The Railroading of Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald
The Murders on Castle Drive
By Jerry Potter & Fred Bost
Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Fatal Justice (1995)
By Jerry Potter & Fred Bost
At the end of a rainy Monday afternoon, February 16, 1970, Green Beret physician Jeffrey R. MacDonald left his office at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. For a while, he played basketball with friends, then he stopped by his apartment to pick up his two little daughters. As they had done nearly every day for six weeks, they drove out to a farm where he had rented space for Trooper, the Shetland pony he had bought them for Christmas.
As he approached the small barn he had built, Captain MacDonald saw that the drizzle had turned the barnyard to mud, so the children didn't ride that day. Two-year-old Kristen, as usual, held a carrot while the horse's big teeth munched down toward her tiny fingers. Finally, her father told her it was time to turn the carrot loose. She did, reluctantly, and reached for another.
Kimberly, delicate and already ladylike at age five, hadn't responded as eagerly to the horse, so MacDonald and the girls' mother, Colette, added a bunny to their little "farm." When they had fed and watered both animals, MacDonald drove his daughters home for dinner.
Within hours, at 3:33 the next morning, telephone operator Carolyn Landen in Fayetteville, North Carolina, took a strange call. A man's faint voice gasped, "My name is Captain MacDonald . . . stabbing~ n-eed a doctor . . . MPs and an ambulance at 544 Castle Drive. . . . Hurry!" (1)
"Is this on post or off post?" she asked. (2)
"Damn it, lady. . . my family. . . it's on post!"
"In that case I'm sorry, sir, but you'll have to call the military police yourself. You see. . . ."
Landen heard a clatter as MacDonald dropped the phone. She kept the line open and dialed the military police at Fort Bragg, gave the desk sergeant the address, then waited about three minutes until she finally heard a noise in her receiver. "Is this Captain MacDonald?" she asked.
"Yes. Don't you understand, I need-"
"Just a minute, sir." She connected the relays and listened to the conversation. She heard a man's voice ask, "Can I help you?"
"Thank God," MacDonald said. "We've been stabbed. . . people are dying . . . I may be dying . . . we need a doctor and ambulance . . . 544 Castle Drive "
"They'll be right there!" the man said. The operator heard the desk sergeant yell to someone, "Get me Womack ASAP!"
But Womack Army Hospital was not sending help. The noncommissioned officer on duty at the hospital had told the MP desk sergeant that an ambulance would not be dispatched until the military police first went out to the MacDonald residence and checked things out.
First Lieutenant Joseph Loy Paulk was the officer in charge of the military police patrol on duty that night. He and his driver, David Dickerson, departed the operations building to personally check out the call. As Paulk left he instructed the radio dispatcher to send support from patrolling units. But the dispatcher didn't express a sense of urgency, nor did he inform the MPs that Captain MacDonald had mentioned stabbings. Instead, at 3:42 A.M., the dispatcher issued a domestic disturbance call to all cruising MPs: "A DD in progress at 544 Castle Drive." He told his MPs he would keep the MacDonald phone line open, adding that they should pick up the telephone at the residence and make an immediate report of the situation.
The Corregidor Courts area of Fort Bragg consisted of single-family and large, brick, multi-family buildings on grassy yards amid meandering tree-lined streets. All the units were reserved for warrant and commissioned officers. Military policemen Kenneth Mica and Dennis Morris assigned to patrol there that night, responded to the radio call. But the; understood this was a "domestic disturbance" so they didn't hurry. The rain had stopped, but the canvas side curtains remained on their jeep as they eased through a red light on Honeycutt Road at Lucas Drive, about three blocks from the MacDonald home.
Mica, in the passenger seat, was surprised to see a woman standing alone on the comer. Although the plastic window of the side curtain was still wet with mist, he saw she wore a wide, floppy-brimmed hat and a dark raincoat hemmed above her knees. Mica wondered aloud to his partner what the woman might be doing there at 3:55 A.M. in such bad weather. He later said that if he hadn't been responding to a call he would have stopped to check her out.
As the pair braked their jeep in front of 544 Castle Drive, they found a half dozen other MPs already gathered at that end of the four-family building. White lettering centered on the front door read:
CPT J. R. MacDONALD
Lieutenant Paulk pounded on the door, but got no response. The apartment was silent. Paulk told his men to check the back. Sergeant Richard Tevere found the rear screen door closed but the back door itself open. He entered through a small. utility room into a master bedroom to see two motionless bodies lying tangled together on the floor. The room was splattered with blood, and the unsettling stench of fresh blood stung his nostrils. He turned around, raced back through the door, charged into the open backyard, and yelled, "They've been.stabbed!"
Other M.P's rushed through the rear door and into the master bedroom to find a woman's battered, bloody body, heavy around the middle. She lay face up and unmoving, one sightless eye open, the bloody soles of her feet toward the door. At her left side a man lay on his belly, his head cradled on her left shoulder, his face turned away from hers, his left arm stretched across her still body. The man wore only blue pajama trousers.
Mica moved forward and knelt beside the pair. The man stirred, and moaned, "Check my kids. How are my kids? I heard my kids crying."
Mica darted through the doorway into the hall. In the unlighted room to the left, the sweep of his flashlight revealed the motionless body of a small brown-haired girl in bed, almost invisible beneath the covers. His flashlight beam revealed that her head had been smashed. Mica left the room to encounter MP Williams standing in the hall, his face pale.(3) Moving on, Mica passed a lighted bathroom on his right. In the room beyond it he spotted the body of a younger girl on a small bed. Blood dripped off the bed into a dark puddle on the floor. The child lay still as stone, and she wasn't breathing. Mica quickly checked the rest of the house, then hurried back to the master bedroom where he found his fellow MPs standing dumbstruck, doing nothing to help the injured MacDonald who was now trying to sit up.
