Norwegian Vision

I watched The Lørenskog Disappearance (2022), which describes itself thus:

In English:


We start with a woman chatting on the phone in the morning in her rather nice suburban house.

As she moves about we see black-clad figures moving quickly past the window outside.

The camera tracks around the room and we see a happy couple standing near a Norwegian flag. These are happy respectable Norwegians.

The bad guys get in, knock out the phone lady, and drag her away in a bag. They also make sure to leave a big envelope where it will be noticed.

As they scuttle away with their captive, a serious-faced woman is on-site and watching the whole event.

It turns out she’s detective Jorunn Lakke and this whole sequence has been a reconstruction of the kidnapping that already occurred. The cops are trying to make sense of how quickly it could have come off.

The kidnapping targeted Anne-Elisabeth, the wife of businessman Tom Hagen. Hagen is hugely wealthy and powerful but prefers to live in a modest suburban home, not well known to his neighbours. In our universe, his wife was indeed kidnapped in 2018.

The kidnappers want the ransom money paid in an obscure cryptocurrency called Monero. It will be difficult or almost impossible for Hagen to secure so much funds in the required denomination since he has no crypto holdings. The police make some progress in gathering evidence from CCTV and other sources but not enough to pick anyone up. They do work their contacts in local gangs, including the various migrant workers from the Baltic States known to be involved in rackets. This gets success in breaking other crimes (a big cannabis farm is one example) but no closer to finding the missing woman. They also can’t get any leads on the internet, even after deciding to make some of the payment, an operation which they seem to bungle.

By now the press are getting restless and the local crime reporters are wondering why the police aren’t looking at other angles, ie.that it wasn’t a kidnapping. This is of particular concern to award-winning hack Erlend, who writes and campaigns a lot about violence against women and sees this as another case of a powerful, aggressive man disposing of an unwanted wife.

The police also come around to thinking that this case isn’t how it was presented to them, and they arrest Hagen on a folder of pretty flimsy material. The best thing they have is a claim about mobile phone messages being deleted, but a very diligent young defence lawyer demonstrates that it’s simply untrue – the old model that Hagen owns just deletes old messages anyway. He has to be freed. In the meantime the searches of the Hagen home turn up evidence that Anne-Elizabeth wanted a divorce some time ago. Hagen did at least have a motive to avoid the consequences of a split, but that doesn’t show he actually did it.

Meanwhile the female crime reporter Aleks has been working another angle. Her family came to Norway from Belarus, and her brother has an automatic respect for western police as being more honest and competent that the ones that persecuted their daddy back home. But she doesn’t share his confidence, presumably from the cases she has seen in her work. There may be a link between Hagen and a blackmail gang operating elsewhere and over the border in Sweden, a much nastier network involved with drugs and anything else and ready to step up to make some big money from a big score. Erlend tries to heroically get close to the bad guys himself, and gets beaten up badly. But there’s not a lot anyone can do even after they give their material to the police. The possible mastermind of what might have been a paid-for killing rather than a kidnapping is living in Spain, in a world of property development schemes that are either outright scams or just money-laundering fronts. Nudging him that the police are on the trail just gives him reason to move on out of range. These men aren’t going to get caught.

Finally, we have a minor twist that the peripheral character not involved in the case (Jorunn’s dad, sliding in to dementia) knew Hagen at school as he recognises him in the TV interview he gives after being released. If this was a fully fictional narrative then this would be the moment when he gives us the killer thread that can pull Hagen’s story apart. But he doesn’t. He just remembers the guy from school, he was introverted, he’s in an old class photo, but that’s all.

The story is divided into 5 episodes. Each has a thematic title, which marks the centre of attention in relating that section of the story; the chronology moves forward, but there are overlaps as some scenes recur from different perspectives. There are a few flashbacks, relating to the childhoods of some of the main characters. There are a few glimpses of the on-line culture developing around the case, videos of amateur theorists and also critics of the police. The titles run: “The Investigators”, “The Journalists”, “The Lawyers”, “The Journalists: Part 2” and finally “The Informants”. These groups also overlap: the lead defence lawyer was previously a police legal counsel before quitting to move to the better-paying private sector. He’s honest, but he’s still friends with people on the force.

