Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
This season, a morally indefensible is presented by it's a companion podcast to our upcoming documentary TV series, A Wilderness of Error, made by me, Marc Smerling of the Emmy Award winning The Jinx. And with the help from a team of really smart folk, one of the best things about a wilderness of error is it's based on a book by one of my heroes, filmmaker and writer Errol Morris. A Wilderness of Error picks up where this podcast leaves off.
If you listen and want to know more, you can tune into a wilderness of error after the last episode of this series 8pm September 25th on Fox Network or stream in the next day on effects on Hulu. I'm really excited to have a series on eFax. You've seen their award winning work, American Crime Story, Sons of Anarchy and my personal favorite, Fargo. They're also home to a growing slate of docs and you can watch them anytime you want on effects on Hulu docs like the most dangerous animal of all, and a.k.a. Janiro, which you could stream right now on effects on Hulu.
If you want to know what eral found and what I found, tune into a wilderness of error after the last episode of the series. That's 8pm p.m. September 25th on 8pm, September 25th on eFax for the next day on effects on Hulu. Now, morally indefensible. It's cold here, is it? Is it cold yourself? Yeah, and they will give us jackets they don't have. The voice you're hearing is a journalist named Janet Malcolm. She's in a federal prison in California.
Interviewing a man named Jeffrey MacDonald is unnecessary in 1987. I mean, this is ridiculous. You know, really, Jeff used to be a doctor, a captain in the Green Berets. Now he's inmate one three one one seven seven. Janet's here to talk about a fellow journalist named Joe McGinniss, an old friend of Jeff's. You said when you first met him. I like Joe. We talked about the same things in the New York Knicks, the Yankees and the Mets football years before, Jeff had asked Joe McGinniss to write a book about him.
And in the process, they became close. And at the time, it seemed to me, was unmistakable. And we were best friends. Janet Malcolm also visited Joe McGinniss on his front porch in Williamstown, Massachusetts. That's part of your fiscal house, but here is Carrie says she wanted to talk about the relationship between journalists and their subjects and specifically about how Joe had befriended Jeff.
It was my purpose to spend as much time with him as I possibly could. The more time you spend with a subject that's more used to you, the gifts you become like a friend.
That friendship didn't last.
If someone said to me, what is one word that describes Joe McGinniss, I'd say a liar. He is a consummate liar. Reporter Joe McGinniss spent three years investigating Jeff MacDonald, who granted him total access so that McGinniss might write the definitive book about him. It is called Fatal Vision. He has all of these friends who would say this is a gentle, caring, giving man. That's all true and not in any way attempting to deny that he's any of those six.
All I'm saying is that there's no question that this gentle, caring, giving man also beat and stabbed to death his pregnant wife and his two young daughters. And Fatal Vision, Joe said that Jeff was a psychopath thumbnail sketch of Jeffrey MacDonald, absolutely ruthless and beyond morality. And Jeff said Joe's book was filled with lies. I never physically assaulted anyone in my life and certainly not my wife and my two children. An epic feud began between a journalist who wrote a true crime bestseller and a subject who felt betrayed when you learned of this betrayal.
I was devastated. He was going to my mother and saying, don't worry. When the book comes out, this will all be righted. What he did was awful. This view drew the attention of Janet Malcolm. Her interviews with Joe and Jeff became a book called The Journalist in the Murder, and her conclusions were scathing. Every journalist who is not too stupid to full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.
She portrayed Joe McGinniss as a backstabber. He is a kind of confidence man preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betrayed without remorse. That portrayal would follow Joe to his grave. Joe McGinniss died this week. Leaving behind a dual legacy is both journalistic hero and villain. My name is Mark Smerling. Two years ago, I started making a TV series about the MacDonald murders and I wanted to interview Janet Malcolm. We talked on the phone, but she wouldn't go on camera.
But I'd read about these tapes she'd made, so I asked her if I could hear them.
Where did my relationship with the tunnel go beyond that part of the U.S., she told me she burned these tapes. Do you have any doubt about this yourself?
I mean, are you completely convinced in your own mind that you would change it in any way? I can't think of anyone any chances listening to these tapes.
Now, I'm left with so many questions where Janet's conclusions about Joe McGinniss fair the Joe expose a vicious murderer or did betray an innocent man. And one question stands above them all is what Joe McGinniss did morally indefensible.