Mica forced his way between the two bodies and pushed MacDonald onto his back. The injured man was trembling and his teeth chattered. "I can't breathe, I need a chest tube," he gasped. Then he appeared to lose consciousness. Mica began applying mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as other MPs looked on:
Tevere picked up the telephone handset from the dresser to report the situation. Unknown to him, however, the desk sergeant, William Boulware, had already received a report by radio and had hung up his own phone, thereby closing the connection. Landen, the telephone operator, had also left the line when she heard the MPs arrive. Tevere heard no dial tone. Not knowing another phone in the kitchen remained off the hook, he believed the line was still open. He spoke into it, but received no response. He said he replaced the handset where he had found it on the dresser.
Under Mica's ministrations the injured man revived, only to collapse again. Mica again performed mouth-to-mouth until his patient began to struggle. "Fuck me, man, look to my wife!" MacDonald gasped, pushing Mica away. "I tried to find a pulse," MacDonald said. "Check the pulse in her leg."
"Who did this?" Mica asked.
"Check my wife-check my kids," the man pleaded, then groaned,
"Why did they do this to me?"
"Who did it?"
The man's teeth were still chattering, but he was breathing better. He told Mica,
"Three men-a woman-one man was colored, 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-"
Mica looked up at Lieutenant Paulk and told him about the floppyhatted woman he and Morris had passed only minutes earlier a few blocks back. He asked Paulk, "Don't you think we ought to send out a patrol?" But Lieutenant Paulk ignored Mica's suggestion. He continued writing on his clipboard as the injured man began a bizarre story. "I heard Colette scream. . . ."
Because of the book Fatal Vision and the television movie based upon it, many know that the young captain, Jeffrey Robert MacDonald, still struggling to breathe, told the MPs .a story about drug-crazed assailants who stabbed him and beat him unconscious. He related his story in an abbreviated version to MP Mica who had revived him through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Later that day, to CID and FBI agents at the hospital, MacDonald went into more detail. FBI agent Robert Caverly reported that MacDonald attempted to tell him what had occurred in his home before the attack. He and Colette had shared an orange liqueur, MacDonald said, then she had retired for the evening. MacDonald continued to watch the Tonight Show until Kristen began crying. He went to her room, then prepared her a bottle. He watched the rest of Johnny Carson's show, washed the dishes, and checked the windows in the children's rooms to be sure they weren't open too wide. When he started to retire, he saw that baby Kristen had crawled into bed next to Colette in the master bedroom and had wet his side of the bed. He carried the sleeping baby to her own bed, then moved the covers on his and Colette's bed back from the wet spot so it would dry. He said he then returned to the living room sofa and slept there.
When Caverly asked him to talk about his children, MacDonald began to cry uncontrollably. The agent summoned MacDonald's doctor, who helped to calm him. Then MacDonald explained that he had struggled with three intruders as he tried to get off the sofa in response to screams from his family. He said he had to fight not only the black man's baseball bat, but the fists and blades of the the white assailants. Somehow his faded blue pajama top had gotten pulled over his head, trapping his hands. He then used the garment between his wrists as a kind of shield to try to ward off the blows. He was ultimately knocked down by blows to the head. As he fell to the floor, just before losing consciousness, he saw a bare leg and a woman's boot. He said he awoke to sharp pains in his head, and experienced difficulty breathing. He went to his wife and tried to revive her with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but without success. Frantic and unbelieving, he went to his daughters and tried to revive them, then made another round before phoning for help.
The story was widely publicized. MacDonald was a Green Beret captain, a Princeton man, a physician and group surgeon for his army unit. He was well liked, held impressive credentials, and had an impeccable college, medical school, and army record. What's more, according to his neighbors and his in-laws, he had loved his family very much. On the surface, at least, Jeffrey MacDonald didn't seem the type to have committed these monstrous crimes.
Yet, William Ivory, the young army investigator who arrived at the crime scene about fifteen minutes after the MPs, said he found things which suggested that MacDonald's story wasn't true. That very morning the CID command at Fort Bragg agreed with the investigator's assessment-the physical evidence at the crime scene seemed to prove that Captain MacDonald lied about what had happened in the murder apartment that morning.
MacDonald's in-laws, Alfred and Mildred Kassab, at first offered zealous support of him. But based upon the army's evidence and upon MacDonald's own behavior, they said, they eventually lost their faith in him and joined the army's efforts to bring the popular and highly successful physician to trial. For the brutal murders of his wife, Colette, and his little daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, a federal court in 1979, nine years after the crimes, sentenced Jeffrey MacDonald to three consecutive life terms.
MacDonald's appeals to reverse the verdict, including those based upon his claims of suppressed evidence, ultimately failed. But his lawyers say that MacDonald is truly factually innocent. They claim that evidence long suppressed by the government proves that the assailants were actually in the murder apartment that night, as MacDonald claimed, and that MacDonald was later dealt a new gang of assailants-some incompetent and untruthful army investigators, and an army lawyer who turned Justice Department prosecutor expressly to convict Jeffrey MacDonald.
Surprisingly, given the government's charges and the hard evidence they presented to prove them, a number of people in law enforcement and criminal justice have come to believe that, despite the failure of his multiple court appeals, MacDonald's claims are true, that he is, in fact, innocent. These MacDonald supporters have been vocal, and they have continually stirred national media interest. Ted L. Gunderson, a former chief of the FBI's Los Angeles Bureau, continues to swear that his own reinvestigations show that MacDonald was framed. Others echoed similar sentiments, many of them calling to question various aspects of the government's forensic methods. Raymond Shedlick, Jr., a retired New York City homicide detective, made extensive inquiries in the MacDonald neighborhood and in nearby Fayetteville and, after also studying the forensic evidence, insisted, literally to his dying day, that there was absolutely no evidence against MacDonald, and that he had been cheated out of a fair trial. Aspects of the. MacDonald prosecution were also questioned by the findings of Dr. Ronald Wright, Broward County medical examiner; former l.A. County coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi; Dr. David Raskin, a leading polygrapher, and professor at the University of Utah; Dr. Emanuel Tanay, an expert on the psychiatric aspects of homicide; and many other forensic experts and attorneys.
