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Jeffrey MacDonald: A Time For Truth

48 Hours: Crime Scene Overview 02:47

This story originally aired March 17, 2007. It was updated July 20, 2007.

Three times a week, a woman named Kathryn MacDonald makes the 140 mile drive from her home outside of Washington DC, to visit an inmate at the Cumberland Federal Prison in western Maryland.

As correspondent Bill Lagattuta reports, Kathryn is the newest woman in Jeffrey MacDonald's life. They were married in 2002, in prison, some 23 years after MacDonald was found guilty of the murders of his first wife and 2 children.

Kathryn makes her living running a small school for aspiring young actors, but she has another job as well: she's caretaker of the life Jeffrey MacDonald left behind. Her garage is filled with Jeffrey's belongings – memories that span back decades.

She was instantly fascinated when she first read MacDonald's story. The more she read, the more convinced she was of his innocence. Eventually she decided to write him in prison.

"We just became very close very quickly. And she began visiting. And we began, you know, looking back into the past and looking forward into the future," MacDonald tells Lagattuta.

It's a future which, because of federal prison rules, has yet to include a honeymoon.

"People are fascinated, I think, by women who reach out to men in prison. Is there something about you that had you go that direction in your life?" Lagattuta asks Kathryn.

"No," she says. "I think it's something about him. And that's that he doesn't belong there. He's innocent."

Innocent or guilty, 27 years in prison is an incredible waste for someone whose future was as bright as Jeffery MacDonald's. He made his mark early on, in high school, where he was voted "most likely to succeed." From there he went on to Princeton University, and Northwestern Medical School, and then, at the age of 25, he got a captain's commission as a doctor in the Army's elite Green Berets.

Along the way, MacDonald managed to capture the heart of his high school girlfriend, Colette Stevenson. They were married while he was still in college at Princeton.

Over the next seven years, as their family grew, it appears that the MacDonald's were well on their way to a seemingly perfect life.

But in America, things were far from perfect. The year was 1970.

"This was an era of shock and counterculture rage in America," explains Bernard Segal, who at the time was MacDonald's defense attorney and now is a law school professor in San Francisco. "I was a lawyer for people who felt they were not represented by the system and who were outside the system."

But in 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald, was, in fact, deep inside the system. Jeffrey, Colette and their daughters Kimberly, age five, and Kristin, age two, were stationed at Ft. Bragg, in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Based on home movies taken on Christmas morning, it's easy to believe that the MacDonald family didn't seem to have a care in the world. But some two months later, at 3:33 a.m. on Feb. 17, 1970, all of that changed forever.

What happened in the MacDonald house that night is one of America's most enduring murder mysteries – the subject of a best-selling book, a sensational TV movie, a mystery story kept alive by its charismatic leading man, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.

On the morning of Feb. 17, 1970, Army MPs responded to a call for help at the MacDonald residence. They found the couple's children dead in their bedrooms; Capt. MacDonald, wounded and unconscious, lay on the floor, beside the body of his dead wife.

MacDonald, still alive, was rushed to the hospital. "They finally brought in a doctor who I knew on the staff. And he is the one, I believe, who told me that Colette, Kim, and Chris were dead. And you can't accept something like that. It doesn't make any sense," he recalls.

In fact, that morning MacDonald wasn't the only one having trouble making sense of what happened.

Bill Ivory was in charge of the investigation to determine exactly what did happen to the MacDonald family. "I was a CID agent, which is a criminal investigator for the Department of the Army," he explains. "We sent agents to interview him at the hospital…they had been told that he had been attacked by some hippies."

It's a story that MacDonald has not wavered from in 37 years. Asked what he remembers of the people he says attacked him and his family, MacDonald says, "I saw four people. I saw two white males and one black male, as they were assaulting me. One glimpse I saw what looked like a blonde female and she had a floppy hat on. And there was a light under her face. To this day, I don't know if she was holding a candle, or it was a light."

"I heard a female voice say, 'Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.' I heard that several times," MacDonald recalls. "There became a moment in time where all I was doing was fending off blows with both my hands wrapped up in my pajama to."

Suddenly, MacDonald says he felt a chest pain. "Jeff MacDonald was stabbed right in the center of his chest with an ice pick, puncturing his skin, puncturing the layers below," explains his lawyer, Bernard Segal.

But the attack on his family was considerably more vicious as revealed by their autopsies. Colette suffered two broken arms, a fractured skull and was stabbed more than 30 times. Five-year-old Kimberly's skull, jaw and nose were badly broken and her throat was severely cut. And Kristen, just two and a half, was stabbed repeatedly in her chest and back. The autopsy also revealed one last devastating detail: Colette was five and half months pregnant with a son.

