Academy Award-winning filmmaker and former private detective Errol Morris examines the nature of evidence and proof in the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald murder case
Early on the morning of February 17, 1970, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor, called the police for help. When the officers arrived at his home they found the bloody and battered bodies of MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two young daughters. The word “pig” was written in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom. As MacDonald was being loaded into the ambulance, he accused a band of drug-crazed hippies of the crime.
So began one of the most notorious and mysterious murder cases of the twentieth century. Jeffrey MacDonald was finally convicted in 1979 and remains in prison today. Since then a number of bestselling books—including Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision and Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer—and a blockbuster television miniseries have told their versions of the MacDonald case and what it all means.
Errol Morris has been investigating the MacDonald case for over twenty years. A Wilderness of Error is the culmination of his efforts. It is a shocking book, because it shows us that almost everything we have been told about the case is deeply unreliable, and crucial elements of the case against MacDonald simply are not true. It is a masterful reinvention of the true-crime thriller, a book that pierces the haze of myth surrounding these murders with the sort of brilliant light that can only be produced by years of dogged and careful investigation and hard, lucid thinking.
By this book’s end, we know several things: that there are two very different narratives we can create about what happened at 544 Castle Drive, and that the one that led to the conviction and imprisonment for life of this man for butchering his wife and two young daughters is almost certainly wrong. Along the way Morris poses bracing questions about the nature of proof, criminal justice, and the media, showing us how MacDonald has been condemned, not only to prison, but to the stories that have been created around him.
In this profoundly original meditation on truth and justice, Errol Morris reopens one of America’s most famous cases and forces us to confront the unimaginable. Morris has spent his career unsettling our complacent assumptions that we know what we’re looking at, that the stories we tell ourselves are true. This book is his finest and most important achievement to date.
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Errol Morris is a world-renowned filmmaker-the Academy Award- winning director of The Fog of War and the recipient of a MacArthur "genius award." His other films include Standard Operating Procedure, Mr. Death, Fast Cheap and Out of Control, A Brief History of Time, The Thin Blue Line, and, most recently, Tabloid. He is the author of Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A WILDERNESS OF ERROR
Also by Errol Morris
Believing Is Seeing
A WILDERNESS OF ERROR
To my mother and stepfather, Cinnabelle and Benjamin Esterman, who always encouraged me to write. And to my mother-in-law and aunt, who first introduced me to Fayetteville.
I would wish them to seek out for me, in the details I am about to give, some little oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error.
—Edgar Allan Poe, “William Wilson”
People Associated with the Case
THE MACDONALD FAMILY
Jeffrey Robert MacDonald (1943– )
Born in Jamaica, New York. The husband of Colette Stevenson and the father of Kimberley and Kristen MacDonald. Attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, but left after three years for Northwestern University Medical School. After entering the army in 1969, he was assigned to the Special Forces as a group surgeon. Accused of the murder of his family in April 1970, and freed from all charges by December 1970.
† Colette Stevenson MacDonald (1943–1970)
The wife of Jeffrey MacDonald and the mother of Kimberley and Kristen. Left Skidmore to marry Jeffrey MacDonald and start a family.
† Kimberley Kathryn MacDonald (1964–1970)
Older daughter of Jeffrey and Colette MacDonald.
† Kristen Jean MacDonald (1967–1970)
Younger daughter of the MacDonalds.
† Dorothy “Perry” MacDonald (1919–1991)
Jeffrey MacDonald’s mother.
† Mildred Stevenson Kassab (1916–1994)
Mother of Colette MacDonald. After the suicide of her first husband, married Alfred Kassab.
† Alfred G. “Freddy” Kassab (1921–1991)
Stepfather of Colette MacDonald. The protagonist of the book Fatal Vision and the TV movie adaptation.
Robert “Bob” Stevenson (1939– )
Colette’s younger brother. Now a pastor’s assistant.
A close friend of Dorothy MacDonald.
