Former Special Forces doctor Jeffrey MacDonald stood before a judge and jury on July 16, 1979, more than nine years after he was accused of murdering his wife and two small children on February 17, 1970, at their small housing unit at Ft. Bragg, NC.
After a month of testimony and nine years of delays, MacDonald was found guilty of the three murders and given three consecutive life sentences. He was freed on appeal in August of 1980 as a court found his right to a speedy trial had been violated. The prosecution then appealed up to the Supreme Court where they ruled 6-3 on March 12, 1982 that his rights to a speedy trial were not violated and he was returned to prison with credit given for time served.
He has steadfastly for the past nearly 40 years proclaimed his innocence but remains in federal custody.
Rainy night phone call in Ft. Bragg: Initially military police and CID (Criminal Investigative Division) were called to the MacDonald home in the early hours of February 17, after MacDonald who was assigned to the Group Surgeon’s office of the 6th Special Forces Group reported a home invasion and a stabbing. MPs believing it was a domestic disturbance tried the front door at 544 Castle Drive at Ft. Bragg but found it locked, moving around the back of the house, the back door was wide open on that rainy night.
Upon entering the home, the MPs found MacDonald’s wife Collette, who was pregnant with the couple’s third child, a boy, and their two daughters, Kristen and Kimberly dead in their respective bedrooms. MacDonald was found by his wife’s side. His injuries were far less serious, he was suffering from a concussion and a collapsed lung. He was taken to Womack Army Medical Center.
Colette was severely beaten with a heavy object and both of her arms were broken in trying to defend herself. She was stabbed 21 times with an ice pick and 16 times with a knife. The word “PIG” was scrawled in her blood on the couple’s headboard of their bed.
Kimberly who was just five years old had been clubbed in the head and stabbed in the neck eight times and with a knife ten times. Two-year-old Kristen in a massive case of overkill had been stabbed 33 times with a knife and 15 times with an ice pick. The crime scene and autopsy photos were grisly and showed the extreme level of violence that entailed on that awful night.
MacDonald claimed that a group of four (3 men and a woman) drug-addled hippies who stated, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs”, were responsible for his family’s murders. The MPs and CID descended upon the MacDonald house and generally destroyed the crime scene. The Army didn’t really buy MacDonald’s story and went ahead with an Article 32 hearing after charging him with the murders in May of 1970. The CID theorized that a fight ensued between MacDonald and his wife after his daughter wet their bed on his side and their argument got physical. Events quickly got out of control. After beating his wife with his fists and a piece of lumber, he believed her to be dead. His daughter walked in and he hit her, carried her back to her room and then beat and stabbed her to death. His wife, then regained consciousness and entered the daughter’s bedroom and threw herself on the girl to protect her.
He then killed her and dragged her back to the master bedroom where he stabbed her dead body repeatedly. He then went into his two-year old’s room and stabbed her to death to cover the last possible witness. Their case was corroborated by forensic evidence. However, the sloppy job CID did, losing important pieces of evidence would taint the case.
MacDonald reported the woman in his house, later identified as Helena Stoeckley was part of the group of four. Witnesses that night reported seeing Stoeckley, dressed as MacDonald testified in the area. Stoeckley was a well-known drug user and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Greg Mitchell from Ft. Bragg was also a drug user in the Fayetteville drug scene at the time. Stoeckley at various times admitted she was there in the house during the murders and others saying she was never there. Her story changed as frequently as the weather. She died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1983.
Six weeks of testimony followed with over 70 witnesses testifying. Colonel Warren Rock as the presiding judge, listened to evidence that CID lost important pieces of evidence, including skin that was under his wife Collette’s fingernails and decided that the charges were untrue. He was cleared under the Article 32 hearing with Rock saying the charges were untrue and that the civilian police should investigate Stoeckley.
MacDonald was given a Good Conduct Discharge two months later in December 1970.
Kassab Keeps Case Alive: MacDonald’s stepfather-in-law, Freddie Kassab who had testified on his behalf during the Article 32 hearings turned against him after getting a copy of the Article 32 transcript and seeing him on the Dick Cavett Show.
He pressured the North Carolina authorities thru the U.S. District Court to offer charges against MacDonald. A grand jury convened finally on August 12, 1974. It wasn’t until January 24, 1975, that the grand jury indicted MacDonald for the murders. While on $100,000 bail awaiting the trial, his lawyers appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the charges on the grounds that his right to a speedy trial was violated.
The government appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and they ruled 8-0 that MacDonald’s right to a speedy trial was not violated on May 1, 1978. MacDonald then appealed to both the 4th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court to rehear his arguments but both denied his appeals.
Trial and Conviction: MacDonald’s trial finally began on July 16, 1979 in Federal Court in Raleigh, North Carolina with Judge Franklin Dupree presiding. He had also heard the Grand Jury arguments five years before.
MacDonald’s defense team immediately began suffering blows as the prosecution was allowed to use a 1970 Esquire magazine that was found at the crime scene as evidence. In that issue, there was a feature on the Manson crime family murders in California which they said gave MacDonald the idea for the hippie killings.
The prosecution also called FBI lab technician Paul Stombaugh who testified that MacDonald’s pajama top had 48 small, smooth, and cylindrical ice pick holes through it. In this scenario to have happened, the pajama top would have to remain stationary, strongly contradicting MacDonald’s assertion that he had wrapped it around his hands to defend himself from an ice pick attack.
Worse for the defense Stombaugh showed that by folding it one particular way, all 48 holes could have been made by 21 stabs of the ice pick, the same number of times that Colette had been stabbed with it and in an identical pattern, implying that she had been repeatedly stabbed through the pajama top while it was lying on her.
Stombaugh’s testimony showed that had MacDonald had the pajama top wrapped around his wrists as he testified, the holes would have been jagged and not smooth like they were.
Helena Stoeckley testified and claimed to have never been in MacDonald’s home or had ever been in his presence. Defense lawyers tried to call rebuttal witnesses where she admitted to being present but they were denied by Judge Dupree.
MacDonald took the stand in his own defense but he couldn’t dispute the government’s theory of how the murders took place despite the lack of a motive. On August 26, 1979, he was convicted of 2nd-degree murder for the deaths of Collette and Kimberly and first-degree murder of Kristen. But the story didn’t end there.
Appeals: On July 29, 1980, a panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction as a violation of his 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial. He was granted $100,000 bail on August 22 and returned to his job as the Head of Emergency Medicine at the Long Beach Medical Center. In late December the 4th Circuit ruled 5-5 to hear the case en banc which would consist of all of the judges rather than a panel. Their earlier decision stood. The government appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and in late May 1981, they agreed to hear oral arguments. That took place in December 1981. On March 31, 1982, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that his right to a speedy trial had not been violated. He was re-arrested and sent back to prison.
Subsequent appeals to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court were denied, the latest on January 9, 1983. Five days later Helena Stoeckley was found dead in her apartment in Fayetteville.
He’s appealed numerous times since the Supreme Court upheld his conviction, the last in 2014 had to do with DNA testing of hairs found at the crime scene on Collette’s leg and her hands which didn’t match any member of the MacDonald family. But his appeal was denied.
MacDonald has been transferred to the Federal Prison in Cumberland, Maryland. He continues to maintain his innocence. He’s next eligible for parole in May of 2020.
MacDonald’s story was made into a best-selling book, “Fatal Vision” by Joe McGinness.