The way we are shown the case, it seems to be lackadaisical and inept, with misfiring initiatives and bungled opportunities. It also seems that suspicion falls on Hagen out of simple desperation, and that when the attention turns on him the strategy is not much more than to apply pressure in the hope that someone will break or some conclusive document will turn up, which simply doesn’t happen.

But that image of the investigation is at odds with the details mentioned in the final episode, about the number of sites visited or raided, interviews carried out, and the sheer cost of trying to follow endless alternative threads, all in a blizzard of confusion from cranks and fakes and the deluded. This version of the investigation is highly selective.

Internal to the story are the debates amongst the journalists about how they should cover the case. Two different topics are in contention, never entirely separated in the informal arguments around dinner tables and in offices. First of all, the Problem Of Representation – by framing the characters and details in a particular way, they were pushing the public to prejudge them. There is a scene in which Erlend takes issue with a young libertarian dude who think poor old Hagen is being unfairly assumed to be a violent monster when in fact he’s just a hard-working millionaire who deserves his fortune despite what envious and poisonous lefties think. Erlend is very much a White Knight in his attitudes toward using his journalism to rescue poor women from the bad guys they work for… yet when we meet a Polish call girl who may be near the centre of the web that drew Hagen in to trouble, she seems to know what she’s doing and be making informed choices about it. The female crime reporter meanwhile finds that the editor isn’t too keen on her creative attempts to find new lines of inquiry, even before they get officially warned off by the detectives.

This takes in the second issue – the Problem Of Engagement, and what exactly the role of the press should be in connection with an on-going enquiry? Simply repeat the official press releases? Criticise the conduct of the investigation – regardless of the full context, which can’t be known at the time? Find alternative lines, which may blow the cover of parts of the official inquiry whilst also throwing out smears and false accusations against innocent people? This show features moments in which our reporters courageously get close to a business which might be linked to a conspiracy – but once again the details we see reported are pretty feeble – a man “walks like the guy in the CCTV video”. This also shades over in to another topic which our press team never quite consider: how far they are simply reinforcing prejudices about migrants and other minorities, by focussing on the big gangsters who dominate communities which don’t have many other options than to work for them. Police forces around the world have long understood that they can exploit the press to get a reaction or shake out a suspect, and sometimes the media fully co-operate in the process. But then they are part of the story and not the objective eye viewing it.

“Crime fiction” has a varied history, taking in absurd tales of heroic amateurs, all the way across to painstaking attempts to capture the reality of police procedures. The latter has to face questions of how far to simplify, not just the events and details but the inferences and justifications that are constructed out of them. This becomes more acute with the “true crime” or “docudrama” genre, of which Lorenskog is an example. I think the paradigm work is the mini-series Fatal Vision, shown on the BBC over several nights in 1985. It made a big impression on me at the time, and so I was very disconcerted to find out when the internet became available a decade later that there was a continuing controversy around the case and its representation.

On February 17th 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald called the police, reporting that his family had been attacked by intruders who had broken in demanding drugs. MacDonald was a doctor working at Fort Bragg, and also commissioned in the Green Berets. He was injured and his pregnant wife and two daughters were killed. His account had it that the killers were hippies and countercultural thugs who wanted him to give them prescriptions, which he’d previously refused. So they went on a Manson Family-style spree of revenge, and scrawled “PIG” on one of the bedroom walls.

That’s the way MacDonald told it, but soon that version was doubted. Three months later the Army had him as their chief suspect in their own investigation. That didn’t go any further, and MacDonald went off to make a new career elsewhere. But then his stepfather-in-law, Alfred Kassab, who had previously been a staunch supporter, started to wonder if Jeffrey was a bad guy after all. So began the long journey through further hearings and investigations until he was indicted in 1975, put on trial and convicted in 1979, and then went in to the saga of further appeals that continues 40 years later. During the 1979 trial MacDonald hired the journalist Joe McGinniss to write a positive account of his story as an innocent man subject to judicial persecution; instead the book Fatal Vision took the line that MacDonald was the bad guy after all. That was the version that became the TV movie, and soon after MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraudulently pretending to be supportive whilst collecting his testimony after he’d decided he was guilty. That saga ended out of court. Here is a document along the way, a letter to the New York Times on May 15th 1994, headed “Jeffrey MacDonald’s Trial”:  

