by John W. Taylor
On February 17, 1970, the military police at Fort Bragg, North Carolina found Colette MacDonald and her two young daughters, Kimberly (age 5) and Kristen (age 2), viciously murdered. The sole survivor of an apparent home invasion was their father and husband, Jeffrey MacDonald. He was a captain and doctor in the army, assigned to the prestigious Green Berets. He told an elaborate tale of a near-death fight with multiple assailants, while he listened to his wife and children being killed.
One of the intruders allegedly wrote the word “pig” in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom. MacDonald claimed he heard one of the attackers say “acid is groovy” and “acid and rain.” With the writing in blood, bizarre statements, and complete over-kill of the victims, the crime scene was reminiscent of the murders in Los Angeles, orchestrated by Charles Manson, only months prior. It was hard to imagine the same perpetrators traveled thousands of miles to Fayetteville, North Carolina, but they could have been copycats. Because of the brutality of the crimes coupled with the similarities to the Manson murders, the case garnered significant media attention.
The military formerly charged Jeffrey MacDonald with murder on May 1, 1970; however, the charges were dismissed the following October due to insufficient evidence. With the charges dropped, MacDonald became somewhat of a celebrity. He was an intelligent and handsome doctor, and the murdering of his family failed to dampen his charisma.
There is no acceptable or “normal” manner for one to grieve a tragedy. However, when someone is suspected of murder, their reactions, statements, and demeanor are scrutinized. When their emotions do not conform to what is expected of a grieving person, many believe it is suspicious and possibly even evidence of guilt. MacDonald did not act in a manner most would consider consistent with a grieving husband and father.
A couple of months after the murder charges were dropped, MacDonald appeared on the late-night program The Dick Cavett Show. Though his celebrity came from his family’s brutal murders, he appeared unaffected. He laughed and told jokes. He criticized the army investigators. His jovial affect may not have conveyed sympathy, but it also did not mean he killed his family. Some people respond to horrific events with comedy and light-heartedness, even if they are destroyed within. However, the national television appearance gave MacDonald an opportunity to help catch his family’s killers, but he instead chose to fixate on the disrespect the homicide investigators demonstrated toward him. To most people, he came across as an unemotional narcissist. His statements and actions fit all too well into the mold of how many people think a psychopathic killer would present himself.
During various interviews and proceedings, MacDonald told investigators and prosecutors what transpired on the night of his family’s murders. His story stayed materially the same. However, when closely evaluating MacDonald’s statements, many issues can be detected. Unlike emotions, which tell us little about guilt or innocence, words almost always give a person away. People choose words for a reason, which will often leak the truth. MacDonald began his story of the night his family’s murder:
And I started to sit up, and there was some people–there was some people at the end of the couch the CID [Army Criminal Investigation Division] said was never in my house. I saw people at the end of the couch. I saw three men.
The use of the term started can often indicate deception. When something starts, it should finish unless something stopped the action. Nothing stopped MacDonald from sitting up at this point, since the alleged intruders were at the end of the couch away from him.
MacDonald referred to the assailants who murdered his family and tried to kill him as people. It was a rather non-descript and gentle way to describe them. Was this an appropriate description? How about vicious murders or psychopathic killers? No, he saw three men. This contrasted sharply with his later description of the phone operator who took his emergency call. He referred to her as a “dumb-ass operator” and a “dumb idiot.” Apparently, in MacDonald’s mind, a dispatcher not treating him with respect warranted anger, but not killing his family.
MacDonald continued by stating:
I don’t know if I ever said it–like it was–you know–in remembering it, I–like it was almost like I was thinking–you know—what the hell is going on? Why is my wife screaming? And why is Kimberley screaming? And I don’t know if I said–you know–what the hell are you doing here. But I remember thinking it–thinking–you know–saying to myself, what is going on?
He tried to explain what he heard and thought during the first few seconds after he awoke to find intruders in his house. He conveyed his thoughts and incorporated sound into his memory. This provided additional believability.
