The Books: “Fatal Vision” (Joe McGinniss)

Next book in my Daily Book excerpt:

Fatal_Vision_book.PNGThe following book in my true crime section is:

Fatal Vision, by Joe McGinniss. It’s just one of those books I never get tired of: the story of Jeffrey Macdonald, the Green Beret doctor convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two small daughters, in 1970. He proclaims his innocence to this day, and he was just up for parole – RTG has a great summary of the case. He was convicted by the circumstantial physical evidence, which was overwhelmingly stacked against him. It remains a controversial case, and Joe McGinniss’ book is a gripping (and terrible) read.

Janet Malcolm wrote a fantastic book called The Journalist and the Murderer where she takes Joe McGinniss to task (and rightfully so, I think – the issues are complex) for how he got the information for the book. McGinniss had started out attached to the defense team, and spent long hours with MacDonald, who (rightfully) believed that McGinniss would write a book exonerating him. But as McGinniss continued his research, he began to be convinced that MacDonald was not only guilty as sin, but was a narcissistic psychopath the likes of which he had never seen before. MacDonald, not knowing the tide had turned, wrote McGinniss long chatty and VERY revealing letters, many of which McGinniss used in the book. So. I don’t know why we assume that journalists have ethics. If they can get close to a story, they will do so by any means necessary. They lie, cheat, tap phones, and cuddle up to despicable people. This is often how the truth gets out. The book was a huge blow to MacDonald, who actually sued McGinniss (they settled out of court) and the thing made front-page news, and also got Malcolm’s attention. If you’re into this case, then Malcolm’s book is also a must-read.

Here is an excerpt from the book, where MacDonald is first interviewed (interrogated) by the CID investigators. MacDonald had not been named as a suspect yet, and so he came into the room, did not ask for a lawyer to be present, and told his whole story of what happened that night. The details he revealed that day stuck to him for YEARS, and tangled him up in the circumstantial evidence that he could not explain away. MacDonald claimed that “hippies” broke into his house, high on acid, and went on a killing frenzy. Now remember this: MacDonald was a Green Beret. That means a couple things to me, but one of the most important things is that the dude is tough and BIG, physically. I am convinced of his guilt. The Green Beret’s pregnant wife and two tiny daughters are literally slaughtered – these were not clean bullets to the head deaths – and the GREEN BERET – who is the husband and the father – is unscathed? How is that possible? MacDonald could not explain it away.

Also, not for nothing, but hippies looking for drugs don’t, in general, stab people hundreds of times. That kind of murder is usually done by someone who loves/knows the victims. There are exceptions, but they are few.

Anyway. Franz Grebner, provost marshall, who had spent 19 years with CID, had walked into the crime scene, the night that it happened, and immediately knew that something wasn’t right. (This is also taking into account that the crime scene had been completely contaminated by the traffic going in and out of that house. These errors would cause multiple problems along the way.)

Grebner walked into the MacDonald house, took one look around the living room, and thought, “This isn’t right … I think MacDonald is lying …”
The excerpt is the part of the CID interrogation when Grebner takes the gloves off.

EXCERPT FROM Fatal Vision , by Joe McGuinness.

“I have been sitting here most of the morning,” Grebner said, “not saying very much, just listening to your story, and I have been an investigator for a long time, and if you were a Pfc — a young, uneducated person — I might try to bring you in here and bluff you. But you are a very well-educated man — doctor, captain — and I’m going to be fair with you.

“Your story doesn’t ring true. There’s too many discrepancies. For instance, take a look at that picture over there.” Grebner gestured toward a photograph of the living room of 544 Castle Drive.

“Do you see anything odd about that scene?”


“It is the first thing I saw when I came into the house that morning. Notice the flowerpot?”

“It’s standing up.”

“Yes. Notice the magazines?”


“Notice the edge of the table right there?”

“I don’t understand the significance of it.”

“Okay. The lab technician, myself, Mr. Ivory, and Mr. Shaw, and any number of other people have tipped that table over. It never lands like that. It is top-heavy and it goes over all the way, even pushes the chair next to it out of the way. The magazines don’t land under the leading edge of that table, either. They land out on the floor.”

“Couldn’t this table have been pushed around during the struggle?”

“It could have been, but it would have been upside down when it stopped. And the plant and the pot always go straight out and they stay together in all instances.”

“Well, what — what are you trying to say?”

“That this is a staged scene.”

“You mean that I staged the scene?”

“That’s what I think.”

“Do you think that I would stand the pot up if I staged the scene?”

“Somebody stood it up like that.”

“Well, I don’t see the reasoning behind that. You just told me I was college-educated and very intelligent.”

“I believe you are.”

“Well, why do you think I would — I don’t understand why you think I would stage it that way if I was going to stage it.”

“And your glasses, which are over there underneath the drapery. They could have gotten there, but you weren’t wearing your glasses when you went into the bedrooms. And they are lying with the outer edge of the lens down on the floor, yet on the face of that lens there’s blood.”

