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More Intertextuality: The controversial case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Jeffrey MacDonald case is an interesting reference case to the Chris Watts case. MacDonald, from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was convicted in 1979 of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters in February 1970. The decade between the murders and the arrest, trial, conviction and incarceration provides a theoretical premise for a man who – at least temporarily – got away with murder.

The Two Faces of Jeffrey MacDonald – Raleigh’s National Murder Case – CandidSlice

MacDonald’s version of events turned out to be a whopper, as the clip with Larry King below illustrates. The important thing is MacDonald [a medical doctor] thought it was believable and credible, which is why he thought he would get away with what he did.

And this idea was part of the psychological ether floating around Fort Bragg in the early 80’s. Chris Watts was born into that ether on May 16, 1985. The distance between the Watts home in Spring Lake and Fort Bragg is less than 12 miles.

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Who Were the Suspects that Jeffrey MacDonald Says Murdered His Family? – People

When military police officer Ken Mica arrived at Jeffrey MacDonald’s Fort Bragg, North Carolina apartment on Feb. 17, 1970, he saw MacDonald in the master bedroom, lying on his stomach next to his bloodied wife, Colette.

“I see he’s still alive and I lean down next to him and say, ‘Who did this?’ ” Mica tells PEOPLE. “And he starts describing three guys and a woman.”

The woman he described — long blonde hair or wig, a floppy hat and knee-high boots — resembled a woman Mica had passed on the way to the apartment belonging to MacDonald, a Green Beret surgeon. Mica says it was unusual to see a woman alone at that hour at Fort Bragg.

He told his lieutenant to send a police car, but no car was ever sent.

The Devil and Jeffrey MacDonald – Vanity Fair


During the first day of the trial, Dupree allowed the prosecution to admit into evidence the 1970 copy of Esquire magazine, found in the MacDonald house, part of which contained the lengthy article about the Manson Family murders of August 1969. Prosecutors James Blackburn and Brian Murtagh wanted to introduce the magazine and suggest that this is where MacDonald got the idea of blaming a hippie gang for the murders.


  1. CBH

    Very odd synchronicity that both MacDonald and Watts killed a pregnant wife and 2 young daughters roughly the same ages (2+ -5) and that both wives were carrying male fetuses at 4-5 months gestation.

    • Evan Cummings

      Pregnant women are victims of murder more than any other group, according to what statistics say. I was a story developer for TV from 1976-1982, working for a major studio. Combing through news stories, I knew the Jeffrey MacDonald case was a natural for the then popular “miniseries”. I pitched the story to my boss, a studio exec. (Ultimately, my studio turned it down as his trial had not yet taken place.) After interviewing MacDonald’s then defense attorney I was convinced that he had been railroaded. I started writing a “story treatment” pitch. I contacted MacDonald who had not yet been to trial. We met at Orville & Wilbur’s, a restaurant in Manhattan Beach, CA. I was a true believer. We met and he had an open, warm smile, very handsome with enormous charm. Then as we got into the interview his gracious charm evaporated, replaced by arrogance and superiority. “If you think I’m gonna sit here and spill my guts, that’s not happening.” He showed no emotion at all. I rationalized his attitude because he had told his story hundreds of times. There was an undertone of sarcasm, even boredom . I walked in a true believer and walked out believing I’d had dinner with pure evil. I felt a sense of foreboding, abject fear that I’d never felt before. I later learned that MacDonald was taking two or three times more than the prescribed amount of Biphetamine, a brand of diet pills that were so addictive they were eventually taken off the market. One of the side effects of this drug was “amphetamine induced psychosis”, which can cause paranoia, violent ideation and behaviors such as sudden rage. I believe without any doubt that Jeffrey MacDonald is guilty of annihilating his family.

      • Ralph Oscar

        Wow. That’s a powerful account, Evan. I knew the prosecuting attorney on that case, as I’ve detailed in earlier comments on this site, and between the two of us, well, there’s not a lot of room for “a railroaded innocent”. One of the “tells” of guilt (in the legal sense, not necessarily the emotional sense) is that the murderer very often shows signs of *contempt* when speaking of his victim. Do you think that could have contributed to that “undertone of sarcasm, even boredom” that you observed in MacDonald?