Another element of MacDonald’s statement was his pervasive use of you know. It is usually utilized as filler. People say you know in order to give themselves time to think. It can be a verbal habit. The use tends to increase when a person is nervous or talking about something stressful. You know also has a literal use. You are saying to the person, “you know what I mean,” I do not need to actually say it. MacDonald consistently utilized you know throughout his testimony when describing his fight with the intruders and actions after finding his family dead. This would seem to imply a pattern in his speech or indicative of his overall stress and nervousness. However, when MacDonald described finding his murdered wife and young girls, he completely eliminated the use of you know. It should have been the most stressful and emotional part of the night; yet, he demonstrated no hesitation or stress, via filler words, in his retelling of those events.
MacDonald went on:
And this guy started walking down between the coffee table and the couch, and he raised something over his head–I just got a glance of this girl with kind of a light on her face.
MacDonald again utilized the term started, though nothing stopped the individual from moving toward him. He described the intruder as a guy, which again was a rather polite term. Further, the individual walked toward him. Though much of MacDonald’s story seemed to play on the listeners’ ability to visualize the scene, it is hard to imagine someone casually walking toward him as the beginning of a potential murder.
While the man approached him with an object raised above his head, MacDonald looked away and noticed a girl standing further away. Why would he take his attention off an imminent threat to look at something innocuous? MacDonald continued:
And the black male was to my left, and he raised something up and I just had an impression that he had a baseball bat…this little struggle…ensued…
When describing the object the black male possessed, he did not show conviction. This could be attributed to the stress of the situation, lack of lighting, or speed at which the individual moved the object. Regardless, MacDonald referred to it as a baseball bat. He went on to describe what ensued as “this little struggle.” At this point, we do not know what the other two men and one woman were doing, but we know one man was in the process of striking MacDonald with a baseball bat-like object. Who would describe waking up in the middle of night to this scene as a “little struggle”? His description did not fit the scenario. When there is incongruity between words and actions, deception is always a possible reason.
As the intruders attacked MacDonald, he claimed he heard his wife, Colette, and his daughter, Kimberley screaming for help. He painted a complex scenario. With some simple math, we now had a minimum of six intruders because there were four in front of MacDonald and his daughter Kimberly and his wife Colette were being simultaneously attacked in separate rooms. Why would they begin savagely killing a pregnant woman and little girls, but allow a twenty-six-year-old Green Beret to wake up prior to attacking him? He was the only person in the house who could have put up a legitimate fight.
MacDonald continued discussing the fight:
And the guy on my left…he hit me again; but at the same time, you know, I was kind of struggling. And these two men, I thought, were punching me at the same time. And so, I was struggling, and I got hit on the shoulder or the side of the head again.
According to MacDonald, the other two men entered the fight. He was lying on the couch, half sitting up at this point. To his left was a man striking him with a baseball bat or club. The other two men were somehow battling him as well. Were they standing on the couch or leaning over it? Their off-balanced positioning provided minimal leverage to throw powerful punches, and they risked being hit by the man swinging a baseball bat. Regardless, they were allegedly raining strikes upon MacDonald, yet he referred to the scenario as “kind of struggling.” Once again, his words did not match the actions taking place. MacDonald went on to say:
…I felt this pain in my right side, and I thought to myself that–you know–I have a recollection of saying to myself, ‘Jesus, this guy really–really threw a hell of a punch.’
MacDonald provided us with insight into his thinking at this stressful juncture. After utilizing you know again, he used the word really twice to describe the punch. He placed a lot of emphasis on the power of this punch. As stated above, it seemed highly unlikely the other two individuals were in any position to throw an effective punch. According to MacDonald, an intruder struck him on the head with a baseball bat multiple times, but an off-balanced punch to his side was more note-worthy. MacDonald continued:
And I didn’t really notice too much about them. And so I kind of struggled, and I was kind of off balance…
He remembered that he did not remember. MacDonald felt it was note-worthy that he did not remember specific traits about the intruders. In describing what should have been a life and death fight, he twice used the words “kind of” to describe it, which lacked conviction. He appeared to not believe what he was saying. If he did not believe it, why should we? In describing the altercation, MacDonald stated:
So, I was holding onto first what I thought was this guy’s arm, and it was a fatigue jacket with E6 stripes. They were right in front of my eyes.
