Updated April 22, 1991 12:00 PM

In the long downward slope of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s private life and public career, what happened at the family’s Palm Beach, Fla., retreat last month may, in retrospect, mark the point at which sorry decline turned into free-fall. During what the Senator would later call “a traditional Easter weekend,” a late-night gathering involving wine and women took an exceedingly ugly turn. In the early hours of March 30, as Good Friday became Holy Saturday, Teddy and his younger son, Patrick, 23, drank with a woman they had met at a bar, while another claimed she was raped on the grounds of the Kennedy estate. After the alleged victim went to the police, authorities moved so cautiously that cynics thought they detected a cover-up; no one on the local police force, it seemed, wanted to be the first to point the finger at America’s most prominent political family. For those who remembered previous Kennedy embarrassments, the Palm Beach story seemed all too familiar.

This time, though, suspicions were focused not on the Senator himself but on William Kennedy Smith, his 30-year-old nephew. A fourth-year medical student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Smith was identified on April 5 by a tight-lipped Palm Beach police department as the prime suspect in the reported assault.

Once a low-profile Kennedy cousin, young Willy (son of Jean Kennedy Smith and the late Stephen Smith) found himself hounded by TV cameras and dissected in the tabloids. Although he has yet to be charged with any crime, he submitted blood and hair samples to police on April 7; the results, expected in six to eight weeks, may help to determine whether charges will be filed. Meanwhile, photographers waited implacably at 1095 North Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach, their lenses trained on the tile-roofed villa known as La Guerida.

This much is not in dispute: At about 10:45 P.M. on Good Friday, Teddy and Patrick Kennedy, the youngest of his three children and a Rhode Island State Representative, stopped in for a beer at a bistro called Ann’z. Sometime after midnight, they appeared with Willy Smith at Au Bar—a chichi nightspot where trust-fund idlers, obscure blue bloods, bejeweled society matrons and erstwhile celebs like Roxanne Pulitzer go for gossip and $12 cheeseburgers. In that crowd, the Kennedys drew only the occasional glance; the Senator is well-known on the Palm Beach bar scene, and patrons in the crowded club were awaiting the arrival of Ivana Trump, who was on her way with a party of 20.

After ordering drinks from the bartender (who said Teddy’s usual was a double Chivas Regal on the rocks), the three took a table near the dance floor. Among those at the bar was the woman who would later accuse Willy Smith of rape. A dark-haired, attractive 29-year-old well-known to patrons of watering holes like Au Bar, she was accompanied by her friend Anne Weatherly Mercer. The stepdaughter of a wealthy industrialist, the alleged victim, who is unmarried, lives with her 2-year-old daughter in a $250,000 house in nearby Jupiter.

When Patrick Kennedy got up to join the crowd on the dance floor, he met 27-year-old Michele Cassone, a waitress at Testa’s Restaurant. As she tells it, she discovered only later in the evening who her partner was: “I [only] knew his name was Patrick and he was cute,” she says. After Cassone met young Kennedy, he invited her to join him at his table. There, she was introduced to the flushed Teddy—who, she noted, was “not an attractive man—not someone you’d want to be with.”

Cassone sat at the Kennedy table sipping champagne until the bar’s 3 A.M. closing time but did not see the alleged victim (whom she had met earlier in the evening). After last call, she says, “Patrick asked me, ‘Why don’t you come have a drink with us?’ ”

Driving her own Toyota, she followed the Kennedys’ white convertible, with Patrick at the wheel, back to the family mansion—a six-bedroom, $3 million house designed by architect Addison Mizner.

Cassone says Patrick asked her if she wanted a drink, and then left to pour her a white wine. “Ted,” she remembers, “was very drunk, and Patrick and I had a nice buzz on.” Left alone in the living room when Teddy, too, disappeared, Cassone heard talk and laughter in another part of the house but never saw anyone. It was only when Ted reappeared that Patrick’s visitor began to feel uncomfortable. As she and Patrick sat chatting, the Senator reportedly walked back into the living room without his trousers; as Cassone tells it, he seemed to be wearing only a long-tailed shirt. “I got totally weirded out,” says Cassone. Ted “didn’t say anything,” she says. “He just looked at Patrick. I said, ‘I’m out of here. I’m leaving.’ ”

Instead, Patrick suggested that they sit on the seawall. After putting on his trousers, Ted joined them. The three, says’ Cassone, talked about the ocean, and about “the importance of family.” Soon afterward, Cassone reports, “The Senator was making things sound strange. It wasn’t exactly innocent, and Patrick was getting edgy.”

