by John W. Taylor
In the early morning hours of February 17, 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald made an emergency call reporting a stabbing at his home at 544 Castle Drive in Fayetteville, North Carolina. MacDonald was a captain and doctor in the army, and he lived with his family on Fort Bragg Army Base. The military police arrived at the home to find MacDonald’s wife, Colette, and their two daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, dead. They had been severely beaten and stabbed. Each victim was stabbed between 10 and 48 times and clubbed numerous times. The attacker(s) brutalized the victims, killing them several times over. However, Jeffrey MacDonald, the only man in the house, received relatively minor injuries and significantly fewer than the rest of his family. After the scene was secured, investigators found the word “pig” written in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom.
According to MacDonald’s account, he had fallen asleep on the couch the previous evening because his daughter urinated on his side of the bed. In the middle of the night, MacDonald claimed that he was attacked by four “hippy-like” intruders, three men and one woman. During the struggle, he was knocked unconscious. He awoke to find his family dead.
Though investigators believed Jeffrey MacDonald killed his family, they were unable to collect enough evidence to bring him to trial. A year after the MacDonald murders, Helena Stoeckley, a local drug addict and police informant, voluntarily interjected herself into the investigation. During a discussion with a Fayetteville detective, Helena indicated she may have witnessed something terrible, but she could not elaborate because of a mental block regarding the night of the murders.
As Helena’s recollection became clearer, she provided details about what she saw on that fateful night. According to Helena, she was present when Jeffrey MacDonald was attacked and his wife and two daughters were brutally killed. She did not hurt anyone, but she knew who had, and it was not Jeffrey MacDonald.
Shortly after the MacDonald murders, Helena moved to Nashville, Tennessee. As she had while in Fayetteville, Helena worked as a police informant on drug-related activities. Helena confided in her police contact, James Gaddis, regarding the MacDonald murders. According to Officer Gaddis, Helena indicated that she knew who killed the MacDonald family. During another conversation, she only had suspicions as to the identities of the murderers. To further complicate her assertions, Helena stated during a different conversation that she believed Jeffrey MacDonald killed his family. The confusing, changing, and often contradictory stories Helena told to Officer Gaddis were similar to statements she made to others regarding her involvement in the MacDonald murders.
Helena either overtly or indirectly identified close to a dozen people as having a role in the MacDonald murders, many were friends and acquaintances. However, no one corroborated her statements, and many of the accused individuals testified or gave statements contrary to Helena’s claims. Three passed polygraph examinations (“lie detector tests”) regarding the MacDonald murders, and several others had alibis. One individual was in jail at the time of the murders. No forensic evidence has been found to tie any of them to the crime scene. Though she casually identified friends as murderers, Helena remained clear and steadfast regarding her lack of an active role in the murders. It was rather convenient and perhaps implausible that she was the sole person in the group not to harm anyone.
Years later and still part of the story, Helena furnished several signed statements to a private investigator pertaining to the MacDonald murders. When asked about those statements, Helena responded that they were “basically accurate,” and they represented what she thought happened or dreamed. She specifically stated they were, “…not a positive recollection of the events…” She went on to say, “I do not actually know where I was during the early morning hours of February 17, 1970, and I do not know if I was present or participated in the MacDonald murders.” When pressed, Helena’s believability crumbled. Her use of the word basically to describe key events underscored her inability to commit to her statements. Helena never confidently asserted anything about the MacDonald murders.
Helena’s track record of providing accurate information as a police informant most likely gave her credibility with law enforcement, at least initially. Though this time, Helena delivered vague information. As a result, numerous attempts were made to get her to provide more detail. However, when she provided more confirmable data points, she was wrong every time. Helena envisioned the word “Pig” written in blood, saying it was written horizontally on the left-side of the MacDonald’s master bedroom headboard. This insight would have been quite remarkable if it had not already been reported through several news outlets. Helena’s vision accurately identified the word “Pig,” but the actual writing flowed vertically from top to bottom, not horizontally. It was logical to assume the word was written horizontally, but if Helena was present during the murders, she would have known how the word was written.
Helena also claimed she saw a rocking horse in one of the children’s rooms with one of the springs disconnected from the frame. However, an investigator refuted her claim, noting that all four springs were intact. She incorporated publicly-available information into her story, but missed key details.
Shortly after the MacDonald murders, Helena had several dreams about the murders, which paralleled information provided in the media. The culmination of the dreams, lack of memory of the night’s events, and her weak mental condition likely resulted in her believing she had been present during the murders. Her foggy memory of the night’s events conveniently left her out as an active participant in the murders, which allowed her to view her involvement as innocent. Yet legally, she bore significant culpability. As Helena described it, she participated in the commission of a felony (home invasion) that resulted in three homicides.
