Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including violence to children. Reader discretion is advised.
Amid 50 years of uncertainty about whether Jeffrey MacDonald killed his family, there is no doubt his wife and two young daughters died in pain and anguish.
A pregnant Colette MacDonald, 26, and her children Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2, were brutally attacked early February 17, 1970, at their home in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Army surgeon MacDonald, who suffered a punctured lung, told police that drug-crazed hippies slaughtered his family. The Green Beret captain recalled a woman chanting “acid is groovy… kill the pigs,” and fighting three male assailants before losing consciousness.
To some, it sounded like a copycat killing modeled after Charles Manson’s sadistic cult. Among other atrocities, Manson disciples murdered actress Sharon Tate in California on August 6, 1969 and wrote “Pig” in blood on the front door.
The word “Pig,” was inscribed with blood on the headboard of the MacDonalds’ bed.
But Army investigators found the doctor’s story and Manson connection dubious. There was no forced entry into the home and MacDonald’s injuries were far less substantial than that of his wife and daughters. On May 1, 1970, the Army charged MacDonald with three counts of murder. But five months later, investigators dropped all the charges and honorably discharged him from the Army.
Eventually, after pressure from Colette’s family, MacDonald was indicted and found guilty of the three murders on August 29, 1979.
The now 76-year-old is serving three consecutive life sentences and is currently housed at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland.
MacDonald, who maintains his innocence, has appealed and sought a retrial several times.
“I don’t want or deserve this,” he wrote from prison in 1982, according to the book Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss. “I need to walk out of here, back to life. I would like to smell the flowers again, and I think I should.”
Despite MacDonald’s claims of innocence, Bob Stevenson, Colette’s brother, remains convinced of his guilt. “He butchered her,” Stevenson said following a 2012 court hearing.
The savage act calls out for closure but “people are still debating the merits of his case today,” criminal defense attorney Phil R. Dixon tells A&E True Crime.
“The grisly nature of the case and Manson-like details, as well as the length of litigation surrounding it, seem to have generated an almost mythical status around the case,” says Dixon, a University of North Carolina School of Government defender educator, who has blogged about the murders.
Jeffrey and Collette MacDonald’s Romance and Marriage
Jeffrey and Colette dated in high school on Long Island, New York and married in 1963 when she was pregnant with Kimberley.
“I adore you,” then Skidmore College student Colette wrote MacDonald in 1963, McGinniss recorded in his book.
“She had this sort of very lovely appearance, quiet beauty and a sort of vulnerable look,” MacDonald is quoted as saying in the book, Fatal Vision.
After graduating from Princeton University, MacDonald attended medical school, then pursued a military career.
Colette was often left alone to raise the girls and the marriage experienced rough patches, her mother Mildred Kassab testified in a September 1974 grand jury hearing.
“‘Mommie, don’t ever say anything to Jeff because he cannot stand criticism,'” Kassab recalled Colette saying once when she suggested her son-in-law should help more. During their last Christmas together, the “atmosphere was very tense,” Kassab said.
A Brutal Crime Scene
At about 3:30 p.m. on February 17, 1970, a distraught MacDonald called the police and told them to send an ambulance.
Military police entered by an unopened back door and found the physician alive, lying on the floor near his wife in their blood-splattered bedroom.
Colette’s head had been struck with such force that her skull was visible, court documents indicate. Her body was punctured multiple times with an ice pick and knife.
Kimberley was tucked into bed, her head battered and neck slashed.
Kristen also lay in bed. She had been stabbed repeatedly in the heart. Some of Colette’s wounds were defensive and authorities contended her last moments were spent trying to save Kristen.
“She was a very gentle person, but she was extremely maternal,” Kassab said.
MacDonald told investigators he dozed off in the living room and woke to screams. Standing over him were three men and a blonde with long hair and a white, floppy hat holding a candle.
‘A Wilderness of Error’
Through the years, MacDonald and his defense team have blamed military authorities for not securing the crime scene and mishandling evidence
For example, a medic righted a fallen flowerpot on the living room floor. Kristen’s fingerprints weren’t taken and those of Colette were incomplete. A doctor removed MacDonald’s bloody pajama top from its place on Colette’s body, court records show.
