Written by Barney Doyle
Jeffrey MacDonald was an Ivy-League-educated surgeon and a Green Beret. That sounds like an interesting story in and of itself. But he was also either a murderer or the victim of a murderous hippie cult and that’s a story that you and I can really sink our teeth into.
If you’ve already read my book, then you know how this works. If not, let me give you the short version: we are going to solve some murders. Ok, we won’t actually “solve” them. But to the best of our abilities with the information available, we are going to make a guess. If you use a loose enough definition of the word “solve,” then I think that qualifies.
Early on the morning of February 17, 1970, MacDonald called police and reported that a group of four or five hippies had entered his home, knocked him unconscious, and brutally murdered his wife and two young daughters.
Two competing theories emerged almost immediately. Those who knew MacDonald insisted that the hippie story was true. The police investigating the crime insisted that MacDonald had murdered his family and concocted the hippie story as a cover. Somebody is wrong, and we are going to figure out who.
There is more information available on this case than you and I could ever actually analyze. Most of it is garbage. That’s the way it works in famous cases. The facts get diluted, distorted and misconstrued into a thousand competing theories until the sheer density of the nonsense is so overwhelming that the case becomes impenetrable.
We aren’t going to let that happen to us. We are going to get our information primarily from two sources: Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss and A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris. Both books are well-researched, honest in citing sources and reasonable in their presentation of the facts. And, of course, the books come to completely opposite conclusions. Which is where we come in.
For what it’s worth, if you haven’t read them, I recommend both books. Morris’ book is a little more lively and readable, but McGinniss is more disciplined and journalistic in his approach. For me to accuse Morris of excessive editorialization would be the epitome of the pot calling the kettle black, so please don’t infer that one of these books is better than the other. They are different in tone and substance, but I think that each of them is fair, honest, thorough and interesting. You’re lucky to get two of those things in a true crime book, let alone all of them.
Even though Morris and McGinniss do a fantastic job of describing the facts of the case, we are still going to use autopsy and police reports from www.thejeffreymacdonaldcase.com to help guide us as well.
Book Review: Reckless Speculation About Murder
Reckless Speculation About Murder as a title for this book is fitting to its content but shouldn’t be mistaken for an amateur or artificial look at murder cases; this book is far from that. It is unique in its style, quite different from any other true crime book you may have read.
Let’s start with a summary of the pertinent facts.
On February 17, 1970, at about 3:45 a.m., military police from Fort Bragg were dispatched to 544 Castle Drive for what the initial responding officers described as a possible domestic disturbance.
Fort Bragg is a large United States Army base adjacent to Fayetteville, North Carolina. 544 Castle Drive was a three-bedroom apartment, about 1,000 square feet, where Captain Jeffrey MacDonald lived with his pregnant wife, Colette MacDonald, and their two young daughters.
Between six and eight officers arrived at roughly the same time. Several officers knocked at the front door with no response, but Sergeant Richard Tevere found the back door open. He entered, passed through a small utility room, and found two people on the floor of the master bedroom. Colette MacDonald was lying on her back, dead, and covered in blood. Jeffrey MacDonald appeared to be unconscious and was lying beside her with his head on her chest. The word “pig” was written in blood on the headboard.
Police checked the rest of the home and found six-year-old Kimberly dead in one bedroom and two-year-old Kristen dead in another. Both were in their respective beds, with the lights off in both rooms.
Jeffrey MacDonald regained consciousness, said that he couldn’t breathe and asked the police to check on his children. The officers attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which caused Jeffrey to choke and shake. He regained composure enough to tell the responding officers that two white men, a black man and a white woman had stabbed him. The woman was wearing a floppy hat and carrying a candle. All of the attackers were saying “acid is groovy” and “kill the pigs.” Jeffrey was taken to the emergency room for treatment and the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division (CID) was summoned to investigate the murders.