There are things you'll never forget. I have put it in the back of my mind, but it's something that I would never wish on anybody. My name is Richard Tavia. I was a military policeman stationed at Fort Bragg the night of February 17, 1970. I was the first MP to enter the MacDonald home. It was an ugly night, cold. There was a torrential downpour. It was raining very heavily, had been raining all evening. We were in a jeep that did not have a great heater around the back of one of the shopping center areas, there was a tremendous heater and would throw off exhaust that was very warm.
So we would sit behind the heater doors open and just relax. That's when we got the call, we were asked to go to Castle Drive. They believe there was a domestic disturbance at that location. Name is Ken Michael, I was an MP at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, one of the first MPs that 544 castle drive about 340 in the morning.
We get to the call and he was banging on the front door. There was no answer. Trivia was already there. I went around the back of the house. The screen door was closed, but the inside door was ajar, you know. And I took one, went to the movies. I guess the bedroom. It was blood on the wall, there's blood on the ceiling, you know, drops of blood. Shine the light, I sure.
Collette McDonald lying on the ground covered with blood. And a male laying next to her we didn't know at the time was Jeffrey MacDonald. Saw them, was startled and I ran back out of the house. I started to go around inside the house and I met Travie, and he's going to kill animals, etc., We went back around the house, I pulled out my weapon. I put a round in the chamber not knowing if there was somebody still in the House.
At first, I thought it was homicide, suicide, then Jeff McDonald started to move, I went down the hall and I looked into the first smaller bedroom with one of his daughters was and I could see that she was lifeless, she was moving, and it was a lot of blood. And then I went into the second bedroom and I saw again, a young, very young girl, lifeless, and it was blood dripping down the side of the bed and there's a puddle of blood on the floor.
I came back to where Jeff McDonald was. He had been stabbed and Ken Michael was kneeling over him. I was trying to keep him calm until we could get medical. Just started saying that hippies came into the house and were stating, acid is groovy, kill the pigs. And he headboard sideways, so when I did the finger and blood and ridden pig, I said, you know, who did this?
And he starts described this as a black man and a woman with a floppy hat. And you seen a woman standing on the corner two blocks away. Civilian authorities have joined military police in a community wide search for young people described as hippies, including a woman who is described as having long blonde hair and wearing cowboy.
My name is Geoff Thompson and was news director of WFNZ Radio on the morning of February 17. I immediately found my way to Cassol Drive. A woman and two children were found dead. It was a big story and the Army post at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, some bizarre murders took place last night, reminiscent of the Sharon Tate case.
It came six months after the Tate La Bianca murders in California. The Manson murders in a scene reminiscent of a weird religious right, five person were found dead at the home of mystate and a similar situation, a pregnant woman killed by a gang of hippies, horrendous murders, you know, stabbings and blood everywhere.
The word pig had been scrawled in blood on the door of the Bel Air mansion where actress Sharon Tate and, you know, international news, as did MacDonald.
MacDonald told military police the murderers were three men and a woman who invaded his family quarters shouting, Acid is great, kill the pig. We kept it alive on radio for 26 consecutive days, authorities say no suspects have been identified in the murders of Jeffrey MacDonald's family, but they continue to search for a band of hippies. MacDonald have obviously been taken to the hospital and he was a very prominent doctor. Green Beret couldn't imagine that he could have done it, but we were all sort of amazed that he was the only one that would have survived.
Why was he still alive and that family murdered the way it was? That didn't make sense. It all seemed to fall on Captain MacDonald. Hi, I'm Marc Smerling from Morally Indefensible and Cryptic, and I'm excited to tell you about a new podcast, Smokescreen Fake Priest. It's about Ryan Scott, alias Randall Stocks, alias Ryan Golinger and seven other aliases. Ryan, whatever his name happened to be, was a popular priest who swindled millions from his parish.
Whenever questions arose, Ryan would declare bankruptcy and move on to the next con. He's out there right now. The series is hosted by Alex Schulman. Alex gets a chance to sit with Ryan and what he learns is shocking. I'll leave that for you to find out. Smokescreen Fake Priest is available on Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcast. A few months after the murders of his pregnant wife and two young daughters on Fort Bragg, the Army charged Captain McDonald with the crime.
I was coming into the barracks. Trivia, yells out the window, Laquan McDonald up.
I got really Ken Maika was one of the first MPE into the house the night of the murders. So the Army's lead prosecutor wanted to talk to him.
He sat sort of in the middle of the room. And I just asked you questions, background information and what you were doing that night.