“Maybe someone knocked them over.”

“But how did they get the blood on them?”

“I assume from the person who knocked them over.”

“Another feature here. There’s an Esquire magazine laying there. There’s a box laying on top of it. And on this edge, right underneath the box, there’s blood on the edges of the pages. This whole thing here was staged.”

“That’s a pretty powerful statement. Changes thing around, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, it does.”

“Well, I can’t help you,” MacDonald said. “What do you want me to say? You are telling me that — that I staged the scene and that’s it. It is a little ludicrous.”

“You must understand,” Grebner said, “that I am looking at this from the point of an investigator, past experience.”

“I understand that.”

Grebner gestured toward another photograph. “Notice the rug right there?”


“It slips and slides and rolls up very easily. In the position it is in, that’s where you would have been having this struggle, pushing against three men.”

“Well, at the edge of the bed [sic] and on the end of the hallway.” (This was the third time MacDonald had said “bed” when he had apparently intended to say “couch”.)

“This rug was undisturbed,” Grebner said.

“Well, what do you want me to say? I don’t — I’m not an investigator. You are telling me that — that I staged and scene and I — I’m telling you that things happened the way I told you.”

“You know,” Grebner continued, “you as a doctor and I as an investigator have seen many people come into emergency rooms and they are pretty badly hurt.”


“I’ve seen people who were shot directly in the heart with a .38 run over a hundred yards. You had one icepick wound — apparently from an ice pice — punctured your lung to the point that it collapsed 20 percent. You had one small bump on your head.”

“No, correction, I had two.”

“Two? Okay, two. Not apparently wounds or bumps that would have been caused by this type of club that we have in this instance if anyone was swinging with any force.”

“Well, I can’t agree with you there, medically. I have treated patients who have died and there’s nothing but a little abrasion on their forehead.”

“That’s probably true, but here you are. You’ve been hit twice by now. This didn’t knock you out. This is according to your story. You’re at a point here where the old adrenaline is pumping into your system — you are fighting for yourself and your children — and yet you pass out here, according to your story, at the end of the hallway.”

“It wasn’t exactly passing out, Mr. Grebner. I was hit on the head a couple of times.”

“But that didn’t knock you out. You were still pushing and fighting against these people and –”

“Well, apparently, it did knock me out, though.”

” — for an unexplained reason you passed out.”

“No, no, I didn’t pass out. Apparently I was knocked unconscious.”

“By a third blow?”

“I don’t — I don’t know how many blows.”

“But this weapon was used on Colette and Kim. It is a brutal weapon. We have three people here that are overkilled, almost. And yet they leave you alive. While you were laying there in the hallway, why not give you a good lick or two from behind the head with that club and finish you off?”

“Well, maybe I was –”

“You saw them eye to eye. They don’t know that you wouldn’t be able to identify them at a later date. Why leave you there alive?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they assumed that — that I was dead, and the frenzy got worse and worse. I — I don’t know. I’ve thought about this. I’ve spent many sleepless nights in the last six weeks, you know.”

“Then we have the fibers from your pajama top directly under your wife’s body.”

“Sir, I told you I can’t — I can’t explain some of those fibers. That’s — that’s beyond my capabilities. I just told you the only thing I know and obviously the implication is real bad for me, but I can’t — how can I explain that? I don’t know.”

“And as we enter the bedroom we have Kimberly’s blood on that rug. To the right of the door we have the top sheet and the spread from your bed, and on the sheet are both Colette’s blood and Kimberly’s. And on the bedspread it’s Colette’s blood — large quantities. Now, hippies don’t — they let bodies fall where they may.”

“Right, I agree with you.”

“So it is another staged scene, probably. Kimberly was returned to her bed — it’s a possibility — carried in that sheet. And there was absolutely no evidence that could be found — even though we had technicians in there for five days — of an alien being in that house. You get that many people in a house that small, you’re going to have evidence of it.”

“I don’t know what you expect me to say here.”

“That club,” Grebner continued. “You said you had never seen that before? Do you know there is paint on it that is the same as paint on the sidewalk in back of the house?”

“Look, ah –”

“It is the same as the paint on scraps of wood which you have in your locked storage room. It is the same as the paint on a pair of surgical gloves that were in the locked storage room. That piece of wood came from the house.”

“It might have,” MacDonald said. “I haven’t seent he piece of wood. I didn’t recognize it from the picture. Jesus Christ, this is getting — what’s this called? Circumstantial evidence? Yeah, well, go ahead,” MacDonald said sarcastically, “what else do you have?”

“I was just throwing out things for you to consider.”

“What you are doing is you are sitting here telling me that I killed my wife and kids! That’s un — that’s unbelievable. Christ’s sakes, what’s my motive? What’d I do that for?”

“We can conjecture a lot of reasons perhaps.”

“You think I wasn’t happily married?”

“I’m happily married, too. Sometimes I get pretty mad at my wife. Particularly when I was younger and more easily angered.”

“You think I could get mad enough at someone to do that?”

“I have known it to happen before.”