  2. Sylvester

    I remember the MacDonald case well. Most likely MacDonald did not want another child to support and neither did Watts. MacDonald was doing a tremendous amount of speed, working two jobs as a military doctor (I”m a little rusty on it) and envisioned a different sort of life for himself. When he was in the courtship phase with his wife her parents liked him very much. He would go over to her house and mow their lawn. Might Watts have gone to Shan’ann’s house and fixed her car, and the vehicles of her family? A friend of mine would see MacDonald (after the murders) out and about near Newport Beach, CA and met him – said he was just the nicest person. It was thanks to the tireless persistence of his murdered wife’s father that MacDonald was ultimately locked up for life.

    • CBH

      In many ways MacDonald and Watts were similar: viewed as doting husbands, fathers, son-in-laws until they murdered their families. That’s when infidelity, resentment came to the surface.

    • Ralph Oscar

      “It was thanks to the tireless persistence of his murdered wife’s father that MacDonald was ultimately locked up for life.”

      Sorry, it was the fact that forensic blood typing came online just before the trial, and demonstrated that MacDonald’s account was all wrong. It was science, not family.

  3. rmkenned

    The movie that was made about this murder is excellent! The prosecution shows how McDonald threw his pj top over his wife and then stabbed her repeatedly through it. The prosecution took the top and lined up each stab wound to prove their case. Fascinating to say the least! I believe McDonald had also been unfaithful in his marriage also and didn’t want the encumbrance of 3 kids and a wife as an up and coming surgeon. He slaughtered his family. I believe all 3 had defence wounds so they all knew their killer.

    • Ralph Oscar

      “I believe all 3 had defence wounds so they all knew their killer.”

      Minor quibble: Defensive wounds do not mean that the victim knew the killer. It means they were trying to protect themselves from an attack. Someone who is attacked by a knife-wielding assailant in an alley, who sustains cuts on the forearms from holding them up to protect the face/neck area, has defensive wounds. Doesn’t know the attacker; has defensive wounds. Someone who is successfully attacked from the back won’t display such wounds, as they couldn’t put parts of their body between them and the attacker. Defensive wounds are typically injuries to the hands and forearms as the victim tries to fight back against an attacker or shield the main body from attack. It has nothing to do with whether the victim is acquainted with the attacker or not.

      • Evan

        Excellent point.

  4. Sylvester

    Except I would put MacDonald as an extrovert. But he was still strange. Like not all quite there as in making crucial relationship connections. Smart, and ambitious for sure. Most definitely had two faces but you see, we all do. MacDonald also started taking copious amounts of amphetamine – because he wanted to be the best, he wanted career advancement – I don’t think Watts wanted any of those things. Watts, if anything, just wanted to be left alone. Then he found something he wanted more than that – Nichole.

    • Ralph Oscar

      “MacDonald also started taking copious amounts of amphetamine”

      But don’t you see? That’s another parallel! Those Thrive patches were full of caffeine and stimulants – and we often saw pictures of him wearing more than one at a time.

      • Ralph Oscar

        Chris. We often saw pictures of Chris wearing more than one Thrive patch at a time.

    • Evan

      I Do not believe that his “side chick” was the reason he murdered his family. They were a symptom, but not the cause.

  5. Ralph Oscar

    GOODY GOODY GOODY!! You did the Jeffrey MacDonald case!! YAY!! Sorry, I know you hate all caps – I’m just so excited!

    When I lived in NC, I worked at an upscale restaurant for a while. There was this nice distinguished silver-haired gent who worked there as well. Back in the day, he’d been working for a law firm which was assigned the unenviable task of prosecuting the MacDonald case – it appeared open and shut. This lawyer, fresh out of school, was low man on the totem pole – it was widely regarded as a complete loser of a case, from the prosecution’s perspective, so they dumped it on him.

    He started by putting up a board on the wall – and it soon filled up with girlfriends and mistresses. Oh dear. But the most shocking event, no one saw it coming.