That's MacDonald's version of what happened that night and he tells a very compelling story and his new wife Kathryn agrees. "He's not a criminal. If I thought otherwise, I wouldn't be involved at all. And much less devote my entire life," she explains.

And with that kind of support, MacDonald did something he swore he would never do: in 2005, he applied for parole. "It's possible they might consider the full record of my conduct, my behavior, my personality, how I've carried myself through 25 years of imprisonment, look at that in conjunction with my record as a civilian," he says.

But there are others who feel that MacDonald is right where he belongs. For one, former CID agent Bill Ivory says he's "not buying it."

It has been more than three decades since Ivory first set foot inside the home of Jeffery MacDonald. But the memories of that morning are still fresh.

"On the headboard of the bed, the word pig was written in blood," he recalls.

MacDonald had told investigators that these brutal murders were committed by hippies, who had broken into his house – a story that in today's world, seems a little tough to swallow.

Peter Kearns, an Army investigator from Washington DC, led a follow-up investigation into the MacDonald case, which included producing and starring in a filmed presentation of the evidence.

MacDonald tells Lagattuta he believes the perpetrator was someone he had turned in for illegal drug use.

But the more closely investigators examined the apartment, the more closely they began to question MacDonald's claims. "The coffee table was laying on its side but other than that there was no sign of any monumental struggle with him and three or four other people," Ivory remembers.

Crime scene investigators will tell you that the real truth is always found in the evidence, and the evidence that Bill Ivory and his team found in the apartment, they say, tells a story very different than MacDonald's – a story that points not to a group of hippies but to an enraged husband.

"The theory that we come up with was that there was an argument. Something started in the master bedroom. He may have hit her first or she may have hit him first," Ivory tells Lagattuta.

A dull kitchen knife was found near Colette's body but this was not what was used to kill the MacDonald family. It was out there, through the back door, that investigators found what they believe were the three murder weapons: an ice pick, a paring knife and a 31-inch length of building lumber, which investigators believed was at one time part of a slat of Kimberly's bed.

"We believe also the older girl was in the bedroom with them and got in the middle of the fight between them," Ivory explains. "He swatted back and hit her on the side of the head and dropped her to the floor."

Because each member of the MacDonald family had a different blood type, investigators were able to follow the blood evidence like a trail of breadcrumbs left by the victims. "He went and took the bedding off of that bed in the master bedroom and believe he wrapped the older girl in that, getting blood on him from her and getting her blood on that sheet," Ivory explains.

The trail led them from the master bedroom to Kimberly's bedroom, here, where investigators say MacDonald placed his daughter's body back in her own bed.

"While he's doing that, his wife regains consciousness and goes to the baby's room and lays across her on the bed, obviously in an attempt to protect her," Peter Kearns explains.

Ivory says MacDonald followed her into that room. "And he began beating her more there with the club. That's evidence by blood sprays that were on the wall and on the ceiling."

What the investigators say happened next is what truly makes MacDonald a monster in their eyes: they say after he killed his wife Colette and his daughter Kimberly, he came back and stood to face his youngest daughter Kristen, who was still in her bed.

"And then he killed her. And the only reason in the world that he killed her was because she was a witness. And she was old enough, she could say, 'I saw daddy hitting mommy,'" Ivory argues.

It's at this point they say, with his entire family now dead, in order to be believed, MacDonald decided he had no choice but to include himself in the attack.

Now a victim himself, investigators say MacDonald then went about setting a stage to fit his story of an attack by drug-crazed hippies, a story they discovered MacDonald may have borrowed from some very recent history.

In the summer of 1969, just six months earlier, the nation was stunned by a seemingly senseless series of homicides in southern California – crimes carried out by the cult-like followers of Charles Manson. An issue of Esquire magazine, found in the MacDonald home, contained a detailed account of the murders.

"It described the crime scenes, described the word pig being written on the walls, described the hippies coming in and just having mayhem in the house," Ivory tells Lagattuta.

Investigators also found a finger smudge, in blood, along the edge of the magazine. While it could not be positively linked to MacDonald, it worked with Ivory's theory of the crime.

Bill Ivory and his team's interpretation of the evidence pointed them to just one suspect: Jeffrey MacDonald, who was charged by the Army with the murders of his pregnant wife and their two young daughters.

But, says MacDonald, "I was in the house that night. I know what happened. To me, it was inconceivable that anyone, anyone could buy this hypothetical scenario."