Another blunder involved the woman with the floppy hat, author Errol Morris wrote in his book A Wilderness of Error, which contends MacDonald was railroaded and is innocent of the murders.
A military police officer glimpsed a woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat while driving to the MacDonalds’ home at 544 Castle Drive, but that information wasn’t acted on promptly, Morris noted.
The woman turned out to be Helena Stoeckley, a free spirit, drug addict and police informant living in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She owned a large hat and blonde wig but disposed of both after learning about the tragedy, according to court records.
Stoeckley later moved to Nashville and confessed being “involved in some murders” to an acquaintance who reported it to the FBI. Stoeckley also told a Nashville police officer she thought she witnessed the MacDonald killings.
Point of No Return
The Army charged MacDonald with murder in May 1970. Officials conducted an Article 32 military hearing (similar to a civilian preliminary hearing), then dismissed the case because of “insufficient evidence” in October.
MacDonald started a new life in California as an emergency room doctor, purchasing a luxury condominium, a sports car and a yacht.
Colette’s stepfather, Freddy Kassab, was at first a staunch supporter of MacDonald, but then became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt and crusaded for the case to be reopened.
MacDonald was indicted by a federal grand jury in January 1975 for the three murders.
One key piece of evidence during the trial was MacDonald’s pajama top, found riddled with 48 punctures—12 times the number of wounds in his body but matching the number of wounds on Colette’s chest. MacDonald had claimed it had been ripped off while struggling with the intruders and he used it to ward off blows. But laboratory tests matched fibers and threads from the pajamas to a piece of lumber used as a club and stained with blood. The fibers and threads also were scattered through the bedrooms.
Prosecutors speculated MacDonald’s rampage followed an argument with Colette that spiraled. The noise woke Kimberley, who entered the bedroom and was hit by her father amid the chaos.
MacDonald realized he was at a point of no return and needed to eliminate any witnesses, attorneys said. After killing both daughters, MacDonald placed his pajama top on Colette’s chest and stabbed her through the fabric, possibly to bolster his story, they surmised.
In a setback for the defense, Stoeckley denied knowledge of the murders during the trial, saying “it was only like in a dream or something,” court records show.
Stoeckley died in 1983.
Will Jeffrey MacDonald Appeal Case in 2020?
The jury convicted MacDonald August 29, 1979 on three counts of murder. He appealed and was released in 1980 after the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled MacDonald was denied the right to a speedy trial. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision in 1982.
In 2012, defense lawyers tried to introduce new DNA analysis—which wasn’t available during MacDonalds’s original trial—of three human hairs found at 544 Castle Drive. The hairs did not match MacDonald or any of the victims.
He also sought to include evidence from a U.S. Deputy Marshal who claimed Stoeckley told him in 1979 that a prosecutor threatened her with a murder indictment if she testified that she was in the MacDonald home the night of the murders.
U.S. district court and 4th Circuit Court of Appeals judges rejected requests for a retrial in 2014 and again in 2018.
“There are no pending appeals right now,” Raleigh attorney Hart Miles, who represents MacDonald, tells A&E True Crime.
Veteran North Carolina defense attorney James P. Cooney III works with the Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to free the wrongly convicted.
Asked if MacDonald would be a good candidate for the organization, Cooney tells A&E True Crime, “I’m just not sure he would. In the sense that, with the Innocence Project, what you’re really looking for is good, solid forensic evidence that will include or exclude somebody.”
MacDonald’s story continues to be paradoxical, Cooney notes.
“He’s less wounded [than his wife and daughters], even though he’s in more of a struggle. How does that happen? The perpetrators—why don’t they kill him? Why are they killing the baby [Kristen]?” Cooney asks.
If the group that MacDonald claimed murdered his family resembled Manson’s crew, they wouldn’t just fade into oblivion, they’d strike again, Cooney theorizes. “Four strangers coming in doesn’t make a lot of sense. They aren’t stealing anything. There’s no signs of a forced entry.”
What is evident, Cooney says, is “there’s a lot of rage and hate at that crime scene.”