The first in a 3-part series from Australian true crime writer Stephen Karadjis taking a detailed look at the case of Green Beret Captain Jeffrey MacDonald who was given three consecutive life sentences in 1979 for the murder of his family. Read Part II here.
“In the west entrance to the hallway, on the floor, near the south wall, just a pile laying there.” This sentence was scribbled on a piece of paper (a memorandum) by CID agent Robert Shaw, on the morning of February 17, 1970. It referred to a pile of blue pajama threads which came from Jeffrey MacDonald. The memo was unknown at the 1979 trial. The document was discovered by defense investigators, years after the trial, through its release, via the Freedom of Information Act. Its relevance, as physical evidence, cannot be overstated. Is it, the needle in the haystack?
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, February 17, 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two small daughters were brutally murdered in their home, on post, at the Fort Bragg army base in North Carolina. Despite close to half a century having passed, since that cold and rainy winter night, it has remained a highly controversial case.
Over the years, new information has emerged and much of it indicates MacDonald is an innocent man. Two books in particular – Fatal Justice-Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders, by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost, 1995, and A Wilderness of Error-The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, by Errol Morris, 2012-2013, provide exhaustive material which points to his being convicted, in large measure, upon inaccurate physical evidence. That prosecutors were aware of the faulty evidence, which in-fact pointed to another source (the likelihood of intruders) and that they deliberately mislead the jurors.
Jeffrey R. MacDonald M.D.
Jeffrey Robert MacDonald was 26 years old at the time of the murders. Prior to his arrival in Fort Bragg, he had spent three years at Princeton University and four more at Northwestern University Medical School. He then commenced an internship at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in June 1969. Two months later he reported to the 3rd Special Forces Group Airborne at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He joined the elite Green Berets and was accorded the rank of Captain. MacDonald was also group surgeon for his unit.
From all accounts, the couple were married happily. Jeffrey was seen to be a good husband and father and a hard worker. The two had entered a new phase of their lives, following some hard years, when Jeffrey was attending university and working long hours during his medical residency, whilst Colette was busy raising the children. Finances had been stretched throughout this period. There was no history of spousal abuse or episodes of domestic violence.
Background to the MacDonald Murder Case
Between 3:45 a.m. and 4 a.m. a telephone operator in Fayetteville, North Carolina, took a call from a man who said he was Captain MacDonald, stating there had been stabbings and a doctor and an ambulance were needed. The operator dialed the military police and they arrived at the address, 544 Castle Drive in Fort Bragg, at 3:55 a.m. The MPs found the front door locked so they walked around to the back of the house and entered through the rear, which was open. The officers made their way through a utility room into the master bedroom and came upon a ghastly crime scene.
They discovered Captain Jeffrey MacDonald lying semi-conscious next to his murdered wife, Colette MacDonald. She had been clubbed and stabbed. Her skull had been fractured by a forceful blow delivered from a club. Both her arms were broken and there were multiple stab wounds to her chest and neck. In the other two bedrooms, they found two small children, also murdered. Kimberley had been clubbed and stabbed. Kristen had been stabbed multiple times.
MacDonald had also sustained injuries. There were blunt force trauma wounds to his head, left arm and shoulder, a through knife wound to his left bicep, a deep gouge in his abdomen on the left anterior side (which penetrated to the muscle) as well as multiple cuts to his chest and stomach. His most severe injury was a deep cut that went between his ribs leaving him with a right-sided pneumothorax (collapsed lung). It is worth mentioning here, that the sharp blade that penetrated MacDonald leaving him with the pneumothorax, was never found.
Other MPs arrived at the MacDonald home soon after, along with medics from Womack Army Hospital. As MacDonald was being transferred to the ambulance outside his residence, the Army CID-Criminal Investigation Division arrived.