In fact, MacDonald was right. After a three-month military hearing, the Army's official position was that, despite the significant efforts of their own investigators, there was not enough evidence to court marshal Jeffrey MacDonald.

Bill Ivory says he was shocked. "Because I knew that there was enough evidence to put reasonable suspicion in anybody's mind that perhaps this guy had done that."

Jeffrey MacDonald thought his ordeal was over and shortly thereafter received an honorable discharge.

While the Army seemed to be done with MacDonald, the investigators still had no doubt as to who committed these crimes. But until they could prove it in a court of law, Jeffrey MacDonald would remain a free man.

"When I first came to represent Doctor MacDonald, I wondered to myself, is it possible that he murdered his family?" remembers MacDonald's defense attorney, Bernard Segal.

It's the one question that has always haunted this case and every one involved in it: was MacDonald capable of these brutal murders?

Segal defended MacDonald when the Army tried and failed to indict him due to a lack of evidence. "He was now a man who had no family and who wanted to try and start his life over again," Segal remembers.

And MacDonald did just that: like a lot of young single men at the time, he headed west, to Southern California.

MacDonald found a new career in emergency room medicine, and a new lifestyle which included all the spoils of success.

With the Army's case dropped and civilian authorities not particularly interested in prosecuting, MacDonald might simply have faded from public view. But he couldn't seem to let it go. Apparently enjoying his new-found celebrity, MacDonald continued to try his own case in the court of public opinion.

On Dec. 15th, 1970, MacDonald appeared on the popular late-night program "The Dick Cavett Show," where it became very clear that MacDonald was fast becoming his own worst enemy.

"My wife came home and we had a before-bedtime drink really and watched the beginning of a late-night talk show," MacDonald told the audience.

Dick Cavett remembers well the night he was face to face with MacDonald. "His affect is wrong, totally wrong. My affect was, 'Gee, to find your wife and kids murdered.' And even his answer to that was somethin' like, 'Hey, yeah, isn't that somethin'?' Almost sounded like Bob Hope. Very like Bob Hope," Cavett remembers.

Watching the show that night, Colette's family was extremely disturbed by MacDonald's appearance. "All he spoke about was how his rights had been violated. I don't think he once mentioned about 'Let's get the murderers. My family's been killed.' But I remember him grinning like a Cheshire cat," recalls Colette's older brother, Robert Stevenson.

Colette's stepfather, Freddy Kassab, who had at first sided with MacDonald in his defense, was so incensed at his son-in-law's behavior that it became the seed of an obsession to bring him to justice.

"He sat around a table that I still have at home where you can see the elbow marks as he smoked pack after pack of cigarettes, trying to decide how this happened, drawing the diagrams, plotting it with the X's where the bodies were, the differing blood types," remembers Colette's brother Robert.

Realizing the government had no plans to indict MacDonald, Kassab joined forces with Army investigator Peter Kearns, and together they took matters into their own hands.

"It wasn't until Freddie and I went from New York down to Clinton, North Carolina to swear out a citizen's arrest. That's when the federal government got off their duffs and got an indictment and a grand jury," Kearns remembers,

On Jan. 24, 1975, Jeffery MacDonald was arrested once again, this time by the federal government.

Wade Smith, one of the top trial lawyers in North Carolina, was chosen to partner with Bernie Segal. Their defense strategy was a simple one. "Is it possible for a person to live a good life and all of a sudden, in one moment, slaughter and mutilate his children, stab his wife many, many times, and then live out his life and have nothing like that happen again? And it suggests to me a reasonable doubt about whether he did it in the first place," Smith says.

When his trial finally began on July 16th, 1979, MacDonald had little doubt what the outcome would be: he told reporters he'd be found "not guilty."

During the next six and a half weeks, 60 witnesses testified, hundreds of items were placed into evidence, and three verdicts were read: guilty.

MacDonald says he "couldn't believe it."

Almost a decade after the murders of his family, the government was satisfied that justice was finally served.

"The sentence and the decision of the jury…we've feel vindicates us completely," Freddie Kassab said of the verdict.

Former federal Assistant District Attorney Jim Blackburn is still asked to talk about the most important trial of his career. "And the Justice Department thinks we're probably going to lose the case that's why they've asked me to ask you," he recalls.

What made him think he could win this case, when the military said MacDonald was innocent?

"We didn't think we would win this case. I thought it would be almost impossible," Blackburn admits.

But Blackburn and his co-consul Brian Murtagh achieved the impossible, convincing the jury that there was no one in that apartment that morning except Jeff MacDonald.

