Warning: There are descriptions of violence ahead that some readers may find disturbing.
As far as whodunnits go, the case of former Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald and the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two young daughters remains one of the most riveting cases in American history. In part, it’s because MacDonald has continue to maintain his innocence despite being convicted of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder in 1979. It’s also because a woman by the name of Helena Stoeckley supposedly confessed to the crimes multiple times all the way up to her 1983 death. For those who’ve followed the case over the past 50 years, however, she’s perhaps better known as the “woman in the floppy hat.”
As a bit of background: in the early hours of February 17, 1970, dispatchers in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, received an alarming call from someone sounding a lot like MacDonald, then a venerated US Army captain and physician. The caller gave the address of the MacDonald home and said, “Stabbing! Hurry!”
Shortly thereafter, several military police officers arrived on the scene to find a gruesome sight — the bodies of MacDonald’s older daughter, 5-year-old Kimberley, clubbed in the head and stabbed in the neck multiple times; his younger daughter, 2-year-old Kristen, dead in her bed after being stabbed 33 times with a knife and 15 times with an ice pick; and his wife Colette, pregnant with their third child, clubbed over the head, with both arms broken and wounds indicating that she was stabbed 21 times with an ice pick and 16 times with a knife. MacDonald was lying next to Colette on the bedroom floor, face-down, wounded but alive. The word “pig” was written in blood on the headboard above their bed.
MacDonald was taken to the hospital, where doctors treated his single stab wound and determined that he had suffered a concussion. Later, when he was questioned by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, MacDonald claimed that he had been sleeping on the couch in the living room that night when he was startled awake by Colette’s screams upon finding four intruders — three men and a woman with long blonde hair wearing a distinctive, floppy hat — inside their home. According to MacDonald, the woman was wearing high-heeled boots and stood over a candle chanting, “Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs.”
Military police officer Ken Mica confirmed to People in 2017 that he recalled seeing a woman who fit that description a few blocks from MacDonald’s house when he and his colleagues were racing to respond to the emergency call. He told the publication that he’d told his lieutenant to send a police car to see what the woman was doing out on the street so late at night, but a car was never sent.
Later that same day, Fayetteville police detective Prince Beasley noted that the description of the woman in the floppy hat matched that of Helena Stoeckley, a well-known local drug user who also happened to be a police informant. Beasley told People that he had his dispatch call the Army’s CID, but no one ever responded.
It was this and numerous other small slip-ups that cast doubt on whether or not Stoeckley was actually involved in the grisly murders, though she reportedly confessed to the crimes to multiple people over the years, including to her mother in late 1982, three months before she would die of pneumonia and cirrhosis. Her then-boyfriend, Greg Mitchell, a Vietnam veteran with a serious heroin addiction, similarly confessed to the murders. Neither were ever convicted, and Stoeckley reportedly contradicted herself often enough that she became an unreliable witness.
At times she said with certainty that she was at the MacDonald home the night of the murders; at other times, she claimed that she could not remember where she was during the exact timeframe when the murders took place. MacDonald was convicted in August 1979 and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences, one for each family member killed.
Three years later, a private investigator that MacDonald hired, Ted Gunderson, was able to extract a recorded confession from Stoeckley, who admitted that she had lit a candle in the home and chanted, “Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs.” She cited MacDonald’s refusal to “treat heroin and opium addicted persons” as a reason for why she and members of her “cult” had attacked and killed MacDonald’s family. (It should be noted that the murders took place one year after the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate and four others in a highly publicized, highly sensationalized news story, and that MacDonald’s version of events closely resembled the Manson family case.) The admission was aired on a 1982 episode of 60 Minutes. Still, the courts chose not to believe Stoeckley's confession: To this day, MacDonald remains incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland.
Still, there are many key people who believe Stoeckley’s confession as truth — MacDonald’s second wife, Kathryn Kurichh, for one, and Stoeckley’s youngest brother Gene, for another. “She told my mother she was there that night and that Dr. MacDonald was innocent,” he told People in 2017. “I know my mom in her heart believed it. … My sister knew her time was short — she had cirrhosis. The prosecution used the fact she was affected by drug abuse over the years, but my sister had no reason to make things up or lie.”
MacDonald, Stoeckley, and all the astounding details of the case are revisited in FX’s A Wilderness of Error, a five-part docuseries, now streaming on Hulu.