And that's when Micah told the prosecutor something he didn't want to hear. I bring the girl up and it's like, what girl said the girl I saw when I was responding, the girl who was standing on the corner on his way to the crime scene, Mike had seen a woman standing off the side of the road wearing a floppy hat. She matched the description Jeffrey McDonald had given of one of his attackers. Because I know anything about a girl, just keep it quiet because I can't explain it.
And I don't know what you're talking about. During an investigative hearing to examine the evidence against Jeffrey MacDonald, Maika testified for the prosecution. He didn't mention the girl, but afterwards it bothered him.
At least a half a dozen people know that I saw this woman. Somebody is going to say something. It's going to be brought out. Whether she did it, she didn't do it, it's just not right. They should know about it. That's when Michael decided to testify for the defense. As we approach the intersection, I see a woman standing on a corner. What did that woman look like?
Wrinkled boots and Rahad. So that didn't make the prosecution too happy because it made them look like they were trying to suppress evidence. The Army today cleared Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret position of charges that he murdered his wife and two young daughters nine months ago in their Fort Bragg, North Carolina, apartment. Jeff was set free. Oh, dear. Jeffrey MacDonald, I've thought about it a hundred times since that happened, this is Dick Cavett in the 70s.
He was the king of late night TV. If you wanted to grab national attention, The Dick Cavett Show was your best shot. By the end of 1970, investigators had given up on looking for the hippie killers.
And Jeff went on The Cavett Show to push the government to reopen the case, but didn't have a throw. I remember standing face to face with him as I came down from upstairs to the restroom to go on and really the next 40 seconds, so we said hello, I'm a lady on my staff who had spent the day with him, was facing me. And over his shoulder, I saw I think he did it.
Ladies and gentlemen, Dick Cavett.
By the time I had done the monologue, I had kind of forgotten to worry about this segment and then brought him out.
It's a baffling story. The more you begin to look into it and read about it, incredible bungling on the army's part. It seems quite likely in this case it's just a nightmare. But this man lived through it. Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald. When he came out, he didn't seem like a grisly murder. He's movie star, good looking. I kept thinking, if this poor guy I call you Dr. MacDonald, that this is happening.
Yeah, yeah. I hope this isn't too painful for you. Could you talk about what happened on that night last February? Well, I can skim through it briefly to get deep into it. Yeah. Does produce a lot of emotion on my part. My wife came home and we had a before bedtime joke, really, and watched the beginning of a late night talk show, my wife went to bed. She was about four and a half months pregnant, and I went to sleep on the couch.
I was awakened by my wife screaming. And as I sat up, there were some people in the room with me and they immediately attacked me and I became unconscious. When I woke up, the house was quiet and the back door was open and. This guy saw his wife and his two little children hacked and stabbed to pieces. My impression at the time was not doing enough manful job about being able to not weep and have to be taken off the stage at the memory of all of this.
It's still at times seems like a dream. That nightmare is a very mild term, really, but for that night. During a commercial break, I would look at him and think, this poor guy really has been through holy hell, and then we would come back and he was briskly talking again. There were people in the army who wanted a court martial, regardless of any evidence that just because they have to find somebody. Yes, that was a large part of it.
I think they realized that they had to do something. Yeah. Where are these investigators now? Who did the original? Well, most of them have been transferred. It's the only way of handling things. If someone really fouls up, either give him a medal or you transfer. He seemed a bit inappropriate in his manner. I watched him smile, almost giggle a couple of times, but this must have cost you a fortune, right? Well, aside from my family and whatnot, somewhere in excess of 30000 dollars there he is now sort of checking out the checks in the front row.
I must be wrong. Do people look at you and say, how do we know he didn't do it? Well, yes. I don't think I'm being paranoid when I say that there is certainly a flavor of suspicion in a lot of people's minds. I started to think, gosh, it's possible that he is guilty and it's possible that he's not. And I wonder which one it is.
I'd like to know what you want to come out of this and what's going to happen next, because it's far from closed. Congress has to at least inquire into things, not to mention the fact that the perpetrators of the crime are still facing at least four people running around who have murdered three people. Very strange, strange enigma. Jeffrey is fascinating to see what happens. Well, good luck to you after this brief message. We'll be right back. Know.
After that, the name Jeffrey MacDonald was everywhere, and Jeff didn't shy away from the spotlight, the price that I paid and the price that my family paid is too great.
The Army doesn't want to look into his own state of affairs around the same time, a little further down the dial. Another young man was getting his first taste of fame.