The Army’s CID takes a beating in every telling of this story for the job they did on the crime scene. I’m not going to suggest that they did a good job, because they certainly did not. But I think the extent of their mistakes has been exaggerated. It’s not that they did every single thing incorrectly, as some critics seem to suggest, it’s just that the mistakes they did make were devastating to the case. Most importantly, they let too many people into the crime scene, didn’t supervise those people properly, allowed potential evidence to move (or in some cases, disappear) before it could be documented, and did not preserve the integrity of potential trace evidence. Mistakes happen in every criminal investigation, but some mistakes are easier to overcome than others. These were not easy mistakes to overcome, especially in a case like this one turned out to be.
After hearing Jeffrey MacDonald’s story, Officer Kenneth Micu told the Lieutenant on scene that while Micu was responding to the call he had seen a woman standing on a street corner a couple of blocks from the MacDonald home. She was wearing a large floppy hat. Given the time of morning and the weather conditions (light rain), Micu thought the situation was peculiar. He recommended that the woman be located immediately, but it does not appear that any attempt was made to do so.
Add that one to the list of mistakes above.
This next part is going to be unpleasant, so let’s get through it as quickly as possible. If you don’t have the stomach for it, I understand. I’m going to describe the medical examiner’s findings in the following three paragraphs, but here is a short version if you want to skip over the specifics: Colette was brutally beaten with a blunt object and stabbed multiple times with at least two sharp objects, Kimberly was beaten with a blunt object and stabbed multiple times, and Kristen was stabbed multiple times.
(The autopsy reports are online, but I’ll warn you that the ones I reviewed included the medical examiner’s photos. DO NOT LOOK AT THOSE PHOTOS! There is nothing that you or I could learn from those photos that we couldn’t understand better from the written report. Those photos would serve no purpose but to haunt you and I don’t want you to go through that.)
Colette MacDonald suffered approximately 37 stab wounds. There were 21 small round stab wounds scattered throughout her chest and upper left arm and another 16 “elliptical gaping incisional” wounds to her chest, neck and abdomen. Her lungs, trachea and pulmonary artery were all lacerated causing massive internal bleeding. The two different types of stab wounds suggested two different weapons were used. The stab wounds alone would have been fatal, but Collette also suffered three large lacerations and several smaller lacerations to the front, sides and back of her head. The lacerations were caused by a blunt object and were accompanied by a skull fracture. Lastly, Colette suffered a compound fracture of her right wrist (with the bone exposed), another compound fracture just below her left elbow and a fracture of her left wrist. She had been approximately 4-months pregnant with what the medical examiner discovered was a boy.
Six-year-old Kimberly was struck in the head an undetermined number of times with a blunt object. The medical examiner noted at least two blows to the right side of her head causing multiple skull fractures, including one that penetrated through the thickness of the skull and dislocated a portion of it. Kimberly’s nose was broken and displaced to the side as well. Kimberly was also stabbed approximately 8-10 times in the neck, with incisional-type stab wounds similar to those identified in her mother. Based on the bleeding of the wounds, the medical examiner believed that Kimberly was beaten before she was stabbed, though either attack would have been fatal on its own.
Two-year-old Kristen suffered more than 20 stab wounds to the chest and neck and another dozen to her back. The wounds appeared to have been caused by two different weapons. Kristen also had cuts to the fronts and back of both hands, along with bruising on her neck, shoulders and buttocks. Several of the stab wounds penetrated her heart, causing her death.
Holy shit. That was worse than I thought it was going to be. I need a break. Let’s take 10 minutes and come back later.
Ok, I’m back. I don’t know how you feel about capital punishment, but if we figure out who did this then I propose they deserve nothing short of a lifetime of agony and misery.
Jeffrey MacDonald was hospitalized for nine days, but fared far better than the rest of his family. The examining physician noted a 1-centimeter break in the skin on his chest, which in actuality was a stab wound that caused a partially collapsed lung. The doctor also noted swelling and a laceration in the middle of Jeffrey’s forehead, a superficial laceration to his abdomen and a 1.5-centimeter laceration to the front of his upper left arm.
I can tell that two things are really standing out to you already. Number one, how come Jeffrey MacDonald had such comparatively minor injuries considering what happened to the rest of his family? And number two, who was the mysterious woman in the floppy hat? I like the way you think. You’re good at this.