Much of the work by these supporters and interested parties has been gratis, or for expenses only, a practice emulated in 1989 and which continues to this writing by chief MacDonald defense attorneys Harvey Silverglate and Alan Dershowitz. These two lawyers made the public claim in 1991 that the mass of evidence the government posits against MacDonald is "an absolute myth," and is "the product .of prosecutorial chicanery at its worst."
In a videotaped interview, MacDonald's father-in-law, Alfred "Freddie" Kassab, was asked why MacDonald generated such support. "That's the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question," Kassab remarked, then suggested that MacDonald possesses a sociopathic ability to sway people to believe in him despite the evidence.
Not so, say various defense team investigators and researchers, each of whom insists the claims are based upon the government's own reports, upon thousands of documents heretofore held secret. The MacDonald defenders say these papers were released only when MacDonald's lawyers persuaded senators and congressmen to force the prosecutors finally to respond to the lawyers' requests for disclosure through FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act. Not until 1983 did the prosecutors provide some, but not all, of the requested information-fully thirteen years after MacDonald was charged by the army and those charges were dismissed, and four years after his federal conviction and incarceration. Many documents specifically requested have yet to be provided fully twenty-three years after the murders and more than thirteen years after MacDonald was sentenced.
Hence, the questions: Do these gov,rnment files, finally released by FOIA, really coroborate the defense allega1ions? Did Jeffrey MacDonald murder his wife and daughters, or were they actually the victims of a group of drug users, as MacDonald had claimed from the beginning? And, if MacDonald is innocent, how has the government managed to keep him in prison thineen years? And why?
When I met retired FBI agent Ted L. Gunderson in December of 1985, before I teamed up with co-author Fred Bost, Gunderson was a relic dating from the glory days of J. Edgar Hoover. The zenith of his career found him serving as chief of the Los Angeles Bureau of the FBI. He managed 800 people and a $23 million annual budget. He had supervised investigations into kidnapping, armed robbery, murder, and many other crimes. He had been especially successful in hostage negotiations with skyjackers and bank robbers. After retiring from the FBI he supervised security arrangements for the American team at the troubled 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Following that assignment he set up his own security and investigations business in Los Angeles. When I met him he was looking into the possible ritual murders of children by a satanic cult in the Seattle area. Therein lay our mutual interest, for I had co-authored
an article with psychologist Dr. Joel Norris about ritual murder. Joel told me Gunderson had read our piece and he had a case he wanted to tell me about.
"It involves witchcraft," Joel said, smiling.
"More witchcraft." I wasn't smiling. Joel and I both had interviewed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. He was the one-eyed emotionally retarded handyman who had been convicted of killing a dozen women, including his mother, his girlfriend, and a sweet old woman Henry and his girlfriend had lived with in Texas. During my interviews with this killer, the very memory of ritual murder and dismemberment caused his one good eye to shine with an unholy light. I wanted no more sordid tales about bestiality and necrophilia. "I don't think I can handle any more witchcraft," I told Joel. .
'This one is interesting," he said. "But I'll let Gunderson tell you about
So Gunderson set up a meeting in Chinatown. He asked Dr. Norris not to spread the fact around because Gunderson was currently a bit shy about exposure. He had helped convict a man of arranging contract killings eight years earlier. Now the man was paroled, and word was out that he had contracted to have Gunderson gutted and dropped into the L.A. harbor.
I would soon learn that Ted wasn't beyond setting a dramatic stage, but he couldn't have had anything to do with the cold fog rising out of Chavez Ravine that night to pour over the freeway like a wet ghost slithering through the Asian business district. Most of the buildings in the area were dark as I drove around the neighborhood craning my neck straining to see addresses. As I passed a little mall near the China Gate, the fog danced quickly upward in a wispy swirl to reveal the restaurant I was seeking. I parked and walked across the mall, pulling up my jacket collar against the wet night air. A small, possibly feminine figure shuffled by, head down, arms folded in a dark coat, socked feet in flip-flops softly slapping the ground.
A naked yellow bulb cast an orange tint on a red door and lighted a sculpted golden dragon which guarded the place against evil spirits. I entered and moved on back through a smoky bar where a handful of Asian men leaned over drinks and watched a flickering -television set. At a scraggly, underdressed Christmas tree I ducked through an archway into a sparsely occupied dining area.
A man in the rear stood and waved at me-Ted Gunderson, a broad shouldered linebacker type, maybe six feet tall. He didn't appear to have given up much since his football days at Nebraska thirty-five years earlier. With his ruddy chipmunk cheeks and busy eyes, he could have passed for George C. Scott on a foggy night. "I'm Gunderson," he said, offering his hand. "You must be Potter." I found myself believing his Hollywood smile as he shook my hand firmly
and motioned me into a chair across from him. To get acquainted we drank green tea and bragged a bit about our best days, sparring, as it were, each perhaps looking for the real person. Gunderson sat hunched over his tea bowl, as if ready to spring. From time to time he cast appreciative glances toward the door, and I realized the old cop had situated himself, no doubt intentionally, with his back to the wall. After a while Gunderson began to talk about the MacDonald murders. "You need to write a book about it," he said in a gravelly voice.
"Joe McGinniss already did that."
"Joe didn't write about this case."
"Well, of course he did," I said. I named Joe's book.
Gunderson smiled coldly. "He didn't write about this case. He wrote about the government's side and left' out all the'good stuff on the MacDonald
"Which is MacDonald didn't do it," Gunderson said, watching my eyes.
