The Boy Next Door
02/07/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
Dorthy Moxley had nothing special planned for Jan. 18–tennis with friends in the morning, bridge in the afternoon–until a 9:30 a.m. phone call brought news she had waited more than 24 years to hear: Frank Garr, an inspector with the Connecticut state's attorney's office, told her there would be a major announcement concerning the long-unresolved investigation of the death of Moxley's 15-year-old daughter, Martha, whose savage 1975 murder outside the family's Greenwich, Conn., home has been generating headlines ever since.
"Oh, Frank, I'm not going to be disappointed, am I?" implored Moxley, 67. "No," said Garr, "I think you'll be pleased."
Moxley settled into a chair in her Chatham, N.J., living room and looked up at an oil portrait of her daughter, forever young, blonde and smiling. "Martha, we're getting him," she said through bittersweet tears. "We're going to get him."
The next day, the announcement was made that the Moxleys' onetime Greenwich neighbor Michael Skakel, 39, had been charged with Martha's murder. Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy, turned himself in to police in Greenwich later that day and was released on $500,000 bond to return to his home in wealthy Hobe Sound, Fla.
Skakel, speaking through his lawyer, maintains his innocence, as he has since he was first questioned by police nearly a quarter century ago. His good character is vouched for by, among others, his first cousin Douglas Kennedy, 32, son of Robert and Ethel Kennedy and a reporter with FOX News Channel. "Michael is one of the most honest and open people I know," says Kennedy. "He cares about people more than anybody I've ever met, and there is no possible way he's involved in this."
Proving who was involved in the Moxley murder will present staggering difficulties to the prosecution. Greenwich police, deferential to local gentry such as the Skakels, never searched the Skakel house thoroughly after the killing–though the golf club with which Martha was bludgeoned belonged to the family–and also failed to properly secure the crime scene. Consequently, there is little physical evidence upon which a case might be built. Yet a 1996 episode of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries led to new information and helped prompt the impaneling in 1998 of a one-man grand jury in the person of Connecticut Superior Court Judge George Thim. He heard testimony from 53 witnesses, including former residents of a pricey drug-and-alcohol rehab facility where Skakel allegedly discussed his role in the Moxley murder while under treatment in the late '70s.
The case is further complicated by the fact that Skakel was 15 at the time of Moxley's murder and will face trial as a juvenile unless state attorneys persuade a judge to move the proceedings to superior court. Frank Garr, who was a patrolman with the Greenwich police in 1975, concedes, "An arrest is just the first step. We have a long road ahead."
For Dorthy Moxley, the road has already been long. She saw her daughter for the last time on Oct. 30, 1975, the day before Halloween, as Martha, bundled against the cold in her blue down jacket, happily set off to engage in a few pre-Halloween pranks with other kids from the neighborhood. "She's with me all the time," says Moxley. "I'll open my recipe book, and there will be a card that she wrote out for lemon squares. I'll open a box of stationery, and there's a Mother's Day card she made for me."
Dorthy saw no reason to fear for Martha's safety that evening. Belle Haven, the Greenwich neighborhood where the Moxleys had moved from Piedmont, Calif., 16 months earlier, was an enclave of big houses, pampered lawns and streets guarded by a private security detail. The Moxleys–Dorthy, her late husband, David, an accountant, and their two children, Martha and John, then 17–felt at home among their new neighbors. The presence of the Kennedy-connected Skakels–Michael's father, Rushton, is Ethel Kennedy's older brother–only enhanced the neighborhood's atmosphere of exclusivity and privilege. Rushton Skakel had recently recommended David Moxley for membership at Manhattan's University Club.
Probably no place in Greenwich or in all of Connecticut seemed safer than Belle Haven, yet Martha never came home that night. Dorthy waited anxiously by a window in the library of the family's sprawling Spanish-style house. Before dawn her concern had turned to panic. That afternoon Martha's body was found hidden beneath the low branches of an evergreen on the Moxley property. Lying facedown with her jeans and underwear near her ankles, Martha had been beaten with such force that the six-iron golf club used in the attack had shattered into three parts, one of which had been driven through her neck.
The discovery in the Skakel house of a set of matching clubs with a missing six-iron immediately cast suspicion on the Moxleys' neighbors. Tommy Skakel, then 17, the third of Rushton Skakel's seven children by his first wife, Ann, who had died of cancer in 1973, was known to have had a crush on Martha–Tommy kept trying to get to "first and second base," the teenager had written in her diary–and was the last person seen with her before she was killed. He insisted then, as he does now, that he didn't murder Moxley. Another member of the Skakel household, live-in tutor Kenneth Littleton, then 23, also fell under scrutiny but was eventually dropped from the list of suspects because no evidence or motive linked him to the crime.
From the beginning, Dorthy Moxley kept a certain distance from the brutal facts of the investigation. "I never knew which tree Martha was found under or where things happened," she says. "I thought if I did not know, it wouldn't hurt so much." For a time, the Moxleys remained friendly with the Skakels and even once visited the family's ski lodge in Windham, N.Y. But relations soured when the Skakels stopped cooperating with police in 1976, by which time Tommy Skakel had emerged as the prime suspect.