The CID processed the scene, but not terribly well, so we aren’t going to get nearly as much reliable evidence out of their analysis as we would expect from an indoor murder scene where police responded that quickly.
Investigators observed that a coffee table in the living room was tipped over on its edge. They noted that the rest of the living room was undisturbed. They later learned that at least one potted plant had been tipped over when responding officers arrived, but an unknown person had tipped it back upright. That’s definitely not ideal at a crime scene, and it does raise a lot of questions about their other observations.
The investigators put a lot of emphasis on the undisturbed living room, and it was later the foundation on which they built their theory that Jeffrey MacDonald murdered his family and staged the scene. They insisted that it was virtually impossible for the coffee table to end up on its side unless it was deliberately placed like that. They tipped the coffee table over hundreds of times and insisted that every single time it came to rest on its top and not its side. A mechanical engineer drafted a really official looking document with equations and diagrams to argue that the table would always come to rest on its top when it was tipped over. But a skeptical Army judge who was presiding over a hearing on the murders wanted to see for himself. He went to the MacDonald home, tipped over the table, and it landed on its side on the very first try.
That’s a nice lesson for us to keep in mind as we try to solve these murders. Always be humble about your evidence and conclusions because they are never as definite or convincing as they might seem to you.
Colette was dressed in pink pajamas, but she also had a bath mat and a blue pajama top laying across her chest. Investigators later learned that Jeffrey MacDonald had been wearing the blue pajama top and that it had 48 round puncture holes. If you recall, neither Colette nor Jeffrey had 48 round puncture wounds. An examiner at the FBI lab determined that all 48 of the holes could have come from the stab wounds suffered by Colette. The garment was found crumpled and folded in such a way that many of the stab wounds could have caused more than one hole in the fabric.
There was also bedding on the floor near the doorway of the master bedroom and the bedding was covered in blood. A small paring knife with a bent blade and a bloodstain near the tip was found on the floor between an armchair and a dresser.
The word “pig” written in blood on the headboard had a smooth texture with no fingerprints, leading investigators to believe that the culprit had worn a glove. Portions of a rubber glove were found in the master bedroom, and surgical rubber gloves were found under the kitchen sink. For what it’s worth, handwriting experts also concluded that the author used their right hand. If we trust that then we can safely eliminate any suspects who don’t have a right hand. Which is helpful, because I had a theory about pirates that I can now safely discard.
Outside of the back door, investigators found a wooden club that appeared to have blood on it, another paring knife and an icepick. MacDonald denied that the family had an icepick, but several witnesses who had been to the house contradicted him. The club had blue fibers on it that were consistent with MacDonald’s pajamas, but also had dark wool fibers that were not definitively matched to anything in the MacDonald home.
With three people dead and a fourth stabbed, there was a great deal of blood in the house. As luck would have it, each member of the family had a different blood type. In the master bedroom, investigators found blood matching Colette, Jeffrey and Kimberly’s blood types. In Kimberly’s bedroom, investigators found blood matching Kimberly, Colette and Kristen’s blood types. In Kristen’s bedroom, investigators found blood matching everybody’s type. Blood matching Jeffrey’s type was found at both the kitchen and bathroom sinks. Some of the blood was undoubtedly transferred by the killer or killers moving about the house. But the volume of blood showed that Colette was actively bleeding in both the master bedroom and Kristen’s bedroom and that Kimberly was actively bleeding in the master bedroom and her own bedroom. Kristen appeared to have been attacked and killed entirely in her own room.
There was also a bloody footprint leading out of Kristen’s room. The blood was Colette’s, but the foot appeared to be Jeffrey’s. That couldn’t be determined for certain, however, because the footprint was destroyed when CID attempted to cut out the floorboards to preserve it.
A fingerprint that was never matched to anybody was found on a jewelry box in the MacDonald bedroom and Jeffrey later claimed that two rings were missing from the jewelry box. Jeffrey MacDonald’s wallet was definitely stolen, but by an EMT who eventually confessed to it.