The Last Brother was a study of the Kennedy brothers, focussing on Teddy – another golden boy whose career was spoiled by a violent incident involving the death of a woman. It’s worth checking a review of that to see why McGinniss’s reputation may have been low by the mid 90s:

The film of Fatal Vision runs to nearly 5 hours in total, broken in to 2 episodes.

We start in darkness and electronic bass beats and plinky, nervous piano tapping. Karl Malden, as Fred Kassab, is the biggest star and gets his name on first. Then a stab of sound as the title appears.

The background becomes clearer as a series of annotated maps of a suburban district.

We see a sign for the Army base at Fort Bragg in the dark.

The dark turns in to a rainy street at night, with cars passing. The camera slowly moves up the steps of a house, and we see that this is the residence of Cpt J.R.MacDonald. The music smooths and rises to a woozy blur as we switch to the interior and slowly move up the corridor to where the figure of a man in a darkened room is trying to make a phone call.

He is struggling to call for an ambulance. “They’re dying, they’re dying, for God’s sake…” He drops the phone and staggers to the bathroom where we have the first look at his terrified gaze at himself in the mirror.

He gets back to the phone and can finish giving information to the M.P. who has now come on the line. Then he stumbles away and collapses.

A military vehicle pulls up in the street and a group of M.Ps come in to survey the scene. “Oh God” mutters one as the light goes on. “He’s alive!” exclaims another.

We see a body put on a stretcher being moved to another room, and in passing an empty flower pot is knocked and a hand reaches down and puts it upright.

That flowerpot, and the coffee table it was originally placed on, will become significant later. They appear in Fatal Vision when MacDonald is being questioned by Franz Grebner, as part of the Army investigation.

Grebner shows a picture of crime scene with the coffee table on its edge and the flower pot upright. Note that the fact that Fatal Vision includes a moment when an M.P. uprighted the pot at the start means it accepts the point that the photographs used by Grebner are not wholly reliable on every detail of the scene as discovered, which MacDonald’s lawyer Bernie Segal makes much of later on.

In this moment, what matters about the coffee table/flower pot issue is that it forces the point for Grebner in challenging MacDonald.

MACDONALD: You don’t think I was happily married?

GREBNER: I’m happily married, Captain, and I get pretty mad at my wife sometimes. Especially when I was younger and quicker to anger.

MACDONALD: You think I’d get mad enough at someone to do… that?

GREBNER: I’ve seen it happen before.

Watching this further on in time we might wonder exactly what Grebner may be alluding to as normal expectations in “happy marriage” near the middle of the 20th century, amongst men who had mostly seen combat experience in the worst wars in modern history. What had he seen happen before?

Meanwhile the investigation also looks at various countercultural characters hanging around, to follow up MacDonald’s version of events. We get the first visit to the world of Helena Stoeckley.

The Kassabs continue to support Jeffrey and are disgusted by the Army’s attitude toward him. However Fred is started to get dissatisfied with his attitude, doesn’t like what he sees in Jeffrey’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show:

It’s hard to see the original footage to compare with the version we get in Fatal Vision. There is a video that cuts up excerpts with further talking heads, including Cavett himself, who have all clearly heard the subsequent story, and so their evidence may be contaminated.

When it comes to a hearing in 1975, the case against MacDonald has an expert witness to challenge his idea of what acid-fuelled murderous hippies would sound like.

EXPERT WITNESS: In my experience as a news reporter, drug addicts would never say “acid is groovy”. “Groovy” is just not a word that people doing acid would use. And also 4 people doing acid couldn’t organise a trip to the toilet, let alone organise the murder of 3 people.

They are big on the idea that MacDonald invented his cover story from details of the Manson Family killings that he read about in Esquire magazine.