HELENA STOECKLEY (FAMILY, ASSOCIATES, AND WITNESSES)
† Helena Werle Stoeckley Davis (1952–1983)
Graduated from Terry Sanford High School. Confessed to witnessing the MacDonald murders. Found dead of acute bronchopneumonia, complicated by cirrhosis, on January 31, 1983.
† Lieutenant Colonel Clarence F. Stoeckley (1920–2002)
Helena Stoeckley’s father, retired a lieutenant colonel.
† Helena Werle Stoeckley (1920–2009)
Helena Stoeckley’s mother.
Eugene Stoeckley (1959– )
Helena Stoeckley’s younger brother. Obtained an affidavit from his mother detailing Helena’s deathbed confession.
Ernest Leroy Davis (1957– )
Helena Stoeckley’s husband. Now serving an eighty-year prison sentence for criminal sexual conduct in the Tyger River Correctional Institution in Enoree, South Carolina.
† Private Gregory “Greg” Mitchell (1950–1982)
Helena Stoeckley’s boyfriend at the time of the murders. Named in her confessions. A Vietnam veteran.
† Sergeant Shelby Don Harris (1948–2008)
An acquaintance of Helena Stoeckley. Named in her confessions. A Vietnam veteran.
Dwight E. Smith (1946– )
An acquaintance of Helena Stoeckley. Named in her confessions. A veteran and drug counselor in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
† Cathy Perry Williams (1950–2006)
An acquaintance of Helena Stoeckley. Accused of multiple stabbings around Fayetteville in 1970. Diagnosed with schizophrenia. Confessed to the murders to the FBI in 1984.
William “Ed” Posey (1949– )
A laundry deliveryman. Lived at 1106 Clark Street, next door to Helena Stoeckley, in 1970, and gave the first report of her existence to the defense in 1970. Testified at the 1979 trial, in the absence of the jury. Recently suffered a stroke.
Jane McCampbell Zillioux Graham-Bailey (1935– )
An artist who worked with Helena Stoeckley in Nashville in 1970. Witness to one of her confessions. Testified at the 1979 trial.
Charles “Red” Underhill (1938– )
A music promoter and an amateur expert on crime and American history. A neighbor of Helena Stoeckley in Nashville in 1970. Witness to one of her confessions. Testified at the 1979 trial. A Tea Party candidate for the Florida House of Representatives in 2010.
THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATIVE DIVISION
† Chief Warrant Officer Three Franz “Joe” Grebner (1925–1986)
Chief investigator for the CID on Fort Bragg at the time of the murders.
Chief Warrant Officer One Robert B. “Bob” Shaw
Criminal investigator for the CID on Fort Bragg at the time of the murders.
Specialist Seven William F. “Bill” Ivory (1939– )
Investigator on duty at the time of the murders, and the first CID agent on the scene. Inducted into the CID Hall of Fame in 2007.
† Master Sergeant Hilyard O. Medlin (1923–1986)
A latent fingerprint examiner at the CID laboratory in Fort Gordon, Georgia, from 1963 to 1971.
† Peter Edmund Kearns (1934–2007)
A USACIDA investigator who conducted the posthearing investigation and prepared the investigative report regarding Freddy Kassab’s allegations of CID misconduct and the CID reinvestigation of the case at large.
Colonel Jack G. Pruett (1925– )
The USACIDA investigator who conducted the posthearing investigation into Freddy Kassab’s allegations of CID misconduct and the CID reinvestigation of the case.
† Richard J. Mahon (1936–2004)
The USACIDA investigator who conducted the posthearing investigation into Helena Stoeckley’s involvement in the crimes.
Robert A. Brisentine, Jr. (1927– )
A polygraph expert with the USACIDA who examined the key figures in the MacDonald case. Winner of the American Polygraph Association’s Leonarde Keeler Award in 1989 for long and distinguished service to the polygraph profession.
THE MILITARY POLICE
Specialist Four Kenneth Mica (1947– )
A Specialist Fourth Class in the 503rd Military Police Battalion at Fort Bragg at the time of the murders. Lives in Aquebogue, New York.
