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Dr Jeffrey Robert MacDonald

Crime Files
Dr Jeffrey Robert MacDonald

American army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald seemed to have everything going for him, good looks, charm, a commission in the Green Berets, a pretty wife and two daughters. Jeffrey and his wife Colette were the perfect American sweethearts who had married after an early courtship. MacDonald had excelled both on the sports field and in his studies at Princetown. After graduation his stellar career trajectory continued with an internship at the prestigious Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. The massacre that took place in the MacDonald’s family home a few weeks after Colette had written a letter to a friend describing their happiness, was to become one of the most protracted cases in legal history.


12-10-1943: Jeffrey Robert MacDonald is born 17-02-1970: Murders take place 1974: Grand Jury indict MacDonald 1979: Trial commences against MacDonald 1982:  MacDonald imprisoned in federal prison Maryland

The Key Figures

Dr Jeffrey MacDonald: Husband/Father and Prime Suspect Colette MacDonald: wife of Jeffrey MacDonald (victim) Kimberly & Kristen: MacDonald’s children (victims) Freddy Kassab: Jeffrey’s father-in-law Officer Kenneth Mica and Lieutenant Joesph Paulk: Police who arrived at crime scene Bernie Segal: Defence Attorney for MacDonald Colonel. Warren V. Rock: The main Army investigator Attorney James Blackburn: Lead prosecutor Helena Stoeckley: ‘Floppy Hat’ female suspect Dr James Brussel: Celebrity psychiatrist Judge Franklin T. Dupree Jr: Presided over case Joe McGinnis - published 'Fatal Vision' book on the case.

The Arrest

During the Army hearing it became clear that the preliminary investigation at the murder scene had been a fiasco with vital evidence contaminated due to negligence and incompetence by the military police. The catalogue of mistakes was staggering.It was reported that the ambulance man had not only moved items at the crime scene, but had also stolen the wallet of MacDonald. Fingerprints had been wiped from the telephone and a hair strand taken from MacDonald turned out to be from a pony that he had bought for his eldest daughter.But worse for MacDonald was the fact that a young investigator, William Ivory from the Army CID believed that MacDonald had invented the whole story about the attack by crazed hippies. As a consequence the army put its focus on finding MacDonald guilty.Colonel Warren V. Rock was assigned to head up what is known in military terms as ‘Article 32’, which relates to when a member of the armed services is charged with a crime. On the defence side, Bernie Segal was assigned as MacDonald’s attorney.Freddy Kassab, MacDonald’s father in law and step-father to Colette MacDonald, was incensed that his son-in-law was being accused of the crimes. In response, he started a publicity campaign to prove MacDonald’s innocence. Kassab was also dumbfounded by the fact that the army authorities chose to keep the hearing closed.The woman in the floppy hat who had been seen by officer Mica and Lieutenant Paulk was now identified as Helen Stoeckley. She was known to be a heavy drug user who also had a keen interest in witchcraft and the occult. However, the Army’s CID, William Ivory was accused by the defence of carrying out an inadequate investigation of the woman and her associates. By the time she came to be asked to testify she could not be found.Medical witnesses testified to MacDonald being a man of sound personality with no obvious mental health problems or issues. Furthermore they did not believe he had lied about events on the night of the murders.Apart from the revelation that MacDonald had participated in a few extra marital flings, the majority of military and medical witnesses testified to him being a loyal family man who loved his wife and children.After six weeks of public humiliation for the army, the case was dismissed and Colonel Rock ordered further investigations into Helen Stoeckley. According to the defence team, the Army was still determined to convict MacDonald.MacDonald discharged himself from the Army and around the same time he committed a grave error in judgement when he took it upon himself to talk on chat shows about his experiences and worse, criticise the Army further. His celebrity appearances only helped to undermine his cause and personal loss.Helen Stoeckley was eventually traced, interviewed and given a polygraph test. She told the Army CID that she ‘believed’ she was present during the murders. However, due to the fact that her prints could not be matched with any of those remaining from the crime scene she was dismissed as a suspect.Jeffrey MacDonald began to rebuild his life, returning to work in medicine and receiving praise for many initiatives he brought about in that field. He proved he was well liked and admired and was even made an honorary lifetime member of the Long Beach Police Department.After several years, a grand jury was presented with a new theory about MacDonald. When MacDonald was said to have refused to take a sodium amytal test this led to the grand jury indicting him.After studying the Article 32 transcripts, MacDonald’s father-in-law also became convinced of his guilt and began a successful campaign to have him brought to trial. A grand jury in North Carolina indicted him on 24 January 1975 and within an hour MacDonald was arrested in California.It was to be the kind of high profile case that could make careers. The lead prosecutor, Attorney James Blackburn, later went on to a higher position in North Carolina. Ironically, he was later convicted for fraud and embezzlement.MacDonald was unfortunate that Judge Franklin T. Dupree Jr. who was to preside over the case, was also a close friend and in-law of a Government official who was out to get a conviction. It appeared the odds were stacked against the suspect. MacDonald was indicted over a period of five years, but not charged. His trial was finally set for mid 1979, nine years after the murders had occurred.

