To some, Jeffrey MacDonald is the cold-blooded killer who slaughtered his pregnant wife and young daughters in his family’s Fort Bragg home in 1970. To others, he’s a man wrongly convicted of those heinous murders, spending decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
The slayings that irrevocably altered the course of MacDonald’s life have remained in the public consciousness for more than 50 years and still continue to spark controversy today.
The sensational crime is the focus of FX’s five-part docuseries “A Wilderness of Error,” which takes a new look at the events and examines MacDonald’s claims of innocence.
But MacDonald himself is conspicuously absent from the series—appearing only in old news footage and through re-created interviews with investigators.
Filmmaker Marc Smerling told The New York Times that he had scheduled an interview with MacDonald for the series, but that it was abruptly canceled.
So just where is Jeffrey MacDonald today?
MacDonald, now 77, remains incarcerated at FCI Cumberland, a medium security federal correctional institution in Maryland, according to online records from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The once popular physician and Green Beret surgeon is now known as federal inmate 00131-177.
In a Twitter message to President Trump over the summer, MacDonald’s second wife, Kathryn MacDonald, said her husband was “sick” and spoke of fears she had for her him during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Jeff is an honorably discharged Vietnam Vet. He is 77 & while eligible for parole since 1990, has deferred b/c he will never dishonor his family by admitting to something he did not do….he is sick & I fear for his life due to COVID in the prison petri dish,” she wrote.
Trump never replied.
Ivy League Golden Boy
MacDonald was once a handsome Ivy League golden boy, with a life of promise ahead of him.
As a high school student at Patchogue High School in Long Island, he was voted “Most Popular” and “Most Likely to Succeed,” according to a 2017 article in People.
He met his future wife Colette in the seventh grade and the pair dated on and off throughout high school.
After high school, MacDonald went off to Princeton and Colette started school at Skidmore College, but the romance between the pair continued to bloom.
When they were college sophomores, they got an unexpected surprise and discovered that Colette was pregnant. The couple decided to tie the knot.
“We were deeply in love, only seeing each other and decided to get married,” MacDonald told the news outlet.
The nuptials were also celebrated by Colette’s family, who had always been impressed with their daughter’s handsome young suitor.
“He was a nice presentable young man. Good potential for the future, so therefore we saw nothing wrong with them getting married,” Colette’s stepfather Freddy Kassab would later say of the marriage, according to FX’s docuseries.
After tying the knot in New York City on Sept. 14, 1963, MacDonald went on to finish his undergraduate degree and medical school simultaneously at Northwestern University in Chicago.
MacDonald completed a surgical internship at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City and then decided to join the Army.
“People were being drafted for Vietnam,” MacDonald told People. “I talked to Colette and decided I would volunteer as a paratrooper—something I really wanted to do.”
MacDonald had to be apart from his burgeoning family for a time for training, but by 1969 the family had settled down together in Fort Bragg, North Carolina where MacDonald would serve as a Green Beret surgeon.
Colette MacDonald cared for the couple’s two young daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, during the day and started taking college courses at night.
“Colette and I would look at each other and laugh,” MacDonald told People, adding that he had also started to pick up shifts at a local hospital to earn more money for the family. “We’d never been so good financially. We were increasingly happy.”
Allegations of Infidelity
From the outside, the couple appeared to have the perfect marriage.
“They were very loving,” family friend Judy Thoesen told the media outlet in 2017.
The two families often shared meals together and had frequent visits.
“He loved his girls,” she said. “They had everything going for them at that point.”
But, under the surface, there were cracks in the façade.
MacDonald was frequently unfaithful to his wife—having at least 15 girlfriends, according to a 1998 profile of the crime in Vanity Fair. He often seduced the women while he was out on “training missions.”
The indiscretions did not go unnoticed by Colette, who allegedly confided to her sister-in-law Vivian “Pep” Stevenson before the murders that she wanted to “give up” and had said “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
MacDonald himself admitted to having affairs, which he classified as more like “one-night stands,” but claimed that they hadn’t taken a toll on the marriage.
“I never had a love affair with anyone where we planned weekends away or divorce. … I wore my wedding ring. … It was the temper of the times,” he said, according to Vanity Fair. “I like women and I wasn’t thinking of the consequences.”
Now, expecting the couple’s third child, MacDonald was scheduled for yet another three-month mission serving as the physician for the Fort Bragg boxing team. Colette reached out to her mother to ask whether she could come back home with the kids, but her mother told her to wait until the spring. She’d be dead just days later.
“My mother always blamed herself, that ‘If only I had listened differently, I could have made a difference,’” Colette’s brother Bob Stevenson recalled in the docuseries.
Colette was killed—along with her two young children—in the early morning hours of Feb. 17,1970. The crime scene was so gruesome John Hodges, who in the criminal investigation division, described it in the docuseries as the “worst thing in my 53 years in law enforcement that I have ever walked into.”
Colette had been stabbed 16 times with a knife and another 21 times with an ice pick. She had been beaten in the head with a club at least six times and had broken both arms, according to The Fayetteville Observer. The couple’s oldest daughter Kimberly, 5, was struck twice in the head and stabbed in the neck eight to 10 times; 2-year-old Kristen was stabbed 17 times with a knife and had 15 puncture wounds to the chest.
