The Reckoning

You are only as sick as your secrets,” Michael Skakel once said. Which, on the outward evidence so far, suggests that the 41-year-old Kennedy cousin has almost nothing to hide. With his ruddy complexion and vigorous stride, Skakel arrives each day at the State Superior Courthouse in Norwalk, Conn., looking more like a well-fed banker on his way to work than the defendant in one of the nation’s most long-awaited, most celebrated and most celebrity-driven murder cases.

Yet it is worth remembering, 26 years after the gruesome killing of 15-year-old Martha Moxley in her gated Greenwich neighborhood, that there are dark and tangled truths at the heart of the Skakel case. That much will become clear as the trial unfolds over the next several weeks amid a clamor of disputed evidence and lurid theories and counter-theories. Whether the prosecution has the goods to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is likely to remain an open question right down to the verdict by the jury of six men and six women. But for the Moxley family, which has grieved for too long without justice, it is enough to have gotten this far. “It’s truly a miracle that we are here today,” says Martha’s mother, Dorthy Moxley, 69, who, as the first prosecution witness, described watching her daughter eat a cheese sandwich on the evening of Oct. 30, 1975, and then never seeing her again. “We never thought anything would happen.”

At the center of the case is Michael Skakel, a man of many contradictions, who was also 15 at the time of the murder. Indeed, one of the subtexts of the case is his complex relationship with his Kennedy kin, many of whom privately revile him for what they see as his past disloyalty to the family and yet have pledged their public support for him. Another is that friends of Skakel—and he has many—describe him as a warmhearted, jovial guy who has spent his winters golfing and playing tennis near his home in the exclusive community of Hobe Sound, Fla., or skiing in Upstate New York—in short not anyone who could have committed such a horrific crime. “I’ve never seen any hint of violence. It’s just not in his nature,” says Kim Narayanan, 41, an executive assistant in New York City who has been close friends with him for 23 years. “He’s just a great, levelheaded guy.”

If so, it is a testament to what can only be called a superhuman ability to overcome his own history. Skakel grew up in a world of serious wealth, which was matched only by his family’s serious dysfunction. Michael’s grandfather George Skakei founded the Great Lakes Carbon Corporation and went on to make a fortune producing clean carbon for use in making aluminum. At one time the family, which sold the business in 1985, owned the Atlanta Braves baseball team. Michael’s mother, Ann, was a much-beloved figure who died of cancer when he was 12. As a parent, his father, Rushton, the older brother of Ethel Kennedy, was by many accounts a hard drinker who was often away from his seven children. He appears to have been hardest on Michael. In a book proposal Michael co-authored in 1998, he said his father beat him and even condoned his being bullied by older brother Tommy. By the time Michael was 13, he says in his book outline, he was a fullblown alcoholic.

Rushton’s children were friendly with their Kennedy cousins, Ethel’s kids, with whom they sailed and played football. In their exclusive Belle Haven neighborhood in Greenwich, the Skakels earned a reputation as out-of-control hellions. Michael, in particular, seemed to veer between wanton hostility and a deep need to be accepted. “Michael was a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character,” says Timothy Dumas, author of A Wealth of Evil: The True Story of the Murder of Martha Moxley in America’s Richest Community. Explains Dumas: “He could be awfully cruel. One friend told me Michael shot his dog—not fatally [but with] a pellet gun he liked to use on animals. On the other hand he had a real generous streak. He would take his friends down to the sports shop in Greenwich and buy them baseball gloves and other things.”

But nothing had prepared the Skakel clan, or Greenwich, for the horrific events of Halloween Eve—Mischief Night—1975. Michael, his brother Tommy, then 17, as well as Martha, who lived across the street, were among a group of neighborhood kids who had gathered at the Skakels’ that evening for what was supposed to be harmless fun. Except that Martha never came home. The next day her body was found under a large pine tree on her family’s property, where it had evidently been dragged from a place close to her driveway. She had been beaten with a golf club, and, by one report, the broken shaft of the weapon had been driven through her neck. Her pants and underwear had been pulled below her knees, but there was no other sign of sexual assault.

Police quickly determined that the club was one of a set owned by the Skakels. Under questioning Tommy said that he had merely been flirting with Martha earlier in the evening and that he had last seen her heading home at around 9:30 p.m. Michael insisted that he had barely seen Martha that evening. As the last one believed to have seen Martha alive, Tommy fell under suspicion, as did Kenneth Littleton, then 23, who had just started work on Oct. 30 as a live-in tutor and sitter for the Skakel kids. But investigators eventually cleared Littleton, who was given immunity from prosecution in the case in return for his grand jury testimony. On the stand during the first week of the trial, Littleton, now 49, was questioned about a bizarre confession he had supposedly made years ago but which now seems discredited. At first, Michael was not considered a suspect because he was believed to have an alibi for the period, from roughly 9:30 to 10:15 p.m., when Martha was possibly killed.

The investigation soon stalled, in part, critics like author Mark Fuhr-man charge, because the inexperienced Greenwich police had allowed the crime scene to be fouled and because they were reluctant to pursue the prominent Skakels too aggressively. But doubts about Tommy lingered. He and Michael stuck to their stories until more than 15 years later, when they told a private investigator hired by their father to clear his sons a far different, and decidedly stranger, account. In the second version Tommy said that he and Martha had been on the Skakels’ lawn fondling each other until about 10 p.m., when they parted, while Michael said that he had separately climbed a tree near Martha’s bedroom and masturbated. In the trial’s opening arguments prosecutors charged that Michael was jealous that Martha seemed to prefer Tommy, which could be taken as a motive for killing her. They also introduced into evidence entries in Martha’s diary from just before the murder in which she noted, “Michael was so totally out of it that he was being a real a——— in his actions & words. He kept telling me that I was leading Tom on when I don’t like him (except as a friend).”

