Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald is locked in solitary confinement in Terminal Island Federal Prison at San Pedro. But MacDonald, convicted of the 1970 slayings of his wife and two small daughters, is hardly silent--or even alone. He’s using his status as a celebrity convict to plead his innocence publicly via the airwaves.
Petitioning for a new trial this winter (and due for a parole hearing in 1991), he’s conducting a desperate series of interviews on TV and radio, albeit “with misgivings,” he said.
“I was very reluctant to come back to the media, having been burned so many times in the late ‘70s,” he told Calendar.
It was because of “very, very powerful new information,” said MacDonald, that he agreed to do the interviews. But, stressed MacDonald, he only conducted interviews with those programs that he deemed to be “open minded” about his case.
Explained MacDonald: “I have to fight the legend created by ‘Fatal Vision’ as opposed to the true facts of the case.”
In 1979, the former Green Beret physician was convicted of murdering his wife Colette and daughters Kimberly and Kristin at their home in Ft. Bragg, N.C. The crime was scrutinized in the best-selling 1983 book “Fatal Vision” and an ensuing miniseries on NBC.
But “Fatal Vision,” like the jury that tried his case, found MacDonald guilty.
Now, said MacDonald--who has always maintained that he is innocent--there is “new evidence.”
And the media is clamoring to provide a forum:
The MacDonald case is the subject of Monday’s segment of Fox Broadcasting’s crime magazine series, “A Current Affair.” To air on KTTV, Channel 11, at 10 p.m., the show will include an interview with MacDonald taped last weekend in a prison isolation cell. Title of the segment: “The Murder That Won’t Die.”
Filming begins in a week in North Carolina on a two-hour British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) documentary, “The United States vs. Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.” It’s not due to air until April, 1989, but already producers claim shocking revelations.
KABC radio interviewer Michael Jackson recently had MacDonald on his program.
A pre-taped 10-minute interview segment with MacDonald that ran in August, on Fox Broadcasting’s “The Late Show,” proved such an attention-getter that the series went on to devote an entire show to the MacDonald case two weeks later. It became the second highest-rated program in “Late Show” history.
The MacDonald case is such a potent attention/ratings grabber that even former Los Angeles County coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi has worked it into his repertoire on the TV talk show circuit. (Noguchi also talks about the mysterious deaths of Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe.) To promote his book, “Coroner at Large,” the so-called “coroner to the stars” has shown a slide of the bloodied pajama top--a central piece of evidence--that MacDonald was wearing the night of the 1979 slayings.
According to Noguchi’s findings: The 27 ice pick holes in that pajama top provide proof that three weapons--and three different people were involved in the crimes. Noguchi (who received a $8,000 fee from the defense to re-examine forensic evidence during one of MacDonald’s appeals) has gone on record as saying that MacDonald could not have been involved in the crimes.
Former FBI chief forensics chemist Paul Stombaugh begs to differ. In his lectures about the MacDonald case--more than 300 to date--he also shows a slide of the pajama top which, he says, proves MacDonald’s guilt.
The fact that the MacDonald case is still being “tried"--on everything from talk shows to TV specials to the lecture circuit--has let loose a hornet’s nest of charges and countercharges.
But then, confusion and rumor have shrouded the crimes since the very minute they were reported in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 16, 1970.
MacDonald was injured and incoherent when MPs stormed into his Ft. Bragg bungalow where his wife and daughters were found stabbed and bludgeoned to death. The physician, who was serving as a Green Beret, said he had fallen asleep on the couch and that he had awakened to find a band of drug-crazed hippies in his home.
According to some reports, as MacDonald was wheeled out on a stretcher, the first of dozens of MPs trooped into the murder house, creating turmoil and stumbling over evidence in their wet combat boots.
Even MacDonald’s most severe critics have admitted that the crime scene was ravaged. Footprints were “erased” by all the trampling investigators; fingerprints were smudged; MacDonald’s wallet and a bottle of diet pills (crucial to “Fatal Vision’s” viewpoint about the murders) were stolen; the doctor’s bloodied pajama bottoms were destroyed. (In a scene in the NBC miniseries, a young MP lifts MacDonald’s wallet during the pandemonium.)
Much of the evidence that did remain was later moved or otherwise rearranged until all hope of a definitive explanation was destroyed.
In the beginning, an Army board of inquiry ruled that there was insufficient proof to convict MacDonald of murder.
It was months later that MacDonald’s father-in-law, Alfred Kassab, became involved. Convinced of his son-in-law’s guilt, Kassab embarked on a decade-long crusade to see MacDonald convicted.
No ‘Applause Meter’
Kassab is among those angered over a telephone poll conducted by “The Late Show” after its hourlong MacDonald episode. Viewers were invited to “judge” MacDonald’s innocence--or guilt--by dialing one of two “900" lines.