MacDonald’s Version of Events
Jeffrey MacDonald has always held to the same story. He maintains that he was dozing on the couch in the living room when he was awakened by four people standing over him. He said the group consisted of two white males, one black male, and one white female. As he was being attacked he heard his wife and elder daughter calling out to him for help. He says he was being assaulted while in a lying position and attempting to get to a sitting position so he could better defend himself. That there was a black male wielding a smooth club which he surmised was a baseball bat (as he had grabbed hold of it) and two white males sticking him with sharp blades of some kind (he first thought he was being punched). These men were standing over him as he was trying in vain to fend them off while raising his arms in his effort to protect himself from the assault. The woman was standing behind the men chanting while holding a light, which he assumed was a candle.
MacDonald later concurred with investigators that there must have been at least two other assailants attacking his wife and children at the time he was being assaulted, speculating that there had been at least six intruders. During this brief, yet intense struggle, his blue pajama top became wrapped about his wrists and forearms (he assumed it had been pulled over his head). He used his arms in the bound-up pajama top to shield himself from the attack but he was eventually knocked unconscious. When he came to he was laying on the floor in the hallway, with his legs across the living room steps. As he looked down the hallway he could see his wife on the floor in the master bedroom, in a half sitting position with her back against an armchair. He got to his feet and went to her. She was dead. He then went to check on his children. They too were deceased.
What the Army CID and Prosecutors Claim
The Army CID and prosecutors formed the view that there were no intruders. They contend that a fight erupted between Jeffrey MacDonald and his wife Colette in the master bedroom. That during this domestic dispute 5-year-old Kimberley was clubbed, either accidentally or with intent. The blow was fatal. At some point, Colette made her way into the bedroom of her toddler daughter Kristen, in her effort to protect her, and MacDonald caught up with her there and clubbed and killed her. After murdering Colette and Kimberley it is alleged he then set about staging the crime scene to make it appear that there had been intruders. They say he took the blue bed-sheet from the master-bed and wrapped his wife in it, before carrying her back to the master bedroom (to make it appear she had not left the room) then took two knives and an ice pick from the kitchen utensils (it has never been proven these weapons came from the house) and stabbed his already dead wife and elder daughter. Prosecutors claim he then took the ice pick and stabbed and killed his younger daughter Kristen in cold blood to “silence the remaining witness”, even though she was only 2-years-old.
Army Article 32 Hearing
As the spouse and father, and only survivor of the alleged home invasion, Jeffrey MacDonald came under suspicion early on from the CID investigators. On April 6, 1970, he was placed under house-arrest and on May 1 he was officially charged with the murders. Then, on July 6, 1970, the army opened an Article 32 hearing, the equivalent of a civilian investigation and trial. Its purpose was to ascertain whether MacDonald was innocent or guilty of the murders. If guilty, he would be the subject of a court-martial. Colonel Warren Rock presided over the hearing which lasted approximately six weeks.
Army CID investigator William Ivory took charge of the crime scene and responsibility for the case. It was his first murder case. He formed the view, from his initial walk through the home, that the crime scene had been staged and that MacDonald had murdered his family. The army prosecutors and CID agents were intent on presenting evidence which they believed proved their theory. But the “staged crime scene” theory quickly fell apart.
For example, a coffee table in the living room of the MacDonald residence was found resting on its side. The CID investigators had pushed the table over themselves multiple times and formed the view it was top-heavy. When pushed over they said it went right over and rested upside down. But, Colonel Rock decided to examine the table himself, and when he “kicked it over on his first attempt it came to rest on its side against the edge of an armchair in the living room, the way in which it was found.”
A second example of their alleged “staged crime scene”, centered on a white flower pot. It had toppled from the coffee table and was standing upright while the plant and root-ball lay a few feet away. During the time of the hearing it was learned that a military policeman had noticed the pot on its side, and being a tidy person had stood it upright again.
During the hearing, it became apparent that the crime scene was mismanaged badly and the interior of the residence had not been preserved with any integrity. Prior to the arrival of lead investigator William Ivory, numbers of military police had trampled through the house unimpeded. A report made by CID agent Robert Shaw puts the estimation at 18 military policemen. There were also medics who transported MacDonald to the hospital and reports of neighbors entering and leaving the residence.
There were neighbors and “people just going in to see — the curious crowd went in to see. They were not stopped.” Mrs. Edwards had complained about the sloppiness of the CID to protect the house, but this had fallen on deaf ears.