CID failed to preserve and photograph most of the fingerprint evidence correctly, and the fingerprints they were able to identify came back to either the MacDonalds or the investigators on scene.
There were wax drippings on Kimberly’s bedroom floor and on the coffee table that did not match any of the candles found in the MacDonald’s home.
A magazine found in the living room had a feature story on the Manson murders, which had happened in California six months prior. A witness who had been at the house several days earlier claimed that he and MacDonald had discussed the magazine story and that, like everybody else in the United States at that time, Jeffrey was aware of the Manson murders.
Another family lived in an apartment above the MacDonalds. The day of the murder, each member of the family said that they had not heard anything out of the ordinary. The family’s dog had not barked until the police arrived. During a subsequent interview, however, the wife of the family claimed that she had been woken up at an unknown time by the sound of Colette speaking loudly and angrily, although the woman could not hear what was said. The woman’s teenage daughter, whose bedroom was directly above the MacDonalds’ living room, claimed that she also heard an adult male either sobbing loudly or laughing hysterically.
Investigators didn’t do a formal interview with Jeffrey right away, but spoke to him as he recovered. He relayed the following story (as presented in McGinniss’ book). Jeffrey MacDonald had worked a 24-hour shift at the emergency room from 6:00 a.m. on February 15 to 6:00 a.m. on February 16, although he did manage to catch a little sleep in a hospital cot during slow stretches. He then worked his regular shift for the Army on February 16. That evening he came home and took Kimberly and Kristen to go feed the horse he had gotten them as a Christmas present.
Colette was taking evening classes at a local college, so Jeffrey tended to the kids that evening while she attended a psychology class. He put Kristen in bed at 7:00 p.m., then fell asleep on the floor for an hour. Kimberly woke him up at 8:00 p.m. to watch television, then Jeffrey put her in bed at 9:00 p.m. At about 9:40 p.m., Colette returned home from class. Jeffrey and Colette had a drink and watched television, then Colette went to bed. Jeffrey stayed up for a while longer and read a book. At a little after 2:00 a.m., Jeffrey prepared to go to bed. He found that Kristen was in bed with Colette though and that Kristen had wet the bed. He carried Kristen to her own bed, then slept on the couch so he would not have to wake Colette or change the sheets.
Once upon time, Neanderthal men were pretending not to see toddler poop on cave floors. In a thousand years, a future dad will be tiptoeing around his rocket ship feigning obliviousness to the space-baby’s spit-up. Jeffrey MacDonald may indeed be a monster, but not because he let his wife sleep beside a puddle of urine instead of cleaning it up. That’s a decision that four out of five dads would support, and the fifth guy is probably a liar.
Jeffrey MacDonald said that he did not know how long he was asleep on the couch, but that he was woken by the sound of his wife shouting “Jeff, Jeff, help” and Kimberly screaming “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.” He opened his eyes and saw four people standing over him. One was a black man wearing an Army fatigue jacket. Two were white men, one of which had a mustache and a red sweatshirt. One of the men was wearing gloves. There was also a blonde woman with a floppy hat, wearing boots, and carrying a candle in front of her face. All of them were wet as though they had been out in the rain.
The woman was chanting “Acid is groovy,” and “Kill the pigs.”
MacDonald tried to get up but was struck in the head with what he thought was a baseball bat. He started to struggle with the men, and his pajama top was wrestled over his head and around his wrists. He felt a sharp pain in his chest and looked down to see that he had been stabbed with an icepick. He then passed out facedown on the floor.
When Jeffrey regained consciousness the house was silent. He went to each of the bedrooms and found that his wife and daughters were dead. He tried to resuscitate them but it didn’t work. He also removed a small knife from his wife’s chest and covered her with his pajama top.
Jeffrey went into the bathroom to check on his stab wound and then made two attempts to call the police, once with a phone in the bedroom and once with a phone in the kitchen. He then waited with his wife until police arrived.