Later, MacDonald made the following statement, “And it seemed to me that it was E6–you know.” He earlier stated that the E6 stripes were right in front of his face. MacDonald conveyed no ambiguity or confusion. Now, he lacked confidence in his statement. When someone is being deceptive, they often cannot fully commit to a statement. Their conscious mind knows the truth. He ended his statement with you know, which is consistent with the literal usage, “You know this, I already told you this,” but we do not know, unless he tells us. We have to question whether MacDonald actually saw the E6 stripes because his delivery lacked confidence.
During his various statements, MacDonald regularly used transition words and phrases, such as “…the next thing I remember…” Transition words indicate that time has passed without explanation. Though heavy on details at times, his transitions implied that he skipped over things. We do not know what he chose not to tell us, but we know he left things out.
Later, MacDonald woke up on the floor after the assailants knocked him out. He proceeded to check on his family.
So, I walked in the bedroom, and I–I don’t know if I turned the light on or not, but my wife was visible. I could see her–clear as day…She was–she was–she was all covered with blood. There was–there was–a knife in her chest–which I took out and threw away.
Finding his wife murdered should have been one of the most stressful parts of his story, yet MacDonald’s delivery was surprisingly absent of filler words. You know and really no longer showed up in his statements. Finding his wife brutally murdered did not stress him as much as the struggle he allegedly endured. He also developed a new speech habit of repeating the beginning of each statement. Since he failed to do this elsewhere, it may have been an intentional effort to appear stressed.
According to MacDonald’s various statements, after he awoke, he engaged in numerous activities throughout the house. He first entered the master bedroom to check on his wife. He pulled a knife out of her chest, covered her chest with his pajama top, and then proceeded to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He then checked on his two daughters, before returning to the master bedroom to call for help. MacDonald checked on his wife and daughters again. He then entered the bathroom to assess his injuries before calling for help a second time from the kitchen.
When describing checking on his family, MacDonald stated, “seemed to me the back door [in utility room connected to the master bedroom] was open.” Later he confidently asserted that the back door was open. This was allegedly how the intruders entered the house. It was a critical detail, but he slipped it into his story as almost an after-thought. In initially describing it, MacDonald stated, “seemed to me,” which was a passive way of describing what he saw. It lacked conviction and could indicate deception. Interestingly, he never mentioned shutting and locking the door, which would have been obvious actions, if he were concerned about murderers re-entering his house.
In describing his actions after finding his wife and daughters dead, MacDonald stated:
So I went back in the bedroom and I called the police–or I dialed the operator. And I told her something like, ‘This is Dr. MacDonald or Captain MacDonald, and help. And there are people dying. We’ve been stabbed. We need the police.’
Though MacDonald should have been panicked during this call and not thinking clearly, his mind subconsciously organized priorities. First, he identified himself with title. Second, he stated “people are dying,” which was in the present tense. He was the only one still alive; therefore, he referred to himself. Third, “We’ve been stabbed.” Though his family incurred dozens of fatal stab wounds and his “stab wound” did not even require stitches, he lumped his injury in his family’s massacre. Finally, MacDonald asked for the police.
There were significant issues with MacDonald’s call for help. MacDonald should not have known the intruders were gone or not coming back. The police were absolutely needed and they should not have been an afterthought, had he feared for his life. He was a doctor and he knew his family was dead. However, it is possible he experienced some stage of denial (under an innocent scenario). If so, he should have immediately asked for an ambulance along with police, but he failed to do so. MacDonald prioritized himself first, his family second, and the police last.