I didn't say anything.
"The guy didn't get a fair trial," Gunderson said.
"Nobody in prison ever got a fair trial," I told him.
"That's true enough," Gunderson said.
"McGinniss lived with MacDonald throughout the entire trial," I reminded him. "He found out MacDonald's not a nice guy."
'Joe McGinniss isn't a nice guy, which you'll see soon enough. And MacDonald isn't the asshole McGinniss made him out to be."
"You're asking me to believe that you think that the United States Army, the FBI, the Justice Department, MacDonald's in-laws, and Joe McGinniss are all mistaken about this guy?"
"Now, you've got it," Ted said happily.
"So, what you're telling me," I said, "is that you've got a major conspiracy here."
"No. What we've got is a case gone wrong from the very first moments. As to any conspiracy, it simply happened that other law enforcement officers, being on the same team, believed their fellow investigator who misdiagnosed the crime scene and fed them reports which were less than candid. So the investigator's teammates, thinking MacDonald's really guilty, join the fray with a vengeance. This guy MacDonald really killed his kids, you say? Okay, let's get the bastard.'"
I looked at Gunderson's face. Sometimes you can tell people are crazy just by looking.
"Listen," he said. "You don't need a major conspiracy to make something like that work. All you need to do is convince your superiors that this guy's getting away with murder. All the real evidence is either still at the crime scene or back in the lab. If some of the evidence is confusing, that evidence just disappears or gets interpreted in the government's favor. Maybe your boss will even help. The judge and jury then see a rigged case, and sometimes the judge even closes one eye and fails to make the government adhere to the rules. It happens more than any of us would like to admit."
"And you really believe this is what happened?"
"I know this is what happened," Gunderson said. 'Tm staking my professional reputation on it."
Ted's steady eyes and easy smile told me he believed it like he believed the floor would still hold him when he stood up. With Gunderson, I perceived, you either give up, or get the hell out of Dodge. I finally leaned back and said, "Okay. What have you got?"
He raised his hands palms up as if the whole thing were quite simple. "My guys kept back evidence," he said.
"My team, or the team I was on for years, the FBI and the prosecutor. The Justice Department. Army CID, too, far as that goes, the good guys."
I thought about that a minute.
"I'm dead serious," Ted said.
"You're our of the Bureau now."
"Retired. I went back into the field for the MacDonald defense team and I found some stuff."
"Come to my office on Saturday. You take it home and read it and if you still think MacDonald got a fair trial, you walk away."
I thought about it. MacDonald already had been in prison for almost five years when I met Gunderson. The idea that he might be innocent was unnerving. That somebody in the government could make him look so guilty on purpose was even more so. Realizing I had nothing more to go on than Ted's word, I nevertheless told him I'd give it a look.
"Deal," I said.
Gunderson rose so suddenly that I flinched. But as he moved quickly toward the door of the restaurant I realized there was no danger, he was greeting an elderly lady helped along by a younger gray-haired woman and a smiling round-faced man. The older woman's expression brightened and she threw her arms around Gunderson, who hugged the old girl and planted a kiss on the top of her head. Laughing, he shook hands with the man and kissed the other woman on the cheek.
"Come on back," he told his newly arrived guests. He introduced them as old friends, and we were soon joined by others. An investment banker from Fort Worth, a television producer, a computer importer. We ordered family style-a huge steamed fish, a mountain of lemon chicken and rice-and we drank gallons of tea and white wine. I got to know some of Ted's friends. Joel Norris said they were just people passing through Ted's aura. And I watched Gunderson.
The man did have a certain charm. He seemed genuinely interested in whatever anyone was saying at the moment. That's hard to fake for more than a little while unless you're an absolute sociopath. He was enjoying himself, and I found myself liking the guy in spite of an apparently skewed judgment about MacDonald.
If ever there was an evil man in the world, I mused, Jeffrey MacDonald had to be a prime candidate. The crimes for which he was convicted were unspeakable, even unthinkable, except by a madman. I talked myself out of the trip to Gunderson's office and back into it a half dozen times before we finished dinner that night.
Gunderson said his goodbyes to the others, then walked with me through the fog. "You're still wondering how it could happen," he said, "how an innocent man gets convicted."
'That's part of it."
"The way the system works," Gunderson said, "and I know it better than most, is that the government controls the evidence."
"And they're supposed to turn everything over to the defense team so the defense lawyers can use anything helpful to get their guy off." "Right. "
"Well, as I said earlier, the cops or the prosecutors don't always turn everything over. And, sometimes when they do, the judge, who is really part of the prosecution-no matter what anybody says-won't let the defense use a lot of it. The idea is to get convictions. When you even think a guy's guilty, you keep anything away from the jury that might confuse them. It's a kind of game, with the defendant putting up the big stakes. They hardly ever send a prosecutor to jail for holding back evidence." .
"And that's what happened here, suppressed evidence?"
"I think so."
"You think so?"
"It's complicated," Ted said, grinning broadly, pulling his Sam Spade raincoat together in front. 'Trust me." He walked away quickly, head down. He put his hand up and waved goodbye without looking back. The fog wrapped around him and he was gone, leaving only the intrigue of a big case that might have gone wrong. Driving home I asked myself, could Gunderson possibly be right?
For a year I had investigated the Lucas case in Texas before it turned into a political football during an election campaign. One group of law enforcement officers said Lucas had killed hundreds of people. Another group said Lucas and the first group were lying. I watched as each side in that case told its own version lavishly, giving short shrjft to any fact which seemed to support the other team's claims. Was that happening here? Perhaps there were some things in the MacDonald case that caused some confusion and Gunderson was taking advantage of them. That didn't make MacDonald innocent. In fact, it would be unusual in a triple homicide if everything did fit together perfectly. So, I asked, as I drove home, were both sides playing mind games with the evidence? Undoubtedly. To some extent that always happens in anything involving humans. But, if so, where was the middle? And in that middle, where was the truth?