While investigators on scene immediately suspected Jeffrey in the murders, a Fayetteville narcotics detective noticed that the description of the woman in the floppy hat sounded an awful lot like an informant he knew by the name of Helena Stoeckly. The detective tracked her down on the day after the murders and found her with a group of the types of drug addicts and hippies she was known to consort with. He detained the group for questioning, but CID never responded to do the actual questioning and they were all released without charges.
Stoeckly’s neighbor claimed to have seen Stoeckly arrive home in a blue car sometime between 3:00 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. on the morning of the murders. The neighbor claimed that in numerous discussions over the subsequent days and months Stoeckly made several statements indicating that she was present for the MacDonald murders or that she was so high on drugs that she could not remember if she was present. Stoeckly frequently claimed to be so high on mescaline and LSD that she could not remember anything that happened that night.
Stoeckly’s roommate corroborated the neighbor’s account and said that Stoeckly returned home with her boyfriend, Greg Mitchell, at around 4:00 a.m.
At least six different people have come forward to claim that Stoeckly has admitted involvement in the murders to them. But she has denied any involvement to law enforcement and in court testimony. Private investigators have also found several witnesses who claim that Mitchell has made nonspecific statements over the years that they took as proof of his involvement in the murders. I won’t bore you with the details of the Mitchell accusations because they are second and third-hand accounts of vague statements made a long time before the investigator spoke to the witnesses.
Stoeckly made statements to several people about a rocking horse with a broken spring that was in the MacDonald home. A picture in the local paper showed the rocking horse, but Stoeckly was a serious drug addict at the time so who knows how diligent she was in following the Fayetteville Observer? And the picture didn’t show that the spring was broken anyway.
Stoeckly was known to own a blonde wig, a floppy hat and boots. She got rid of all of them sometime after the murders. A blonde synthetic fiber was found in a hairbrush in the MacDonald home. Investigators insisted that it could not have come from a wig, but Morris made a pretty convincing case that it definitely could have.
During an autopsy, medical examiners routinely collect scrapings from under the fingernails of victims. Trace evidence tends to accumulate there when a victim is clawing at and fighting an attacker. A small hair was found amongst the scrapings from under Colette’s fingernails. DNA testing done decades after the murder concluded that the hair did not come from any of the MacDonalds. There was debate amongst the investigators whether the hair was actually under Colette’s fingernails or if it was merely contamination from sloppy evidence handling. At any rate, the source of the hair has not been identified.
FBI Special Agent Paul Stombaugh was reviewing photographs of the case when he noticed that there was a suitcase near the closet. There was blood spatter all around the suitcase, but none on it. Stombaugh surmised that the suitcase was placed there after the murders and I can’t find fault in the logic. Whether it was done by the killer or by the officers on scene though is something we will never know.
Officer Kenneth Micu told Morris while Morris was writing his book that Micu was aware of Stoeckly in 1970 and knew what she looked like. He told Morris he was certain that the woman he saw in the floppy hat was not Stoeckly. Morris was skeptical that Micu would have been able to tell under the circumstances, but Micu was adamant. I believe him. He was the passenger in a two-officer car and the woman was standing on a street corner where they came to a stop. He got a good look. And officers on the beat know the regular customers. It could be at night from a block away and I could still spot the regular customers when I was working a beat. It’s a relatively small number of people that you deal with over and over again in law enforcement and you get to know them really well.
The polygraph examination got thrown around liberally in this investigation, as it tended to in investigations of this type during that era. Let’s not get bogged down with polygraph results. For what it’s worth, Stoeckly passed a polygraph in which she claimed to have been present for the murders and Jeffrey failed a polygraph in which he claimed he didn’t kill his family. A polygraph can be a useful tool if used with restraint by a skilled polygrapher. It can be the worst kind of garbage “evidence’ when it isn’t. I don’t know anything about the polygraph operators in this case, and there were a lot of them, so I’m choosing to ignore all of the contradictory results and move on as if the tests never happened. You can do otherwise if you so choose.
