Jeffrey Robert MacDonald, formerly a military doctor, has had (too) many chances since a jury rejected his story about how his wife and two children were murdered on February 17, 1970. He claimed that Manson-style intruders beat him unconscious and killed his whole family.
MacDonald’s case became the most litigated case in U.S. history (it went to the Supreme Court seven times), but he maintains his innocence. Behind his prison walls, he’s managed to marry his second wife and be the subject of countless articles, a bestselling book, and a TV movie. “I am a decent human being,” he says.
Do you buy it?
A Picturesque Life
As cliché as it sounds, the saga began on a cold and rainy night… It was February 16, 1970, and the scene of the crime was a one-story apartment in Fort Bragg, where a 26-year-old Green Beret captain was living with his wife (also 26) and their two daughters, ages two and six.
It’s a picturesque scene: a handsome army doctor and his beautiful family, living a domestic life. But what went down that very night could be ripped from the pages of a horror story – one you would never want to picture…
A Long Shift and a Quick Dinner
MacDonald has recounted the story of the worst night of his life over and over again. It began when, after a regular 24-hour shift at the base hospital, he took his daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, to feed a pony he had recently bought them for Christmas.
Once at home, MacDonald showered, changed into pajamas, and had a quick dinner with his wife, Colette, and the girls. After Colette headed off to an evening class (she was studying child psychology), he put the girls to bed. Exhausted, he fell asleep on the living room floor while watching TV. An hour later, Kimberly woke him up.
A Regular Night in the MacDonald Household
His six-year-old wanted to watch her favorite show, Laugh-In, which MacDonald allowed. When the show finished, she went back to bed. 40 minutes later, Colette came home. Colette, who was four months pregnant at the time with what would have been their first son, went to bed as MacDonald stayed up to watch Johnny Carson.
He then picked up his Mickey Spillane novel and started reading where he had left off. Suddenly, he was interrupted by two-year-old Kristen who was crying. He gave her some chocolate milk and finished reading at around two a.m. After doing some dishes, walked into the master bedroom to find Kristen sleeping next to Colette.
Waking Up to a Nightmare
He also noticed that the toddler had wet the bed. Trying not to wake his pregnant wife by changing the sheets, he carried Kristen back to her room. He went back to the living room with a blanket, and immediately fell asleep on the couch.
The next thing he remembers is waking up to Colette yelling, “Jeff, why are they doing this to me?” and Kimberly screaming, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” MacDonald says he then saw four men standing over him: three men and a woman. Two white men, one Black man in a fatigue jacket with E-6 sergeant’s stripes on the sleeve, and a woman wearing a hat over “stringy” blonde hair.
Acid Is Groovy, Kill the Pigs
He remembers the woman with a flickering light in front of her face, which could have been from a candle. She was chanting, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” MacDonald tried to get up, but one of the men clubbed him on his head. Seconds later, he felt a sharp pain on the right side of his chest.
When he looked down, he saw an icepick blade sticking out of his chest. He then had his pajama shirt pulled over his head and onto his wrists as MacDonald was trying to fend off the blade thrusts.
From Five to One, Just Like That
He was finally able to head toward the hallway that led to the bedrooms but passed out. He awoke to find Colette lifeless on the master bedroom floor with a knife sticking out of her chest. On their headboard word “PIG” had been written with a bloody finger.
He pulled the knife out his wife’s chest and attempted mouth-to-mouth before putting his own pajama shirt on top of her bare chest. He then moved on to check on the girls, only to find them lying bloody in their bedrooms. He called the police: “We’ve been stabbed,” he gasped. “People are dying.”
At least, this was MacDonald’s version of the story…
The Sole Survivor
The scene was ghastly. Colette had been stabbed 16 times in the chest and neck with a knife, and another 21 times in the chest with an ice pick. She had been badly beaten on top of it all. Horrifically, the two daughters were even worse (it would be cruel to have you read the details).
Jeffrey MacDonald was the sole survivor. He was found by the police lying with his arm around Colette. They heard MacDonald whisper, “Four of them… She kept saying, Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.”
Was He Lying?