Meanwhile MacDonald’s team led by Bernie Segal have been after Helena Stoeckley again and want her to back up reports of telling other people she and her friends were the intruders on the night

SEGAL: ….what kind of father would do that to his own flesh and blood?

STOECKLEY: Only somebody crazy, wacked out on drugs. Not acid – maybe speed – was he tested for drugs?

SEGAL: Yes, Helena.

STOECKLEY: I don’t know what anybody else is capable of, but I’m not capable of that

SEGAL: Helena, no one’s asking you to say that you did it. All you have to say is you were there, holding the candle, saying “Acid is groovy”. You don’t remember hurting anybody, then you ran out of the back door.

STOECKLEY: I wasn’t there.

Things get tense when the defence team get together to plan the final stages of their campaign. Bernie assures him, “Jeff, we got the jurors we wanted…” but as he reviews all the emotional and sentimental heavy syrup he’s going to be dropping on the court, Jeffrey is just a bit too jaded. The whole scene is extraordinary.

Segal’s mixture of cynicism and sentimentality doesn’t rate the jury’s ability very highly, and MacDonald’s responses are simply the voice of reasonable criticism, driven by the exhausted contempt of a man put in the position of seemingly having to prove his innocence, even though that isn’t the requirement of the process. This scene is crucial to Fatal Vision and I think it can be interpreted as leaving a gap open for MacDonald being not quite what he might seem – not a repressed killer but something else. Take the entire sequence in full, and the way he throws back the absurdity of implying someone who enlisted in the Green Berets could be a harmless sitcom dad. The final momentous outburst of sudden energy in the “WORHEIDE… HE’S A NAZI” moment is one of the greatest pieces of TV, and stands next the best of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, another cruel man who played with many masks and could sometimes swap them in a moment. It seems that we are to take it that this is a point when the MacDonald team themselves might come to doubt their man, but nothing is proven – as with his comments on the Dick Cavett Show, MacDonald here could be simply a guy who played by the rules and ended up even more disgusted and cynical at the tricks of straight society and its institutions as the hippies did.

But who supplied the factual basis for that scene, or Segal’s meeting with Stoeckley? Not Joe McGinniss himself, who only enters the story for the final lap of the 1979 trial.

What settles the case, as we are told, is the forensic evidence. Even though DNA samples are not possible in the 70s, the MacDonald family were unusual in that they all belonged to different blood groups and so their movements on the night could be conjectured from the placings of different bloodstains around the house. There is a scene in which this is explained to Fred, and this version of events is played out in a sequence by Gary Cole and the other MacDonald family actors. So this film contains what is presented as a version of what could have happened, in addition to many more grounded scenes of him consistently denying accusations and showing his disgust and the whole process, including the testimony his own legal team wanted him to present.

FUN FACT: a few years later Gary Cole played a detective in Echoes In The Darkness, another adaptation of a true crime book, by Joseph Wambaugh. It is mentioned that the prime suspect owned a copy of the book Fatal Vision, although that is not seen as a significant piece of evidence against him. Cole played the detective Jack Holtz, who was later found to have taken a bribe from Wambaugh. One of the convictions in that case was later overturned when the payment was revealed.

One of the prosecution team in the MacDonald case was also involved in misconduct in the 90s, and that was the basis of the one of the many appeals Jeffrey continued to lodge over the years. The big surge of new interest came with the bestselling A Wilderness Of Error by Errol Morris in 2012.

Morris is himself a film-maker who has worked in the true crime genre. The opening pages of Wilderness are a long Dramatis Personae divided in to sections “The MacDonald Family”, “The FBI”, “The Defense Attorneys”, “The Prosecutors” etc. The central character, however, is actually Morris himself.

I first saw 544 Castle Drive on a cold Christmas morning in 1991… I have asked myself many times since that Christmas Day, why didn’t I plunge into the case then? It was shortly after I had finished The Thin Blue Line, the film based on my investigation of the Randall Dale Adams case – an investigation that had freed an innocent man from prison and had gotten a confession from the killer. I had struggled with that story for four years, only to be sued by the man I got out of prison. I told myself I didn’t want to involved in another miscarriage of justice story. They’re difficult, perhaps too difficult. I didn’t want to go through the agony, the risk, a second time.