At just 26, Joe McGinniss became the youngest living writer to make The New York Times best sellers list. Now, will you welcome the author of a new book that's causing a great deal of a stir at the moment called The Selling of the President 1968. Will you welcome Mr. Joe McGinniss?
Here's Joe on The David Frost Show. The book has caused a great deal of comment.
Joe, the thing that must still stuck to you is how you came to have all the access you did.
Well, it was kind of a stroke of good luck.
Joe had befriended the people running Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign. And by doing that, he got an inside look at how Nixon won the presidency. He kept his head down and his ears and eyes open.
I have received a very gracious message for winning the election.
The selling of the president in 1968 was published shortly after Nixon was elected. It showed how Madison Avenue ad men hired by Nixon's campaign turned Nixon into a product.
According to Joe, they sold Nixon to the American public like a pack of cigarettes.
We never got a chance to vote for or against the man, but only for the image.
Joe's first book embarrassed the new president.
Mr Nixon said he might have to go to the FBI to find out how. I got my access.
And conservative talk show host William F. Buckley had a problem with how Joe got his story.
It is the fruit of a great deception. That is to say, one cannot suppose the competent people would have confided to Mr McGinnis if they had known that he intended to write such a book as he has written.
Joe never told Nixon's advisers that his book would cast them in a negative light. So when it came out, they felt betrayed. Readers loved it.
Though the selling of the president became a smash hit, Doors began opening for Joe. Money was coming in, and TV appearances like this were making Joe a celebrity. There was excitement and travel and parties.
Joe and I met in January of 1970. This is Nancy Doretti, Joe's widow.
I met him in the Warwick Hotel. I was working for Simon and Schuster, which published the selling of the President. Joe's book. And our eyes met across a crowded room.
And it was just one of those things was incredibly tall and young and handsome.
And it was just one of those magical moments. We both felt an instant attraction to each other. On their first date, Joe took Nancy to a writer's hangout in Greenwich Village. He was kind of a star at that point. People would actually recognize him, which was amazing for a writer. So that was kind of fun. One of the things we had in common was a great sense of humor. We have laughed all the time. We had a delightful time together and he was just sort of the perfect storm for me.
We fell in love. Many years later, Joe McGinniss would tell Janet Malcolm about the night he met Nancy, February 16th, 1970, the first night that Nancy he was put, but today was the night of the murders.
A bizarre murder took place last night, which the base remember seeing the headlines. You know, army officers like the family and the wife and two young daughters of Captain Jeffrey MacDonald were stabbed to death. LSD, hippie's acid is great.
Kill the pigs and paid no more attention to. Had no idea if it ever happened. I forgot completely about the. Nine years would pass before a judge would hear Jeffrey MacDonald's name again. Hi, I'm Marc Smerling from Morally Indefensible and Crime Town, and I want to tell you about a new podcast called The Orange Tree. Investigates the 2005 murder of Jennifer Cave near the University of Texas at Austin, the host to New Thomas and Hayley Butler, where student reporters there they lived and took classes near the crime scene.
So they have a unique perspective on the case. The orange tree is just good reporting with lots of hard fought interviews and trial recordings. It's produced by The Drag, which is part of Moody College on the University of Austin campus. Listen to the Andrian Apple podcast, Spotify Stitcher, wherever you listen to podcasts. By 1979, Joe McGinniss had moved to Los Angeles with his new wife, Nancy, and the new child, he had written three books since the selling of the president.
None had been as successful as his first. So to help make ends meet, he'd taken a job as a columnist.
This gig in L.A. was just for three months, and Joe was dying to find the next book.
One morning around the breakfast table, Joe was reading the newspaper and he came across a name he recognized from the past. This guy named Jeff MacDonald, a doctor who was going back to North Carolina to stand trial for the murder of his wife and two daughters. The military had dropped the charges against Jeffrey MacDonald back in 1970, but they continued to suspect MacDonald had committed the murders. Now, almost nine years later, MacDonald was about to face trial in a civilian court and he thought, oh, my God, this is a great story.
I've never heard of a case where almost 10 years have passed. The guy has established his whole life and everything. And now, after all this time, he's going to have to go back and stand trial. Definitely this guy. The next day, Joe drives to Jeff's 350000 dollar oceanside condo, he notices a Citroën Maserati parked out front.
License plate JAAM M.D. Jeff answers the door sporting a gold chain and rings handsome and fit with graying blond hair and a deep tan.