But before dawn even came, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (C.I.D.) were already convinced that MacDonald was lying. 30-year-old William Ivory, the first C.I.D. agent on the scene, was bothered by a number of things.
For one, the tiny living room was relatively undisturbed. With all the alleged blade thrusts, only one single fiber from MacDonald’s pajamas was found. However, the bedrooms had dozens of those fibers, several of them found under Colette’s body, under Kimberly’s sheets, and in Kristen’s room with one lodged under her fingernail.
You might be thinking, “Well, he was with each one of them that night. So what?” The problem is, MacDonald said he wasn’t wearing his pajama top when he went to his girls’ rooms and that’s because it was lying over Colette.
Then there was the blood in the house, which looked suspicious. Extreme amounts of blood were in the bedrooms (some of Kristen’s was found in a bloody footprint matching MacDonald’s). Oddly enough, no blood was found on the living-room floor – only one miniscule drop on the hallway steps.
Blood Doesn’t Lie
MacDonald’s glasses, which sat near the living-room curtains, had a speck of blood on the front of one of the lenses. Tests proved the blood matched Kristen’s. It’s suspicious, to say the least, since MacDonald said he wasn’t wearing his glasses when he went to their bedroom.
Investigator Ivory later discovered the tips of surgical gloves lying beneath the headboard where “PIG” was written in blood. Those gloves were later determined to be the exact same gloves they had in a cabinet beneath the kitchen sink. Next to that cabinet, on the floor, Ivory found more blood — MacDonald’s blood.
All Signs Pointed to MacDonald
Outside of the home, by the back door, was an ice pick, a kitchen knife, and a bloody baseball bat-sized chunk of wood. For the next six weeks, more and more evidence came up and all signs were pointing in MacDonald’s direction.
Even MacDonald’s statements were incriminating. Soon after the murders, he said three times, “Be sure to tell the C.I.D. I took the knife out of my wife’s chest.” But why? The investigators’ speculation only deepened when it was determined that the knife was never even in Colette’s chest.
The Devil Is in the Details
MacDonald, who claimed to have been beaten to a pulp, had curious injuries. According to a staff surgeon, his most serious wound was a “clean, small, sharp” incision in his chest, causing an easily fixable partial deflation of a lung.
His story was quite vivid, yet there was no sign of any icepick punctures. MacDonald’s mood wasn’t too wounded either as, while hospitalized, he enjoyed a bottle of champagne with some of his Green Beret buddies. Champagne isn’t really something a loving father would typically drink after losing his entire family…
The Investigators’ Scenario
MacDonald didn’t know that he, his wife, and kids all had different blood types (it was 1970). This was essential as it helped the C.I.D. track what happened in that apartment. The investigators put together a scenario based on the evidence.
They figured it all began in the master bedroom, where something triggered MacDonald, likely a hit on his masculinity. They speculated that Colette probably gave the first punch, whacking her husband on the head with a hairbrush. MacDonald hit her with a piece of wood he had around for some household handyman work.
Written on the Walls
Since Kimberly’s brain serum was found in the doorway, it was likely that she was struck by accident. Believing Colette to be dead, MacDonald had to finish the job with his daughters. But before he could do so, Colette regained consciousness (her blood was found on Kristen’s sheets and on a wall in the room).
After killing them, MacDonald carried his wife’s body in a sheet and placed her back in the master bedroom, leaving a footprint of her blood on the way out. That’s when, the investigators believe, the cover-up began.
Written in the Magazines
How did he know what to do? Well, one clue points to the articles on California and the Manson murders in the March 1970 edition of Esquire found in the living room with blood smudged on the pages.
The speculative scenario continues: MacDonald then got a disposable scalpel blade from their supply closet in the hallway. He then carefully pierced himself in the ribs (between his seventh and eighth ribs, which he would know was an area with little sensation since he was a doctor).
Removing the Evidence
With the surgical gloves on, he went to dip his finger in Colette’s blood and wrote “PIG” on the headboard. After placing his pajama shirt over Colette’s chest, he repeatedly stabbed through it with the icepick. With the gloves still on, he called for help.
