I have been reading Errol Morris's book A Wilderness of Error, about the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case. I have huge respect for Mr. Morris, a man who not only cares zealously about the plight of the wrongly convicted and falsely accused, but who goes to heroic lengths to rescue them.
On this occasion, though, I believe he is simply wrong.
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SIGN UP Philip JenkinstRealClearReligion Jeffrey MacDonaldthippies Jeffrey MacDonald was a Green Beret doctor who in February 1970 reported that drug-crazed hippies had broken into his home at Fort Bragg, killing his wife and two daughters. MacDonald himself was wounded, but survived. He himself came under suspicion, and was convicted of the three murders in 1979. He remains in prison, despite prolonged efforts by friends and supporters who believe him innocent. And now, Errol Morris lends his weighty influence to that cause.
General interest apart, the case fits into my areas of professional interest because of the activism of Ted Gunderson, a former FBI agent who purported to produce dramatic new evidence concerning the case. Unfortunately, Gunderson was an outrageous myth-maker who was behind many of extravagant claims about cult activities and Satanism during the 1980s and 1990s, claims that I and many others spent years debunking. He was in fact the chief godfather of the Satanism/ritual abuse scare that so disfigured American life in those years. Inevitably, Gunderson later became a 9/11 conspiracy theorist.
For Gunderson, naturally, the MacDonald murders were part of the national Satanic cult menace, as was confirmed by the confessions of one Helena Stoeckley, who claimed to be one of the homicidal hippie gang at Fort Bragg. Helena, however, was a catastrophically troubled witness, plagued by mental illness and drug issues, who was easily led to say what a handler wanted her to say at any given moment. No rational person believed a delusional word she uttered.
Errol Morris's book makes a gallant effort to prove MacDonald's innocence. He shows, convincingly, that the trial involved many procedural errors, and that evidence really was suppressed. He is also far too smart to accept Helena Stoeckley's pathetic rants and ramblings at face value, and he has no illusions about Gunderson. Nevertheless, he accepts the basic MacDonald story of the incident, and further believes that Helena's confessions did contain germs of truth.
Wilderness of Error may well make a plausible case for a retrial, and that might be a just outcome.
But innocence? Let me explain why I do not for a moment accept MacDonald's story. You can look at so many pieces of evidence, at recent DNA tests, and ample evidence that would have served to convict in a much less notorious case. But here's a massive problem. According to MacDonald, one of the hippies -- possibly Helena herself?? -- had during the murders stood chanting the words "Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs!" The word "pig" was also written in blood on a wall at the crime scene.
Now let's consider this in its context. The Manson murders of the Tate and LaBianca families had occurred in Los Angeles in August 1969, when the killers scrawled various terms in blood, including "pig" and "WAR." These grisly details were sensationally in the news in late 1969 and early 1970, following the arrests of the family's members. Such atrocities were, in other words, making headlines exactly at the time of the Fort Bragg murders, in February 1970. In these very weeks, this is what crazed homicidal hippies were meant to be getting up to.
I ask a question. Apart from the Manson murders themselves, how many parallel incidents ever occurred in real life America in this era, in the sense of groups of homicidal cultish druggies storming the homes of the straight and respectable, and inflicting bloody murder on their "pig" victims? If we exclude the alleged Fort Bragg incident, I am not aware of any, ever, before or since. Yes, such crimes occurred only in those twin centers of the radical counterculture, Los Angeles and ... Fort Bragg.
If you read Wilderness of Error, you may well be carried along with its argument, and by Errol Morris's passion for truth. But every few pages, just stop and repeat the following mantra: "Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs!"
Do you genuinely believe that any hippie in the 1960s or 1970s, any young person, ever uttered those words? Do you not find them far beyond parody -- the sort of thing that a silly scriptwriter who had never been within a hundred miles of Haight-Ashbury might imagine his hippie characters saying, to the scorn of everyone vaguely connected to the underground or the music scene? Groovy?
Aren't these words direct from The Mod Squad? Or to be more specific, think of the late 1960s incarnations of Dragnet -- not, I stress, a favorite with the under-25 crowd in that era. Think of the show's ludicrously improbable juvenile delinquent villains, with their silly long haired wigs. Isn't "acid is groovy" exactly what you might expect to come out of their mouths? Has anyone actually watched the episodes from those shows from the months preceding the Fort Bragg crimes, to see if such fictional tales directly prefigured the details of the murders?
Or alternatively, are these words the sort of thing that might be invented by a strait-laced army officer who had been reading the headlines in early 1970, who was watching a lot of television? By a square among squares, who was intrigued by the notion of "hippie cult atrocities", but who had never met an actual hippie, or indeed encountered a real-life cult? And who thought that these sentiments might provide authenticity for a wholly imaginary local chapter of the Manson family?
"Acid is groovy." Uh-huh.