Fifty years after the crimes, why does the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case still hold fascination for many people?
Marc Smerling thinks he has some idea.
Smerling is the director of the documentary series “A Wilderness of Error,” which examines the MacDonald case. The five-part series, produced by Blumhouse Television, debuts Sept. 25 on FX. An accompanying podcast, “Morally Indefensible,” examines “Fatal Vision,” a book and TV movie about the case.
“First of all, it’s sort of the granddaddy of true crime,” Smerling said. “I don’t think people could get their heads around the idea that Jeffrey MacDonald — the captain of the football team, top of his class in high school, doctor, handsome Green Beret — could have done this crime.”
On Feb. 17, 1970, police dispatchers on Fort Bragg received a call from MacDonald, then a 26-year-old Army doctor, reporting a stabbing.
Military police officers found MacDonald’s pregnant wife, Colette; the couple’s 5-year-old daughter Kimberly; and 2-year-old daughter, Kristen, dead of stab wounds. MacDonald was also stabbed, although his wounds were not nearly so severe.
MacDonald claimed that “hippie” intruders had killed his family, chanting, “Kill the pigs. Acid’s groovy.” But investigators concluded that MacDonald had killed Colette, Kimberly and Kristen, then intentionally injured himself.
Coming so soon after the Charles Manson murders in California, the crime struck fear in the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg community. Some people feared that a similar murderous cult could be in the area.
An Article 32 investigation into the case was held, but in October 1970, the Army dropped all charges against MacDonald.
But Colette’s father, Freddy Kassab, gradually became convinced of his son-in-law’s guilt and lobbied to keep the investigation alive. In 1979, MacDonald was convicted of the murders; he is currently serving a life sentence at a federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland.
The case has never really left the public consciousness, inspiring books, magazine articles, television shows and podcasts.
In 1983, author Joe McGinnis published “Fatal Vision,” a book that concluded that MacDonald was guilty. The book inspired a popular TV movie.
And in 2012, Errol Morris published “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald,” which focused on alleged errors in the MacDonald investigation. Some involved Helena Stoeckley, a young Fayetteville woman who gave contradictory statements about being present at the crime scene. Stoeckley was not charged and died in 1983.
Smerling based his documentary on Morris’ book. It uses interviews, re-creations, courtroom audio and other methods to examine the case. Morris narrates the documentary.
“He’s really another subject in some ways,” Smerling said in a telephone interview.
“I talked to everybody I could find who is still available to talk about it,” Smerling said. “And then going back and looking at the hard facts and evidence.”
Smerling is a film producer, screenwriter and director who was nominated for an Oscar for the documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” in 2003.
More recently, Smerling co-wrote the HBO documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” The miniseries, of which Jason Blum was the executive producer, drew widespread attention when its subject was arrested for murder after he seemed to confess while wearing a microphone.
Smerling said one of the things that attracted him to the project was the chance to find something new in a case that has been examined so many times over the decades.
“I think everybody who does what I do wants to hit a home run and say, ‘I figured this out,’ do the job for the audience and say, ‘Here you go.’” he said. “It’s not that easy. But at least you can go back and straighten out the record and separate the storytelling from the reality.”
Smerling said he believes he has uncovered some fresh evidence in the case. He said that includes tapes Kassab made after the Article 32 investigation.
“You get to go on this journey with Freddy Kassab as he re-investigates this case close to the time that the actual events took place.”
Stoeckley’s role in the case is also examined, Smerling said. Her brothers and roommate were interviewed for the documentary, he said.
Smerling said he also has a discussion with Morris in the documentary about some of his findings in the book.
One person Smerling did not get to interview was MacDonald, now 76 and still proclaiming his innocence.
“I tried. I went via his wife, Kathryn and we got as far as making a time. I was going to drive down to the federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland, and a few days before, they canceled,” Smerling said. “The only thing I could say is that Jeffrey, from his perspective, has not been treated well by storytellers in the past, so I think maybe they got cold feet.”
Smerling said “A Wilderness of Error” does not reach any conclusion on behalf of the viewer.
“I’m not one of those documentary filmmakers who wrap it all up,” he said. “But I think we provide enough evidence for people to come to their own conclusions.”
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