The Crimes

In the early hours of 17 February 1970, the harmonious lives of the MacDonald family was to be shattered when the entire family, except Jeffrey, were slaughtered.MacDonald claimed that he had woken after hearing his wife and one of his daughters screaming. He then found himself being attacked by three intruders armed with a club, ice pick and knife.When the Military Police and ambulance arrived, including officers Kenneth Mica and Lieutenant Joesph Paulk, they discovered a grisly scene. In the master bedroom 26-year-old Colette, who was pregnant, lay on her back covered in blood with her legs spread. Her face had been battered and part of her chest was partially exposed, while one half was concealed by the top half of a man’s torn blue pyjamas.Next to Colette lay Jeffrey MacDonald himself. He had made the call to the police, but was now unconscious. After resuscitation his first concern was for his wife and children. Screaming to the police to check on them, officer Mica first entered the bedroom of the eldest daughter, five-year-old Kimberly and to his horror discovered that she had stab wounds to the neck and that her skull had been smashed. Across the hall another gruesome sight greeted the officers when two year old Kristen was found dead on her bed with stab wounds in her chest and back.MacDonald managed to reveal to the police that three men and one woman had carried out the attack. He stated, "One man was coloured, he wore a field jacket, sergeant's stripes. The woman, blond hair, floppy hat, short skirt, muddy boots — she carried a light, I think a candle."The description of the woman in the floppy hat resembled a similar figure that officer Mica had recalled just a few blocks away as he rushed to the crime scene. Despite this revelation no patrol car was sent out to search for the mysterious women. As the military police struggled to contain an understandably distressed MacDonald, they eventually wheeled him out to the ambulance.Later, while being questioned by the Army Criminal Investigation Division and the FBI, a distraught MacDonald described how he had been attacked by a black man wielding a baseball bat while he slept on the sofa. Two white men also attacked him and MacDonald had used his pyjama top as a shield to fend off the blows. He also recalled a blond woman, with a floppy hat, standing by and holding a candle. She was heard to say “Kill the pigs” and “acid is groovy”.

The Aftermath

The woman in the floppy hat, Helena Stoeckley died in 1982 from liver failure. What MacDonald’s lawyer also didn’t know at the time of the trial was that she had contacted the FBI and informed them that she was involved in the MacDonald killings. She had even confessed to Prosecutor Brian Murtagh just before the trial, but this had been withheld from the defence team.Additionally, an Army polygraph expert confirmed that Helena said she was present at the crime scene and had explained that her companions chose to punish MacDonald for refusing to give out methadone to drug addicted soldiers. It is this admission that adds considerable weight to speculation about what really happened that night.In a highly contentious book ‘Fatal Vision’, written about the case, the author Joe McGinnis suggested that the reason why MacDonald, a pillar of the community and family man killed his family, was due to him developing psychosis after taking amphetamines, namely slimming pills.A few years later MacDonald, feeling heavily betrayed by the author who benefited from large sales and a movie deal, instigated a civil suit against him for breach of contract. The original suit seeking up to $15m in damages was finally settled when McGinnis agreed to pay just over $325,000. Most of this went to pay MacDonald’s legal fees.An alternative theory on the killings emerged that supported the defence’s case that MacDonald was innocent of the brutal murders of his family. It was one based on the fact that during the late 60s drug addicted soldiers were becoming a problem together with a local ‘hippy’ community, in the area where the MacDonald worked.New Army policies required physicians to report soldiers who were using drugs and MacDonald was known for his unsympathetic attitude towards drug users.Many addicts felt threatened by these new enforcements. Helena Stoeckley’s admissions that she and her drug addicted friends were aware of MacDonald’s endeavours to make accessing drugs more difficult, add credence to the suspect’s original claims that he was attacked by several people, one of them including a woman fitting Stoeckley’s description.One of Stoeckley’s friends, and the man she implicated in the killings was Greg Mitchell, a drug addicted teenage soldier who served in Vietnam. Stoeckley claimed that Mitchell targeted MacDonald and killed his wife Colette. However, Mitchell also died of liver failure in 1982.Since 1997 new forensic evidence has come to light to support MacDonald’s case, but a request by the lawyers for hair strands to be subjected to DNA testing has been refused by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Despite this order from the federal court, the government is still refusing to turn over the evidence on the grounds that it is a violation of the writ of habeas corpus.MacDonald and his supporters continue to claim his innocence and collect evidence to present to future judges.

