The Story of Jeffrey MacDonald & A Review of Fatal Vision

In February 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor and green beret, woke up in the early hours of the morning in his Fort Bragg apartment in North Carolina to the screams of his wife and children being murdered by hippies who were chanting "Kill the pig!" and "Acid is groovy!" Having been hit with a baseball bat and stabbed multiple times with a knife, Jeffrey MacDonald lost consciousness. When he awoke again, the killers were gone and his family was dead.

(Spoilers ahead.)

Jeff MacDonald met his wife, Colette, in high school. They had a rocky relationship from the start which soon dissolved when she met another man. But her relationship with the other man was not meant to be. Pretty soon afterward, Jeff came back into her life, swept her off her feet, and impregnated her. Rather than tarnish the family names, Jeff and Colette decided to get married before the baby was born. They were in love and they were excited about chasing their dreams of living on a farm with horses and lots of children. Clearly this first child would be a step toward obtaining their life goals.

Soon after the first child, Jeff and Colette had a second … and then became pregnant with a third. Collette was busy taking classes about child psychology while Jeff was moving up in his chosen career field. He was hoping to go to Vietnam to fight even if Collette didn't want him to.

Then, on February 17, 1970, everything changed for the couple. With Colette and her children deceased and very little in the apartment disheveled, the army began to question Jeffrey MacDonald. Why was he the only one to live? Why did his story not line up with the evidence?

During the pre-trial, MacDonald's lawyer accused the army of being sloppy with their evidence collection. A blood stained board with a footprint that had been removed from the apartment was lost, the phone in apartment had been used and any fingerprints that may have been on it contaminated, and even MacDonald's wallet was stolen during all of the commotion of the investigation. MacDonald was let go. He moved to California to begin a new life there and get away from the military.

Freddie Kassab, Jeff's father-in-law, had vehemently supported Jeff during the pre-trial, but he began to get suspicious when Jeff refused to let him see any of the pre-trial documentation. The pre-trial had been closed off from the public with only people who were being questioned allowed in front of the judge, so Freddie Kassab had no idea what had gone on behind the closed doors. When Kassab finally received the pre-trial documentation, he was shocked at the intricate and detailed lies being told by MacDonald. For instance, Jeff claimed to not own an ice pick; however, both the babysitter and Freddie Kassab remembered seeing it in his house and him using it to get ice cream free from the freezer to share with the kids. Whatever was going on with Jeff's lies, Kassab wanted to get to the bottom of it. He wanted vindication for his daughter and grandchildren. If Jeff had killed them, he wanted Jeff in jail.

Pursuing higher and higher into the judicial system, Fred finally got the trial he wanted in 1974 when the case was held before a Grand Jury and Jeffrey MacDonald was indicted. Still claiming his innocence, Jeff fought the indictment claiming he had been denied his right to a speedy trial AND he had already been tried once (double jeopardy). The court system disagreed and upheld the indictment which gave MacDonald a life sentence in jail for each of the three murders.

Shortly after his conviction, MacDonald began working on a book with Fatal Vision author Joe McGinniss. Jeff was hoping to share his *real* story with the world, and he felt that a book deal with McGinniss would give his case just the recognition it needed and convince the world that he did not kill his wife and children. In the end, what actually happened, was a very different story.

Joe spent years researching Jeff, looking into every lifestyle nook and cranny attempting in his own way to discover who MacDonald really was and expose the person who had actually committed the crime. Was it Jeff? Was it someone by the name of Helena Stoeckley who both claimed and denied that she might have been at the scene of the crime?

The book went back and forth in the novel describing MacDonald's thoughts and feelings (as indicated in recordings produced by Jeff following his conviction) and the author's retelling of the murder and trials based on court transcripts and interviews with MacDonald, his family, and people closely related to the murder. If you want to know about Jeffrey MacDonald's life and the intimate details surrounding the murder of his family, this is a good, intense, factual book. Reading all 600 pages for me for a story I was already somewhat familiar with seemed to be just a bit much. The author wasn't particularly great at storytelling and MacDonald himself seemed to talk in circles and go off on tangents. One minute he would be talking about how amazing his wife (Colette) was and the next he'd be talking about some random sexual encounter he had with somebody out in California while his wife thought he was traveling for work. He was all over the place and very little that was said in "MacDonald's voice" made much sense.

Fatal Vision is highly controversial because of
how it was written.

Of course the main reason I was interested in reading this story was 1) to hear another awesome court case similar to the one discussed in Serial and 2) to learn more about the relationships between journalists and their subjects. Shortly after Fatal Vision was published, MacDonald sued McGinniss claiming that the author knew Jeff was guilty even before finishing his book and yet still maintained the friendship so that MacDonald would continue cooperating. Joe McGinniss settled out of court to the tune of $325,000!

While I can't necessarily recommend the book (and I haven't seen the movie the book was based on), I did learn a lot about the American judicial system, the relationship between writers and their subject, and about an event from history I otherwise would never have been familiar with.

If you find yourself interested in learning more about this case, I recommend checking out Youtube and only relying on the book Fatal Vision to learn the straight facts behind the case (prejudiced by the writer's decisions to manipulate his readers, of course). In fact, there are two competing websites run by both Jeffrey MacDonald's lawyers and remaining family (The MacDonald Case) and Colette's family (The Jeffrey MacDonald Case) where you can learn more.

Before reading this blog post, were you aware of this case or the story behind it? Will you be reading Fatal Vision or watching any youtube videos about it?

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