It is assumed that people tracked foreign matter into the house on their wet shoes as it had been raining. That debris was picked up on shoes from inside the home and the evidence carried back outside and that blood was tracked from one part of the house to another. It was proven that things in the home were touched and moved about and property was stolen. An ambulance driver later confessed to stealing a wallet off the floor in the living room. Jewelry was reported missing from the dresser in the master bedroom. The officers used the kettle in the kitchen to make themselves coffee. Worse still, was the mishandling of finger-prints. A large number discovered in vital places in the home were lost due to incompetence or lack of proper training. That is:
“No resin was applied to surfaces and when the tape was lifted the fingerprints came off and were lost.”
MacDonald had stated that one of the intruders was a woman with “long stringy blond hair”, wearing a floppy hat and carrying a light of some kind (he guessed it was a candle). Candle wax drippings found in three locations in the house were compared to all 14 candles taken from the MacDonald home. Dillard Browning, a forensic chemist with the Fort Gordon laboratory was handed the task. He discovered the chemical composition from the residue of the three drippings was different to any of the 14 candles examined and that the candle wax was recent, and not old wax.
Jeffrey MacDonald was also subjected to a series of psychiatric examinations in preparation for the Army Article 32 hearing. Lead defense attorney, Bernard Segal, had retained Dr. Robert Sadoff. He had worked in the Army Medical Corp and at the time of the hearing was engaged in private practice and moonlighted as a consultant. Sadoff appraised MacDonald as, “normal, sane, and not of the personality type to have committed the murders.”
At the urging of both the prosecution and the defense, Colonel Rock sent MacDonald on to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C. to undergo another round of psychiatric evaluation, since Sadoff was now a civilian psychiatrist. Dr. Bailey, on behalf of Walter Reed, stated that MacDonald was, “not of the personality type that was likely to kill”, and believed he was neither deranged or fabricating his version of events.
Perhaps the most interesting development that came to light during the Army Article 32 hearing was the discovery of an alternative set of suspects in the case.
Kenneth Mica and Dennis Morris were the MPs patrolling the neighborhood that night. On route to the MacDonald ground floor apartment Mica reported he:
“…spotted a woman standing in the rain, in the dark, on the corner of Honeycutt and Lucas, 3 blocks from Castle Drive. She was wearing a floppy, wide brimmed hat and dark raincoat to her knees.”
He mentioned how odd this was to his partner because of the time. She was standing there alone. It was 3:55 a.m.
When they reached 544 Castle Drive, MacDonald gave Mica a description of the assailants as “three men, a woman, one man was colored, he wore a field jacket, sergeant stripes…the woman, blond hair, floppy hat, short skirt, muddy boots, she carried a light, I think a candle.” Mica mentioned his sighting of the woman to his superior. He testified at the Army Article 32 hearing, against the wishes of his superiors, to disclose his eye-witness account of the woman in the floppy-hat. The police officers and CID investigators also had their suspicions about the woman in the floppy-hat.
Sergeant Edward Prince Beasley was a police narcotics detective in Fayetteville. Early on the morning of the murders, he took a call from police headquarters. He was told of the situation and given a description of the assailants. Beasley immediately informed his superior about a 17-year-old drug informant of his. Her name was Helena Stoeckley. He said she matched the description and that he had seen her the previous night wearing the same floppy hat, blond wig and boots and was with a black male wearing a field jacket. Beasley emphasized the odds of seeing two people of the same description together and on the same night in question.
On the evening of February 18, officer Beasley confronted Stoeckley in the driveway of her residence. She had emerged from a car in the company of a group of her associates. As she was his informant, they spoke out of hearing range. She admitted to being high on drugs two nights earlier. Although she could not recall where she was, she had a strong belief she had been in the MacDonald home. Beasley radioed his base for backup, to affect an arrest, of the potential suspects. He waited, but strangely no one came to his assistance and he left (William Ivory had already formed the view that MacDonald was guilty). Beasley stated that he never again saw the same group members. The implication is that they had left Fayetteville. Stoeckley’s disclosure to officer Beasley and his subsequent encounter and suspicions were never heard at the army hearing. Helena Stoeckley’s associates included boyfriend Gregory Mitchell 19 (who had recently returned from combat in Vietnam), a black male referred to as “Candy”and Cathy Perry 20, along with a number of other loyal members of the group.