The program also drew the ire of federal prosecutors, a media watchdog agency, and Joe McGinniss , author of “Fatal Vision.” “This is not something you can measure with an ‘applause meter,’ ” said a vehement McGinniss. “It’s terrible for entertainment shows to milk dollars when they are dealing with human life.”
Cliff Kincaid, an official with the Washington, D.C.-based Accuracy in Media recalled being shocked as he watched: “What I found strange about Fox giving so much air time to a convicted killer was that they have a very popular show, ‘America’s Most Wanted,’ which is designed to get killers off the street. Do they want to lock up criminals or turn them loose?”
The media watchdog agency, which later produced a 10-minute “Media Monitor” radio segment castigating “The Late Show,” has promised to “scrutinize all of Jeffrey MacDonald’s coverage from now on--just to make sure that all sides are presented.”
In fact, Kassab said, “I had to demand that they put me on.” Kassab, who learned about plans for the program from a friend (who had noticed a teaser ad in TV Guide), added, “Even then, they only gave me eight minutes.” (MacDonald’s interview segment ran for 21 minutes.)
Utilizing a split-screen, “The Late Show” showed MacDonald proclaiming his innocence at the same time that Kassab denounced him. At the end of all the “evidence,” viewers were invited to call in their “verdicts.”
The final tally: 24,793 “innocent,” 18,418 “guilty.”
The tally infuriated Kassab, who claimed the poll was “rigged by MacDonald supporters using mechanical dialing equipment.”
Not so, said the show’s executive producer Ron Vandor: “MacDonald had no way of knowing that we were running a poll; it was decided at the last minute.”
Some of the questions surrounding the MacDonald case were raised on a recent Michael Jackson radio show.
The program’s official guests were Kassab and FBI agent Ted Gunderson, who investigated the murders for the defense and whose findings indicated MacDonald was innocent. As a debate between Kassab and Gunderson ensued, Jackson stopped the action to plead, “Dr. MacDonald, if you are listening, please call us.”
Minutes later, a “shocked” Jackson received a phone call from the MacDonald. (As per prison rules, MacDonald had to call collect.)
“I was delighted,” Jackson said. “He has a right to join in these discussions. This is not a closed case by any means. The very fact that two different juries came up with two very different decisions indicates a great degree of uncertainty.”
Jackson’s odd reference was to the jury in the original 1979 murder trial, which deemed MacDonald to be guilty, and the jury in the 1987 civil trial in which some jurors believed MacDonald had been maligned by author McGinniss.
There were still more dramatics during that Jackson broadcast. A East Coast caller claimed to have taken a hysterical call 18 years ago while he was working in the provost’s office at Ft. Bragg. He said a sobbing woman called to report that her Green Beret officer-husband was sexually abusing their daughter, but then the line suddenly went dead.
The caller said he believed that the distraught wife was Collete MacDonald and that the abusing husband was Jeffrey MacDonald.
MacDonald denounced that call as a plant, perhaps engineered by Kassab.
Then came a call from someone claiming to have “eyewitness evidence” that a band of hippies had actually committed the crimes. This time, it was Kassab who got upset.
Surmised Jackson: “This was pretty shocking radio.”
The BBC documentary, meanwhile, promises to be shocking television.
The producer is Ted Landreth, whose 1986 BBC documentary, “Say Goodbye to the President,” made headlines by implicating John and Robert Kennedy in the cover-up of the death of their sometimes-lover Marilyn Monroe.
To air on an estimated 200 stations, “The United States vs. Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald” will be part of a new occasional series called “Final Report: The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But.”
“This case has never been exhaustively scrutinized in the manner of classic investigative journalism,” Landreth said, “and that includes McGinniss and his ‘Fatal Vision.’ ”
When it was published, “Fatal Vision” was considered the last word on what had come to be known as “The Green Beret Murders.” The book was widely hailed by many critics as the ultimate true crime book--even better than Truman Capote’s landmark “In Cold Blood.”
But it was that book that brought MacDonald back into court in 1987--this time for a high-stakes literary battle.
MacDonald was seeking $15 million from McGinniss on the basis that the author had duped him into cooperating on “Fatal Vision” by pretending to be “a friend who believed in my innocence.”
After seven weeks, a mistrial was declared, with some jurists reportedly convinced that McGinniss had unfairly maligned the physician. A month later, MacDonald received a $325,000 out-of-court settlement.
McGinniss, whose book depicted MacDonald as a sociopath who killed in an amphetamine-induced frenzy, is skeptical about the impending BBC documentary. He sees the so-called “new evidence” as nothing more than a rehash of the old evidence.
He is also wryly amused at the fact that the documentary is being produced by the same man who linked the Kennedys to the Monroe death. Declared McGinniss, “This must be the ultimate kick for a narcissistic psychopath like Jeff MacDonald.”
From his isolation cell at Terminal Island, MacDonald told Calendar that the comment didn’t deserve a reply.