And speaking of contradictory gibberish, we are also going to ignore all of the “evidence” provided by the parade of forensic psychologists employed in this case. I’ll summarize it for you so you can quickly toss it aside: Jeffrey MacDonald’s personality type was such that he was incapable of committing the murders and also Jeffrey MacDonald’s personality type was such that he was a narcissistic psychopath capable of murder at any time. If you’ve read my book (and at this point, there’s no reason for you not to. We are friends now. Buy four copies and give them to your favorite bobsled team), then you know how I feel about experts. They are critically important to understanding a lot of things, but they will also say whatever they are paid to say. Be skeptical of anything that sounds too good to be true.
Jeffrey tried to portray his marriage as ideal, but investigators uncovered a series of facts that painted Jeffrey in a different light. He had multiple affairs during the marriage. He worked extremely long hours and took on extra jobs. And for reasons that were highly suspicious and never made clear, Jeffrey was lying to his wife about a month-long trip he was supposedly going to take to Russia. Jeffrey was the team doctor for the Fort Bragg boxing team and told Colette that he was going with the team to Russia. In actuality, there was no trip and Jeffrey wasn’t going anywhere with the team.
After the murders, Jeffrey went on a media campaign in which he exaggerated the extent of his injuries and ranted about the incompetence of Army investigators. He also told an outlandish story to his former mother-in-law and father-in-law in which he claimed to have found one of the murderers, tortured them and killed them. This came at a time when his father-in-law was pressing him for information about the murders and the investigation.
McGinniss uncovered some evidence that Jeffrey MacDonald had been using amphetamines in the weeks leading up to the murder. They were not illegal at the time and were commonly used for weight loss. MacDonald acknowledged using the pills, but not in the quantities alleged by McGinniss. McGinniss makes some pretty far-fetched claims about how MacDonald’s amphetamine use could have caused psychosis and hallucinations, which I don’t think are worth considering (colleagues tend to notice when an emergency room doctor is hallucinating). But amphetamine use could definitely cause irritability and exacerbate other sources of stress.
The Army held what was called an Article 32 hearing in July of 1970. It was a hearing to determine if there was sufficient evidence to charge Jeffrey MacDonald with the murders of his family. Not only did the hearing examiner determine that there was insufficient evidence to charge Jeffrey MacDonald, he also made the rather extraordinary proclamation that Jeffrey was innocent of the crime. There is a reason we use the term “not guilty” instead of “innocent” in trials. It is exceedingly difficult to prove innocence, which is why we don’t ever require somebody to do it. In 1979, Jeffrey was charged with and convicted of the murders in United States District Court. Obviously the jury did not agree with the Army examiner’s assessment.
I think that gives us a pretty good basis to make some wild guesses. Let’s review what we’ve learned and see who committed these murders.
The facts that point to Jeffrey MacDonald
- Jeffrey’s family was brutally murdered while he sustained relatively minor injuries. Why would intruders leave a witness alive when he was unconscious and completely at their mercy. It’s even more confounding in light of how excessive the violence was toward his wife and daughters.
- Jeffrey was a Green Beret who regularly trained with the Fort Bragg boxing team. I’m not insisting that he could overcome three adult men in a fight, but we would certainly expect a man like Jeffrey fighting for his family’s lives to sustain more than a bump on the noggin and a single non-incapacitating stab wound.
- MacDonald said that he placed his pajama top on his wife after she was dead. But it was full of holes and he wasn’t. He claimed that he used it to fight off his attackers while it was tangled around his wrists. But what are the odds that a pajama top wrapped around his wrists would get stabbed 40 times in a fight without MacDonald’s wrists, hands or forearms getting stabbed at all?
- MacDonald claimed that he woke up to the sound of his wife and Kimberly both screaming for help. And he woke up to four people standing over him. So how many people was he suggesting were in there? If his wife was being attacked in one room, his daughter in another and four people were standing over him, then that was a crowded little house. And yet the neighbors living above them heard none of those people and the neighbors’ dog didn’t bark until police arrived.
- Jeffrey MacDonald’s blood was found in front of the kitchen sink, where he kept surgical gloves. Investigators believe that whoever wrote “pig” in blood on the headboard was wearing gloves.
- The murder weapons were abandoned just outside the back door and, even though Jeffrey claimed otherwise, they all seemed to come from the MacDonald household. Why would intruders not bring any weapons to a murder and why would they risk leaving behind fingerprints?