Lieutenant Joseph L. Paulk (1944– )
A lieutenant in Company C, 503rd Military Police Battalion, who was present at the scene of the crime.
Special Agent in Charge Robert M. Murphy (1916– )
The SAC of the Charlotte office of the FBI at the time of the murders.
Special Agent Raymond “Butch” Madden, Jr. (1942– )
A special agent assigned to the Raleigh office of the FBI. First involved in the MacDonald case in August 1980, reinvestigating the case during the appeals process.
THE DEFENSE ATTORNEYS
† Bernard “Bernie” L. Segal (1930–2011)
A civil rights attorney from Philadelphia, and later a professor of law at Golden Gate University in San Franscisco. Represented Jeffrey MacDonald at his Article 32 hearing.
Michael Malley (1943– )
An attorney from San Antonio. Jeffrey MacDonald’s freshman roommate at Princeton University, and later a member of his defense team.
† Dennis Eisman (1940–1991)
An attorney and Segal’s assistant during the Article 32 hearing in 1970.
Wendy Rouder (1942– )
An aide to Bernie Segal in charge of taking care of Helena Stoeckley during the MacDonald trial in 1979.
Harvey A. Silverglate (1942– )
An attorney, writer, and civil rights advocate based in Boston. MacDonald’s appellate attorney beginning in 1989. Argued MacDonald’s case before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. Formerly a partner at the firm Silverglate & Good, now a consultant.
Andrew “Andy” Good (1946– )
An appellate attorney based in Boston. Represented MacDonald beginning in 1989. A partner at the firm Good & Cormier.
Philip G. Cormier (1961– )
An appellate attorney based in Boston. MacDonald’s appellate attorney beginning in 1989. Argued MacDonald’s case before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. A partner at the firm Good & Cormier.
Captain Clifford L. Somers (1940– )
A captain in the office of the Staff Judge Advocate, and chief government counsel at the Article 32 investigation.
† Victor Woerheide (1909–1977)
The chief Justice Department prosecutor at the grand jury that indicted Jeffrey MacDonald in 1975.
George M. Anderson (1921– )
The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina from 1977 to 1980. Replaced by James Blackburn in 1980.
Brian M. Murtagh (1946– )
A former CID Command JAG officer and later assistant U.S. attorney. One of the prosecutors at Jeffrey MacDonald’s 1979 trial.
James L. Blackburn (1938– )
An assistant U.S. attorney and one of the prosecutors at Jeffrey MacDonald’s 1979 trial. Disbarred in 1993 for ethical violations.
Colonel Warren V. Rock (1919– )
The colonel assigned as the investigating officer at the 1970 Article 32 investigation.
Hammond A. Beale (1942– )
Colonel Rock’s legal advisor at the Article 32 hearing. Now a lawyer.
† Judge Franklin T. Dupree (1913–1995)
The district court judge during MacDonald’s 1979 trial and subsequent appeals.
† Justice Francis D. Murnaghan, Jr. (1920–2000)
A federal judge who served on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals between 1979 and 2000. Wrote a concurring opinion in 1982.
Judge James C. Fox (1928– )
A senior federal judge serving at the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
Janice S. Glisson (1924– )
A forensic chemist and later chief of the serology section at the CID laboratory at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Conducted preliminary analysis of blood and fiber evidence from the MacDonald crime scene.
Dillard O. Browning IV (1924– )
A forensic chemist at the CID laboratory at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and later at the laboratory at Camp Zama, Japan. Conducted preliminary examination of hairs, fibers, paints, beeswax, and wood from the MacDonald crime scene.
† Paul Stombaugh (1926–2002)
An examiner in the Microscopic Analysis Unit of the FBI laboratory in Washington from 1960 to 1976. Conducted reexamination of evidence from the MacDonald crime, beginning in 1971. Thereafter the director of the Police Service Bureau in Greenville, South Carolina.
