Nov. 6, 2005
During the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 1970, the wife and two children of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald were brutally murdered in the family’s home at Fort Bragg.
The case gained national attention, leading up to the 1979 conviction of Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Army doctor with the elite Green Berets.
Imprisoned for the past 25 years, MacDonald has never waivered from his claims of innocence.
Correspondent Bill Lagattuta
“Prison is difficult for everyone. It's very difficult for the guilty, and it's very difficult for the innocent,” says Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.
"Innocent" is a word tossed around a lot behind prison walls, but for inmate MacDonald it’s the only word that has ever mattered.
“My focus for all these years has been to prove my factual innocence, and walk out of prison with my head held up,” says MacDonald, 61. He has desperately held on to that goal since 1979, when he was convicted of one of the most notorious murders in recent history.
Jeffrey MacDonald had a bright future. He made his mark early on in high school when he was voted most likely to succeed. He went to Princeton University, and Northwestern Medical School. At age 25, he got a captain’s commission as a doctor in the Army’s elite Green Berets.
Along the way, MacDonald managed to capture the heart of his high school girlfriend, Colette Stevenson, and they were married while he was still at Princeton.
During the next seven years, as their family grew, it appeared that the MacDonalds were well on their way to a seemingly perfect life.
But in 1970, life in America was far from perfect.
“This was an era of shock and counterculture rage in America,” says Bernard Segal, a law school professor who, at the time, was MacDonald’s defense attorney. “I was a lawyer for people who felt they were not represented by the system and who were outside the system.”
MacDonald though, was, in fact, deep inside the system. Jeffrey, Colette and their daughters Kimberley, age 5, and Kristin, age 2, were stationed at the largest military base in the country, Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C.
The happy times at Fort Bragg ended during the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 1970.
What happened in the MacDonald house that night is one of America’s most enduring murder mysteries, the subject of a best-selling book, a sensational TV movie, and a mysterious story kept alive by its charismatic leading man, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.
Army MPs arrived at the MacDonald home, responding to a call for help, and found the couple’s children dead in their bedrooms. Jeffrey MacDonald was found wounded and unconscious, beside the body of his dead wife.
“I realized someone was breathing in my mouth. And I opened my eyes, and I could see a ring of military police helmets circling me,” MacDonald says.
He was taken to the hospital, where a colleague told him his family had been murdered. “You can't accept something like that. It doesn't make any sense,” says MacDonald.
In fact, that morning MacDonald wasn’t the only one having trouble making sense of what happened.
“My gut told me that what he told the investigators and what he told the military police, could not possibly have happened in that house,” says Bill Ivory, who was a criminal investigator for the Army and in charge of the crime scene.
Ivory says MacDonald told his agents at the hospital that he had been attacked by some hippies. It is a story that MacDonald has told again and again, for the past 35 years.
MacDonald says he remembers seeing four people, including two white men, a black man and what he thinks was a blonde woman wearing a floppy hat.
“I heard a female voice say, ‘Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.’ I heard that several times,” says MacDonald. “There became a moment in time where all I was doing was fending off blows with both my hands wrapped up in my pajama top. I suddenly had a chest pain. The right side of my chest hurt.”
MacDonald had been stabbed in the center of his chest with an ice pick, puncturing his skin and the layers below.
But the attack on his family was considerably more vicious as revealed by their autopsies. Colette suffered two broken arms, a fractured skull and was stabbed more than 30 times. Five-year-old Kimberley’s skull, jaw and nose were badly broken and her throat was severely cut. And Kristen, just 2½ years old, was stabbed repeatedly in her chest and back.
The autopsy also revealed one last devastating detail: Colette was five and half months pregnant with a son.
MacDonald tells a very compelling story of what happened that night but there are others who say the evidence found in the apartment says something very different.
Bill Ivory, for one, says he is not buying it. He remembers seeing the body of Colette MacDonald.
“I looked at that and saw how everything was laid out," he says. "I saw a weapon over to the side. And the position of her body. On the headboard of the bed, the word ‘pig’ was written in blood."
MacDonald told investigators that these brutal murders were committed by hippies, who had broken into his house, a story, that in today’s world, seems a little tough to swallow.
“Fayetteville at that time did have a big drug problem. A lot of hippies here,” says Peter Kearns, an army investigator from Washington, D.C. Kearns led a follow-up investigation into the MacDonald case, which included producing and starring in a filmed presentation of the evidence.