He then threw the murder weapons – the slab of wood, the icepick, and the kitchen knife – out the back door. He ruffled up the living room and flushed the gloves and blade down the toilet (or in the garbage, which the C.I.D. mistakenly allowed to be carted away before inspection).
This, at least, was the investigators’ version of the story.
A Sloppy Investigation
The theorized scenario was tidy, but it turns out the investigation itself was anything but. There were many errors, like failing to seal off the crime scene. A total of 26 people marched through the apartment before it was finally secured (an ambulance driver even stole MacDonald’s wallet).
The blue fiber found beneath Kristen’s fingernail? That was lost. The piece of skin taken from under Colette’s nails? That was lost, too. It’s hard to believe, but investigators allowed 40 sets of fingerprints to be destroyed, including the invaluable bloody footprint.
Too Many Mishaps
Then there were the Esquire articles, which contained 18 similarities to the murders, including a blonde hippie carrying a candle. Despite the incredibly meaningful evidence, it wasn’t realized until several C.I.D. men spent days flipping through the blood-smudged magazine.
The C.I.D. only advised MacDonald of his rights seven weeks after the murders. They were hoping a confession would compensate for all the mishaps. But a confession was the last thing MacDonald was going to provide. In fact, he displayed little to no emotion during questioning.
The Article 32 Hearing
He did, however, agree to take a polygraph test. “Agree” is the word; he didn’t actually do it in the end. Ten minutes after leaving C.I.D. headquarters, MacDonald told them that he had changed his mind. Hours later, the army put him under armed guard.
Three months later, an “Article 32” hearing took place. This is essentially the army’s equivalent of a grand jury. On MacDonald’s team (hired by his mother) was a civilian attorney and a former A.C.L.U. lawyer named Bernard L. Segal, who – like the investigators – was struck by his client’s lack of emotion.
An Iota of Emotion
The only moment in which MacDonald showed an iota of feeling was when he spoke of Kristen. Segal assumed that MacDonald’s flatness was his due to his medical training and how he learned to deal with horror.
The lawyer had MacDonald evaluated by a psychiatrist, who reported “possibly some latent homosexual conflicts,” in addition to “some narcissistic need to be famous or infamous.” But here’s the kicker: the psychiatrist was “fairly certain” that the troubled army doctor did NOT murder his family. His conclusion became the focus of Segal’s defense.
The All-American Boy
Segal also banked on the “all-American boy” that MacDonald was said to be. Colette’s stepfather, Freddy Kassab, stated, in tears, that, “If I ever had another daughter, I’d still want the same son-in-law.” Kassab announced a $5,000 reward for any information in the case.
It didn’t take long for people to come forward. William Posey, a 22-year-old deliveryman, told Segal an incredible story. Living in a hippie area in Fayetteville, Posey said he had a neighbor who only went by the name Helen. On the night of the murders, on his way to the bathroom at around four a.m., he saw something…
The Thing About Helen
Posey said he looked out the window and saw a Mustang pull into the driveway next door; inside were Helen and two or three men. Two weeks later, Helen mentioned to Posey that she needed to skip town because the police were “hassling” her about her possible involvement in the MacDonald murders.
The problem, for her, was that she confessed to having been so high on mescaline and LSD that night that she couldn’t remember what she did that night. Posey also told Segal that Helen had a habit of wearing a floppy hat and a blond wig, curiously matching MacDonald’s account.
The “Space Cadet’s” Story
But after the night of the murders, she stopped wearing the wig and the hat. As it turned out, the C.I.D. knew all about “Helen,” whose real name was Helena Stoeckley. She was the daughter of a lieutenant colonel who got kicked out of the house for using drugs; the 18-year-old was “a space cadet,” as William Ivory described her.
She was interviewed twice, but never provided anything useful. She was certain that she was never in the MacDonalds’ home. Ivory apparently didn’t even take notes when talking to the teen. Later, her peers would say that Stoeckley was a troubled girl who made up stories to get attention.
MacDonald Was Nearly Let Go
The truth is many women in the area had blonde wigs and floppy hats, including Colette. During the Article 32 hearing, however, the colonel took Stoeckley very seriously. He ordered a further investigation of the girl by “appropriate civilian authorities.”