There was further independent corroboration of Stoeckley’s possible involvement in the murders. William Posey, her next-door neighbor, had approached MacDonald’s attorney Bernard Segal, to say he knew a young woman who had aroused his suspicion. That her name was Helen and she wore boots, a blond wig and a floppy-hat. Posey gave testimony at the hearing, that between 3:45 a.m. and 4 a.m. on the morning of the murders, he was woken by the sound of a car pull-up. He said he recognized Helen’s voice. She was giggling and in the company of others. Posey further testified that two weeks later he had spoken with Stoeckley and she admitted to having been high on drugs the night of the murders and said she was unsure where she had been.
Brief reference is made here of two sightings of Helena Stoeckley and her associates early on the morning of February 17. The first comes from Mrs. Dorothy Averitt. She testified in Raleigh Federal Court on September 19, 1984, as part of Jeffrey MacDonald’s bid for a new trial (which was based largely upon Helena Stoeckley’s confessions) and after MacDonald’s 1979 conviction and imprisonment.
Mrs. Averitt had entered Mrs. Johnson’s grocery store on Murchison Road, in Fayetteville, at 8 a.m. on the morning of the murders. She noticed a young woman dressed in a plastic raincoat, go-go boots and wearing a blond wig. There was a black male with her, wearing an army field jacket. Mrs. Averitt recognized the two from a previous encounter when she was delivering newspapers to a nearby trailer-park. The man, on that occasion, was swinging a baseball bat (MacDonald said he was assaulted by a black male of the same description wielding what he assumed to be a baseball bat, as he had grabbed onto it and felt it had a smooth surface) and hit a ball at her. Now in the grocery store, Mrs. Averitt asked the girl, “Where’d you get all the mud on your boots.” She had grown up on a farm where her father butchered hogs, and recognized a familiar stench of blood. She added, “I’ve lived in this country all my life and I’ve not seen mud that looks like that.” The black male had been to the fridge in the back of the store. When he returned he abruptly curtailed any further conversation and pushed the girl toward the door, and they left.
There was a second sighting. Joan Sonderson arrived at 9 a.m. to begin her shift as a car-hop at the Chute Drive Inn on Fort Bragg Boulevard. She noticed an automobile parked under the overhang. About an hour later, she saw a girl exit the car wearing a blonde wig and dressed in a floppy hat and white or beige, muddy boots. A black male exited from the rear door of the vehicle. He was dressed in an army fatigue jacket and dark pants. She noticed a third occupant, a white male, slumped in the rear of the car. The girl said to Sonderson, “The MacDonald’s were murdered last night. Did you know that?” When Sonderson replied she had not heard that, the girl added, “And that MacDonald is in the hospital and his wife and children are dead.” Joan Green Sonderson gave a signed and sworn statement on September 21, 1983. As with the Averitt testimony, the Sonderson statement was made several years after MacDonald was imprisoned for the murders.
The Army Article 32 hearing concluded on September 11, 1970. Colonel Warren Rock reviewed all the evidence. In late October, the “Rock Report” was made public. It recommended that, “all charges be dismissed against MacDonald because they are not true.” Based on the witness statements he further recommended that:
“Appropriate civilian authorities be requested to investigate the alibi of Helena Stoeckley [sic]……and reference her activities and whereabouts during the early morning hours of 17 February 1970, based on evidence presented during the hearing.”
Years Leading to the Grand Jury Hearing
Colonel Rock’s recommendation to investigate Helena Stoeckley was never enacted. After charges against MacDonald were dropped, the FBI (who had the power to investigate a crime on a military post) refused to be drawn back in, due to the gross mismanagement by army investigators.
Jeffrey MacDonald immediately applied for an honorable discharge from the army. It was granted on December 4, 1970. He moved back to his home state of New York and gained employment as an emergency physician on the construction site of the World Trade Center. In July,1971, he accepted an invitation from a medical colleague to relocate to California and take up the role of physician in the emergency department at St Mary’s Medical Center in Long Beach. He became director of emergency medicine and held this position until he was imprisoned eight years later.