    Forensic blood typing analysis came online right before the trial. And it turned out each member of the family had a different blood type! In fact, the evidence showed that each of the victims had been killed in a different room, and MacDonald’s own blood was concentrated in the bathroom – he’d stabbed himself in front of the sink/mirror. It all contradicted his story and testimony. Conviction. It was *incredible*. Possibly the most *stunning* reversal in the expected outcome of a court case to that point.

    • Laura Thompson

      I often wonder what would have happened, had each family member *not* had a different blood type. Being that this was in the days before DNA became a useful forensic investigative tool, blood typing was as good as it got, and more than one person sharing a blood type would have muddied things up. As it was, when the prosecution mapped out the crime scene with the blood types, it proved the story MacDonald told was not possible.

      • Ralph Oscar

        In talking with the former attorney, without the blood type analysis, it would have been questionable, even with all the girlfriends/mistresses they managed to find, whether they’d be able to gain a conviction against MacDonald. But the blood typing made it a slam dunk.

  6. Sylvester

    More of an abstract comparison here but might MacDonald have had an inflated sense of duty and obligation to self, over time. Not to family. But to country. As such he had to keep himself stimulated to keep up with everything he had taken on. What originally may have started out as obligation to country became obligation to self. As a Green Beret he would have been respected, as a doctor even more so. But his drug use perverted the sense of duty in to the service of self. I think Watts also had a sense of duty about him. He was obedient as a child and student and perhaps he felt in life his purpose was to carry out his sense of duty by marrying the woman who had leaned on him so heavily in her time of sickness and need. He could fulfill his sense of duty and obligation by marrying Shan’ann, and it’s possible he didn’t love her, but felt obligated to carry out his destiny to be of service to another, and help her have her fairy tale husband, family and life. Possibly the last time he felt authentic was prior to meeting her. Why do we marry who we marry – to be with someone we love in the context of commitment and honor to the words we speak when we take an oath to love, honor and obey? Or is it to further a career, or is it because we have been unable to fulfill on our own dreams and desires and so the other is perceived as helping us to have that. Then, as we advance in life and become more aware of what we really want – advance socially, advance in our careers – might we not resent who we were before we married? But without self-awareness, the resentment is turned around on the family and the one we married as something we once were and no longer need.

  7. Ralph Oscar

    As for the detail that investigators found hairs that didn’t belong to anyone in the family – did these children never have little friends over for a playdate?

  8. Sylvester

    Where does the intertextuality originate from – what is the original idea employed by the criminal mind, original thought, or criminal behavior originate from. How far back do we need to go in crime? MacDonald might have gotten the idea of the word “Pig” scrawled in blood from Charles Manson – but where did Manson get it from. Listen to Eldridge Cleaver some time. He mentions the word “Pig” when he talks about Richard Nixon, and the President who came before him and the one after. “Pig” is used to describe white politicians apparently, to Eldridge Cleaver, or those that would wish to hold the Black man down. Cleaver was educated on the mean city streets and in jail. His beliefs remained intact, did not change and if anything became more solidified. Manson wanted to supposedly start a race war between Blacks and Whites, might not Manson have co-opted the word Pig from Cleaver? That leaves us with a watered down version of Pig in MacDonald’s crime staging as something a floppy-hatted hippie or Manson follower might scrawl on his wall but it’s far from what Cleaver meant. It’s not likely scrawling the word “Pig” in blood at a crime scene will work again – it is a derogatory racial slur that had it’s own particular time and setting.

    • Ralph Oscar

      I believe the Intertexuality is more like how, when something is publicized, the public becomes aware of it. Copycat crimes are an obvious example, but also how, once that forensic science show became popular, all of a sudden, police investigators started seeing bleach at all the violent crime scenes, whereas before, they’d rarely seen bleach being used.

      From 2006: “Series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation are inspiring tactics such as using bleach to destroy DNA, burning bodies and the meticulous removal of evidence.”

      The example I cited about how Karen Matthews saw what was happening in the Madeleine McCann case and faked the kidnapping of her own daughter to take advantage of the societal sympathies that the Maddie McCann case had already fanned into flames, that’s another.

      But those are the *deliberate* ones, the ones born of careful scrutiny.

