November 04, 1996 12:00 PM

AT HIS HOMECOMING IN MAY 1995, Alex Kelly got the sort of treatment usually reserved for a returning hero. A bouquet of balloons was festooned on the front of the family’s house in the wealthy suburb of Darien, Conn. Kelly, now 29, dressed in khakis and a plaid shirt, strolled up the walk with his beaming parents, Joe and Melanie Kelly, at his side. As reporters shouted questions from the road, Kelly smiled, waved and responded with a jaunty “I’m happy to be back.”

Afterward he could often be seen around Darien, shopping or riding his mountain bike. And yet, like some modern-day Cain, Kelly conspicuously bore the mark of a troubled past—a clunky electronic monitor attached to his right ankle to ensure that he observed his court-imposed 9 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew.

Kelly wears the monitor because his nine-year attempt to outrun his past—an attempt that took him from the lawns of suburban Connecticut to coffee bars in Sweden, to ski slopes in France and then back to Connecticut in handcuffs—isn’t over just yet. But it may end soon—in a matter of days, in fact. In February 1986, Kelly, a handsome senior at Darien High School, who was also cocaptain of the wrestling team, was accused of raping two teenage girls in separate incidents, over a four-day period. Both girls, one a 16-year-old from Darien and the other a 17-year-old from nearby Stamford, claimed Kelly had brutally attacked them while taking them home from parties. A year later, the day before his trial on rape and kidnapping charges was to begin, Kelly fled the country, triggering a worldwide alert for his capture. But it was only last year, with police closing in, that he turned himself in to Swiss authorities and was extradited back to Connecticut. “I was terrified,” Kelly told ABC News this spring, explaining why he bolted. “I was scared. I ran.”

And now he sits in a courtroom in Stamford as the first of his two trials unfolds, with graphic, wrenching testimony of what prosecutors say was a conscienceless crime committed by a clean-cut, preppy thug. For all the attention on Kelly—still clean-cut, still preppy—the most riveting moments so far have belonged to the first accuser, a tall, slender woman who took the stand last week dressed in a black, double-breasted suit. Now 26 and married, the young executive (whose name has been disclosed in court but is being withheld by most news organizations) testified that on Feb. 10, 1986, five days after her 16th birthday, she had gone out with a group of about 10 friends while on winter break from St. Mary’s High School (the same Catholic girls’ school in nearby Greenwich that Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy attended). She said that they had started the evening at one boy’s house by playing a drinking game called quarters—in which anyone able to bounce a quarter into a glass of beer could order another person to drink it up—before heading to a basketball game at Darien High. After the game they had returned to the boy’s home and resumed their party. In the course of the evening, said the accuser, she consumed only about four small glasses of beer and wasn’t intoxicated. “I felt perfectly fine,” she testified. “I was in control.”

At around 11 p.m., with her 11:30 curfew approaching, she began asking friends for a ride home. No one wanted to go. Then an older boy, who had just stopped by with two friends, agreed to give her a lift. It was Alex Kelly, whom she said she had never met. Outside, a light snow was falling, and it was bitter cold as she and Kelly climbed into a Jeep Wagoneer, which he mentioned belonged to his girlfriend Amy Molitor. According to the accuser, the two drove in silence. At a stop sign about 1½ miles from her house, she maintained, he suddenly leaned over and tried to kiss her, but she rebuffed him.

Then, a minute or two later, as they came to her house, he refused to stop, instead pulling into a secluded cul-de-sac about 200 feet down the road. Right then, she told the court, “I started to get very scared. He grabbed my throat with his left hand. He squeezed as hard as he could. He told me that I was going to make love to him, or he was going to kill me.” In tears the woman testified that he reached behind her and pulled down the rear seat and then forced her into the back of the Jeep—”His hands never left my throat.” After ordering her to remove her clothes, she said, he raped her. “It hurt so bad,” she testified. “It seemed like forever.”

At that point the woman, sobbing on the witness stand, had to take a moment to compose herself. “I asked him, why did he do this to me?” she continued. “He said he didn’t know. He couldn’t control himself.” She said she noticed blood beneath her on the carpet as she put her clothes back on, and she told the court that Kelly had driven her the short distance to her house, ordered her out of the Jeep and threatened to rape her again and kill her if she told anyone. Minutes after arriving home, however, the girl spoke to her older sister, then to her parents about what had happened. “She was scared to death, trembling,” her father testified. “I would characterize it as a state of shock, sobbing uncontrollably.” The next day the woman and her mother went to see a doctor and later met with Darien police. In court, Police Chief Hugh McManus, then a lieutenant on the force, recalled interviewing the accuser, who had red bruises on her neck and chest, as well as a bruise on her back and buttocks, and seemed distraught. “She was visibly upset, crying,” testified McManus. “She appeared very apprehensive.”