At the time of his discharge from the army, Alfred “Freddie” Kassab and Mildred Kassab (MacDonald’s in-laws) were his most loyal supporters. They had been since the murder of their loved ones. Michael Malley was MacDonald’s friend from their days at Princeton University and former legal counsel. He was also a strong supporter and had assisted Bernard Segal at the Army Article 32 hearing. Malley and MacDonald had shared quarters for the weeks the defendant had been under house-arrest.
At the time MacDonald was under house-arrest and throughout the Article 32 hearing, Alfred Kassab waged a personal campaign against the army, by calling the media and holding press-conferences. He also harangued senators in congress. Michael Malley made a complaint against the army high command and both Kassab and Malley submitted separate complaints against the army CID’s handling of the case. Their efforts exerted pressure on Capitol Hill and the Army General Counsel ordered the U.S. Army CID in Washington to conduct an internal investigation into the way the case had been handled. Agents Grebner, Ivory and Shaw were investigated. However, on January 5, 1971, chief investigator Peter E. Kearns recommended to command that all charges against the agents be dismissed, and the Pentagon upheld this recommendation.
It was during this time that Michael Malley recalled that Alfred Kassab, “showed me the press release he had prepared for when Jeff was released. He was single-mindedly obsessed with not only vindicating Jeff, but with catching the killers and embarrassing the army.” Kassab put-up a $5000 reward for arrest of the killers. Malley also remembered that Mildred Kassab was:
“…not as voluble, shared his views more intensely than even he did, I think. I was surprised at how their sorrow had turned into hatred, so that only the hatred showed, though I knew and respected its genesis. It was a militant grief, and it scared me.”
Helen Fell was a friend of both the Kassab’s and the MacDonald’s. She recalled how Mildred would belittle her husband for failing to catch the killers, since he had allegedly been in military intelligence, during the second world war. This belittling, she recollected, created a negative energy and an obsession for revenge. Fell said that it set-up, “an imaginary rivalry between Kassab and MacDonald.”
MacDonald said that because of this “vigilante attitude” he made a mistake in November 1970, when he told his father in-law he had tracked down one of the murderers and killed him. He said he did this out of desperation and, in the hope, it would diminish “Freddie’s” obsession for avenging the deaths of Colette and the children. In fact, it did the opposite, as Kassab scoured the local Fayetteville newspapers to find evidence of the killing. He found no reports of murders that matched the details given to him by his son in-law. This incident had the ripple-effect of making him more vengeful and led to him becoming suspicious about his son in-law. Commentators have made a big-deal about this one lie, as if telling a lie equates to triple homicide!
Kassab had also requested a copy of the transcript from the Army Article 32 hearing. When he received it, he spent the 1970 Christmas holiday season reading it. He later said that after digesting its contents, he concluded that there were too many inconsistencies in his son in-law’s testimony and that he began to suspect him of having murdered his family.
However, there is little evidence to support that this was the genesis of his suspicions, of his son in-law, because he continued to hound congress for some time after this, and dispatched a letter to the Justice Department, reprimanding the army CID. He also curtailed the army’s attempt to interview his son in-law.
These relentless rumblings from Kassab led to the army changing its tactics towards him. They realized that he was a capable adversary and that they needed him as an ally to curb his cantankerous posturing and inflammatory remarks.
On March 28, 1971, the CID, in their efforts to placate the troublesome father in-law, granted him permission to view the murder apartment (it should be mentioned here, that the defense was never given this opportunity). Afterwards, they invited him to dinner at the on-post Officers Club. Then, on April 27, 1971, CID agents Jack G. Pruett and Peter Kearns paid Kassab a visit. Kearns later wrote in the CID casebook that, “both Kassabs still exhibit a strong feeling that Dr. MacDonald did not participate in the murders.”
