Chris and John Griffin, who lived in a house on Lake Wylie at the time, say Greg Mitchell made his drunken admission a year or two after MacDonald’s 1979 conviction for the gruesome stabbing and beating deaths of his pregnant wife and two young daughters.
MacDonald, a former Green Beret captain and Ivy League-educated physician, is back in a North Carolina federal court this week, asking for a new trial.
For 42 years, he has blamed the Feb. 17, 1970, massacre on four intruders – three men and a woman – who broke into the MacDonalds’ apartment at Fort Bragg and also beat and stabbed him. MacDonald has said the woman likely was Helena Stoeckley, Mitchell’s girlfriend at the time and a focal point of this week’s hearing.
A new book on the crime focuses in part on Mitchell and Stoeckley’s possible role.
On a Saturday night three decades ago, Mitchell, a Vietnam veteran and unlicensed electrician, sorrowfully confessed to the killings, the Griffins said this week.
So powerful were Mitchell’s emotions that Chris Griffin says she believes he was telling the truth, despite prosecutors’ contentions that he was not involved.
“We witnessed the rawest kind of sorrow and regret and suffering,” she said. “I have never seen anything like that in a human being.
“He did it. I believe that.”
Not reported before
The Griffins’ account has never before been published or entered into the voluminous MacDonald case file.
It has no legal standing and is one more piece of uncorroborated information in a case that spawned a generation of conspiracy theories and investigative dead ends.
Still, in a 40-year-old legal marathon – in which more and more of the original witnesses and key figures have died – their account gives lawyers on both sides information to consider from live sources.
Wade Smith, a member of MacDonald’s original defense team, called the Griffins’ account “very interesting and important information that somewhere down the line could make a difference.”
Don Connelly, the public information officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office handling the case, said the office had no comment on the new information.
MacDonald’s lead defense attorney, Gordon Widenhouse, could not be reached for comment.
The Griffins said they called the Observer this week after reading stories in Sunday’s paper on the new MacDonald hearing in Wilmington.
“We thought, you know, that we should tell somebody,” Chris Griffin, now 70, said Tuesday at her south Charlotte home. “We had tried before. Apparently they don’t want to hear it.”
According to records, Mitchell moved to Charlotte in 1972 after his marriage to his wife, Pat. He lived in Charlotte for most of the next 10 years before his death at age 31 on June 3, 1982, at the University of Virginia Hospital. The cause: cardiac arrest related to an alcohol-damaged liver. He’s buried in Sharon Memorial Park in Charlotte.
In 1971, Mitchell passed an Army polygraph test indicating he had no connection to the MacDonald murders.
But in his final years, Mitchell told Charlotte friends several times that he had done something terrible in his past.
In a 1984 FBI affidavit, his widow, Pat Mitchell, then living on Eastway Drive, said her husband never talked about the MacDonald case except to say he had been interviewed about it by the FBI.
Three years before that interview, a drunken Greg Mitchell talked about the killings – to virtual strangers.
How Griffins, Mitchell met
The Griffins say they met Greg Mitchell in the summer of 1980 or 1981. John had started a company that put computer systems in hotels. To handle a larger home computer, John needed to upgrade the wiring at the couple’s lakefront house.
Their carpenter recommended Mitchell. When Mitchell came to check out the job, the Griffins say he made an unusual offer: He would give them a really good deal, if they would allow him and his crew to hang out at the home after the job was finished to drink and enjoy the lake.
Despite having children in the house at the time, the Griffins agreed. Looking back, they say they acted brashly to save a little money.
On his next visit to the house, Mitchell and his crew completed the work – an excellent job, John Griffin recalls.
Then they drank heavily.
Mitchell liked to talk – about his tours in Vietnam, about allegedly being doused with Agent Orange.
Gradually, John Griffin, now 68, says he had begun to believe that Mitchell was “a whacko. His eyes were wild.”
Later on, Chris Griffin said she told Mitchell he had to leave and wasn’t invited back, that she didn’t want her kids around that much drinking.
Besides, the couple believed their hospitality had paid the electrician’s invoice in full.
Instead, Mitchell asked to visit once more. He promised he would curb his drinking and he would bring steaks for dinner.