The Trial

Throughout a litany of anomalies committed during the trial, the most glaring was the Army’s alleged holding back of evidence and not allowing the defence to test vital evidence in the laboratory. Defence lawyer Bernie Segal made an accusatory statement saying that in any court the examination of evidence would be a right for the defence.But in this particular case it was left entirely up to the discretion of Judge Dupree, a man who, in hindsight, should have retired from the case due to his lack of impartiality. Furthermore, the Army’s compete mishandling of the investigation along with positive testimonies of MacDonald’s character were to be kept from the jury.Years after the trial the defence were able to scrutinise lab notes through the Freedom of Information Act that disclosed important findings that were never presented to the jury.Vital pieces of evidence that were held back involved several strands of long blond hair that were found in the hand of Colette, the murdered wife. These fibres were traced to that of Helena Stoeckley’s blonde wig, which she admitted she wore and disposed of shortly after the murders.Similar hairs were also discovered on the deceased’s hairbrush and Stoeckley later also admitted that she had used the hairbrush on her wig.The prosecution also claimed that the club, used to beat Colette revealed two dark fibres from MacDonald’s pyjamas, as being sound evidence incriminating the key suspect. Years later this was found to be false.In fact, the fibres were discovered to have come from Colette’s own mouth, most likely when she was hit by the club. The fibres themselves did not match any clothes found in the house or worn by Colette or MacDonald. Furthermore three wax droppings were discovered in the house, but they did not come from any candles the MacDonald’s owned. Helen Stoeckley was known to use candles for her rituals and the evidence supported MacDonald’s claim that he saw a woman holding a lit candle.Other pieces of evidence that were held back from being reported to the jury at the time included evidence of a burnt match in one of the children’s bedroom and a number of bloody gloves and a syringe that was lost by the CID lab before they could be tested.More disturbing was the amount of evidence that cleared MacDonald of suspicion that was simply not presented to the defence team. In other cases, uncorroborated evidence against MacDonald was held back and only presented during the trial, therefore preventing the defence from being able to address the issues.What the jury also never heard was that no hairs from any of the victims were found entwined with fibres from MacDonald’s pyjamas.Various pieces of evidence against MacDonald proved highly damaging, but the greatest was perhaps the ‘character assessment’ of the suspect presented by Dr James Brussel. Brussel was selected by Government officials and was known as a celebrity psychiatrist who used ‘psychic’ abilities, often without even seeing the prisoners or suspects in custody. Brussel claimed that MacDonald was a psychopath.Despite various psychiatric reports on MacDonald’s personality, including one by the respected forensic psychiatrist Dr Seymour Halleck stating that the suspect was stable and a non-pathological personality, none of these testimonies were presented in court. Brussel’s however was admitted for the jury to hear.The jury delivered its verdict on one of the most protracted court cases in American legal history. MacDonald was convicted of first-degree and two counts of second-degree murder. He was given three life sentences.He was imprisoned at a Federal prison in Maryland. In 2005, the parole board recommended another fifteen years to be served before another parole hearing.