- Domestic violence homicides are the most common type of homicide for women and children.
- Jeffrey was a documented philanderer. Despite the many character witnesses who insisted that he would never hurt his family, he did admit to multiple extramarital affairs. Cheating on your wife hurts your family, and to insist otherwise is disingenuous.
- Jeffrey went on television and provided interviews to the media in which he exaggerated the extent of his injuries. On a late night talk show he claimed to have been stabbed more than 20 times, even though the physicians who examined him found no such thing.
- Jeffrey was a liar. The stories he told his wife about going to Russia and the stories he told his in-laws about killing one of the murderers were absolute whoppers. Not every liar is a murderer, but in my experience every murderer is a liar.
- This was North Carolina in 1970 and MacDonald said that a black man participated in the murder of a white woman and two white children. I doubt the police exercised much restraint in the pursuit of any suspect who loosely fit the description. But none was ever identified.
The facts that point to intruders
- MacDonald may have cheated on and lied to his wife, but there was never any suggestion of physical abuse until he was accused of their murder.
- MacDonald gave a very specific description of the female intruder and Officer Micu saw a woman who matched that description within two blocks of the murder scene. It was almost 4:00 a.m. and raining at the time, so it was a really unusual place for a person to be, let alone somebody matching the description of a nearby crime.
- Helena Stoeckly owned a blonde wig, floppy hat and boots that were consistent with the description MacDonald gave of the intruder. She confessed to at least a half-dozen people that she was present for the murders and told many others that she was so high on mescaline and LSD that she did not know if she was involved with the murders.
- Stoeckly seemed to know about the broken rocking horse in the MacDonald house, a detail that was not public knowledge.
- Dark wool fibers were found on the club that was used in the murders, but the fibers could not be matched to anything else in the MacDonald home.
- At least two unrelated witnesses claim that Stoeckly’s ex-boyfriend, who was with her on the night the MacDonalds were murdered, made incriminating statements about the murders over the years.
- A blonde synthetic fiber was found in Colette’s hairbrush that couldn’t be matched to any wigs owned by Colette. Prosecutors argued that it came from one of the girls’ dolls, but a doll expert pointed out to Morris that the length of the fiber made it extremely unlikely.
- Wax drippings were found in two rooms that couldn’t be matched to any candles in the MacDonalds’ home
- There were fingerprints from an unknown person on Colette’s jewelry box and Jeffrey MacDonald claimed that two rings were stolen.
- Jeffrey was a free man for nine years between the Army hearing and his conviction in federal court. He was never accused of another violent crime that entire time.
- A short hair from an unknown source, that definitely did not come from any of the MacDonalds, was found in evidence obtained from under Colette MacDonald’s fingernails.
I have to admit, I am a lot more conflicted about this than I thought I was going to be. When I first read Jeffrey’s version of events, I assumed it was an open-and-shut case. That seems like a completely fabricated story. In February of 2001, I was certain that planes were going to be flying into skyscrapers all the time from that point forward. Thankfully that wasn’t the case. I am sure that in February of 1970 it seemed like random attacks from murderous hippie cults were going to be normal. Thankfully, they never were. Jeffrey MacDonald’s story feels like a fictional account that seemed believable at a very specific moment in history but that did not withstand the scrutiny of time.
After reviewing all of the evidence though, I am much less certain. The case against Jeffrey MacDonald has serious problems that can’t all be explained away.
So who do we think killed Colette, Kimberly and Kristen MacDonald? Well, we might disagree on this one, but I still think Jeffrey MacDonald murdered his family. Let me speculate recklessly about what happened and then you can tell me why I’m wrong.
I think that Jeffrey MacDonald was under a great deal of stress in February of 1970. He worked three jobs (Army doctor, emergency room doctor, physician for the boxing team), got very little sleep and had a pregnant wife, two young daughters and a horse to take care of.