MacDonald stated that he checked for his wife’s pulse through of her femoral artery. The investigator then asked a follow-up question:
Investigator: When you took this femoral pulse on your wife, did you remove her clothing at all or was it through her pajamas?
MacDonald: I didn’t remove any clothing. It was either through the pajamas or–or, you know, I just pulled them apart–pulled them aside and felt for it. I don’t think it was–I didn’t remove any clothing. I might have just felt through. You can feel it right through. I can feel my own.
MacDonald was unable to answer this simple question. Other than specifically stating that he did not remove her clothes, his answer demonstrated an explanation of what could have happened rather than what actually occurred. Though MacDonald’s recollections contained precise details, he was completely unable to provide any collaborating details other than what he originally conveyed. It’s as if he described visiting the Empire State Building and gave extreme detail on the windows and architecture, but did not know it was in Mid-town, if asked. His inability to answer any follow-up questions casts significant doubt on his believability.
During one of his interviews, the following exchange took place:
Investigator: At any point during the night, during this checking [trying to help his murdered family] before the military police arrived and the medics got there, did you wear a pair of gloves?
MacDonald: Did I wear a pair of gloves?
There was no indication MacDonald had trouble hearing the question, but he answered the question with a question. This is usually either a stall tactic, or it is an unexpected question in a sensitive area. MacDonald eventually responded “no.” However, there was no blood on one phone and only minimal on the other phone that he used to call for help. He never mentioned washing his hands and based on the condition of the victims, if he rendered first aid, his hands would have been covered in blood.
According to various medical reports, MacDonald had bruises on the left side of his head, his left shoulder, and his upper left arm. He had small cuts on his left hand and fingers. MacDonald received a superficial puncture of his left arm, though some sources referred to the injury as having pierced his entire bicep. He also had superficial lacerations of his upper abdominal wall, and a stab wound to the chest, which caused a partial collapse of his lung. The number, location, and severity of MacDonald’s wounds have been highly debated, ranging from superficial to life-threatening.
Part of MacDonald’s version of events involved him visiting the bathroom to check on his injuries. According to one of his statements, when he initially looked in the mirror, he said, “there wasn’t really even a cut or anything.” During questioning, MacDonald said the following regarding his injuries:
And I stepped in the bathroom, and I remember thinking to myself–you know–that I didn’t see much. There was–like a lump on my head, and there was some blood and there was blood all around my mouth. And I don’t–really don’t remember anything else.
When asked how many times intruders punched him, MacDonald stated:
I have no idea. It seemed like a lot. My later wounds didn’t–you know–didn’t really look like I had just a rain of blows on my head.
MacDonald clearly acknowledged his injuries were not consistent with his story. His nicks and bruises contrasted sharply with what his family endured. The attacker(s) brutalized his wife, Colette. She suffered multiple stab wounds to the face, neck, chest, and head. Her skull was fractured and there was evulsion of the skin on her forehead. She had nine incision wounds in her neck and seven in her chest. Colette also had twenty-one puncture wounds in her chest and three puncture wounds in her left arm. Her body was covered with numerous bruises, scraps, and cuts. Her left arm had multiple simple and compound fractures and her right wrist was also fractured. Both of their daughters incurred similar beatings and stabbings, which resulted in their deaths.
How did Jeffrey MacDonald survive almost unscathed when the rest of his family was killed several times over? Further, the young girls would have put up no fight and Colette was pregnant and supposedly asleep when her attack began. The intruders inflicted unfathomable violence against helpless, innocent children, but MacDonald failed to even receive a fractured arm defending himself.
During questioning, lawyers asked about statements MacDonald made to reporters and on various television shows. In reference to a specific response, he said:
This is not a statement under oath; it’s a statement to a reporter for a news story. And I think it should be viewed as such. There are a lot of things in here that now, if I looked critically at it, aren’t exactly correct. But I don’t see what relevancy that has.