Soon the Moxleys could no longer bear living in their big house in Belle Haven. "We were convinced that whoever killed Martha had to have been someone who lived across the street at the Skakels'," says Dorthy. The family moved to Manhattan, then, in 1986, to Annapolis, Md. Two years later, David Moxley, who rarely spoke of his daughter's murder, died of a heart attack at age 57. "I think the fact that he kept everything inside added to his early demise," says Dorthy, who herself fell into a deep depression.
Back in Greenwich, where police had scant experience with serious crime, the Moxley investigation meandered along inconclusively. By and large, the Skakels, even while shadowed by suspicion, managed to get on with their lives–all of them, that is, except Michael, a troubled child who struggled with dyslexia and drank heavily in his teens. According to Greenwich native Timothy Dumas, whose account of the Moxley murder, Greentown, was published in 1998, Skakel had a short temper and was reputed to have beaten squirrels to death with a golf club.
One family member, who prefers to go unnamed, says Michael's problems date back to his mother's death. "He was never told what was happening," says the source. "His mom was taken away to the hospital, and the next thing he knew, she was dead." In 1978 Michael was arrested for drunk driving after a high-speed chase in Upstate New York. He was sent by his father–himself a heavy drinker who relied largely on servants to raise his children–to the Elan School in Poland Spring, Maine, a private facility then specializing in turning around the lives of troubled rich kids through tough love and discipline.
By all accounts, Elan was a bad fit for Skakel, who ran away several times. According to a written proposal for a book about his life (titled Dead Man Talking) that Skakel and a ghostwriter circulated among publishers a couple of years ago, Skakel wore a sign reading "Confront me on why I killed my friend Martha" during his time at Elan. He left the school after two years and spent much of the '80s on the golf course, on ski slopes and in and out of rehab clinics. Supported by his father, he competed on the international speed skiing circuit and came close to qualifying for a U.S. demonstration team that took part in the 1992 winter Olympics in Albertville, France.
Friends at the time describe Skakel as gentle and generous. "When I was training, he helped me a great deal," says Kazunaga Kusumi, now 33, a member of the Japanese Olympic team. "He'd share his equipment, which is really rare for a competitor." In the early '90s, Skakel married golf pro Margot Sheridan, now 36, and settled in the affluent Boston suburb of Cohasset, Mass., near Skakel's cousin Michael Kennedy, who would die in an Aspen ski accident in 1997. In 1993, at age 32, Skakel earned his bachelor's degree from Curry College in Milton, Mass., and went on to work as a driver for Ted Kennedy's 1994 reelection campaign.
For a time, it seemed that Skakel had slipped free of the long shadow of the Moxley case. But in 1991, another Kennedy cousin, William Kennedy Smith, was tried in West Palm Beach, Fla., on rape charges. Smith, then 30, was acquitted, but his trial spurred rumors that he had been at the Skakel home on the night of the Moxley murder. The rumors proved false, but in an effort to clear his family's name once and for all, Rushton Skakel hired a team of private investigators, Sutton Associates, to examine the facts of the Moxley case once again.
This, evidently, was a disastrous miscalculation. In interviews with Sutton investigators–later leaked to New York City reporter Leonard Levitt, Connecticut cops and the authors of three books–both Tommy and Michael Skakel drastically altered their accounts of events on the night of Oct. 30, 1975. Tommy, who originally claimed he and Moxley had briefly flirted on the lawn before he last saw her walking toward her house at 9:30 p.m., now told the Sutton team that he and Martha had been masturbating each other before parting at around 10 p.m. Michael, who had told cops he was far from the scene at a cousin's house, now added that, after returning home, he climbed a tree, where he too masturbated, outside Moxley's bedroom.
The Skakels' bizarre disclosures and the apparent revision of their stories heightened interest in the case once again. Disgraced former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman, famous for his role in the O.J. Simpson trial, investigated the facts of the case and came up with his own theory: that the Skakel who had killed Martha Moxley was Michael, not Tommy. "One, the murder weapon came from the Skakel home," says Fuhrman, who detailed his hypothesis in his 1998 book Murder in Greenwich. "Two, the Skakel boys were the last ones to see her alive. Three, Michael lied to police, which eliminated him as a suspect in 1975. Then he told a different story–a whopper of a story–in 1992 that put himself all over the murder scene."
Fuhrman also says he talked to former Elan School students who claim Michael Skakel admitted involvement in the murder–a claim Michael's counsel, Mickey Sherman, a frequent TV legal analyst, dismisses as unfounded hearsay.
Since 1998, when Connecticut investigators at last compiled enough evidence to convene the grand jury that would lead to the murder charge, Skakel, his wife and their son George, now 14 months old, have lived largely incommunicado in a condo in a gated community in Hobe Sound, close to the home of Michael's father. Friends seeing Michael's picture today are shocked by his gray hair, not long ago blond, and the extra pounds he now carries on his formerly athletic frame. "This has ruined his life," says a relative, referring to the Moxley case.
Yet one person's ordeal may be another's deliverance. Dorthy Moxley, who derives her greatest pleasure from her remaining family–son John, 41, a Manhattan real estate executive, his wife, Kara, and their two children, Caroline, 8, and David, 6–says she is at last ready to confront the full facts of her daughter's murder. "I am definitely going to this trial," she vows. "Wild horses couldn't keep me away."
Jennifer Longley in Greenwich