Helena Stoeckley and Greg Mitchell, both now deceased, repeatedly confessed to the murders of Jeffrey MacDonald's family
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.
Later that morning, Fayetteville police detective Prince Beasley heard a description of the intruders and recognized one of them — the female — as Helena Stoeckley, who had a history with drugs and was one of his narcotics informants. Beasley had his dispatch call CID, the Army’s investigative division, to let them know he had one of the suspects.
But no one ever responded, he said.
Thus began Stoeckley’s long and complicated relationship with the case of the murder of Jeffrey MacDonald’s wife, Colette, 26, and their daughters Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2. Over the next 12 years, she repeatedly confessed to being at the MacDonald home on Feb. 17, 1970, the night of the murders. So did her boyfriend, Greg Mitchell, a Vietnam veteran who’d picked up a heroin addiction while fighting overseas.
But more than nine years after the murders, in 1979, MacDonald was convicted of the murders. He has always maintained his innocence, though prosecutors and Collette’s brother, Bob Stevenson, are just as adamant he’s guilty.
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On Jan. 26, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia will hear oral arguments on MacDonald’s “actual innocence” claim, which has a high legal hurdle for overturning a conviction.
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.”
Stoeckley and Mitchell ran with a group of people they called their “cult” — two of the members matched descriptions of the other two alleged intruders given by MacDonald: A black man wearing a green Army fatigue jacket with sergeant stripes, and a white man with pock marks on his chin and cheeks.
Just a few hours before the murders, at 10:30 p.m., Beasley saw Stoeckley wearing the blonde wig, floppy hat and knee-high boots, with the black man, he later said in a declaration for the case.
Though Stoeckley was a troubled drug addict at the time of the murders, she wasn’t always that way, says her youngest brother, Gene Stoeckley. Their father was a retired Army colonel and the family was idyllic until Helena began using drugs.
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“She was always upbeat,” says Gene, 57. “She had so much talent singing and playing piano. She got singing lessons from a member of the Fayetteville symphony.”
A little pizza parlor in the Haymount section of Fayetteville became an area for dealers and users during Helena’s last year in high school, Gene says.
“According to my mom, a detective with the Fayetteville police approached her and asked her to funnel them information,” he says. “It sounded like she agreed, decided to play the part and became more and more involved. She was doing a good thing. She let herself be taken in so deep it had a hold on her. It was her downfall. Like quicksand, it won’t let you go.”
While Gene never saw his sister wearing the blonde wig, he says she used to wear “different hats and hippie clothes.” She also had “a certain fascination with the occult” and a black cat named Satan, Gene says.
Numerous Confessions by Stoeckley and Mitchell
In October 1982, Stoeckley told Ted Gunderson, a private investigator employed by MacDonald, that members of her “cult” targeted MacDonald because “he refused to treat heroin and opium addicted persons.”
Yet when it came time to testify at MacDonald’s trial in 1979, Stoeckley claimed she could not remember where she was at the time of the murders. In 2005, retired U.S. Marshal Jimmy Britt came forward to say he heard then-prosecutor Jim Blackburn threaten to charge Helena with murder if she said she was there that night (a claim Blackburn denies).
Three months before she died, in October 1982, Helena traveled to see her mother with her infant son, David, and confessed one last time, says Gene.
“She told my mother she was there that night and that Dr. MacDonald was innocent,” says Gene. “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.”
In March 2007, after his mother told him about Stoeckley’s confession to her, Gene reached out to Kathryn MacDonald, Jeff’s second wife, who runs a website about the case. Stoeckley’s mother’s statement is also part of MacDonald’s “newly discovered” evidence that is part of his appeal.
Greg Mitchell, too, repeatedly confessed up until his death in June 1982. Ann Sutton Cannady, who ran a rehab facility for drug addicts in Fayetteville in 1971, said Mitchell was briefly a patient there. Sutton claimed she saw Mitchell running out of a farmhouse owned by the rehab facility, on which the words, “I killed MacDonald’s wife and children,” were written on a wall in red paint.
Long after MacDonald’s 1979 conviction, three of Mitchell’s friends contacted Kathryn MacDonald saying he had confessed to them as well. Those three people gave affidavits that are now part of MacDonald’s appeal.
In September 2012, after reading about an evidentiary hearing in MacDonald’s case in The Charlotte Observer, local couple John and Chris Griffin came forward with a similar tale of an alcohol-fueled, tear-filled confession from Mitchell, who was doing some electrical work in their Lake Wylie, North Carolina home in 1980 or 1981.
“He said, ‘You read about Jeffrey MacDonald? I’m the one. It was me. I killed them. Oh those children,’ ” says John, who says Mitchell was full of remorse. “He said he’d done something so horrible God wouldn’t forgive him.”
Adds Chris: “It scared us half to death. He just had wild eyes.”
According to Chris, Mitchell picked up the phone at one point and tried to call Helena, but he couldn’t reach her.
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The Griffins came forward with their information too late for it to be part of his appeal, though they say they tried to reach attorneys connected to the case through the years, after Mitchell died in June 1982.
“We are both 99 percent sure Greg did it,” says John. “We had no doubt he was entirely capable of it and when he fessed up in such a crying jag there was no reason for us to doubt him.”