In the early hours of Feb. 17, 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald’s family was murdered. All killings are horrid, but those occurring on the grounds of Fort Bragg, N.C., that morning seemed particularly awful. The victims—MacDonald’s pregnant wife, Colette, 26, and daughters, Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2— were beaten and stabbed in a manner so savage that when the young army captain claimed later his loved ones had been slaughtered by four drug-crazed hippies, no further explanation seemed necessary. Memories of the Charles Manson murders in California were still vivid, and the Fort Bragg episode looked like more of the same. Helter Skelter, Part II.
As the only survivor, MacDonald gave a spellbinding account of the attack. “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” Again and again, MacDonald said, the incantation was spoken by a woman in a floppy hat while the gang fell upon him—bludgeoning and slashing and leaving him unconscious only to awake, not in a pleasant rented cottage, but in an abbatoir, a chamber of horrors.
MacDonald was a sympathetic figure, to be sure. The handsome Green Beret doctor from Long Island had struggled courageously against the intruders. He had been wounded in the fray (although superficially). He had endured terrible personal loss and one might only guess at the emotional damage sustained, the nightmares that would wrest him from sleep as the years went by. Already, MacDonald seemed haunted by the very fact of his survival. Many times the captain would speak of trying to deal with the central riddle of his lonely existence—why his beautiful wife and lovely children were dead and he alive.
Soon enough, army investigators had an answer to MacDonald’s painful inquiry. Jeffrey MacDonald survived while the others perished for a simple, albeit astonishing, reason: he had murdered them. There had been no assassins, no chants, no floppy hat, no attack on the captain, no need at all to curse the fates and wonder what the world was coming to. There had only been Jeffrey MacDonald, moved to uncharacteristic rage, stalking through his home and dispatching Colette, Kimberly and Kristen as deliberately as he might have flicked out the lights before retiring.
The army held something called an Article 32 hearing to determine if court martial proceedings should be initiated
— a matter of form. But MacDonald emerged victorious and the sleuthing of army investigators suddenly looked amateurish at best. Gaining an honorable discharge, MacDonald moved to California and resumed his medical career. He reproached the army for hopeless ineptitude and said he was tormented to think that the slayers of his wife and children remained at large.
In the background of the case was a fellow named Freddy Kassab, Colette MacDonald’s stepfather. Outraged at first by the army’s decision to cast MacDonald as the murderer, Freddy Kassab and Colette’s mother, Mildred, underwent a remarkable transformation. While MacDonald practised medicine in California, Freddy Kassab spent his spare hours on Long Island poring over transcripts of the Article 32 proceedings. He read and reread. He took notes and pondered what seemed irreconcilable differences between the physical
evidence and the account given by MacDonald. Slowly, reluctantly, the Kassabs arrived at the same conclusion drawn by army investigators: that after an argument with Colette, MacDonald committed the murders, used his surgeon’s skills to inflict harmless wounds on himself and then conjured a band of counterculture spooks to take the blame.
MacDonald suggested that the Kassabs were maddened by grief, but the couple would not be deterred. Though authorities showed little enthusiasm, Fred and Mildred Kassab pushed and pushed until, finally, the investigation resumed. Subsequently, a grand jury was impanelled. Astounded at the turn of events, MacDonald was indicted and, in 1979, brought back from California for trial. A jury in North Carolina deliberated for only 6V2hours before delivering the verdict sought so passionately by the Kassabs. Jeffrey MacDonald was found guilty and is now in a federal penitentiary near Austin, Tex., serving three consecutive life terms.
The story is irresistibly American — the intelligent, fair-haired boy brought
down j ust as life was about to bestow the best upon him. Yes, some people said MacDonald was a touch too self-assured and had an extravagant need to prove himself with women, but if these traits are to be deemed suspicious, much of our male citizenry would be under 24-hour surveillance. MacDonald was a character as familiar to us as Joe Namath and Indiana Jones. He had it all and we saluted him. MacDonald capable of a terrible crime? Impossible, said many who knew him and many who did not. Impossible.
So it may have seemed to Joe McGinniss, an author and reporter of high calibre who set out in 1979 to write a book on the case. In this effort, McGinniss had the full co-operation of MacDonald, who believed his cause would be well served—that he would be portrayed as victim, not killer. How confounded MacDonald must have been to find that the ensuing volume, Fatal Vision, did precisely the opposite. Although sales likely would earn him thousands, MacDonald said he had been betrayed. He excoriated the book and described as “ludicrous” the made-for-TV adaptation his attorneys recently tried to keep from being broadcast. Said MacDonald: “I wish the book would burn.”
One can understand MacDonald’s dismay. It is not easy to read McGinniss’s work and believe MacDonald innocent, so persuasively has the author marshalled the evidence. And yet, it is also difficult to hear MacDonald defend himself and imagine him guilty. For those outside the case, there is a familiar horror at hand—one that occurs whenever our judgment in human nature is challenged. Football star, Princeton grad, physician, Green Beret: Jeffrey MacDonald was solid stuff. His shortcomings seemed within tolerance, his instincts decent enough. If this fellow was not to be trusted, then who?
On Jan. 14 lawyers for MacDonald will be in Raleigh, N.C., requesting that a federal judge overturn the 1979 conviction or grant another trial. MacDonald says there is new evidence and insists, again, that he is innocent. “At some point, someone has got to listen,” he said during an interview at the penitentiary. “It’s wrong for me to be here.” How tempting to let things go at that, to take this impressive, handsome man at his word—just to reassure ourselves and say, no, not him, Jeffrey MacDonald wasn’t the type.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
4Jeffrey MacDonald survived while the others perished for a simple reason: he had murdered them9
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