The Government Case against Jeffrey MacDonald
Before visiting Gunderson's office I reread Joe McGinniss's book, Fatal Vision, and I dipped into old newspaper reports. And what I found there made me feel as though Ted Gunderson were either a damn fool, or he really knew something no one else did.
The MPs who responded to MacDonald's urgent telephone call for help that February morning fifteen years earlier had found Kimberly and Kristen MacDonald both dead in their btds in separate small bedrooms in the small, on-post apartment. Both had suffered multiple stab wounds. Kimberly's head had been crushed, actually misshapen, by powerful blows With a club.
On the floor of the master bedroom Colette MacDonald, twenty-six, lay on her back in a pool of her own blood. She was dead from stab wounds and blows from a club which was found in the backyard where it might have been tossed from the apartment. The two types of blood on the club matched Colette's and Kimberly's. Both of Colette's arms were broken. Her tom fingernails further indicated she'd been in a fight. Her swollen middle and the subsequent autopsy revealed she was well into pregnancy.
The husband and father of the victims, Green Beret captain Jeffrey MacDonald, also twenty-six, was the only survivor. Once revived by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, MacDonald, apparently unable to breathe well due to a chest wound which had collapsed his right lung, told the MPs, and later told the army and FBI agents, that he had been asleep on the living room sofa because baby Kristen had wet his side of the bed. He was awakened by screams from his wife and older daughter in the back of the apartment.
He claimed he tried to get up to go to his family's defense, but found himself under attack by a black man and two white men. The black attacker was wearing an army field jacket with E-6 stripes.(4) He struck at MacDonald with a baseball bat. The two white men seemed to be hitting MacDonald with fists, until he felt sharp pain in his chest, at which time he realized he was being stabbed.
MacDonald insisted that he had tried to fight off the assailants, but the black man continued striking at him with the club. The other two intruders punched at him using bladed weapons as he again attempted to rise from the sofa, and free his hands of the Afghan blanket he had been sleeping under. He said he struggled to get his feet under him so he could effectively fight back, but one of the assailants pulled MacDonald's pajama top over his head and the garment got around MacDonald's wrists, binding his hands and restricting his ability to strike blows in return. While he was being stabbed repeatedly and hit on the head with the club, he caught a brief glimpse of a blond woman carrying a flickering light. She chanted, "Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs." He also heard her say, "Acid is rain." She wore a floppy hat, and, as MacDonald fell unconscious at her feet, he saw that she wore wet boots.
He says he awoke to sharp pains in his head, and had difficulty breathing. He was face down at the living room end of the hallway leading to the bedrooms, his legs extended over the two steps into the living room, his arms bound up in his pajama top as if by a rope. His teeth chattered in the cold, and he distinctly remembered the smell of Johnson's floorwax.
From where he fell he could see Colette in the master bedroom at the end of the hallway. She was on the floor, partially sitting with her upper body lying back against a green chair. He went to her, saw the terrible wounds she had suffered, and moved her downward so that she lay on her back. He has always claimed he possesses only dazed, disjointed recollections of what immediately followed-fighting his arms out of the pajama top, pulling a knife from her chest and throwing it to the side, trying desperately to breathe life back into her, knowing he was failing and his wife was dead. Realizing suddenly that the house was completely silent, he went to his daughters, finding them bloodied, broken, unmoving. He recalls the surge of sick disbelief, his frantic efforts during another round through the house to try to help each family member again, using the bedroom phone to call for help, getting questions from a telephone operator, finding himself in the hallway on his hands and knees, gasping for breath, wondering if he himself were going to die, examining his wounds hastily in the hall bathroom before trying the kitchen phone, moving once more to his wife, then awakening to a ring of military helmets shimmering above him.
He says he has never been certain about other things. He has a vague recollection of placing his pajama top on his wife's chest, but he's not certain when he did it. He thinks it's possible that he also placed a bathmat on her abdomen, for he might have wanted to. keep her warm, but he has no recollection of it. He would say later that many of his movements were suggested to him by investigators and, since their conclusions seemed reasonable, he had agreed, without knowing whether he was agreeing to fact or to conjecture. (5)
The nation's news media carried MacDonald's disturbing story to doorsteps and living rooms all over the country. Editions of local papers sold out. The next day at Fort Bragg and nearby Fayetteville families installed deadbolts and put heavy locks on their windows, and the sale of handguns and other weaponry greatly increased. People were careful of strangers, especially hippie types. Fewer children played outdoors. It was chilling news that a family could be wiped out in their beds, on an army post, and the murderers simply walk away, unseen, unheard, perhaps to kill again.
But did these so-called hippies. really exist? The army's Criminal Investigative Division (CID) at Fort Bragg said they found no debris evidence on the floors which would have indicated intruders had come into the house from the wet yard. They also said that queries in the surrounding neighborhood revealed that no one except MacDonald claimed to have seen or heard intruders in the are.a, and that nothing unusual had occurred in the neighborhood that night. The lead army investigator, William Ivory, told his bosses that the arrangement ( ) of certain items at the crime scene caused him to suspect that the murders did not happen in the manner MacDonald claimed. Things in the living room, especially, seemed to have been artificially placed, apparently by MacDonald, to make the investigators believe an attack really had occurred there. MacDonald claimed he had taken off his pajama top before going to the children's bedrooms, yet fibers from that ripped pajama top, the agents said, were found in those bedrooms. How did those fibers get there if he had removed the ripped pajama top before going to his daughters' rooms?
The CID agents said they encountered evidence that the stab wound into MacDonald's right lung was self-inflicted, no doubt to make the "attack" on him seem more real The agents believed that crime-scene evidence proved that the other, more superficial wounds must have come from a fight between Jeffrey and Colette, not in a fight with drug-crazed intruders.