“A lot of GIs were using drugs then and he had a job where he counseled them,” says Kearns.
“If you were a physician, an Army physician, you were under orders to turn in drug-abusing patients,” says MacDonald. Asked whether he thought someone he turned in might have been involved, he says, “Sure, that’s one of the thought processes we immediately went through, of course.”
But the more closely investigators examined the crime scene, the more closely they began to question MacDonald’s claims.
“The coffee table was laying on its side but other than that there was no sign of any monumental struggle with him and three or four other people,” says Ivory.
For one, Ivory says MacDonald had drugs and medical equipment, items drug-crazed hippies would have grabbed.
Bill Ivory says the evidence pointed to a different story. “The theory that we came up with was that there was an argument. Something started in the master bedroom. He may have hit her first or she may have hit him first.”
A dull kitchen knife was found near Colette’s body but this was not the murder weapon. Police found what they believe were the three murder weapons outside the back door: an ice pick, a paring knife, and a 31-inch length of building lumber, which investigators say was at one time a part of a bed slat on Kimberley’s bed.
“It was about a 2-by-2 that was finally grabbed on and he started swinging. He just lost all control,” says Kearns.
“We believe, also, the older girl was in the bedroom with them and got in the middle of the fight between them,” says Ivory. “He swatted back and hit her on the side of the head and dropped her to the floor.”
“We know this because there is a large amount of her blood right at the entrance to the master bedroom,” Kearns says.
Because each member of the MacDonald family had a different blood type, investigators were able to follow the blood evidence like a trail of breadcrumbs left by the victims.
“He went and took the bedding off of that bed in the master bedroom and (we) believe he wrapped the older girl in that, getting blood on him from her and getting her blood on that sheet,” says Ivory.
The trail led them from the master bedroom to Kimberley’s bedroom, where investigators say MacDonald placed his daughter’s body back in her own bed.
“While he's doing that, his wife regains consciousness and goes to the baby's room and lays across her on the bed, obviously in an attempt to protect her,” says Kearns.
“He followed her into that room,” says Ivory. “And he began beating her more there with the club. That's evidenced by blood sprays that were on the wall and on the ceiling.”
The investigators believe MacDonald picked up his wife’s body in the same bedding already bloodied by his daughter Kimberley and brought her to the master bedroom, but not before leaving a clear and important clue along the way.
Investigators found a bloody footprint leading from Kristin’s bedroom. “There are no ridge marks here. So, we can't say it's his. But all the configuration fits his foot,” says Ivory.
Investigators say after he killed his wife and his daughter Kimberley, he came back in and stood to face his youngest daughter, Kristen, who was still in her bed.
“And then he killed her. And the only reason in the world that he killed her was because she was a witness. And she was old enough, she could say, ‘I saw daddy hitting mommy,’ ” says Ivory.
It’s at this point, investigators say, that with his entire family dead, MacDonald decided to include himself in the attack in order to be believed. Kearns believes MacDonald stabbed himself, collapsing a lung.
Now a victim himself, investigators say MacDonald then went about setting a stage to fit his story of an attack by drug-crazed hippies, a story they discovered MacDonald may have borrowed from some very recent history.
In the apartment, investigators found a copy of Esquire magazine, which included articles about the Tate/LaBianca murders.
In the summer of 1969, just six months earlier, the nation was stunned by a seemingly senseless series of murders in southern California. On Aug. 9, actress Sharon Tate and four houseguests were brutally murdered in the middle of the night. The following night, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were slaughtered in their home.
Both crimes were carried out by the cult-like followers of Charles Manson and the issue of Esquire found in the MacDonald home contained a detailed account of the murders.
Ivory says the article described the crime scenes, described the word "pig" being written on the walls, and described the hippies coming in and causing mayhem in the house.
Investigators also found a finger smudge, in blood, along the edge of the magazine. While it could not be positively linked to MacDonald, it worked with Ivory’s theory of the crime.
Bill Ivory believes MacDonald looked up the articles after murders “to get his story straight.”
Ivory and his team’s interpretation of the evidence pointed them to just one suspect, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.
But MacDonald says he had nothing to do with the murder. “I was in the house that night. I know what happened. To me, it was inconceivable that anyone could buy this hypothetical scenario.”
In fact, MacDonald was right. After a three-month military hearing, the Army’s official position was that, despite the significant efforts of their own investigators, there was not enough evidence for a court martial.