In the months and years after the crime Michael had numerous other troubles. By his own count he flunked out of more than a dozen schools and had several brushes with the law. In one disturbing incident in 1978 at the Vershire School in Vermont, Skakel apparently brandished a ski pole at a faculty member’s wife who tried to discipline him.

In March 1978 Skakel was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving near his family’s vacation home in the ski town of Windham, N.Y. After he pleaded guilty to lesser charges, his family had him shipped off to the private Elan School in Poland Spring, Maine, which specialized in dealing with teens with drug and alcohol problems. It did so, according to Michael, by using near-medieval methods. “[The school] seemed to operate,” he later recalled, “on the pedagogical principle that beatings, humiliation and degradation are helpful tools in restoring teenagers’ self-esteem.”

Somehow, though, in his 20s Skakel seemed to get his life together. For one thing, he was diagnosed with severe dyslexia, which explained his poor showing in school. He flourished at Curry College in Milton, Mass., where the curriculum was geared to helping learning-disabled students. Perhaps more important, he got sober, becoming a regular at AA meetings. “Decades of shame, rage and self-loathing seemed to fall away in a very short period,” he wrote of his awakening. Around the same time he took up the sport of speed skiing and soon made a name for himself as one of the top competitors in this country. “Michael was very, very good,” says Bill Miller, now a ski shop owner in Aspen, who raced with Skakel on the speed-skiing circuit. “He was a threat to be on the podium any race he was in.”

Even more encouraging, he started dating Margot Sheridan, a golf pro, whose uncle Thomas Sheridan acted as Michael’s lawyer at the time of the Moxley murder. Margot, whose family had helped develop the Windham ski resort that the Skakels often visited, had known Michael off and on for years. The couple were married in 1991 and in ’98 had a son George, now 3. Eighteen months ago, however, citing the pressures of the murder investigation, Margot filed for divorce. (Margot, who lives in Windham, and Michael share custody of George.)

Over the years finding a steady job proved equally difficult for Skakel—not that he needed the money. His main employers? His relatives. He worked for Ted Kennedy’s 1994 Senate campaign and about a year for his cousin Michael Kennedy’s nonprofit group in Boston, Citizens Energy. That association helped set the stage for a bitter clash with the Kennedy clan. In 1997 police in Massachusetts began probing reports that Michael Kennedy, who was married and the father of three children, had been carrying on an affair with his family’s underage babysitter. The exact sequence of events is unclear, but it appears that Michael Skakel, who now prided himself on his clean living, cooperated with investigators when they questioned him. The ensuing scandal was a public relations disaster for the Kennedys, even helping force Joe Kennedy to scuttle his plans to run for governor of Massachussetts.

If that episode left hard feelings with the Kennedys, Skakel’s book proposal created an all but irreparable rift. Titled Dead Man Talking: A Kennedy Cousin Comes Clean, the memoir promised to be “a first-person account of the inner workings, both political and familial, of the myth-enshrouded, Machiavellian and ruthless Kennedy clan…” Just in case anyone was in doubt about his intentions, Skakel further vowed to expose “the inner workings of campaigns, dirty tricks, back rooms, bedrooms, courtrooms and lay bare the devious workings of a propaganda machine that works night and day to hide the sordid truth behind a scrim of patriotic idealism, hero-worship and religiosity.” About the only thing missing from the tirade was a suggestion that the eternal flame at Arlington Cemetery be extinguished.

The Kennedys were livid at what was widely viewed as Skakel’s betrayal, though they did mute their public criticism. Ethel’s son Robert Kennedy Jr. told PEOPLE that he had gone fishing with Skakel recently. “It was cordial,” says Kennedy, “but we’re not as close as we once were.” Kennedy adds that he expects several of his siblings and perhaps even mother Ethel, now 74, to attend some of the court sessions as a show of solidarity. (Skakel’s own father suffers from dementia and lives in Hobe Sound.) So why have the Kennedys pledged such staunch support for their wayward relative? In the view of author Dumas, it all comes down to honoring family ties, which in the Kennedy universe is a paramount virtue—even when it is not reciprocated. “Michael dished some pretty nasty dirt on them,” says Dumas. “But the Kennedys are known for their loyalty and for drawing together in times of crisis.”

Skakel’s legal ordeal certainly falls into that category. Investigators finally charged Michael with murder in January 2000, partly as a result of his changing story. Most explosive of all, however, were two students at Elan School who came forward in 1998 to say that Michael had confessed to them. One of the former students, Gregory Coleman, testified in court that Skakel had even bragged, “I’m going to get away with murder. I’m a Kennedy.” Skakel’s lead attorney, Mickey Sherman, is expected to depict the supposed confessions as the confused recollections of troubled individuals. (Indeed, not long after his testimony Coleman died of a tainted heroin dose, though his allegations may be introduced at the trial.) Sherman is also likely to make much of the fact that there is no DNA or other physical evidence to directly link Skakel to the crime. Even some officials who believe Skakel is guilty acknowledge that the prosecution’s case is not an especially strong one. “This is a very, very circumstantial case,” says one source in Connecticut’s judicial system. “Years have passed, memories have faded. There’s a lot going against the government.”

At the moment that does not discourage Dorthy Moxley, who has waged a spirited battle for 26 years to have someone held to account for her daughter’s murder. “We all should be responsible for what we do, and when something terrible happens, the person who did it should be punished,” she says. “I believe in the system.”

Bill Hewitt

Fannie Weinstein in Norwalk, Tom Duffy in Windham and Linda Marx in Hobe Sound

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