Even though the army soon found that MacDonald had apparently loved his family and had possessed no inoti~e for the murders, Ivory and his team of CID agents stuck by their guns. Also, the weapons, two knives, an ice pick, and a bloodied, crude wooden club, were said by investigators to have originated from inside the MacDonald home-they weren't brought in from outside. And, the CID said, it seemed that the alleged intruders hadn't stolen anything. Jewelry, guns, drugs from MacDonald's medicine chest, including some valuable amphetamines which MacDonald had used in a weight loss program for the troops, all remained untouched, according to lead investigator Ivory. Everything the investigators looked at, it seemed, pointed toward MacDonald, not toward outside intruders.
Acid and Rain
The news media weren't the only source of information about the case. Joe McGinniss's book, Fatal Vision, also fascinated me. I respected the author's ability to turn a phrase, but even more impressive, under McGinniss's sharp pen the dark character of MacDonald took brilliant and frightening shape. John Steinbeck once told his editor that today he was going to sit down and create Cathy in East of Eden, and that she would be a monster. Such people do exist, Steinbeck insisted.
McGinniss, too, fashioned his monster. But instead of building the character out of whole cloth, as Steinbeck had done, it appeared that McGinniss simply stepped back and let the reader listen to MacDonald's own words from tapes he made for McGinniss from prison. In this way the author cleverly appeared to allow a villainous MacDonald to create himself, and MacDonald seemed to rise out of the pages as the very specter of evil incarnate.
Whether or not he actually had murdered his family, I found I did not like this Jekyll-and-Hyde Dr. MacDonald, and well into my reading I decided Ted Gunderson had to be unsound, completely mistaken, or otherwise motivated.
But, as I read McGinniss's book, something gnawed at the edges of my memory. It was the vague recollection of a tale Dr. Joel Norris had related a few months earlier when he and I were crossing the East River in New York on the aerial gondola from Roosevelt Island to Manhattan. I had been watching tugboats working the river barges, and didn't have any reason to be interested in Joe McGinniss, but Joel was talking at the time about having the same literary agent as McGinniss.. Remembering this, I put down Fatal Vision and phoned Joel I asked him to recount the story he had told me while we crossed the river in New York City earlier in the year.
"Sure," he said. "McGinniss and I both used Sterling Lord."
"But you were telling me something about the MacDonald book." "Oh, yes," Joel said in a soft and comfy Georgia accent, "at this party, Sterling was bragging that he made Fatal Vision."
"What do you mean made?" I asked.
"Joe's book was in trouble," Joel said. "McGinniss had signed with a publisher, and they were going to call the book Acid and Rain, I guess to tie their title to the flipped-out woman MacDonald said he saw in the house that rainy morning, and, I guess, the woman the MP saw a few blocks away a few minutes later, but after MacDonald was convicted, Joe couldn't very well complete the book with the theme he'd started with"
'That MacDonald was innocent," I said.
"Sure. So when McGinniss changed his mind about MacDonald, the first publisher was suing, or threatening suit, for the two hundred thousand and some odd dollars they had earlier advanced to McGinniss."
"Now comes the interesting part. Sterling also became Alfred Kassab's agent. "
"Right. And the father-in-law was trying to find a writer to do a book about MacDonald being guilty, not innocent the way McGinniss had started out. I think Kassab actually found someone to write it, but I'm not sure they had a publishing deal yet. That's when Sterling had this flash of brilliance. He bragged that he brought McGinniss and Kassab together. McGinniss then rewrote his story, went with MacDonald being guilty, got a new publisher, and the rest is history."
"And you were there when Sterling Lord said this?"
"Sitting right there. He was damn proud of what he'd done," Joel said.
"He was talking about it being his idea to make MacDonald the guy in the black hat and Kassab the guy in the white hat." Joel laughed. "There was a kind of literary elegance about it, you have to admit."
"How could you prove this?" I asked. "About Sterling being the agent for both, and bringing the two together?"
"You don't have to," Joel said. "MacDonald's lawyers are right now trying to get McGinniss into court. I'f that happens it'll all come out. I heard it with my own ears from Lord himself, and I'm sure it'll be covered when MacDonald sues McGinniss. If I remember correctly, Sterling also got Kassab a hunk of change from the movie deal."
Joel's story cast a shadow over McGinniss's book as I continued to read about the murder trial and tbe conviction. At every turn, however, it seemed McGinniss had encountered evidence which condemned MacDonald. So, how in the world, I asked myself, could MacDonald still be innocent, as Gunderson claimed? And if the man was guilty, he was a monster of diabolical proportions. What, then, did it matter if McGinniss had teamed up with Kassab to expose him? I continued reading McGinniss's book.
I learned that no one from the army or the Justice Department could provide a motive for MacDonald until Joe McGinniss himself turned sleuth. He told his readers he discovered that before the murders MacDonald had lost a lot of sleep from working every night in his moonlighting jobs as an emergency physician, and that he had probably ingested a large dose of amphetamines taken during a weight loss program. McGinniss said his investigations uncovered evidence that MacDonald actually exhibited personality changes which, according to doctors who treated him after the murders, indicated amphetamine psychosis. McGinniss painted a harrowing picture of a wild, strung-out MacDonald, in a psychotic state, rampaging through his home murdering everyone in his family. So, I thought, if MacDonald is innocent, where did McGinniss's amphetamine theory come from?
In Gunderson's Boxes
As I drove to Gunderson's office in Westwood, an upscale community just west of Beverly Hills, I told myself that, like McGinniss, I didn't believe MacDonald's story, and Gunderson, who did seem to believe it, was either mistaken or there was something in it for him. At that moment I was determined not to get involved. I had a novel in mind and I wanted to wallow around in it awhile, unfettered, unowned, like a rich man in his own green garden, breathing clean air.