MacDonald was also wounded, but his injuries were much less severe than the horrific ordeal his family had endured—with the greatest injury being a puncture wound to the chest and a partially collapsed lung.
MacDonald told authorities he had been asleep on the couch when he woke up to find four drug-crazed hippies in the home attacking his family. He said he had tried to fight off the attackers, but his pajama top had gotten pulled over his head.
“All of a sudden it was in my way and I couldn’t get my hand free,” he said in an interview with investigators, according to the docuseries. “I was grappling with him and I saw, you know, a blade. I really didn’t even defend myself. It was really too fast and all this time I was hearing screams.”
He claimed he lost consciousness in the hallway of the home and woke up later to find his wife and daughters had been killed.
Investigators were quickly suspicious of MacDonald’s story, however, after finding evidence they believed contradicted it and pointed, instead, to him being the killer.
MacDonald was ordered to appear before an Article 32 hearing to determine whether there was enough evidence to pursue formal charges against him, but the military dropped all charges.
Colette’s stepfather Freddy Kassab had once been a staunch supporter of his son-in-law, but after reviewing the investigative files himself he became convinced that his son-in-law had been the culprit that night and relentlessly hounded investigators and lawmakers until they took another look at the case.
“My wife and I both would much rather that it had been drugs, hippies, than the person that Colette loved so much,” Kassab once said, according to CNN. “We would much rather it be perfect strangers. But anybody that is not willing to face facts and the insurmountable evidence involved this case, you’d have to be a complete fool.”
Colette’s parents petitioned a federal court to convene a grand jury to investigate the case on April 30, 1974, according to Star News Online. The grand jury was empaneled a few months later and recommended in January 1975 to charge MacDonald with the murders.
While MacDonald remained in legal limbo, he was busy enjoying his new life in California after being honorably discharged from the Army and getting rid of most of the family’s possessions in a yard sale, Vanity Fair reports.
MacDonald immersed himself fully in his new bachelor lifestyle, buying a yacht and marina-front condominium while working as an emergency room physician at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, California.
But his life of luxury ended in 1979 when his jury trial began.
MacDonald was convicted of three counts of murder that same year.
His public persona took another hit in 1983 when writer Joe McGinnis wrote the shocking true crime book “Fatal Vision,” which painted MacDonald as a merciless killer who slaughtered his family during an amphetamine-fueled rage.
The book inspired a popular mini-series of the same name the following year, but some—including MacDonald—have criticized the book and subsequent film, saying that they unfairly biased the public.
“Joe McGinnis made up some hypotheticals involving rage, put them in a book, and I’ve been paying for it ever since,” MacDonald told Larry King in 2003.
Long Legal Battle
Throughout the ensuing four decades, MacDonald has continued to profess his innocence, telling Larry King in 2003 that the long legal battle had been a “struggle.”
“It’s been a 33-year struggle to prove my innocence, and it’s been 23 years in prison for charges against crimes that I never committed. And the prosecutor knows I didn’t commit them. So, it’s a real struggle, and there have been some down moments, but I’ll tell you, I’m re-energized, I think the DNA has great possibilities for me. There are new witnesses still coming forward,” he said.
MacDonald’s legal team has filed multiple appeals and legal motions on his behalf beginning in 1985 when a judge denied his request for a new trial.
In 2012, U.S. District Judge James C. Fox held a hearing to determine whether MacDonald should get a new trial after the defense claimed that new evidence centered around Helena Stoeckley, a woman who had repeatedly confessed to the crime over the years and then recanted, had been discovered.
But the court ultimately denied the request for a new trial in 2014. MacDonald appealed the decision, but a three-panel judge in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal in 2018, Star News Online reports.
Over the years, MacDonald has garnered public support from many who believe he was wrongly convicted of the heinous crimes, including Oscar-winning filmmaker and author Errol Morris, who wrote the book “A Wilderness of Error” — and which the FX docuseries is based on — in 2012.
“The evidence is neither clear nor convincing,” Morris once told CNN. “There are many things about this case that rub me the wrong way, but principal among them was how the jury was asked to make decisions about his guilt or innocence with incomplete evidence, evidence that was withheld, corrupted and suppressed.”
Hammond A. Beale, who served as a legal adviser in the military inquiry into the murders also told the outlet he believed MacDonald was “totally innocent.”
“This guy has not only lost his wife and kids but loses his career and ends up in prison for the rest of his life,” he said. “That’s horrendous.”
But others say MacDonald is just where he belongs.
“So many decent people have wasted so much time, energy, and money believing in MacD,” McGinnis once told the Press-Telegram before his death. “He suckered me for far too long, and he has suckered others for much longer.”
In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take MacDonald’s case, thus ending his legal opportunities for appeal.
His next chance for freedom now is likely parole.
MacDonald first became eligible for parole in 1991; however, he did not have a parole hearing until more than a decade later in May 2005, according to the Fayetteville Observer. He was slated for another opportunity at parole this year, but it’s not clear whether a hearing was ever held or if it’s been pushed back as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
For now, MacDonald remains behind bars.