For the past 47 years, Jeffrey MacDonald — the former Green Beret surgeon convicted of the 1970 murder of his pregnant wife and two daughters — has been the subject of thousands of news articles as well as multiple books and movies.
Some have portrayed him as a sociopath. Some have portrayed him as an innocent man allegedly railroaded by inexperienced Army investigators. Mostly, it’s the negative portrayals that have stuck.
However, MacDonald’s defenders are quick to point to an extensive battery of psychological tests by different prominent forensic psychiatrists, all of which have shown no signs of a sociopathic or psychopathic personality disorder.
“My opinion has always been that Dr. MacDonald did not have psychopathology that would have been consistent with the violent behavior that occurred on the night his family was killed,” wrote Dr. Robert Sadoff, a now-retired University of Pennsylvania forensic psychiatrist who first examined MacDonald in 1970, in a 2013 affidavit for his legal defense.
Now, for the first time, those who have known and loved MacDonald for decades have opened up to PEOPLE exclusively about him. They’ve stood by him ever since Feb. 17, 1970, when his wife, Colette, 26, and daughter Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2, were brutally murdered at their Fort Bragg, North Carolina, apartment.
On January 26, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments on MacDonald’s “actual innocence” claim to overturn his conviction.
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Just as MacDonald and his supporters have maintained his innocence, prosecutors are just as adamant he’s guilty and that his conviction should stand. US Attorney John Stuart Bruce declined to comment on the specifics of the case, saying in a statement to PEOPLE: “When cases are pending court proceedings, it is the practice of our office to litigate the case in court — through evidence and argument in hearings and in written filings with the court — rather than through the news media.”
Bob Stevenson, 77, Colette’s brother, believes he’s guilty as well.
MacDonald: ‘We Were Deeply in Love’
MacDonald seemed to live a charmed life. A star athlete who was voted “Most Popular” and “Most Likely to Succeed” at Patchogue High School on Long Island, New York, he first met Colette, his future wife, in the seventh grade. Their relationship was off and on again throughout high school. But by the time he headed to Princeton University in New Jersey and she went to Skidmore College in upstate New York, they were serious about each other.
When Colette got pregnant after their sophomore year, “We were deeply in love, only seeing each other and decided to get married,” MacDonald says. They wed on Sept. 14, 1963, in New York City.
After MacDonald’s junior year at Princeton, MacDonald finished his undergraduate degree and medical school simultaneously at Northwestern University in Chicago, then did his surgical internship at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City before joining the Army.
“People were being drafted for Vietnam,” MacDonald says of his decision to enlist. “I talked to Colette and decided I would volunteer as a paratrooper — something I really wanted to do.”
The decision meant being apart from Colette and their two young children while he underwent training. But by the time the family landed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in August 1969, they were all together again. MacDonald was a newly minted Green Beret and group surgeon at the base while Colette cared for their daughters and started night classes. For the first time in their six-year marriage, MacDonald had a steady paycheck, a normal schedule and was home nights and weekends, though he moonlighted a couple of nights a month at local hospitals.
“Colette and I would look at each other and laugh,” MacDonald says. “We’d never been so good financially. We were increasingly happy.”
Loved Ones Remember ‘Kind, Generous, Thoughtful Man’
In Fort Bragg, MacDonald met and became close friends with Rick Thoesen, a medical supply officer at the base, and his wife, Judy, a nurse.
“They were very loving,” says Judy, 69. The couple frequently visited MacDonald’s apartment, including for Thanksgiving, two months before the murders.
“He loved his girls. They had everything going for them at that point.”
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Samantha and William Alvey, MacDonald’s niece and nephew, were toddlers at the time of the murders. Initially, the Army cleared MacDonald in the murders, after which he moved to Long Beach, California. Along with their mother, Judy, Samantha and William would spend two weeks every summer with MacDonald.
“I just remember a really kind, generous, thoughtful man,” says Samantha, 48, who has kept in touch with MacDonald in prison throughout his incarceration. “He always asks how I am, how my family is, about our jobs. It’s never about, ‘Oh poor me. I’m in prison. This has been so terrible.’ It’s always about him wanting to make sure everyone else is okay.”
William, 47, says his uncle had a huge impact on his life when he was a kid whose parents were going through a divorce. He recounted to PEOPLE a birthday he had in grade school, when he was 30 pounds overweight.
“[MacDonald] took me to a sneaker store and bought me a nice pair of Adidas sneakers. We would go running every morning,” he says.
William adds, “Jeff was kind of like a father role model to me and my sister because he was implementing things that were going to make us excel in life and make us progress.”
MacDonald’s influence set William on a lifelong path of health and nutrition, he says. He played football in high school and college then went on to buy multiple health clubs after he graduated.
Phyllis Gilbert got to know MacDonald after her then-boyfriend brought him to California to help start an emergency room program at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach.
“He showed a maturity that I was incredibly impressed with,” says Gilbert. “He was a young man who was unbelievably brilliant in what he did. He was a hard worker. He was generous. He was friendly. He was open and giving and caring … all the while dealing with some of the heaviest things in life that you can imagine.”
Gilbert says MacDonald always volunteered to work on the toughest days for him — his daughter’s birthdays, Colette’s birthday, their anniversary, the anniversary of the murders and family holidays.
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“All of those Jeff wanted to be working,” she says. “He knew when February” — the anniversary of the murders — “was rolling around. You felt it.”
Donna Koch got to know MacDonald after he was convicted: She was helping research the case for an appeal and was working closely with former Los Angeles Coroner Tom Noguchi, who reviewed the autopsy results and concluded there were multiple assailants, and at least one of them was left-handed. (MacDonald was right handed.)
She went to visit MacDonald in prison to discuss the results, based on Dr. Noguchi’s investigation.
“I remember I was so excited because [Dr. Noguchi’s] results were consistent with what Jeff had been saying,” she says. “I was rattling off this and that and I looked at him and he was the color of white chalk. And he said, ‘To you this is evidence. To me, you’re talking about my little girl.’ He was trying not to cry. It was one of the most poignant things that had happened and I will never forget the look on his face and how stupid I felt.”
John Gardner spent several years behind bars with MacDonald at the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon.
“He came up to me and befriended me saying, ‘Is there anything I can do for you,’ ” says Gardner, 44, who’s been out of prison for 13 years but stays in touch with MacDonald. “Everyone called him ‘Doc.’ … He was like a role model. He helped people a lot — black, white. He helped everybody in there. People respected him.”
Gardner knew the crime MacDonald was convicted of but couldn’t bring himself to talk to him about it.
“I’ve seen him cry about it,” he says. “I’ve seen tears. Chokes me up just to think about it.”