Clean air I got, by Los Angeles standards, that Saturday morning, and even before I left the San Diego freeway I could clearly see the huge "Monty's" steakhouse sign atop an office tower a few blocks south of the UCLA campus and medical center.
I parked in the basement of that building, rode the elevator up, and pushed open the door to Gunderson's office. I found myself in a room with paper-strewn desks and cardboard file boxes stacked on the floor, but no Gunderson. I peeked into the next room, found it vacant also, and walked over to the window. I visually followed Wilshire Boulevard eastward to the emerald sweep of golf greens and the expansive fairways of the posh Los Angeles Country Club. High rent. North of Wilshire I spied the little churchyard where the remains of Marilyn Monroe lay in a wall crypt. The graves of Natalie Wood and Darryl Zanuck were there, too, as were the bones and ashes of other lesser lights of this privileged paradise.
Stepping back from the window, I saw that Gunderson had attained his own fair measure of fame. The walls displayed photos aplenty of the smiling detective shaking hands with Olympic champions, with Los Angeles Rams, Dodgers, Lakers, and with F. Lee Bailey, J. Edgar Hoover, and President Gerald Ford. There was a picture of Judge William Webster when he was director of the FBI.
"Hey, sorry I'm late," Gunderson said from behind me. "Had to step out for a minute."
"Nice family," 1 said, pointing toward the wall.
"Lots of turkeys, too," Gunderson said. "People get some limelight-"
He tossed his head as to dismiss them. "1 like Ford," he said. "Good man. And Lee Bailey. He's interested in the case, too."
"The MacDonald case."
"Right. He wants MacDonald to take a lie detector test."
"Why won't he?"
Gunderson's face darkened almost imperceptibly, then he smiled. "He will."
"So, he's going to take one? A polygraph?"
"1 don't know. 1 think he will."
"If he's innocent, why didn't he at least take a sodium amytal test when the grand jurors asked him to?"
"That's a pretty rough test," Gunderson said. "You relive the whole murder attack over again. People go nuts from it."
"Better that than go to jail forever."
"Maybe he got bad advice," Gunderson said. He didn't seem to want to talk about it.
"If he's innocent, why wouldn't he have taken a lie detector test when the army investigators asked him to?"
'That one's easy. He believed they had lied to him about the evidence in the crime scene and he didn't trust them."
"Okay," 1 said. "Fair enough. But now, after his appeals have all failed, why doesn't he take a polygraph to at least corroborate his own claims of innocence?"
"He will when the time's right."
"Seems to me the time's past right," 1 said.
"1 agree. I sent MacDonald a letter I got from F. Lee Bailey urging him to do it and clear the air. He's talking with his lawyers about it right now."
Gunderson motioned for me to sit down. Then he pointed toward one of three boxes of documents in file folders and notebooks. He sat beside me and picked up a big blue binder and thumbed through it, and stopped at a picture of a young woman. "Helena Stoeckley," he said. "She was just a kid at the time of the murders. Seventeen. Self-styled witch. Also the best drug informant the local police had at the time. Worked for the army, too, and the State Bureau of Investigation through a multi-departmental narcotics squad-even though they knew the kid was dealing drugs. You didn't know that, did you?" Gunderson said, a grin on his face.
"No," I admitted.
"She wore a blond wig the murder night, floppy hat, boots. Just like MacDonald saw in his living room. You didn't know that either, did you?"
Gunderson showed me several photos of Stoeckley's boyfriend at the time. He was a lean man with light brown hair. In each picture his eyes were dark and piercing. "This guy's important," Gunderson said. "Greg Mitchell. Get this. When Beasley and I found her, Stoeckley confessed to me, took a lie detector test, and passed it when she said she was in the murder apartment that morning and could name the murderers.
Government was saying she's crazy, so I asked her to take a battery of psychological examinations here at UCLA. She wasn't crazy. And Greg Mitchell confessed, too, to murders at Fort Bragg. So then the government conveniently said he must be talking about something that happened in Vietnam-not the MacDonald murders."
I found myself wondering, uncomfortably, what were the chances of tWo people in the same small group confessing to murdering two little girls and a pregnant mother. Then Gunderson told me, "Still another member of their witchcraft coven confessed, too. That made three members of that unhappy little family of dope heads that had implicated themselves in the murders. You didn't know about any of that, did you?
"No," he answered for me. "And neither does anybody else, even though McGinniss could have told you, but chose to leave most of it oUt of his tidy little book."
Gunderson showed me another picture, of the third confessor, a thin girl named Cathy Perry sitting at a kitchen table with two other people. She appeared to be small, with straight brown hair, plain featUres except for heavy eyebrows. "Ten months after the murders," Gunderson continued, "she stabbed her boyfriend. She stabbed him in the back with a butcher knife while he slept. And she stabbed her puppy dog till he was flat, the police report said."
"Nice girl," I said.
"The government said Perry got too many things wrong when she described the murders." Gunderson laughed and said, 'There's a second verse to that song, too. You'll see." "If these three confessions were good," I asked, "then why didn't the government just reopen the case?"
"They don't like to lose. They like to win." "That's too easy, Ted."
"Okay. Remember, the trial that convicted MacDonald was held nine years after the murders. Things change. The judge said that all this stuff is interesting, but MacDonald's still gotta be guilty because they've got all this evidence against him, hard evidence."
"And you're saying they really don't have that kind of evidence."
"They've got evidence that MacDonald was in the home" Ted said. "Of course he was. He lived there. But you'll find that's all they've really got. They manufactured evidence against him, and they kept back other evidence that showed he wasn't the only one there that morning."
"You're sure of that." .