And since all the evidence was found in the MacDonald home, the prosecution brought the jury to the crime scene, which nine years later, remained untouched, to see for themselves.

"The strength of our case always was very simple. The physical evidence, the scientific evidence, his statements. That was our case," Blackburn recalls.

It was a considerable amount of information that seemed to be overwhelming the jury. Then the prosecution did something with a piece of evidence which made every juror sit up and take notice. It had to do with a pajama top that MacDonald was wearing that night.

Remember, MacDonald says he was asleep on the couch when he was attacked. During the struggle, he says, the pajama top was pulled over his head and that it somehow became entangled in his hands and that he held it up to fend off the deadly blows of the ice pick. But the prosecution maintained all along that the pajama top itself told a very different tale.

Blackburn says if MacDonald had told the truth, not only would he be dead, the pajama top would be shredded.

Blackburn and Murtagh explained to the jury this was clear proof that MacDonald's story was a lie and that in fact, he covered his wife's body with the top and then repeatedly stabbed her through it with the ice pick.

For defense attorneys Bernie Segal and Wade Smith, time has done little to ease the frustrations they encountered trying to defend MacDonald, even with something as basic as a request to examine the evidence.

"The government's response is 'Doctor MacDonald is not entitled to receive this evidence now because he didn't ask for it in time.' O didn't know whether to cry or to laugh," Segal says.

But Blackburn shrugs off accusations the government wasn't playing fair. "Well, they lost. That's sour grapes. They just lost."

Equally frustrating was what MacDonald's team discovered when they focused on the investigation of the crime scene itself, which they still consider a model of incompetence.

"Twenty-seven different people marched through the crime scene," Segal explains. "Destroying a great deal of what was potential evidence there without a doubt."

But Blackburn says the crime scene wasn't destroyed or bungled. But he does acknowledge it was done perfectly.

Regardless of the condition of the crime scene, the defense believed they had something that would clear MacDonald once and for all: an eyewitness to the murders, the mysterious blond woman in the floppy hat.

Her name was Helena Stoeckely, the daughter of a retired Fort Bragg colonel and an unlikely savior for Jeff MacDonald. Just 18 at the time of the MacDonald murders, Stoeckley lived at the center of the Fayetteville drug community.

Her story was astonishing. She believed she was actually in the MacDonald house that night with a group of friends, all drug users, who killed the MacDonalds.

In fact, an MP, Ken Mica, testified that while responding to MacDonald's call for help, he saw someone fitting Stoeckley's description standing on a corner not far from the MacDonald residence.

"Our dream was that after five weeks in this trial Helena would come, Helena would at last tell the story, and she would tell it to a jury," Wade Smith recalls.

But that's not what happened when she was called to the stand by the defense. "Her basic testimony was she didn't know where she was that night," Blackburn explains.

"Just a four hour gap between midnight and 4 a.m., she claimed to have a lapse of memory. It's absurd," says Segal.

Asked if Stoeckley lied on the stand, Segal says, "She lied about whether she remembered what was going on but she lied out of a defensive need to protect herself. She knew the government was looking at her."

Following the trial, Ted Gunderson, former chief of the Los Angeles FBI office was hired by MacDonald's team to search for any evidence which could be used for an appeal.

Gunderson eventually convinced Stoeckley to go on the record, which she did in 1982, appearing on 60 Minutes.

When she told her story, Gunderson says he believed her. "Because she said that she tried to ride the rocking horse in the small bedroom … and she tried to get on it and she couldn't because the spring was broken."

Asked why that would be significant, Gunderson says, "Because the only people that knew that spring was broken on the rocking horse was the family, the MacDonald family."

But 1970 crime scene photos, recently obtained by 48 Hours from the Department of Justice, seem to show that none of the springs on the toy horse were broken. Once again the courts chose not to believe Helena Stoeckley and MacDonald's early appeals were denied.

In 1983, at the age of 32, Stoeckley died of cirrhosis of the liver, but the question of her involvement in the MacDonald murders is still very much alive.

"The bottom line is Helena Stoeckley and some friends of hers, came into my house that night and murdered my family and left me unconscious," MacDonald insists.

How does he know it was Stoeckley and her friends?

"Because they said so. Because I saw them there. Because there is evidence tying them to the crime scene," MacDonald says.

It's evidence the defense didn't even know existed, evidence that would give MacDonald one more chance for freedom.

MacDonald has desperately held on to the goal of proving his innocence since 1979. But with a new wife and a new life waiting for him on the outside, MacDonald is knocking on a different door to freedom: parole.