And yet this was a different kind of miscarriage of justice, different from what we normally envision as a miscarriage of justice. The MacDonald story does have familiar themes: suppressed evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, bumbling investigators, forensic mix-ups, and so on. But there are new and different themes as well, many involving the media. Books, late-night talk shows, and a TV mini-series.

It’s good that our White Knight decided to ride out again on another mission, although the space of new concerns he delineates is one that he is operating in himself as an engaged participant. The Randall Dale Adams case was indeed a wrongful conviction that Morris helped to overturn, but the subsequent lawsuit turned on the rights to his life story. Here is New York Times again, from August 6th 1989, from the story “Freed Inmate Settles Suit With Producer Over Rights To Story”:

If you Google on “Errol Morris sued” you will first of all see results from a case in 2012, which itself raises questions about Morris’s methodology and ethics.

Wilderness reviews the story and the charges put against MacDonald chronologically. We start with the Army hearing in 1970, and Grebner’s questions about the coffee table and flower pot. With other investigators he tried to reconstruct how the table could have toppled and ended in that orientation. Every attempted reconstruction had it land face-down as it was top-heavy. So his impression was that the scene was staged afterwards to look as though a struggle occurred there. We have quotes from the Army transcript of the interview. Grebner’s argument is not about whether the pot is upright (it is accepted in the Fatal Vision version that someone moved items before they were photographed) but that “The plant and the pot go straight out and they stay together in all instances.” Also “the table pushes the chair out of the way”. 

All of those reconstructions were based on trying to turn a fully-loaded table, with the magazines and plant-pot on top. But Morris is more impressed with the testimony of Colonel Rock:

And so many days and thousands of pages of testimony later, Colonel Rock and Grebner finally stood in the MacDonald living room next to the coffee table. Rock gave it a kick and subsequently testified about the result: “I kicked over the coffee table. It struck the side of the rocking chair and came to rest on its edge.” In other words, it landed in a way that had been proven impossible by Grebner and Ivory in their various attempts to knock it over.

Morris’s comments on this moment are startlingly pretentious: not only do we get a footnote stating: “Ivory’s failure to prove that MacDonald had placed the table on its side might be related to the general problem of induction. Alas, it really didn’t matter how many times Ivory knocked over the table. All it took was the one counterexample provided by Colonel Rock and his theory crumbled.”, but also the main text continues to compare this event with “Samuel Johnson’s refutation of the philosophy of George Berkeley”. Yet what we don’t know is whether the chair was indeed oriented as closely as we can tell it was in the original scene and also if the table had been laden with magazines and the pot, which was the relevant scenario Grebner was testing. Since Rock says nothing about where magazines or pot landed when he kicked the table that’s a clue he didn’t include them, yet they are relevant since the issue is about how the laden (already top-heavy) table behaves when kicked. If Morris is serious about doubting induction then there’s no end to all the other evidence that is in doubt; in fact there would simply be an end to evidence.

Colonel Rock seems to be generally ill-disposed towards the theory that MacDonald’s version is questionable. His findings on October 13th 1970 stated that “the matters set forth in all charges and specifications are not true”. Morris is unhappy that the commanding officer at Fort Bragg dismissed the charges for “insufficient evidence”. But why? No evidence is the limit case of insufficient evidence, so the phrasing is not inaccurate, unless Morris wants to endorse Rock’s apparent sense that MacDonald’s account is certain and beyond reasonable doubt. This is also curiously at odds with some comments from one of MacDonald’s friends that Morris seems to look on favourably. Michael Malley was an old roommate at Princeton in the early 60s, graduated and went to Harvard Law School, then joined the military and was one of MacDonald’s defence attorneys at Fort Bragg.

ERROL MORRIS: Did you believe him?