      What of the parallels between the Watts Family Murders and the Green Beret Murders? So many similarities. Coincidence? Or not? I think that’s the burden of Intertextuality, to discern if any of the similarities are more than superficial coincidences. In the claimed cause – no; MacDonald claimed a group of drug-crazed hippies pulled a murderous home invasion. Watts suggested (first) that his wife had been emotionally distraught from their discussion of dissolving their marriage, and had somehow taken off with the kids. In the MacDonald case, I see Intertextuality in his claim of a scenario virtually identical to the Manson Family Murders of just a few years before – those events had been big news. (Which makes it a “copycat”-type scenario – perhaps I’m not really understanding “Intertextuality”.) I can’t think of any cases where a mum, much less a *pregnant* mum, just took off with the small children one morning. Not one that didn’t turn out to be a murder, that is. For some reason, the Powell Family murders come to mind – see “Disappearance of Susan Powell” over on Wikipedia.

      In reading over that Wikipedia article, there are numerous similarities, including the murderous husband’s relatives being a bunch of the criminally-inclined. He also withdrew the children from daycare, for example. Someone on the TCRS “Something happened over the weekend in New Orleans…” article referred to the missing mother as well.

      And how familiar does this comment sound?

      >>Last year, West Valley City Police closed the Susan Powell case. How did Josh Powell get away with it?

      >>“I think it was pure luck because Josh wasn’t that smart,” says Morris. “I don’t think he was clever enough to really devise some in-depth plan. It just happened.” – from online article “True crime authors offer theories on Josh Powell’s motivation, Susan’s disappearance”

      “Wasn’t that smart”, eh? He got away with it, didn’t he? No one was able to ever find his victim. People love to declare that these premeditated-murder-ers are “not that smart”, for some reason. It’s quite curious. All these murderers somehow just “got lucky” – just dumb luck that they were able to get away with it or potentially get away with it. If Chris Watts hadn’t confessed…

    • Evan

      “Pig” scrawled on the wall: interestingly, a magazine lay on the coffee table that featured the Manson case In fact, the prosecution used that in his argument. MacDonald got the idea for “Acid’s groovy, kill the pigs” recounting from the magazine article.

  9. Sylvester

    Hi Ralph – thanks for the discussion. I see the intertextuality of crime and coverup to be related to the current societal influences of the era. More so the coverup. Watt’s attempts at erasure and deleting and possibly disconnecting electronic devices would be particularly current with society’s fixation on phones, social media, surveillance cameras and the ability to hide one’s activities by sending it to the nether world. Or hiding it in the secret calculator. Social media played a big part in this crime as there are all kinds of ways to shame people or be shamed by it. Watts made sure he was no longer going to be used by his facebook page. He also attempted to hide Shan’ann’s iwatch and phone in the immediate aftermath and possibly more permanently in time. This is similar to other crimes where the perpetrator has removed or attempted to destroy their hard drives. Remove all trace, and any connectivity to the outside world or previous connectivity to the outside world or to someone in particular.

    You would not expect to see Death to Pigs scrawled on the walls of 2825 Saratoga Drive just as you would not see destruction of emails, texts, phone calls, hard drives, or deleting oneself on social media in the Jeffery MacDonald case because those things weren’t particular to the era in which the crimes were committed. A drug crazed hippie would be something MacDonald could relate to because he was drug crazed himself. Both Watts and MacDonald wanted to erase their families, spared themselves, but attempted their coverup and motives for doing so with what was at their disposal in the consciousness of the society they were a part of at the time.

    • Ralph Oscar

      “Watts made sure he was no longer going to be used by his facebook page.”

      That’s a piquant turn of phrase, Sly. Me likey.

  10. SRC

    This is a great conversation. I appreciate the insights you all, CBH, Sylvester, rmkenned, Ralph, and Laura, offered for perspective.

  11. C Holt

    The author described one thing better than anyone before: MacDonald’s story really is a “whopper”!!! He’s got to be a narcissistic idiot to think most people would believe such a thing.

  12. gblackwood15

    I found the below site to be very helpful while researching Jeffrey MacDonald.

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