"I would never go before the parole board if it required any sort of admission of guilt. They have assured me that is not the case," MacDonald says.

"He's not gonna admit remorse for something he didn't do. I think it'd be fair to say he's sorry that he couldn't save his family. I know he feels that way. But what's changed that he's thinking of me. That I'm out here waiting," his wife Kathryn adds.

Tim Junkin and his partner John Moffett are the latest in a long line of lawyers who've been enlisted, without pay, to continue MacDonald's fight.

In the years following the trial, using the Freedom of Information Act, new evidence was discovered in the government files that had never seen the light of day.

"There was wax found in places in the apartment that didn't match any of the candles found in the MacDonald apartment," Junkin points out. "There was skin under the fingernail of Colette MacDonald that was not turned over to the defense."

"Black wool fiber found on the bloody murder weapon, which the government, despite all it's efforts, couldn't match to any fabrics in the MacDonald apartment," he continues.

And one piece of evidence in particular, seemed to be the needle in the haystack MacDonald had been desperately searching for. "There was a blonde, 22-inch wig hair, or wig hairs found at the scene, that the defense attorneys were never told about," Junkin explains.

It's a synthetic hair they say is too long to match any of the children's dolls in the house and therefore could only have come from a wig. Was it Helena Stoeckley's wig?

More appeals were filed based on this new-found information. In fact, MacDonald's case has been appealed to the United States Supreme Court more than any other in history. But as far as the government was concerned, one hair and a few fibers were not enough to get MacDonald a new trial.

In May, 2005, with his appeals exhausted, Jeffrey MacDonald, with his wife by his side, finally met with the parole board.

"I was seated at the end of this long table. I got to look straight and direct at him and at his wife," remembers Robert Stevenson, who represented his sister's family at the hearing.

"I said to him, 'My joy in you, Mr. Macdonald, is that you are the complete sociopath that you are. And that you're never going to admit what you did. And that I'm going to have the pleasure of knowing that you're going to stay here and rot in jail for the rest of your life.'"

Also at the hearing, a voice was heard Jeffrey MacDonald probably assumed he would never hear again: Freddie Kassab.

"In 1989, Fred Kassab, my stepfather had made a tape knowing that he was in ill health and might not survive too long," Stevenson explains.

"I want to be sure he serves out his sentence the way it should be served out. I don't want him walking around the streets," Kassab could be heard in the 1989 recording.

Once again, Kassab's efforts would help keep MacDonald behind bars. The board's official decision: parole denied.

But Jeffrey MacDonald is not beaten yet, and maybe never will be. Last winter, a federal court of appeals granted a motion filed by MacDonald's attorneys to present new evidence to the court, including testimony from retired U.S. Marshal Jim Brit, who claims that Helena Stoeckley admitted to him and the prosecutors that she was involved in the murder of MacDonald's family.

"He heard Helena Stoekley tell Jim Blackburn that she had been inside the MacDonald apartment, that they were there to acquire drugs and then specifically and emphatically remembers Jim Blackburn saying to her, 'If you testify to the things that you've just told me, I will indict you for first degree murder,'" Junkin says.

But Blackburn says Stoeckley was never threatened with prosecution if she were to tell jurors she had been in the MacDonald home.

"If the court accepts the testimony of Marshal Brit as true, then James Blackburn committed a fraud on the court and elicited perjured testimony in front of the jury of this witness."

It's a stunning accusation and MacDonald's lawyers charge that Blackburn's own history gives it credibility. In 1993, Blackburn, working as a defense attorney, pled guilty to charges unrelated to the MacDonald case – charges of embezzlement and fraud. He resigned his law license and served three months in state prison.

"So if the system works correctly, all of this evidence taken together, I think, should entitle Jeff MacDonald to a new trial," Junkin argues.

"We're at a point in this case now where I think it's a, there's a legitimate possibility that I will be winning this case. And I think that I, there will be a time in the hopefully fairly near future where I can begin really rebuilding a life with Kathryn," MacDonald tells Lagattuta.

"I know that he'll be back and he'll be back. That's why when someone said to me the other day, 'Will this ever end?' Sure, it'll end for me when I'm dead or he's dead," comments Colette's brother Robert.

MacDonald is confident he will one day leave prison. "Oh, I'm sure of that. I'm positive of that. I've never wavered on that. I've had bad days, bleak moments. But I'm sure of that."

Jeffrey MacDonald will be eligible to reapply for parole in the year 2020. He will be 76 years old.
Produced By Josh Gelman
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