He is a legend, a memory frozen in time, forever the handsome Army captain, the sharp creases of his uniform complemented by the dashing green beret worn at just the perfect rake. It will always be 1970, it will always be Fort Bragg, and he will always be the innocent symbol of justice run amok.
That distant image has sustained Jeffrey MacDonald for more than 15,000 days and nights, most of them spent behind the walls of federal prisons where he continues to serve three consecutive life terms for the Feb. 17, 1970, murders of his wife and their two daughters.
And it drives his supporters, too, those true believers who embrace MacDonalds claims that the initial murder investigation was bungled, the prosecution more a persecution than a search for truth and the governments refusal to accept at face value his unending statements of innocence a personal vendetta.
I first met Jeffrey MacDonald on August 12, 1974, in the federal courthouse on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh. He was angry. He had said he would never return to North Carolina, yet here he was, dragged back by a Justice Department determined to present its case to a grand jury. I was a reporter for the now-defunct Fayetteville Times, sent to Raleigh to cover what was, and remains, the most spectacular murder case in an area no stranger to violence.
Twice a day, during lunch and after the session ended, Bernie Segal, MacDonalds flashy and abrasive Philadelphia lawyer, would give reporters his clients version of the secret grand jury session. Needless to say, all of it was supportive of MacDonalds claim that four unknown assailants, including the infamous woman in white boots and floppy hat who chanted Acid is groovy, kill the pigs had attacked him and slaughtered his wife, Colette, and daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, while he lay injured.
It was a masterful performance. I heard MacDonald tell the story of the attack at least four times that week, and each time, as if rehearsed, his voice would crack with emotion. The cue was, I heard Colette scream, Jeff, why are they doing this to me?
It was hard not to like MacDonald. He had a way of focusing his considerable charm like a sun lamp. Basking in his warmth, it was difficult to believe that this man, so smiling and confident that he would be freed once and for all, could have looked into his babies eyes and stabbed them to death to cover up his murder of his pregnant wife. I felt comfortable being on the elevator with him at the end of the day.
But then the elevator doors would open and hed be gone. All that was left was the haunting memory of those cold, cold eyes and how, as his voice broke and he seemed unable to go on, there were no tears.
The anger in those ice-blue eyes could flare with a surprising quickness and fury when he and Segal talked about the legal battle they were waging. They dismissed North Carolina as a rural backwater peopled by rubes who dared to challenge their betters. The Army investigators were utterly incompetent boobs, and the corrupt prosecutors were after him because he had publicly embarrassed the government.
Their scorn was still unrelenting five years later during the trial. Judge Franklin Dupree, one of the most respected jurists ever to sit on the bench in this state, was portrayed by the defense as little more than a mean-spirited buffoon better suited for traffic court in Mayberry.
Exposing a lie
My involvement with the case began in 1970. I was an Army staff sergeant on that cold, rainy morning when MPs were called to 544 Castle Drive in Fort Braggs officer housing area. By midmorning, soldiers across the post were searching every building for the four hippies who had brought Charles Manson-like slaughter disturbingly close to our homes and families. I took a squad of troopers and searched the cavernous Fort Bragg Playhouse, less than a mile from the crime scene. We found nothing, nor did anyone else.
But that did not calm a frightened town and a wary base. Investigators descended on Haymount, Fayettevilles tiny hippie neighborhood. People I knew, including a tall black man who often wore an Army field jacket with staff sergeant stripes and who perfectly fit MacDonalds description of one of the assailants, were questioned and released.
But the questions remained: Did we have a band of cutthroats in our community? Were all those rumors about drug-addled hippies true? Or was it all a hysterical over-reaction?
Helena Stoeckley was one of those Fayetteville hippies. A drug addict and frequent snitch for local detective Prince Beasley, she surfaced after admitting to numerous people that she was at the MacDonald house that murderous night and, just as frequently, denying she knew anything about it. I met her when she called my house and uttered the unforgettable words, Im going to kill you.
That will surely get your attention. I had written a story that said federal agents were investigating an unidentified Fayetteville woman who often wore boots and a floppy hat. She said everybody knew who I was writing about and she repeated that she was going to kill me. I finally convinced her to meet me at the paper and Id hear her side of the story.
It was a fascinating afternoon. After she said she suffered panic attacks every time she drove by the murder scene, which she apparently often did, I offered to take her to Fort Bragg myself. We drove to 544 Castle Drive and parked on the street. I didnt tell her that was the MacDonald apartment, assuming shed recognize it, especially with the boarded-up windows and her panic attacks.
Nothing. No reaction. She had no idea where she was. She was a pathetic seeker of attention and approval, even if she had to lie to get it.
Well never know
It has been 42 years since the murders, and the question is still being asked: Did a brilliant doctor with his whole life in front of him kill his wife and then, remembering the story of the Manson murders printed in the Esquire magazine found in his living room, kill his two little girls to make it look like a massacre? Could anyone be so maniacal?
Those who are fond of conspiracies love this case. They revel in missing evidence. They criticize the lack of security at the crime scene. They point to Helena Stoeckley and her friend, Greg Mitchell, as the true killers. They even attack the credibility of Judge Dupree because his son-in-law was a government lawyer.
We will never know the truth. MacDonald has told the story so many times there is no chance he will ever admit guilt, even if it would allow him to be paroled. Indeed, it would not be surprising for him to breeze through a polygraph examination, something he refused to take in 1970.
His followers, who have demonstrated such an astounding depth of emotional and financial support, hold tight to the aging image of an innocent man suffering a tragic miscarriage of justice. To them, hell always be that dashing young Green Beret doctor, not the balding old convict he has become.
But it is another image that holds the hearts of those convinced of his guilt: Kristen MacDonald was 2 years old when her killer came into her room. The little girl fought back as best she could as the ice pick came out of the darkness toward her. One of her fingers was almost severed as she fought, and then she died, looking into the face of pure evil.
Dennis Rogers was a reporter and columnist for The N&O from 1976 to 2007.