Telling the story this week in her den, Chris Griffin turned to her husband. “Why did we let him come back?” she asked.
Mitchell’s final visit came a week later. He brought two friends and the steaks, but he drank harder.
A sobbing confession
At one point, Mitchell picked up the Griffins’ phone, saying he wanted to invite Helena Stoeckley, whom he said was living in Gastonia at the time.
Stoeckley had been questioned in the 1970s in connection with the killings. This week, her brother testified in Wilmington that she had said she was in the MacDonald home on the night of the murders. She died in 1983.
But that night at the lake house, Mitchell didn’t reach her. The Griffins say they didn’t recognize her name.
By evening, Mitchell had drunk himself off his feet, “stumbled over our bar,” as Chris described it. He had grown increasingly depressed. He heaved with sobs.
He told Chris that he was dying from Agent Orange exposure and that there was something in his past so terrible that he was going straight to hell.
In all, Chris Griffin, nursing a Scotch and water that night, says she spent more than an hour with Mitchell at her bar, astounded at his misery.
“I mean, I really thought I was going to have to call an ambulance and have him put up somewhere,” she said. “I felt sorry for him, but he was scary at the same time.”
Eventually, she said she coaxed the distraught and drunken Mitchell toward a confession.
“You know about the MacDonald murders?” he asked her. “I’m the one who did it.”
The sobbing resumed, she said, with Mitchell wailing about the MacDonald daughters, who were 2 and 5 when they died.
“The part that got me was he was so remorseful, body language, everything was just, ‘I did it. I did it,’ ” she said.
“I think he wanted to talk. He may have wanted us to turn him in.”
The Griffins didn’t try to tell anybody for almost a year. “We were scared,” Chris said. “If we called somebody, he might come back and get us. Later, we tried to call, and couldn’t find anybody to listen.”
After reading about Mitchell’s death in June 1982, they said they felt safe to share what they’d heard.
They tried to contact celebrity defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, they said. Later, they called Joe McGinniss, whose 1983 book “Fatal Vision” concluded that MacDonald had killed his family.
John Griffin said MacDonald deserves a new trial.
“It’s a crying shame that a man has spent 42 years in jail for something he didn’t do,” he said.
Judge vows leeway in MacDonald’s bid for new trial
Testimony begins in hearing of new data on trial of Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted of triple murder in 1979
Author Errol Morris (center) , an Oscar-winning documentarian whose “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald,” was published this month by The Penguin Press leaves the Federal Courthouse in Wilmington, N.C. Monday Sept. 17, 2012. MacDonald, a former Fort Bragg Army officers and doctor, was convicted in 1979 of murdering his wife and two young daughters in 1970. The hearing could determine whether MacDonald gets a new trial decades after he was convicted of killing his family.
WILMINGTON — Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Green Beret captain and doctor convicted 32 years ago of slaughtering his family, shuffled into a federal courtroom in this historic port city on Monday, hoping to win a brighter future by revisiting a notorious past.
The 68-year-old federal inmate, described alternately as an exploitive psychopath and a hapless victim of a gross injustice, has maintained for four decades that intruders bludgeoned his pregnant wife and two young daughters to death on Feb. 17, 1970.
His contentions have taken him on a tortuous legal journey that brought him back to North Carolina this week to a grand courtroom overlooking the Cape Fear River.
Author Errol Morris (center), an Oscar-winning documentarian whose “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald,” was published this month by The Penguin Press leaves the Federal Courthouse in Wilmington, N.C. Monday Sept. 17, 2012. MacDonald, a former Fort Bragg Army officers and doctor, was convicted in 1979 of murdering his wife and two young daughters in 1970. The hearing could determine whether MacDonald gets a new trial decades after he was convicted of killing his family.
MacDonald, dressed in a drab tan uniform from the New Hanover County jail, settled into a chair at the defense table, his movement confined by the shackles on his legs and the tan shower shoes on his feet. Over the years, his hair has grayed and thinned, and the frailty of age has begun to show on the man who was described as handsome and alluring at the 1979 trial that has generated several best-sellers, a top-rated TV miniseries and strong camps of opinion.