MacDonald thought the ordeal was over and received an honorable discharge shortly thereafter.
While the Army seemed to be done with MacDonald, investigators still had no doubt as to who committed these crimes.
“He's 100 percent guilty. There's no mystery to me,” says Kearns. "He knows he did it. I know he did it."
But until they could prove it in a court of law, MacDonald would remain a free man.
“When I first came to represent Dr. MacDonald, I wondered to myself, ‘Is it possible that he murdered his family?’ ” says Bernard Segal.
It’s the one question that has always haunted this case and everyone involved in it. Was MacDonald capable of these brutal murders?
Segal says when he finally met MacDonald, he encountered “a remarkably appealing, likable young man.”
Segal defended MacDonald when the Army tried and failed to indict him due to a lack of evidence. “He was now a man who had no family and who wanted to try and start his life over again.”
And MacDonald did just that. Like a lot of young, single men at the time, he headed west to southern California. MacDonald found a new career in emergency room medicine and a new lifestyle, which included all the spoils of success.
With the Army’s case dropped and civilian authorities not particularly interested in prosecuting, MacDonald might simply have faded from public view. But he couldn’t seem to let it go. Apparently enjoying his new-found celebrity, MacDonald continued to try his own case in the court of public opinion.
On Dec. 15, 1970, MacDonald appeared on the popular late-night program "The Dick Cavett Show," where it became very clear that he was fast becoming his own worst enemy.
“He knew how to do it, as we say in the talk show trade. He knew how to handle himself,” says Dick Cavett, who remembers well the night he was face to face with MacDonald. “His affect is wrong, totally wrong. My affect was, ‘Gee, to find your wife and kids murdered.’ And even his answer to that was something like, ‘Hey, yeah, isn't that something?’ Almost sounded like Bob Hope. Very like Bob Hope.”
During the show, MacDonald took barbs at the Army, saying he was angry and critical about the way the Army had handled the case.
Watching the show that night, Colette’s family was extremely disturbed by MacDonald’s appearance.
“All he spoke about was how his rights had been violated,” says Colette’s older brother, Robert Stevenson. "I don't think he once mentioned about let's get the murderers. My family's been killed. But I remember him grinning like a Cheshire cat."
And Colette’s stepfather, Freddy Kassab, who had at first sided with MacDonald in his defense, was so incensed at his son-in-law’s behavior that it became the seed of an obsession to bring him to justice.
“It never occurred to me that Alfred Kassab would turn on me, to be quite honest,” says MacDonald.
“When I was faced with the evidence, put together with what I knew he had told me, nothing fit. Absolutely nothing,” Kassab told the CBS News program 60 Minutes in 1983.
Stevenson says Kassab spent countless hours recreating the crime scene and trying to solve the crime.
Realizing the government had no plans to indict MacDonald, Kassab joined forces with Peter Kearns. Together, they took matters into their own hands.
“It wasn't until Freddy and I went from New York down to Clinton, N.C., to swear out a citizen's arrest. That's when the federal government got off their duffs and got an indictment and a grand jury,” says Kearns.
On Jan. 24, 1975, Jeffrey MacDonald was arrested once again, this time by the federal government.
Wade Smith, one of the top trial lawyers in North Carolina, was chosen to partner with Bernie Segal. Their defense strategy was a simple one: that a man like MacDonald is not capable of committing these crimes.
“Is it possible for a person to live a good life and all of a sudden, in one moment, slaughter and mutilate his children, stab his wife many, many times, and then live out his life and have nothing like that happen again? And it suggests to me a reasonable doubt about whether he did it in the first place,” says Smith.
When his trial finally began on July 16, 1979, MacDonald was confident he would be exonerated.
During the next six and a half weeks, 60 witnesses testified, hundreds of items were placed into evidence. Eventually, he was found guilty.
Almost a decade after the murders of Colette, Kimberley, and Kristin MacDonald, the federal government was satisfied that justice was finally served.
Twenty-five years later, former federal assistant D.A. Jim Blackburn is still asked to talk about the most important trial of his career. He admits that the prosecution didn’t think it could win the case. “I thought it would be almost impossible.”
But Blackburn and his co-consul Brian Murtagh achieved the impossible, convincing the jury that there was no one in that apartment that morning except MacDonald.