Because of her claims, when prosecutors later charged MacDonald with murder, his defense team viewed Helena as a potential star witness. Helena’s statements reinforced his innocence. However, she was a drug addict, and she admitted to taking several hallucinogenic drugs on the night of the murders. Her memories of the night’s events stemmed not from wrought memory, but from vivid dreams.
When Helena finally testified, she claimed no recollection of her activities on the night of the murders. She stated nothing to assist in MacDonald’s defense. With a mountain of forensic evidence tying MacDonald to the murders, he was convicted of one count of first-degree murder in the death of Kristen and two counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Colette and Kimberly. He received a life sentence.
Helena was more of a distraction than a credible witness, though Jeffrey MacDonald’s lawyers are still trying to utilize her testimony. MacDonald’s lawyers want to use Helena’s statements as evidence of his innocence or at least to grant him a new trial. In one of the latest accusations, a U.S. Marshal who claimed to be present, stated that James Blackburn, MacDonald’s prosecutor, threatened Helena prior to her testimony. According to the U.S. Marshal, Blackburn told Helena that he would charge her with murder if she testified to being present in the MacDonald house on the night of the murders. Blackburn denied the accusations. However, if the allegations are true, Helena chose to perjure herself rather than plead the fifth or tell the truth.
Notwithstanding the detrimental impact her perjury would have on her potential testimony, Helena is not available to testify. In 1983, she died of pneumonia, brought on by cirrhosis of the liver. Helena provided numerous versions of what happened on the night in question, but there is nothing to corroborate her assertions.
If her previous statements were utilized, which parts of her story should one believe and which parts should be discarded? Under oath, Helena Stoeckley stated that she did not have a specific recollection of where she was on the night of the murders. Though the investigators did not process the crime scene in the most effective manner, they did not uncover any hair, DNA, or other physical evidence tying Helena to the crime scene. No one else placed her at the crime scene. Further, she provided no information that could not have been gathered from publicly-available sources. Helena’s statements are interesting and thought-provoking, but were never consistent. They appeared to be drug-induced ramblings rather than a recollection of actual events. Interestingly, MacDonald never publicly identified her as one of his attackers. Was that a calculated decision, or did he simply not see her that night? Jeffrey MacDonald remains in federal prison.
Masewicz, Christina, The Jeffrey MacDonald Case, http://www.thejeffreyMacDonaldcase.com/, website, 2004-2013.
Meroney, John, “The Devil’s in the Details: Errol Morris on the Jeffrey MacDonald Case,” The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/04/the-devils-in-the-details-errol-morris-on-the-jeffrey-MacDonald-case/274615/, April 3, 2013.
Newcomb, Alyssa, & Christi Hartman, “Jeffrey MacDonald’s Wife Says He Is ‘At Peace’ As Judge Considers New Evidence,” www.abcnews.go/com, September 18, 2012.
Woolverton, Paul, “Lawyer says Helena Stoeckley said she was present at MacDonald family murders,” Fayetteville Observer, September 25, 2012.
Zucchino, David, “Jeffrey MacDonald case: Prosecutor denies threatening key witness,” LA Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/sep/19/nation/la-na-nn-jeffrey-macdonald-testimony-20120919, September 19, 2012.
Affidavit of Helen Stoeckley, The MacDonald Case Website, http://theMacDonaldcase.org/Images/Helen_Stoeckley_Affidavit.pdf, date unknown.
Staff Writers, “Behind the Confession that ‘Haunted’ Jeffrey MacDonald’s Murder Trial – and Why the Jury Never Heard It,” People, http://people.com/crime/jeffrey-MacDonald-appeal-helena-stoeckley-confession/, January 10, 2017.
Unknown Author, “Just the Facts on the Jeffrey MacDonald Case,” http://www.MacDonaldcasefacts.com/html/suspects.html.
“Jeffrey MacDonald Case Trial Transcript,” Testimony of Helena Stoeckley, http://www.thejeffreyMacDonaldcase.com/html/tt_1979-08-17_stoeckley.html, August 17, 1979.
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John W. Taylor writes in the true crime genre at www.truecrimewriting.com. He has written short pieces and articles on the death of Marilyn Monroe, JFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. John wrote and published Umbrella of Suspicion: Investigating the Death of JonBénet Ramsey and Isolated Incident: Investigating the Death of Nancy Cooper in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
John is the host of the true crime podcast “Twisted,” which can be found at www.twistedpodcast.com. It is available through iTunes, Stitcher, and Libysn. He currently resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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