He argued that the lack of a demonstrated motive and a competent investigation meant the charges against Captain Jeffrey MacDonald “are not true.” It all could have ended there, if it weren’t for Freddy Kassab, who couldn’t sit still. Heartbroken and furious, he had to get to the bottom of it…
MacDonald Got the Hell Outta There
MacDonald immediately applied for an honorable discharge, got rid of most of his family’s stuff in a yard sale, and relocated to New York. There, he started searching for a journalist who would pay for his story. Entering minor celebrity status, he was making wisecracks about the army investigators on The Dick Cavett Show.
Kassab wasn’t loosening his grip, though. So, MacDonald humored him by telling him that he and other Green Berets tracked down one of the killers, “confessing” that they put him “six feet under.” He then gave Kassab the transcript of the Article 32 hearings his father-in-law had been requesting for months.
Big Mistake, Doctor
MacDonald made a big mistake. Kassab read the transcript with a fine-toothed comb and noticed things that couldn’t be true. Kassab didn’t want to believe that MacDonald was the culprit, but he couldn’t ignore the evidence.
He called the C.I.D. Before he knew it, he was at the headquarters. Just like that, the man who had MacDonald’s back was about to be his worst enemy. While MacDonald was still none the wiser, he started working as an emergency-room physician at the St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, California.
Their Marriage Wasn’t So Picture-Perfect
MacDonald was enjoying his newfound bachelor lifestyle, with his yacht and a marina-front condominium. Meanwhile, the investigation was in full swing. New information started coming to surface, like how the MacDonalds’ marriage wasn’t as picture-perfect as previously thought.
MacDonald had over 15 mistresses, most of them seduced by him during his “training missions.” According to Colette’s sister-in-law, Vivian “Pep” Stevenson, his wife knew of the affairs, telling Pep that she gave up. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” Colette had told her. Colette actually planned to go to her mother’s with the kids.
Yeah, Blame It on the Testosterone
Her mother told her daughter to wait until spring. Two days later, her daughter and granddaughters were dead. Afterward, while MacDonald was being accused of murdering his wife and children, a Fort Bragg secretary told the C.I.D. that she would have sex with MacDonald “as often as possible.”
“I did step out on Colette,” MacDonald later admitted. “None of which I am proud of. I don’t think they were real girlfriends… They were one-night stands,” he said. “It was the temper of the times. I like women and I wasn’t thinking of the consequences. I had high testosterone.”
No One Wanted to Take the Case
It was later learned that Posey, like “Helen,” had a tendency to invent stories, including the Mustang pulling up in the driveway. Posey failed his lie-detector test and admitted that the Mustang only came up in a dream of his.
Freddy Kassab may have believed that MacDonald was guilty but finding someone to prosecute him was difficult. He was told time after time that trying MacDonald was a losing situation. By 1974, things changed when the attorney general handed the case to Victor Woerheide. It went to a grand jury trial and took seven months of testimony and evidence.
Indicted, Appealed, and Fatal Vision
Finally, in January 1975, a federal grand jury indicted Jeffrey MacDonald on three counts of murder. The nightmare was far from over, though. In 1978, the Supreme Court heard the government’s appeal, only to see MacDonald’s indictment reinstated.
Come 1979, nine and a half years after the murders, a new jury was selected. During the appeals process, Woerheide died of a heart attack. All along, MacDonald kept himself busy looking for someone to write his life story (the psychiatrist said he had a fame complex, after all). MacDonald settled on Joe McGinniss, the author who wrote Fatal Vision about the MacDonald case.
The Profound Reenactment in Court
Meanwhile, in court, the prosecution was bringing its point home with a reenactment of MacDonald’s version of the story. Lawyer Brian Murtagh wrapped his wrists in a pajama top similar to MacDonald’s that night. Lawyer James Blackburn then flailed at him with the ice pick in the courtroom.