The tables began to turn in the summer of 1971 as MacDonald was preparing to depart for a new life as an emergency physician in Long Beach California. The Kassabs organized a going away dinner. Friend, Helen Fell, was at this farewell evening. She recalled that Mildred Kassab pleaded with her son in-law to, “stay and mourn with me.” When MacDonald said he could not remain on the East Coast, Mildred became angry, saying, “if you leave you will live to regret it.” Within six months of his leaving for California, the Kassabs reversed their stance and began to petition for his prosecution.
The pinnacle to Kassab’s campaign came on March 4, 1974. He wrote a letter to CID Commander, Colonel Henry H. Tufts, saying that he was instigating a criminal complaint on his own and was seeking their support. Kassab wrote, “Your command can take one of two positions open to it. Either you agree with me, OR the Department of Justice. You cannot take a neutral ground. Either you prepared a bona fide case or you did not.” This referred of course to the CID’s investigation of MacDonald in preparation for the Army Article 32 hearing. He wrote further, “Your command stands accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of bungling this whole matter. Now, it is up to you to take a stand.” Under pressure, the Department of Justice appointed Special Prosecutor Victor Woerheide in May,1974, to head a grand jury probe.
The army also had its own reasons for pursuing MacDonald. After his discharge, he appeared as a television guest on the “Dick Cavett Show” and spoke with contempt for army investigators. The television host also criticized the army by remarking, “an incredible bungling on the army’s part.” The talk show reached millions of viewers and the army high command had their backs up.
“Under the ‘Posse Comitatus Act’ it is illegal for military authorities to investigate a civilian.” Regardless, this is precisely what they did. With the charges dismissed against their agents the army reopened their own investigation into the closed case.
The CID interviewed Helena Stoeckley. She was asked to undergo a polygraph and be finger-printed and photographed. At first, she refused stating, “I’m not certain whether or not I was there and I could only hurt myself by cooperating with you.” Her answers were case-logged by agent Robert Bidwell. Jack G. Pruett, director of the CID’s internal affairs in Washington D.C. then assigned agent Richard Mahon to probe her activities and whereabouts. Mahon met with Fayetteville narcotics detective Sergeant Edward Prince Beasley for whom Stoeckley had worked as a drug informant. Beasley signed a statement that Stoeckley, “had strong convictions that she was a witness to the MacDonald murders.” Mahon and Beasley arranged a meeting with Stoeckley in Nashville, where she had since relocated after the murders. She was now a drug informant to Nashville patrolmen, James T. Gaddis and John J. Rohtert. However, she refused to cooperate unless guaranteed immunity from prosecution. Officer Rohtert related that, “she had witnessed the MacDonald murders and knew who committed the crimes.”
Richard Mahon managed to convince Helena Stoeckley to submit to a polygraph and Robert Brisentine, the CID’s lead polygraphist conducted the examination and analyzed the results. He concluded that she showed, “deception when she denied being present in the MacDonald home and when she denied knowing who killed the MacDonald’s.” He further stated:
“She is convinced in her mind that she knows who committed the murders and is convinced she was physically present when the three members of the MacDonald family were killed.”
The CID also interviewed her associates. Their stories for their activities and whereabouts for the night of the murders completely contradicted one another. Finally, the Nashville police forwarded Stoeckley’s fingerprints to CID agents who compared them to prints found in the MacDonald home. Her prints did not match and the case against her and that of her associates were dismissed. This was despite the fact, that most of the fingerprints from the MacDonald home were lost or destroyed due to incompetence (as mentioned earlier, no resin was applied to many surfaces and when the tape was lifted, the fingerprints came off).
The focus then turned back to Jeffrey MacDonald. The Kassabs persistence finally paid off when the grand jury probe had gathered what they considered to be sufficient evidence to prosecute. In August 1974, a Grand Jury convened to hear the case and on January 24, 1975 MacDonald was indicted on three counts of murder.
This article is the first of a 3-part series.
- Kelly, John F., and Wearne, Phillip K. Tainting Evidence: Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1998.
- Morris, Errol. A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald. New York: Penguin Books, 2012, 2013.
- Noguchi, M.D. Thomas T., with Joseph di Mona. Coroner at Large New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
- Potter Jerry Allen, and Bost. Fred H. Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1995.