By Cassone’s account, the two extricated themselves from Teddy and then took a walk on the beach, where they kissed a bit. “It was innocent stuff,” she says. “I said. ‘I just met you. There are diseases in the world. It’s time to go home.’ ” The obliging Patrick walked Cassone to the driveway, where she saw a man leaning into the door of a car, apparently saying goodnight to someone. Between 4:30 and 5 A.M., she drove away from La Guerida—never suspecting, she says, that any sort of sexual assault had taken place.

The story of what happened elsewhere on the estate that evening remains elusive. Although the Senator (who was questioned by the police on April 7) and Patrick (who underwent similar questioning) have said little about the evening in question, police say neither is under suspicion. Authorities have released few details about their investigation, and no one seems to have seen Smith and the alleged victim at the Kennedy compound.

According to a source who works for the City of Palm Beach (and who spoke to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel), when Smith and the young woman arrived at the family compound, they decided to take a walk on the beach. By this account, Smith took his clothes off and waded into the surf. While he was swimming, the woman began walking back to the house. After she left the beach, she claimed, Smith grabbed her ankle from behind, tripping her, and then sexually assaulted her.

The source told the Sun-Sentinel that Smith later followed his visitor into the house and tried to convince her that there had been no rape. Reportedly, the woman telephoned her friend Anne Mercer, who later said that she agreed to meet her at the Kennedy compound. When Mercer arrived, she said that the woman had with her a Kennedy family photo and an antique urn. (While taking the objects at first seemed inexplicable, some speculated that she wanted to prove to police that she was inside the mansion.)

As the weekend wore on, the Kennedys gave little sign that anything out of the ordinary had occurred. At La Guerida, Teddy hosted an intimate Saturday lunch for a former girlfriend, and according to one guest, the mood was light; everyone present (including Jean Smith) carried on as though nothing had happened during the night. The Senator also made an appearance at a local bar and restaurant called Chuck and Harold’s, where he had drinks with friends. On Sunday, after Mass at St. Edward’s Catholic Church, he turned up again at Chuck and Harold’s.

As tale bearers began to pick up on the story, some locals refused to believe that a crime could have occurred on the Kennedy estate. “You never see them,” asserted S. Phelps Montgomery, who lives down the street. “They could not be nicer neighbors.” Others, however, had less trouble believing the story. “Over the years I’ve been to many parties at the Kennedy house,” says socialite Susan Polan. “One plays tennis there, one goes to parties there, but there are times when you don’t go up to the Kennedy house unless you expect to be raucous. They’re a lot of fun, but they’re just boys, and boys will be boys.”

In a resort town where there are few secrets, the name of Smith’s alleged victim quickly began circulating. Once employed as a clerk at the Palm Beach Post, she had attended Rollins College and held jobs at a law firm, a Methodist church and Walt Disney World. By one account she has a young child by the son of a once-prominent Palm Beach family. To many residents, she was known as someone who did little but go to clubs. “She was out every night and always had a good time,” says one bartender. “She was a real party girl.” According to a Palm Beach insider, “She likes to drink and laugh. I’ve seen her out and about a lot.” For all of that, says an acquaintance, “I can’t imagine her making up a story like this. Basically she’s an okay girl.”

Refusing to speak to the press, who besieged her house and offered outlandish sums for an exclusive interview as soon as her identity leaked, Smith’s alleged victim stayed behind closed windows and locked doors after the rape was reported. On April 4 she hired savvy, media-conscious Palm Beach attorney David Roth, who has represented both Judd Nelson and David Crosby. “All I can say is that…her intention is to see that the perpetrator of the sexual battery is brought to justice within the criminal justice system,” said Roth.

While neither she nor Roth will provide details about what happened after the alleged rape, it appears that the woman notified police by late morning on Saturday. At about 2:30 that afternoon, she appeared at Humana Hospital’s rape center in the company of a detective and was treated for minor injuries and subjected to forensic testing. While the results of those tests have not been made public, a Palm Beach police official said later that he was “99 percent sure” that a sex crime had taken place at the Kennedy estate.

The battalion of reporters who arrived in Palm Beach during the week of April 1 noted that the police seemed to be remarkably casual about their investigation. Oddly, the detective assigned to the case filed no report until Monday. Reporters who inspected the police log on Easter Sunday found no entries for Saturday; when the incident finally appeared on Monday’s log, the address of the alleged crime scene was given not as 1095 North Ocean Boulevard but as Humana Hospital. Although a sparsely detailed statement was released on April 1 (after the Kennedys were on their way north), no suspects were mentioned, and the incident report was kept from the press.