MacDonald admitted that his answers to questions not under oath were not completely honest. He did not specifically indicate that his statements under oath would be honest, but he implied it. MacDonald also admitted to repeatedly lying to his father-in-law. After his family was murdered, MacDonald told his father-in-law that he made four trips to North Carolina and Florida seeking out their killers. MacDonald added colorful details to make his stories to sound more authentic. He told his father-in-law that during one altercation, he broke his hand punching one of the alleged murderers, which he completely fabricated. According to MacDonald, he did try to find the perpetrators, but in an “ineffectual” manner. However, there was no evidence he ever tried to find anyone associated with his family’s murders.
According to MacDonald, while intruders attacked him, he heard screams from his wife and daughter. Colette allegedly said, “Jeff, Jeff, why are they doing this to me?” If Colette awoke to a vicious attack by a stranger(s), why would her concern be toward motive? She would be screaming for help or for them to stop. Her asking why only made sense if Colette was familiar with her attacker. Interestingly, Colette’s words were close to “Jeff, Jeff, why are you doing this to me?”
MacDonald also said he may have heard his daughter Kimberley screaming for her life. How was this unclear to him? Either he heard his daughter pleading for help, or he did not. This would not have been a vague memory. MacDonald later claimed he heard his daughter Kimberley say, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, help.” The word help was an afterthought. Daddy was the focus of what Kimberley said. Was she screaming Daddy because he was in front of her?
When I first got to the bedrooms, everyone had been assaulted. I mean, the first time I saw Colette, Kimmie and Kristie, they had been murdered.
MacDonald mistakenly referred to his brutally murdered family as having been assaulted. Did he misspeak or were his wife and daughters only injured the first time he returned to the bedrooms?
According to MacDonald’s version of events, he engaged in a fight with three men in the living room while other intruders viciously killed his wife and two daughters in their bedrooms. Apart from his statements, there was little evidence to suggest a fight occurred. The grand jury indicted MacDonald on January 24, 1975. He was immediately arrested, but he was subsequently freed on bail. After several decisions from appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, MacDonald finally went to trial in 1979.
During the trial, the prosecution put on significant amounts of circumstantial evidence. Police found the coffee table adjacent to the couch lying on its side. However, during free motion tests, the table always landed on its top. Due to the table’s weight distribution, it would not stay on its side. It ended up on its top every time it was flipped. Unless it was stopped by other items in the room, the only way for it to remain on its side was if someone placed in that position. Further, in crime scene photos, the magazines and papers from the coffee table were leaning against the base of the table top, as if they merely slid down, rather than having been thrusted across the room when the intruders violently flipped the table
There was a small table adjacent to the couch. In crime scene photos, nothing on the table appeared to have been disrupted, with the lamp still perfectly positioned. The couch cushions remained in place, pictures remained on the walls and level, and plants atop the stereo speakers were unmoved. In the dining area, an unstable hutch contained undamaged dishes. Valentine cards located on a nearby table remained upright.
Investigators believed all of the murder weapons came from the MacDonald home. Police discovered an ice pick, knife, and wooden club under some bushes near the back door. The knife and ice pick were consistent with similar items found in inside the house, and the club was determined to have been part of the master bedroom bed. Crime technicians failed to find fingerprints on any of the weapons utilized.
The wood piece possessed both Colette’s and Kimberley’s blood. As a result, the same person likely killed both of them, and based on the blood found in the house, they were killed in separate rooms. Yet, according to MacDonald, they were both screaming simultaneously, which meant they were attacked at the same time. This implied at least two different killers, but the blood evidence refuted MacDonald’s assertion.
Many elements of the crime scene do not support MacDonald’s version of events. Crime scene technicians found a surgical glove in a puddle of Colette’s blood in the master bedroom. Later testing determined that the glove was consistent with gloves found in the kitchen. How did the intruders get a glove out of the kitchen without disturbing MacDonald and without leaving any fingerprints? How did they know the gloves were there? It was an implausible scenario.