"You wouldn't be here if I wasn't," he said, smiling. He closed the binder with a whop and said, "Start with this. Then we'll get the lawyers to get you the stuff we got from the Freedom of Information Act. You'll need a U-Haul trailer for it, though, and stuffs still coming in."
So far I had Gunderson's word against McGinniss's book and a handful of newspaper clippings. I spent a week in Gunderson's boxes, and when I had finished my pulse was racing from excitement. If only half the stuff in his files was true, then something incredible had happened. In Gunderson's boxes I saw actual government documentation that evidence MacDonald could have used at trial had really existed, then had disappeared. MacDonald's lawyers had filed post-trial appeals on several of these items in 1983, but the judge ruled they didn't matter, that these things wouldn't have changed the 1979 jury verdict even if the jurors had known about them. On the very surface this seemed selfserving of the judge. And the thing that bothered me the most was that Gunderson's box also held documents which showed that this judge, Franklin T. Dupree,Jr., the same one who ,had presided at the MacDonald grand jury, presided over his trial, and heard his appeals at the district level, had been the father-in-law of James Proctor, the Assistant U.S. Attorney into whose hands the MacDonald case was passed after the army dropped its charges. That young prosecutor, Gunderson's paperwork said, had clamored for MacDonald's indictment and even had threatened to resign his post if he were not allowed to charge MacDonald in the criminal courts. That same judge, Proctor's father-in-law, Gunderson's report claimed, then ruled with the subsequent prosecutors' motions to keep key evidence from the jurors.
Gunderson's claims were beginning to sound as farfetched as MacDonaId's story about drug-crazed intruders. I had wanted to write another mystery novel-now, I had found myself a true mystery to investigate. While I tried to grasp the meaning of it all, the detective called my home at 6:30 one morning. He said he had been out all night on a surveillance and was "in the neighborhood." I invited him over for breakfast and asked him, "If all this stuffs real, why didn't the appeals work?"
Gunderson smiled forgivingly the way a grown-up will when a child asks why things are the way they are. "Appeals aren't really about innocence," he said. 'They are about mistakes in the trial. Judge' Dupree ruled he didn't make any mistakes, and the appeals court ruled he didn't either. They don't like to make each other look bad, you see."
That sounded a little simplistic, and I guess my face said I didn't quite buy it. So, Gunderson drove it home. "Same way the judge said he didn't talk with his prosecutor son-in-law about the case, and the appeals judges, in turn, said they didn't think good old Judge Frankie Dupree would lie to them about a thing like that. So they let a judge who was related to an earlier prosecutor on the same case remain the judge of record."
Gunderson let me think about that for a moment, then said, 'This is just a bad, bad case."
There was no doubt in my mind that Gunderson, at least, believed what he was saying. He might have been dead wrong; but he had bought into it as if it were religion. And that bothered me, too.
. As I continued to examine Guriderson's report and McGinniss's book, the case troubled me day and night. I had witnessed behind-the-scenes political machinations in the Lucas case, the likes of which I could before that time only have imagined; so Gunderson's claims, incredible as they seemed on the surface, intrigued me precisely because they were so extreme. Why would Gunderson put himself out on the edge for a child killer, if the detective didn't sincerely feel something was terribly wrong with the conviction? He was setting himself against his old outfit, the FBI, and aligning himself with a cruel, sick individual. Why would Gunderson do this for a case that didn't appear to have a chance in hell of being overturned?
And, if Joe McGinniss had fully researched the story, as he claimed, why didn't he deal with the questions I encountered in the Gunderson report, a report which the detective insisted had been given to McGinniss while the author was writing Fatal Vision?
Meanwhile, I heard about a retired reporter who had followed the MacDonald case closely and had expressed his own concerns that something had gone awry. His name was Fred Bost and he happened to live in Fayetteville, only a few miles from the scene of the crime. Knowing a reinvestigation would be a mammoth undertaking, I considered flying to North Carolina, to see if Bost might be someone I could work with.
I phoned ahead, set up a meeting, and asked him if he'd show me the murder apartment at Fort Bragg. I wanted to start at the beginning. And, since Joe McGinniss's book hadn't told me much about the crime scene, the first question that had to be asked was: Why didn't the book tell more about what was found in the apartment at 544 Castle Drive, for this was the alleged source of the government's entire case? And, I wanted to know, what did the first MPs and CID agents on the scene really find there?
1. The narrative action described in this prologue is from testimony at the army Article 32 hearing in 1970 by persons involved: Carolyn Landen, William A. Boulware, Kenneth C. Mica, Richard T evere, and Jeffrey MacDonald.
2. Landen worked for the Carolina Telephone Company, which serviced some of the housing units on Fort Bragg, ten miles northwest of Fayetteville.
3. While describing this at the Article 32 hearing, Mica failed to fully identify Williams. Two military police with that surname were at the scene~Edward J. Williams and Donald R. Williams Jr.
4. These are sergeant chevrons for pay grade E-6, appearing as three inverted V's with a single "rocker" at the bottom. These cloth stripes on the sleeves were seldom seen at the time because they were being discontinued by the army, to be replaced by metal collar insignia, and would be illegal to wear following June 30, 1970.
5. MacDonald's claim of having the story molded by investigators is substantiated in at least one instance by the.transcript of an interrogation on April 6, 1970, when he was questioned by CID agents. Until that moment MacDonald had told others that the black man was striking him with a "baseball bat." Agent Robert Shaw wanted to believe that the only bludgeon involved in the murders was the splintery shaft found in the backyard. Consequently, Shaw posed a question by saying, "We think that this club that you originally thought was a baseball bat or something might have come from around the house or something like that." When MacDonald didn't argue about this switch, the CID subsequently used it against MacDonald by citing a lack of splinters from the club in the living room where he said he had been attacked.
The Continuing Persecution of Jeffrey R. MacDonald (Nov. 5, 2005)
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