In McGinniss’ book, Jeffrey devotes an uncomfortable amount of time describing his various romantic conquests before and after Colette. It seemed really important to him that he always had a beautiful woman on his arm. Colette was a beautiful woman, but she was also pregnant with their third child. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Jeffrey MacDonald cheated on Colette more than once, and that is not something a happily married man does. Jeffrey married Colette when they were 19, and I think by 1970 he was starting to feel trapped.
It’s pretty common for people to feel trapped in a marriage at some point. Sometimes the feeling passes and they stay happily married. Sometimes it doesn’t and they get divorced. But sometimes the suppressed frustration of a situation like that boils over into anger or violence. I think that happened with Jeffrey.
I have no idea what the specific impetus was, but I think Jeffrey was sleep-deprived, stressed and agitated the night of the murders. I think that after the girls went to bed, Jeffrey and Colette had an argument. Because they didn’t want to wake the girls, they kept it quiet (which explains why the neighbors didn’t hear any fighting, but may have heard Colette speaking angrily). At some point it became violent. Colette struck Jeffrey with the club, either out of anger or fear, causing the bump on his head. He snapped, took the club, and brutally attacked her. She tried to protect herself with a knife, nicking Jeffrey on the abdomen and arm, but he overpowered her and took the knife as well. He broke her arms with the club as she tried to protect herself, then he stabbed her repeatedly with the knife after she stopped resisting.
The attack either started in Kristen’s room and moved to the master bedroom, or started in the master bedroom, moved to Kristen’s room and then moved back to the master bedroom to account for the large amount of Colette’s blood in both rooms.
Kristen was only two years old and was thus able to sleep through the fight, but Kimberly woke up at some point and went to the master bedroom. Jeffrey had already killed or was in the process of killing Colette. Jeffrey did not yet know what he was going to do after the murder, but he understood that his old life was definitely over and he was never going to be able to be a father for Kimberly after what she’d seen. So he struck her in the head with the club twice, knocking her unconscious and possibly killing her. He then carried her to her bed, where he stabbed her several times to ensure that she was dead.
I think he then decided that he couldn’t leave Kristen alive after what he’d done, so he went into the room and stabbed her to death. She awoke during the attack and raised her hands in defense, causing cuts to both hands.
I like Paul Stombaugh’s theory about the suitcase. I think Jeffrey MacDonald’s initial impulse was to pack a suitcase and head out on the run. He was going to leave the country, change his name, change his appearance and try to disappear. But he was a proud man who couldn’t bear to live with that stain on his reputation.
I think that at some point while he was weighing his options, he glanced out the window and saw a woman in a floppy hat. He recognized how weird it was that she was out there in the rain at that time of night. He assumed she was a hippie from town, since there were a lot of them, and an idea formed. Could he convince everybody that his family was murdered by hippies?
He staged the scene as best as he could to fool the cops. He stabbed his family’s dead bodies with an ice pick and a second knife to give the appearance of multiple attackers. He wrote a message in blood just like the Manson family had done. And then he gave himself a precise stab wound that would cause a serious-sounding injury (collapsed lung) that ultimately wouldn’t be life threatening. He then called the cops and did his best to sell the lie.
Helena Stoeckly was not the woman in the floppy hat but she fit the description. She was also a serious drug addict and could not account for her whereabouts during the murders. She was young and dramatic and kind of enjoyed the attention she was getting about her possible involvement in the case. She stoked that attention by making all kinds of incriminating statements to people in her life. But ultimately she knew she wasn’t there and was in no actual danger of being charged with the crime. She got plenty of details wrong about the murder, but the bit about the broken rocking horse she either guessed correctly or overheard from all of the investigators who questioned her in the case.
There you have it, a perfect solution. It accounts for almost a quarter of the evidence and only ignores the things that contradict it.
“The hair under Colette’s fingernail?” you ask. “Why did Helena Stoeckly get rid of her wig and boots?” you question. “The wax drippings in the MacDonald home, the unidentified fingerprint on the jewelry box and the blonde synthetic fiber in Colette’s brush?” you demand.
Not to be rude, but I asked when we started that you grant me a very loose definition of the word “solve.” And with that in mind, I’m calling this solved.