Since all the evidence was found in the MacDonald home, the prosecution brought the jury to the crime scene, which remained untouched nine years later.
“The strength of our case always was very simple. The physical evidence, the scientific evidence, his statements. That was our case,” says Blackburn.
It was a considerable amount of information that seemed to be overwhelming the jury. But the prosecution did something with one piece of evidence that made every juror sit up and take notice.
It had to do with the pajama top that MacDonald was wearing that night. MacDonald had told investigators he was asleep on the couch when he was attacked. During the struggle, he says, the pajama top was pulled over his head and that it somehow became entangled in his hands and that he held it up to fend off the deadly blows of the ice pick. But the prosecution maintained all along that the pajama top itself told a very different tale.
Blackburn says MacDonald would be dead, if he were telling the truth. “If you fold that pajama top, you will see that there are 48 non-tearing holes in that pajama top. There are 21 ice-pick holes in Colette's chest that form a pattern.”
Blackburn and Murtagh explained to the jury this was clear proof that MacDonald’s story was a lie and that he had covered his wife’s body with the top and then repeatedly stabbed her through it with the ice pick.
For Bernie Segal and Wade Smith, 25 years has done little to ease the frustrations they encountered trying to defend MacDonald, even with something as basic as a request to examine the evidence.
“I was stunned to get the government's response,” says Segal. "The government's response is ‘Dr. MacDonald is not entitled to receive this evidence now because he didn't ask for it in time.’ I didn't know whether to cry or to laugh."
But Blackburn rejects claims that the government wasn’t playing fair as “sour grapes.”
MacDonald’s team also says the Army’s handling of the crime scene was a model of incompetence. “The crime scene handling by the Army CID in 1970 is now taught in military police and investigation schools as a primary example of a crime scene investigation gone mad. This is the worst example they could find,” says Segal.
Witnesses testified that fingerprints were lost, evidence was moved, and the morning of the murders the MacDonald apartment was overrun with military and medical personnel.
“Was the crime scene destroyed? No. Was it bungled? No. Was it done perfectly? Absolutely not,” says Blackburn.
Regardless of the condition of the crime scene, the defense believed they had something that would clear MacDonald once and for all: an eyewitness to the murders, the mysterious blonde woman in the floppy hat.
Her name was Helena Stoeckley, the daughter of a retired Fort Bragg colonel and an unlikely savior for MacDonald.
Just 18 at the time of the murders, Stoeckley lived at the center of the Fayetteville drug community.
Her story was astonishing. She believed she was actually in the MacDonald house that night with a group of friends, all drug users, who killed the MacDonalds.
“I had a floppy hat that I used to wear all the time, I had on boots that night and as a joke I put on the blonde wig,” Stoeckley said.
In fact, an MP, Ken Mica, testified that while responding to MacDonald’s call for help, he saw someone fitting Stoeckley’s description standing on a corner not far from the crime scene.
MacDonald’s defense team hoped that Stoeckley would tell the story to the jury but that is not what happened when she was called to the stand. “Her basic testimony was she didn't know where she was that night,” recalls Blackburn.
“Just a four-hour gap between midnight and 4 a.m., she claimed to have a lapse of memory. It's absurd,” says Segal. “She lied about whether she remembered what was going on, but she lied out of a defensive need to protect herself. She knew the government was looking at her.”
But Blackburn says Stoeckley was not threatened with prosecution.
Following the trial, Ted Gunderson, former chief of the Los Angeles FBI office was hired by MacDonald’s team to search for any evidence that could be used for an appeal.
“Helena said that she was there. She was chanting ‘Acid is groovy, kill the pig,’ ” says Gunderson.
He eventually convinced Stoeckley to go on the record, which she did in a 1982 60 Minutes segment. “I chanted ‘Acid is groovy, kill the pigs,’ ” she said during the segment.
Gunderson says he believes Stoeckley because she talked about trying to ride a rocking horse at the crime scene but that the spring was broken.
Why was that significant? “Because the only people that knew that spring was broken on the rocking horse was the family, the MacDonald family,” says Gunderson.
But once again the courts chose not to believe Stoeckley and MacDonald’s early appeals were denied. In 1983, at the age of 32, Stoeckley died of cirrhosis of the liver but the question of her involvement in the MacDonald murders is still very much alive.
MacDonald is convinced Stoeckley and her friends entered his home and murdered his family.
“And how do you know that she and her friends were the ones?” Lagattuta asked.