“Holy Christ! I’ll tell you what it looks like to me. It looks like you’ve run out of ideas, and — and you are picking out someone — the easiest one. You’ve got to solve it by the end of the fiscal year so when the report goes in there’s a one hundred percent solved rate.”

“No,” Grebner said. “I’ve been at this for twenty years and I’m going to stick one more. So I’m not in any hurry. It is just that we have all this business here that would tend to indicate that you were involved in this rather than people who came in from the outside and picked 544 Castle Drive and went up there and were lucky enough to find your door open. I’ve spent many a night out on this post and I know one thing: with the number of dogs we have around, you don’t go rattling doors here to find one that’s open so you can come in and for no apparent reason knock off three people. At that hour of the morning, the patrols we have around, there wouldn’t have been four or five people — a group like that — wandering through the housing area –”

“Oh, that’s a lot of baloney,” MacDonald interrupted.

“– or driving through.”

“I’ve never seen a patrol here at night and I’ve been here since August.”

“Well, I can assure you, they are there. You probably weren’t looking for them.”

There was a pause.

“Well, where do we go from here?”

“It’s up to you.”

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7 Responses to The Books: “Fatal Vision” (Joe McGinniss)

  1. Bernard says:

    He wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.

  2. Independent George says:

    I’ve known a few attorneys who all say that they all find circumstantial evidence more persuasive than by eyewitness testimony, but that juries take the opposite view. As they explain it, circumstantial evidence are measures of probablility, whereas eyewitnesses are viewed as absolute. An overturned table might have a 80% chance of being explained by one chain of events, 17% by another, 2% and 1% by others. Eyewitnesses are perceived to be either telling the truth or lying. This is untrue (the brain actually builds memories from sensory perception, so two people witnessing the same event will often recall different details. Moreover, both will be convinced that they are right.), but it’s deeply ingrained from experience – if I saw something happen, then that’s how it happened. Except it’s not, and it didn’t.

  3. Another Sheila says:

    Back in the early-ish 80s, there was a made-for-TV movie or miniseries or something based on this book. I was forbidden to watch it (I was pretty little – under 10, probably) but snuck down into the basement and watched anyway … something I rue to this very day. It absolutely haunts me. It’s seared on my brain and heart. The scenes in the courtroom, when they held up the tiny little-girl pajamas, completely soaked in blood? Aghhhh!! What utter horror. I had years of nightmares (which will probably recommence, thanks to my reading this post) and I’ve NEVER been able to watch Gary Cole in anything else, stage or screen. He IS MacDonald to me. Years later, as a highschooler, I was babysitting at the party of a neighbor whose friend was dating Gary Cole at the time. He was there and I had to meet him, and I completely freaked out. Not at him or anything, but inside I was DYING.

  4. red says:


    I mean, look at OJ – where the circumstantial evidence pretty much led a trail of blood from Nicole’s house back to his house. I mean … Bugliosi, in his book about the trial, makes a huge point of the whole “reasonable doubt” thing – and commented on how it got twisted and misrepresented in that trial. Besides, there was no “reasonable doubt” in the OJ case. Circumstantial evidence doesn’t lie – at least not with such overWHELMING evidence as was in that case. And still: the jurors didn’t buy it.

    I would say that that was more a factor of the horrible-ness of the prosecution. Like – they didn’t present the circumstantial evidence in a way that made the verdict of Guilty inevitable.

  5. Eric says:

    ‘Another Sheila’ – I actually *met* Jeffrey MacDonald on two occasions; my parents were involved in auto racing in the Los Angeles area, and he was chief of emergency medicine at Long Beach Memorial hospital (Long Beach was gearing up to host a Formula One grand prix race, so they were getting the local officials race-savvy and brought him out to the track in Riverside). This was between the murders and his eventual conviction.
    He was a good-looking guy, with curly salt/pepper hair and a gorgeous blond girlfriend, but I don’t recall him being very tall (maybe 5’9″ or so) or very physically imposing. My mother, about MacDonald’s age, knew about the controversy, and for what it’s worth she was absolutely certain that he did it (something about narcissistic personality; she’s a counselor with a master’s in family/child counseling).

  6. Kit says:

    I am another in the long line of people who read “Fatal Vision” and never really let it go. I think it’s not just a fantastic story, but that Joe McGinnis did a masterful job in this book. If one chooses to read it carefully, there is a mountain of information contained in an elegant, compelling form. I, too, believe that MacDonald has narcissistic personality disorder, and is a sociopath.

    That is why he can still draw sympathy from people who just don’t know the facts of the case, and believe this man. They take him at face value; what they don’t know is that “face value” is all there is to MacDonald. There’s really nothing beneath it, except anger and rage at how unfairly he was treated, how inept everyone else is, what idiots they are.

    I often wonder if he has the ability to understand what he did. I know he will never admit it, not even when parole might be on the line. (And of course, he was denied.) What do other people think?


  7. Pingback: The Daily Beast: Best True Crime Books | The Sheila Variations

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