MICHAEL MALLEY: You know, I personally believed him. That’s why I am willing to say, “I believe he’s innocent.” But I cannot say, “He’s innocent.” Now, maybe to you that sounds like sophistry, but to me there’s a big difference. There is a big difference in saying “I believe he’s innocent” and ”He is innocent.” When I say, “I believe he’s innocent,” I’m saying, “I’m adding that little bit of extra proof, if you want, to the physical evidence and whatever else there is, and what Jeff says.”
I’m not God. I do not have any film, I do not have a recording. I do not have an absolute physical demonstration that Jeff is innocent. I do not have that. And so, what I’m going on is my own belief and knowledge of him over the years, plus a lot of what he says supports his story. But some of what he says does not. And he has no explanation for that.

The epistemic distinction Malley is trying to make seems rather garbled, but I take the point to be that, in a legal context, we cannot declare MacDonald to be unqualifiedly “guilty” or “innocent” but rather express it as a personal opinion or a formal court verdict. So it was correct for Rock’s CO to rephrase him in terms of evidence rather than truth-value, nothing fishy there other than Rock’s readiness to dismiss suspicions of MacDonald.

The Malley interview continues:

ERROL MORRIS: Why do you think that the CID became so absolutely convinced that MacDonald was guilty?

MICHAEL MALLEY: Fort Bragg was locked down. People were buying guns. There were some gun shops that ran out of guns. People were really afraid, because it made sense to them.  There were hippies everywhere with drugs, and they were all ex-Army. I mean, it was like Harvard in the days when I was there, where people would drop out but hang around Harvard Square and they would sell these underground papers. At Fort Bragg, there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of soldier dropouts, of kind of hangers-on, and it was violent. There were violent crimes all over the place, and they were drug-related.

And so this was a big deal. And when it happened, everybody believed Jeff right away, at least for a day or two, anyway. And so people bought guns, people were barring their doors. And there was enormous pressure from the command, from the three-star general on down, to do something about this, find the killers. Because it was 1970, there was a war on, there were drugs, America was – that’s why I said this was the Vietnam War story in a lot of ways.

And so we have an enormous amount of pressure to solve this case, and we have this arrogant kind of doctor guy who’s coming here and saying, “Hey, it isn’t me, don’t worry”. And Jeff really did not cover himself in glory in those interviews, either. I mean, he was kind of dismissive and sort of casual about the whole thing. As far as the CID was concerned, they had solved the case. It was right there and then. And once they solved the case, since they said to somebody – and probably to the staff judge advocate and to the provost marshal – that it’s MacDonald, then there’s no turning back.

Yet this description of the time tells us just as well that the imagery of violent hippies on acid was readily available and believable as a narrative for MacDonald to use. If the imperative was for the justice system to fit up and incarcerate a plausible set of suspects as soon as possible then surely they could have trawled the reservoir and tricked a few junkies into pleading anything in exchange for methadone. 1970 was of course also the year that National Guardsmen were shooting student protesters at Kent State; the idea that the forces of the military-carceral complex were too squeamish to bust a few heads following a brutal killing is hard to take. A bigger puzzle is why Richard Nixon himself or anyone in Congress didn’t intervene to stop the nonsense of having a clean-cut tragic American hero like MacDonald under suspicion. After all, Alfred Kassab was lobbying everyone on behalf of Jeffrey at that point, it would be a perfect cause to get behind and show the divide between the two Americas at war with each other.

Morris’s preferred angle is to revive the idea that Helena Stoeckley was at least present at the events. It seems she did make several statements years later purporting to be confessions. But what are those worth from someone with her pharmaceutical history and consequent medical problems, mental as well as physical (she died in 1983)?

Joe McGinniss got his own reply to Morris in straight away in 2012, with Final Vision.

But no appellate court that has considered MacDonald’s myriad claims of unfairness has found either improper conduct by the prosecution or any abuse of judicial discretion by [Judge] Dupree. Morris alleges some sort of grand conspiracy against MacDonald – a plot involving the U.S.Army, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the highest levels of the Justice Department, and at least one federal judge – but he offers no explanation of why this particular Ivy League physician who was serving in the Special Forces should have been targeted. He fails to demonstrate that the trial was “rigged”, much less by whom or for what purpose… [some specific details about the crime scene that are recorded incorrectly by Morris, and also notes that the questions about the position of the coffee table was not raised in the trial] But if he’d allowed fact, not fantasy, to guide him, he would have found himself without a book.