After some small talk, Jeff and Joe jump in the Maserati to drive to a restaurant. Everyone seems to know, Jeff, the waitresses are at his beck and call Jeff orders brunch for the two of them and wine. He starts talking about the case, about the struggle he's going through, knowing he has to go back and relive what happened to his family.
Joe listens and he's sympathetic, but the ME as being something a little bit icy about him, said to myself, you know, for 10 years, every time anybody meets this guy, he knows that the first question they're asking themselves is, did he kill his wife or didn't he? And, you know, that could make you act like, you know, give you some kind of reserve.
But Jeff, he took to Joe immediately.
I like disease, East Coast manner, as opposed to a California laidback style, more cynical, more humor, sort of a biting humor. But he seemed perceptive about a lot of things. We had a common interest in running, so we were running on the beach across the highway, and we ran five miles on the beach together, came back and had a couple of beers. You know, it's very pleasurable type thing.
Back in the condo, Jeff popped the question, he asked me if I would be interested in writing a book because the trial is about to begin. For years, we've been looking for somebody to write a book to tell the truth and tell the whole story.
Joe says he'll think it over as he's leaving. Jeff gives him a file box of case materials to look through.
And I drove back up the freeway thinking, interesting guy here. I had no idea whether he was innocent or guilty. I didn't have any facts. When Joe came back from having breakfast with Jeff, he was pretty excited. He was very charmed by Jeff. He described how handsome he was and he thought it was an amazing story that Jeff had to tell about what he'd been through. And he was very, very intrigued.
There was a gleam in his eye. And I always knew that a gleam in Joe's I was a good sign that something big was going to happen that night.
Joe goes through the file box Jeff gave him and he finds newspaper clippings from 1970 wife and children found slain Fort Bragg. Massive search lunch for killer. No motive found in the slaying of Army family and report seeing girl near McDonald residence. Congressman says report completely clear as doctor. And he finds a report from that military hearing written by the officer in charge. The officer recommends the case against Jeffrey MacDonald be dropped because the matter set forth are not true.
Joe basically bought the story that Jeff told him. Joe called Jeff. He would do the book, but he had terms. I've never seen a book done from inside the defense in a major criminal trial.
Joe wanted the kind of insider access he'd had with the Nixon campaign when he wrote the selling of the president.
I we want to just go to North Carolina and sit there. I would want to actually live with you during the trial. Jeff agreed. But in terms of his own, his legal fees were mounting and with his freedom on the line, he needed money. So they struck a deal. The writer and the accused murderer, Jeff, would get a third of the proceeds from the book and Joe get his full access. Jeff signed a release. You have no creative control over the book and he couldn't sue.
But at the last minute, Jeff's lawyer added a sentence so long as the central integrity of my life story is maintained. All Joe had to agree was that he would portray truthfully whatever he learned, that's one of being signed. That was the agreement. What did you think?
I mean, the book sounded so fascinating that if this is the only way he can get to do it, I don't know. You know, it's hard to say now because I know what happened.
Next week, I'm morally indefensible, Jeffrey MacDonald heads North Carolina to stand trial for the murders of his family in Long Beach, California.
Jeffrey MacDonald is an emergency room doctor here in Raleigh. He is on trial for murder. Episode two of Morally Indefensible is available right now if you want to know more about the night of the MacDonald murders, tune into our docu series, A Wilderness of Error on Facts and Streaming on facts on Hulu. Morally Indefensible is a production of Truth Media in partnership with Sony Music Entertainment.
This episode, A Morally Indefensible, was produced by Ryan Swicord with help from Jessi Roy, Julia Botero, Zach Hirsch, Kevin Sheppard and Danielle. Know this story editing is by Marc Smerling and Danielle Alesandro Santoro is our associate producer ARCI producers Brandon Reese. Scott Curtis is our production manager, fact checking by Amy Gaines. Kenny Kuzak did the music and mix sound designed by Kenny Kuciak, Brian Swicord and Kevin Sheppard.
Our title track is Promises by the Monophonic, but they were all just lies. Additional Music by John Cusack and Marmosets Voice Reenactments by Logan Stearnes, Jesse Roy, Mary Lindsay and Walker Vreeland.
Legal Review by Linda Steinman and Jack Browning of Davis Wright Tremaine special thanks to Sean Twigg, Meirion Luke Malone, Brian Murphy, Joe Langford, Peter Shmo, Diana De Cleo, Bob Stevenson, Christina Moscovitch, Bob Keeler and Errol Morris.
If you like this episode, a morally indefensible, please subscribe on Apple podcast, wherever you get your podcast, it really helps. And thanks for listening.