

True fact, told without exaggeration.

During the last week of August 1985, people lined up outside the News & Record to get Jerry Bledsoe’s latest installment of “Bitter Blood: A Genealogy of Murder.”

Pressmen had to print more copies of the newspaper each night just to keep up.

Paper carriers reported people waiting at their doors for the morning delivery.

Bledsoe, a longtime reporter and columnist, wrote the seven-part series less than three months after the Blazer exploded.

He culled the details from autopsy reports; detailed crime scene outlines; the secret wiretaps of Fritz Klenner; court records; and hundreds of interviews.

Soon, Bledsoe would turn the series into the book “Bitter Blood,” which hit the New York Times’ best-sellers list and cemented his role as the tragedy’s narrator, its historian.

He declined to be interviewed by the News & Record about the anniversary.

Bledsoe left the newspaper shortly after his book was published.

But he didn’t stop writing.

Readers have lapped up his other true-crime books, too. “Blood Games.’’ “Before He Wakes.’’ “Death Sentence: The True Story of Velma Barfield’s Life, Crimes & Execution.”

Other books include two popular Christmas tales, “The Angel Doll” and its sequel, “A Gift of Angels.”

But “Bitter Blood,” the newspaper series as well as the book, remain his most enduring work.

In a 1999 interview with the News & Record, Bledsoe said he still dreams about Fritz, Susie, John and Jim.

“If there’s a lesson in this story,” he said, “the lesson is that forgiveness is a vital thing. If you let these things build and simmer in you, they explode.”

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Contact Margaret Moffett at (336) 373-7031, and follow @MargaretMoffett on Twitter.

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