In his cross-examination of the accuser, defense attorney Thomas Puccio tried gingerly, yet firmly, to shake her testimony. He suggested that she might have consumed enough alcohol to be drunk. But all seven of the prosecution witnesses who had been at the party testified emphatically that she had not appeared even tipsy. Several explained that the glass used to play quarters contained only 3 or 4 ounces of beer. “She was very sober,” said Andy Weinbrenner, now 26, a sales representative for Perrier. “She definitely was not intoxicated.” Puccio also suggested that the girl had been a willing partner and that it would have been physically impossible for Kelly to have lowered the fold-down backseat of the Jeep in the way that she had described. But Lt. Ron Bussell of the Darien police testified that he had located two other 1983 Jeep Wagoneers and found that the vehicle’s seat could be folded down that way.

Kelly hasn’t done much better outside court lately than he did inside it last week. One evening in September, he was clocked speeding 55 mph in a 30-mph zone, minutes before his 9 p.m. curfew. When a police cruiser gave chase, Kelly allegedly drove the white Nissan sports car even faster, until the car struck something in the road and flipped over. Leaving behind his dazed and bleeding passenger—the same Amy Molitor whose Jeep he had borrowed 10 years earlier, and whose car he had been driving once more—Kelly allegedly fled on foot. When police later went to Kelly’s house, he denied any part in the accident. Two days later, however, with an arrest warrant looming, he turned himself in at Stamford police headquarters.

Molitor, now 27, suffered broken ribs and cuts in the incident, and her presence only underscored Kelly’s playboy image. For much of the summer, Kelly had been seen around town with Elisabet Jansson, 25, a Swedish woman with whom he had been living in Europe when he was finally run to ground by authorities. Last April, Jansson had adamantly rejected even the possibility that Kelly could be a rapist. “That’s not him,” she told ABC News. “That could never have been him. That’s not the person he is.”

It was widely believed, both in Darien and in Jansson’s hometown of Klädesholmen, an island village off the west coast of Sweden, that the two were engaged. At some point in the past few months, though, she returned to Sweden, after which Kelly started keeping company with Molitor, who was often seen holding hands with him or resting her hand on his thigh outside the courtroom. (In Sweden, Elisa-bet’s parents, Mats and Mona, profess to be unsure whether their daughter and Kelly are still involved. “She does not discuss her relationship with us,” says her mother. But the Janssons continue to maintain, if somewhat tersely, their faith in Kelly. Says Mats: “We think he is a nice boy.”)

In their deeds and few public comments, Kelly’s own parents have been unstinting in their support. Back in 1987, after Alex fled to Europe, they were forced to pay $140,000 in cash, which they had posted as collateral for his bond in order to avoid foreclosure on their home. In the years that followed—during which Alex’s older brother Chris died of a heroin overdose at 26—authorities believe the Kellys also helped finance their son’s travels, which took him to Greece, Japan, Scandinavia and numerous European resorts, where he spent time skiing, hang gliding and sailing, as well as working a series of menial jobs. “I would like to live like this forever,” Alex wrote in one gleeful letter home. Indeed his mother and father appeared to set a standard for unconditional love that many parents would be hard-pressed to match. In an interview with ABC News last May, Joe, who owns a successful plumbing business in Darien, said he and his wife had no qualms about their son’s decision to flee rather than face his accusers. “Alex was one brave kid to do what he did,” said Joe, “right or wrong.”

However the current trial turns out, Kelly’s troubles are just beginning. A second trial, in connection with the second alleged rape, is scheduled to get underway as soon as these proceedings conclude. He also faces a felony charge stemming from his car accident this summer. If any of that bothers him, he hasn’t shown it yet; in court he seems relaxed and composed. Yet these are the days of reckoning that Kelly spent years trying desperately to avoid. In a letter to his parents from Europe several years ago, he wrote, “Every day is borrowed time. I…have to keep moving around, otherwise I get caught up in a system with no papers and no answers.” Now he is in a system with answers.

BILL HEWITT

MARIA EFTIMIADES and ANNE LONGLEY in Darien and LEE WOHLFERT in Klädesholmen

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