Dr. John I. Thornton (1941– )
Emeritus professor of forensic science at the University of California at Berkeley. A defense expert for the MacDonald case at the 1979 trial and a consultant through 1982.
Dr. Rex J. Beaber (1950– )
A psychologist, attorney, and assistant professor of medicine at the Medical School of the University of California at Los Angeles. Conducted psychological examination of Helena Stoeckley in 1980 at the behest of Ted Gunderson.
Kimberly “Kim” Murga (1972– )
A forensic investigator and an expert on DNA analysis. Worked at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Maryland. Identified the remains of Uday and Qusay Hussein. Conducted the first round of DNA testing of evidence from the MacDonald house in 2008.
THE PSYCHIATRISTS AND PSYCHOLOGISTS
Dr. Robert L. “Bob” Sadoff (1936– )
A forensic psychiatrist and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Former president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Studies in Social-Legal Psychiatry. Examined Jeffrey MacDonald in 1970. Testified at the Article 32 hearing and at the grand jury.
Dr. James L. Mack (1936– )
A forensic psychologist and a partner of Dr. Robert Sadoff. Conducted an examination of Jeffrey MacDonald with Dr. Sadoff in 1970, and a reexamination in the summer of 1979.
† Dr. James A. Brussel (1905–1982)
A psychiatrist and criminologist. Interviewed George Metesky, the “mad bomber.” Author of Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist. Examined Jeffrey MacDonald on August 13, 1979.
Dr. Seymour L. Halleck (1929– )
A psychiatrist and professor at the University of North Carolina. Examined Jeffrey MacDonald in July 1979.
Dr. Hirsch Lazaar Silverman (1915– )
A clinical and forensic psychologist and psychotherapist. Poet and veteran of World War II. Emeritus professor at Seton Hall University. Examined Jeffrey MacDonald with James Brussel on August 13, 1979.
THE POLICE AND DETECTIVES
† Prince Everette Beasley (1925–1996)
A detective in the Fayetteville Police Department and the Interagency Narcotics Squad. Testified at the 1979 trial.
James T. “Jim” Gaddis (1943– )
A patrolman with the Nashville Police Department. On special assignment in 1971. Worked with Helena Stoeckley, an informant during that time. Testified at the 1979 trial.
† Theodore L. “Ted” Gunderson (1948–2011) Former special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office of the FBI, then a private investigator. Obtained confessions from Helena Stoeckley.
† Raymond “Ray” Shedlick (1930–1989) Father of Ellen Dannelly. Detective in the New York City Police Department and deputy chief investigator for Nassau County District Attorney’s office. From 1983 on, a private investigator based in Durham, North Carolina. Retained by the MacDonald defense team in 1984.
Ellen Dannelly (1958– )
Daughter of Ray Shedlick.
† Jimmy B. Britt (d. 2008) A United States marshal charged with the supervision and transportation of Helena Stoeckley during the 1979 trial. Gave an affidavit in 2005 declaring that Stoeckley had confessed in his presence twice during the trial, and that on the second occasion she had been threatened by James Blackburn.
Joe McGinniss (1942– )
Covered Jeffrey MacDonald in his column for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and worked as part of his defense team during the 1979 trial. Author of The Selling of the President 1968, The Rogue, and, in 1984, Fatal Vision, the first book on the MacDonald case.
† Jeffrey Elliot (1947–2008)
A professor of African American studies at North Carolina Central University and a journalist. Interviewed Jeffrey MacDonald for Playboy magazine and began a manuscript on the case.
Janet Malcolm (1934– )
A Czech American journalist and writer. Author of In the Freud Archives, The Crime of Sheila McGough, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, and The Journalist and the Murderer, a book based on the relationship between Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald.
A documentary producer and investigator based in California. Producer of False Witness, a 1989 BBC documentary on the MacDonald case.
A journalist based in Fayetteville, North Carolina. A veteran. One of the two authors of Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders.
† Jerry Allen Potter, Jr. (d. 2004) A writer and a journalist based in California. One of the two authors of Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders.
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