“Because they said so. Because I saw them there. Because there is evidence tying them to the crime scene,” says MacDonald.
It was evidence the defense didn’t even know existed, evidence that would give MacDonald one more chance for freedom.
Three times a week, Kathryn MacDonald makes the 140-mile drive from her home outside Washington, D.C., to visit Jeffrey MacDonald at the Cumberland Federal Prison in western Maryland.
Kathryn married Jeffrey MacDonald three years ago.
At 44, Kathryn MacDonald makes her living running a small school for aspiring young actors but she has another job as well, taking care of the life Jeffrey MacDonald left behind.
She was instantly fascinated when she first read MacDonald’s story and says the more she read, the more convinced she was of his innocence. Eventually, she decided to write him in prison.
“I wrote just a little typed paragraph, you know, saying if I could be of any help, you know, please let me know. I was a very fast typist, I think I said that,” she recalls.
Jeffrey MacDonald says they grew very close very quickly, and the couple had a wedding ceremony behind bars on Aug. 30, 2002.
“People are fascinated, I think, by women who reach out to men in prison. Is there something about you that had you go that direction in your life?” Lagattuta asked.
“No. I think it's something about him,” she replied. "And that's that he doesn't belong there. He's innocent."
Now with a new wife and a new life waiting for him on the outside, MacDonald has done something he swore he would never do. He applied for parole.
“I would never go before the parole board if it required any sort of admission of guilt,” says MacDonald.
“He understands that if he does not admit his guilt it will probably harm his opportunity for parole,” says Tim Junkin, who, with his partner John Moffett, are the latest in a long line of lawyers who have been enlisted, without pay, to continue MacDonald’s fight.
In the years following the trial, using the Freedom of Information act, they discovered new information in the government files that had never seen the light of day.
“There was wax found in places in the apartment that didn't match any of the candles found in the MacDonald apartment,” Junkin says. There was skin under the fingernail of Colette MacDonald that was not turned over to the defense and black wool fiber found on the murder weapon, which couldn’t be matched, he added.
And one piece of evidence, in particular, seemed to be the needle in the haystack MacDonald had been desperately searching for: a blonde, 22-inch wig hair found at the scene.
It’s a synthetic hair the defense says is too long to match any of the children’s dolls in the house and therefore could only have come from a wig. Was it Helena Stoeckley’s wig?
“It's evidence that clearly relates to MacDonald's innocence, that supports his innocence. And the jury never heard about it,” says Junkin.
More appeals were filed based on this new-found information. In fact, MacDonald’s case has been appealed to the United States Supreme Court more than any other in history. But as far as the government was concerned, one hair and a few fibers were not enough to get MacDonald a new trial.
Now, with his appeals exhausted, this past spring MacDonald, with his wife by his side, faced the parole board, which would not be judging the evidence but the man and his remorse.
“I was seated at the end of this long table. I got to look straight and direct at him and at his wife,” recalls Robert Stevenson, who represented his sister’s family at the hearing. “I said to him, ‘My joy in you, Mr. MacDonald, is that you are the complete sociopath that you are. And that you're never going to admit what you did. And that I'm going to have the pleasure of knowing that you're going to stay here and rot in jail for the rest of your life.’ ”
Also at the hearing, a voice Jeffrey MacDonald probably assumed he would never hear again was part of the hearing: Freddy Kassab.
“In 1989, Fred Kassab, my stepfather, had made a tape knowing that he was in ill health and might not survive too long,” explains Stevenson.
Once again, Kassab’s efforts would help keep MacDonald behind bars. The board denied MacDonald’s parole request.
But MacDonald is not beaten yet and maybe never will be. Currently, DNA testing is being done on some of the hair and blood evidence from the MacDonald apartment that may give him yet another opportunity to plead his innocence.
“He just continues to fight,” says Kathryn MacDonald. "Very methodically, very thoughtfully but very patiently. And that's how we go about our lives until that day, you know, happens. But I know that it will."
“I know that he'll be back,” says Robert Stevenson. "That's why when someone said to me the other day, ‘Will this ever end?’ Sure, it'll end for me when I'm dead or he's dead."
And MacDonald is confident he will leave prison one day. “I'm positive of that. I've never wavered on that. I've had bad days, bleak moments. But I'm sure of that.”
Jeffrey MacDonald will be eligible to reapply for parole in 2020. He will be 76 years old.