Accusing the police of foot-dragging, attorneys acting on behalf of the local media filed a suit demanding that they release information pertinent to the case. At an April 4 court hearing, the lawyers mentioned the precedent set by a case involving another Kennedy—this one, the hapless David, third son of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy. On April 25, 1984, David, 28, succumbed to a drug overdose in a $292-a-night Palm Beach hotel suite. Although the state attorney was asked to make information in the case file public, the death is still surrounded by several troubling questions.

The attempt to force Palm Beach police to disclose more facts about the current rape allegation was unsuccessful. Judge Richard Oftedal ruled that “the release of an incident report would compromise the investigation, and…might sway the testimony of the suspect himself.”

On the face of it, Willy Smith is an unlikely candidate for the rapist’s role. Like his cousin Patrick, who is said to be something of a straight arrow, Smith gets high marks from many friends and clan members. According to medical school classmates, he has championed on-campus rights for women and minorities, designed a program to help physicians interact with terminally ill children and continues to make his rounds at Georgetown University Medical Center. Blair Marshall, a platonic female friend, says, “I’ve known all his girlfriends, and he’s always the perfect gentleman. I’ve been with Willy when he’s probably the drunkest he’s ever been. I’ve been the same way too, and I’ve never seen him get violent or antagonistic at all.” Adds Palm Beach attorney Mark Mirkin. who roomed with him at Duke University: “He was shy and quiet—sort of the guy next door. He’d be the last guy in the world to get himself in a jam like this.”

The second of Stephen and Jean Kennedy Smith’s four children, Willy was raised in New York, where Stephen Smith was in charge of the Kennedy fortune. His real job, though, was protector of the Kennedy family itself: It was Smith who mobilized the spin control after Chappaquiddick and who became David Kennedy’s legal guardian when his nephew was struggling with heroin addiction. “In a family where almost everyone behaved like teenagers, Stephen Smith was looked upon as patriarch,” says Barbara Gibson, once Rose Kennedy’s personal assistant. “He was Joe Kennedy after Joe relinquished his control.”

A 1983 graduate of Duke University. Smith’s younger son worked briefly as an investment banker before entering Georgetown University Medical School. Along the way he worked in Teddy’s 1980 presidential campaign and pitched in on the Special Olympics, one of the family’s pet charities.

By all appearances young Smith was a model Kennedy. But while he seems never to have strayed into sexual misbehavior, some intimates do not find it impossible that Stephen Smith’s boy might have made a misstep. “If he did commit the crime,” says a socialite who knew the family, “the apple did not fall far from the tree. Of course, you know about Stephen Sr.’s reputation….”

In fact, the elder Smith was known as a womanizer who had no trouble keeping up with his more famous brothers-in-law. During the ’70s, for example, he kept two mistresses in New York—one Jewish, the other Irish Catholic. “He juggled his mistresses so well that none of them seemed to be aware of the others,” says a friend of one. “Of course, he was also spending vast sums on them. He used to make appearances at Halston’s shows with various girls, buying them very expensive dresses. Like all Kennedy men, he thought he was irresistible and having mistresses was the norm.”

Friends say that Jean knew about her husband’s infidelity, but his power was such that she had no choice but to look the other way (as Rose had done with Joe). “He was God in that family,” says one friend. “No one had the nerve to criticize him.”

According to Patricia Lawford, the second wife of the late Peter Lawford, Jean herself turned briefly to infidelity in the face of Smith’s philandering. “The kids (Stephen Jr., Willy, Amanda and Kym) were certainly the victims,” says one relative. “Stephen was always distant, and Jean had problems of her own. The only Kennedy who reached out to the kids was Ted. In many ways he was a father figure to the Kennedy cousins.”

Adds another friend: “Considering how screwed up the situation at home was for the Smith children, and that Teddy Kennedy, one of the most visible drunks and womanizers in America, was the only role model for the children, I think I can safely say that [the Kennedy family] is deeply troubled. [But] the Kennedys have enough money to put up a wall so they won’t hit bottom. They can always hide it.”

In the absence of Stephen Smith, however, it may be more difficult for the Kennedys to hide their mistakes. For the nonce, Willy himself is lying low: Although he was spotted briefly on a Georgetown street with his mother, he failed to appear for a medical board exam that he was scheduled to take shortly after Easter. In the week after the alleged rape, he issued a terse statement through a family lawyer, saying that the news reports were “inaccurate” and had “unfairly embarrassed my uncle…and my cousin….” Added Smith: “Any suggestion that I was involved in any offense was erroneous.” Coming from a member of this star-crossed clan, it was a statement that sounded disquietingly familiar.

—Michelle Green, Linda Marx, Don Sider in Palm Beach, Katy Kelly in Washington, D.C., Khoi Nyugen in New York City