On the question of Stoeckley,

…Morris bays about her like a hound dog who thinks he’s got a raccoon trapped up a tree, but in the end it’s much ado about nothing. He’s not wrong to consider her as part of his hypothesis, but he’s grossly mistaken to suggest that investigators turned a blind eye toward her because they were so obsessed with pinning blame on MacDonald.

Unfortunately, McGinniss himself states a few pages later that,

The CID promptly sent agent William Ivory, who’d been the first CID investigator to the crime scene and who’d questioned Stoeckley early in the investigation, to interview her again… By the time he interviewed Stoeckley, Ivory was so certain MacDonald had murdered his family that he didn’t even bother to take notes. Under Segal’s withering cross-examination, the CID detective came across as a dull-witted bungler whose tunnel vision had prevented him from pursuing a viable lead.

The detail about Stoeckley that made her a Person Of Interest all along is that MacDonald’s original testimony mentioned that the female gang member was wearing “a floppy hat… a big hat”. “The Girl With The Floppy Hat” is Morris’s chapter 8, “The Girl In The Floppy Hat” is McGinniss’s chapter 3. Ken Mica, one of the M.P.s on patrol that night, saw a woman with “a wide-brimmed hat” on a street corner a few blocks away, shortly before he arrived at the crime scene, heard what MacDonald was saying, and told his superior he might have seen her. As McGinniss notes,

Stoeckley paid for her drugs by working as an informant for a Fayetteville Police Department narcotics detective named Prince Edward Beasley. He knew that she sometimes wore a floppy hat, owned a blond wig, and wore high boots, like many other hippie wannabes. The day after the murders, finding her in the company of several young men, he questioned her. He told her she resembled MacDonald’s description of the female intruder and asked whether she was involved.

She made a joke in response. When Beasley told her to get serious, she said, according to his later recollection, “In my mind it seems that I saw this thing happen, but I was heavy on mescaline.”

There seem to be two puzzles with Floppy Hat Girl theory. Firstly, the killers were a group of 4, and at 4am might not expect anyone to be out observing the streets, and so could stay together for a few blocks – unless the group travelled to and from the MacDonald house by car. The other puzzle is why she would keep the hat on indoors during a violent struggle, when it might get knocked off anyway. But since she had been seen out and about in public wearing it, maybe MacDonald had seen her around town previously and simply wove in a realistic detail of some hippies he’d been watching?

As that old expert witness pointed out, there are plausibility problems with MacDonald’s description of the attackers. Here’s an excerpt from an interesting comment someone made on the imdb listing for the TV movie, back in 2002:

Morris’s book got its own TV adaptation, but director Marc Smerling was careful about hew handled the material, and so we enter yet another level of representations of representations, as taken up in an interview in IndieWire from 2020. Never mind “the law of Occam’s Razor”, the Helena Stoeckley connection doesn’t make much sense even if we accept the unproven connection between her and the female that Ken Mica saw.

Smerling said he didn’t want to corner Morris, but have a natural discussion about evidence, reality, and the crime at hand… But the director said upon pulling the layers back of who Stoeckley was, he came to realize there was far more to her confessions. 

All these stories about powerful, successful men who may or may not be willing to kill people and rely on prejudices about scary minorities to deflect investigation. All the younger contrarian storytellers trying to confound conventional wisdom with their quick and easy verdicts about Narratives and everyone else having an unsophisticated epistemology. I don’t know if Richard Rorty or a similar luminary observed that there were simply 2 different ways to interpret modern America, one in which Jeffrey MacDonald was guilty and another in which he was attacked by hippies, and we can only just choose which one to live in. That might have been the thing he ought to say in the light of his other ideas, but he would have been wise not to. Let’s just end with a line attributed to the fictional version of Helena Stoeckley, the only one we have now, and we don’t know about Anne-Elisabeth Hagen.

IVORY: Why did they kill the MacDonald family?

STOECKLEY: Some people will do anything for a fix.

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