The reenactment left the pajama top in long, jagged tears and resulted in Murtagh suffering a bleeding cut. MacDonald, however, wasn’t so much as scratched on the night in question. The final attempt on the part of the defense was MacDonald’s testimony…
Finally, Some Tears
For the first time, MacDonald showed emotion. In fact, he was so choked up and tearful on the stand, that he could barely speak. It was a far cry from the dry and rigid young captain the interrogators saw almost 10 years before.
It took the jury six hours to make up their minds: guilty of second-degree murder in the deaths of Colette and Kimberly, and first-degree in the death of Kristen. The judge handed him a maximum sentence. MacDonald was visibly stunned. “He has himself to blame,” Murtagh stated later on, referring to those first two lies he told Kassab years earlier. “If he had kept his mouth shut, we could not have convicted him.”
A Never-Ending Saga
In 1980, a Court of Appeals reversed MacDonald’s conviction and he was released on August 22, having posted $100,000 bail. He went back to work in California and announced his engagement to his fiancée, Randi Dee Markwith, in 1982.
In 1982, MacDonald was rearrested and returned to federal prison to continue his original sentence of three consecutive life terms. Yet again, another appeal was made. Eventually, MacDonald’s license to practice medicine was revoked.
Is Jeffrey MacDonald Still Alive?
After a decades-long series of appeals and motions, many of which included Stoeckly and her numerous stories of cults and sacrifice killings, MacDonald remains in prison, guilty of the murders.
MacDonald is still serving time, at the age of 78, in Maryland’s Cumberland Federal Correctional Institution. To this day, he maintains his innocence. In 2017, stated: “I am not going to get out saying a falsehood to the parole commission in order for them to give me a break.”
Prison Wedding Bells
“If it takes me saying ‘I killed my family’ to the parole commission to get out of here and go home, I’m never going home,” he continued. All the efforts of his lawyers have been unsuccessful. But the convicted murderer and serial dater has managed to find love.
In 2002, he married a former children’s drama school owner named Kathryn Kurichh. They met decades before but reunited in 1997 after Kurichh wrote him a letter offering to assist him in his case. Their friendship grew romantic, and their marriage took place in a federal prison in California.
No Compassion for You, Doctor
At the urging of his second wife and his attorneys, MacDonald applied for parole in 2006, only to have it immediately denied. In April 2021, MacDonald was denied a request for compassionate release (he was apparently in ill health).
MacDonald ended up becoming famous – just like he wanted – in books, TV series, and movies. The 1984 miniseries Fatal Vision was directly based on McGinniss’s 1983 book of the same name. Gary Cole played MacDonald. McGinniss wrote a second book, too, titled Final Vision: The Last Word on Jeffrey MacDonald.
A Fatal Vision
Back in 1979, when MacDonald asked McGinniss to write a book about his case, the author was unsure of MacDonald’s guilt or innocence. Nonetheless, he agreed to write it and was given full access to MacDonald and his defense team during the trial.
Fatal Vision portrays MacDonald as “a narcissistic sociopath” guilty of murdering his family. In his book, McGinniss quotes a 1979 report by a psychologist who stated MacDonald “handled his conflicts by denying that they even exist” adding that he lacked any guilt.
A Fatal Concoction
Fatal Vision also gives readers a possible motive for the murders. MacDonald apparently was regularly taking the amphetamine drug Eskatrol (he was trying to lose weight through a weight-control program for his Green Beret unit).
McGinniss suggests that MacDonald murdered his family in a fit of psychotic rage – the result of his frequent amphetamines abuse. That, along with his fatigue from long shifts, his extensive social and family commitments, and a lack of sleep, played a part in the doctor’s spur-of-the-moment murderous actions. Still, McGinniss put the blame on MacDonald.
A Fatal Decision
MacDonald supposedly expected that the book would profess his innocence and the way the justice system was failing him. Obviously, he wasn’t happy with the end result. MacDonald ended up suing McGinniss in 1987 for fraud.
He alleged that the author agreed to hear his deepest thoughts to write a positive account of his fight for justice. Instead, he claimed that McGinniss falsely claimed to believe his claims of innocence even though he had already concluded that MacDonald was guilty – all to keep the convict cooperating with him on the project. The two later settled out of court.