From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
EVEN IN THE PRIVILEGED PRECINCTS of Thayer Academy, the exclusive Boston-area prep school, she was a golden girl. Young, wealthy and gorgeous—she is said to be a ringer for Clueless star Alicia Silverstone—this slender blonde also seemed a bit more worldly than most of her classmates. As the teenager told anyone who would listen on the field-hockey bus in the fall of '95, she was hot and heavy with an older man—from America's version of the royal family. "She used to brag all the time about sleeping with the Kennedy guy," recalls Matthew Thayer, now a 17-year-old senior at the private day school. "But nobody believed her until the stories came out."

Now everyone is interested, especially Massachusetts authorities. Spurred by a story in the Boston Globe, both the Norfolk County district attorney and Cohasset police have launched inquiries into the allegations that Michael Kennedy, a 39-year-old son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, pursued a five-year affair with the young woman, the 19-year-old daughter of millionaire entrepreneur Paul Verrochi, while she was working as a babysitter for his three children. If their reported liaison indeed began before she turned 16, it would constitute statutory rape. "I'm told Ethel is devastated over this," says Jerry Oppenheimer, author of the bestselling 1994 biography of Michael's mother, The Other Mrs. Kennedy. "Michael was the apple of her eye. He was among the Kennedys who were seen as the future of the clan."

Until recently it looked like Michael, sixth of Ethel and Robert's brood of 11, could pretty well write his own ticket. Despite his day job as head of Citizens Energy Corp., the young lawyer managed his uncle Ted's fiercely fought 1994 reelection campaign, served as a key adviser to his older brother Rep. Joseph Kennedy II and frequently hinted about his interest in eventually running for office himself. Neither his disclosure of an alcohol problem in 1995, when he checked into a Maryland rehab facility for 30 days, nor his announcement last month of an "amicable" split from his wife of 16 years, Victoria—daughter of sports-caster Frank Gifford—appeared insurmountable obstacles.

But the reality of what sources say went on inside Kennedy's million-dollar seaside home in the tony town of Cohasset, south of Boston, made a mockery of his family-man image. In 1995, Victoria Kennedy reportedly found her husband and the teen together—a tidbit the sitter wasn't shy about broadcasting among her prep-school pals. Says Tom Bowman, a 17-year-old Thayer senior: "She told people she had been caught in bed with him."

That discovery must have seemed like a double betrayal to Victoria Kennedy. Not only had Verrochi begun babysitting for her at the tender age of 12, but she was the oldest of three children of close family friends. Victoria had watched her grow up in an oceanfront mansion in Cohasset just two blocks from her own. She'd car-pooled and socialized frequently with her parents, Paul and June. So chummy were the couples, in fact, that Paul Verrochi sits on the board of Citizens Energy Corp.

Blaming his behavior on a drinking problem, friends told the Globe, Michael Kennedy promised his wife that he would undergo treatment. Kennedy's problem was real enough; one former associate says that when he got drunk, his normally soft-spoken demeanor would "turn dark and his personality changed...of course, who knows what goes on inside anybody, especially someone whose father was murdered when he was a kid." But even during his stay in rehab, Kennedy apparently remained in contact with his teenage paramour, and the relationship resumed when he returned home.

By last summer, Kennedy had been spotted enough times around Cohasset with the girl voted "most beautiful" by her Thayer classmates that friends told the Verrochis their suspicions, the Globe reported. The young woman admitted the relationship to her parents, who "went nuts," according to a family friend. She and her mother then spoke to Victoria Kennedy, who subsequently moved out. The teen entered counseling, and she broke off the relationship when she entered Boston University in September. However, Kennedy continued to show up at her elegant apartment building overlooking Boston's Public Garden. After her repeated refusals to see him, he reportedly stopped trying to make contact in late fall.

So far neither the teen nor her parents have filed a complaint—a necessary first step if prosecutors are to bring statutory-rape charges against Kennedy. As with so many Kennedy scandals past, it seems most everyone involved just wishes the furor would die down.

But even in the unlikely event it does, much damage has already been done. Not only to Michael Kennedy's marriage and future, but also to the political prospects of his older brother Joe, 44, whose impending 1998 run for governor of Massachusetts he was expected to manage. According to a new poll by the Boston Herald, 17 percent of the registered Massachusetts voters surveyed say they'd be less likely to vote for Kennedy because of his brother's alleged affair.

"In my estimation this is the seamiest [Kennedy] sex scandal yet," says biographer Jerry Oppenheimer. "When you have an adult man and a teenager...it could just close the book on any affection people have for the Kennedy family."

PAM LAMBERT
TOM DUFFY and MARK DACOSTINO in Boston, JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington and LIZ McNEIL in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Duffy,
  • Mark Dacostino,
  • Jane Sims Podesta,
  • Liz McNeil.