There were three entrances into the MacDonald house. Two of them (kitchen and living room) would have resulted in the intruders passing by Jeffrey MacDonald in order to reach the bedrooms. The third entrance, through the utility room, led directly into the master bedroom. The intruders had to have come in through this entrance for MacDonald’s story to make any sense. If the assailants entered through the utility room, then they would have encountered Colette and their daughters prior to reaching MacDonald. This would explain MacDonald’s sequence of events, but it would preclude the intruders from having entered the kitchen to obtain the gloves prior to attacking Colette. If they entered through either of the two other entrances, the fight with MacDonald would have occurred prior to the attacks on the girls and Colette.
Investigators found MacDonald’s eye glasses with Kristen’s blood on them in the living room near a wall. This evidence conflicted with MacDonald’s version of events. Investigators also found Kimberley’s blood in the doorway of her room. As a result, they believed she was killed in this location. However, police found Kimberley in her bed. Someone had tucked her into bed and placed her favorite pink security blanket in her arms after she was murdered.
Police found Colette covered by MacDonald’s pajama top. This was consistent with MacDonald’s claims that he placed his pajama top over her after he pulled the knife out of her chest. However, MacDonald’s pajama top had 48 ice pick holes in it. When arranged, the holes matched the 21 puncture wounds in Colette’s chest. She was stabbed after MacDonald placed his pajama top on her.
Though MacDonald allegedly removed his pajama top immediately after reaching Colette and prior to checking on the girls, investigators found his pajama fibers throughout the house. They were under Colette and in the other bedrooms. Bloody fibers from MacDonald’s pajamas were also found under Kimberley’s fingernails. With the totality of evidence presented, on August 29, 1979, Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of first degree murder of Kristen, and two counts of second degree murder for Colette and Kimberly.
Though a significant amount of forensic evidence supported his conviction, he is still fighting for a new trial. His lawyers have placed tremendous confidence in the disjointed ramblings of a now deceased drug addict, Helena Stoeckley, who claimed to have been present during the murders. However, there is no corroborating evidence to support her assertions and many of her statements contradicted each other.
Lawyers for MacDonald also discovered a hair found under Colette, which does not match any known source. According to MacDonald’s defense team, the hair demonstrates that unknown intruders entered the home on the night of the murders. Yet, an unexplained hair proves little compared to all the forensic and other circumstantial evidence implicating MacDonald.
At no time during any of MacDonald’s numerous statements about the struggle between him and the alleged intruders did he ever mention the thought of saving his family. He provided many details on his thought-processes during these events, but he never once relayed that he was fighting to save his family. As Jeffrey MacDonald’s father-in-law put it, “It couldn’t have happened the way he said it did. Absolutely impossible.”
Masewicz, Christina, “The Jeffrey MacDonald Information Site,” http://www.thejeffreymacdonaldcase.com/html/christinascorner.html.
Masewicz, Christina, “Jeffrey MacDonald His Injuries and Wounds,” True Crime & Justice, http://www.karisable.com/mac3.htm, 2002.
McClish, Mark, “Jeffrey MacDonald,” Statement Analysis, http://www.statementanalysis.com/macdonald/, September 19, 2014.
Interview of Jeffrey R. MacDonald, at CID Office, Fort Bragg, NC, http://www.thejeffreymacdonaldcase.com/html/macdonald_1970apr6.html, April 6, 1970.
Interview of Jeffrey MacDonald, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWrLpng7xsM, The Dick Cavett Show, December 15, 1970.
Jeffrey MacDonald Grand Jury Testimony, http://www.thejeffreymacdonaldcase.com/html/gj-1974-08-12-13-macdonald.html, 1974-1975 Jeffrey MacDonald Case Grand Jury Transcript, August 13, 1974,
“Jeffrey MacDonald: In his own words,” Larry King Live, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55pXxxRt70k, October 24, 2003.
60 Minutes, http://www.thejeffreymacdonaldcase.com/html/1-60_minutes.html, September 18, 1983.
Click below to view John W. Taylor’s previous intriguing posts:
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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