Skakel's past called troubled
By John Christoffersen - Greenwich Time

In 1975, the Skakel house stood out among the manicured lawns in the exclusive Belle Haven section of Greenwich.

The yard was full of hockey and lacrosse sticks, footballs, soccer and tennis balls, baseball gloves and a large trampoline. This was the home of the Skakel boys, who would alternately become suspects in a murder that would haunt the town and spark intrigue for a quarter century.

The Skakel yard "looked like an explosion in an athletic department," a former friend recalled. "It was kind of like the eyesore in Belle Haven.''

Life inside the house mirrored the chaos on the lawn. The mother of the Skakel children, Ann, died in 1973 after a long battle with cancer. Ann's death had a profound impact on the wealthy but long-troubled family and left behind her husband, Rushton, a daughter and six sons.

After Ann died, a series of tutors were hired to look after the children because their father often was away on business.

"It was a home that had been pulled apart and deflated,'' said George Boynton, who worked in the Skakel home as a tutor and taught at the private Brunswick School, which some of the children attended.

The Skakel family had a history of heavy drinking and reckless behavior, but after Ann's death it would virtually disintegrate. It was in that environment that Michael and Tommy Skakel, nephews of Ethel Kennedy, came of age.

"I think they were completely lost with their mother's death," said Timothy Dumas, author of the book, "Greentown: Murder and Mystery in Greenwich, America's Wealthiest Community." "She was the center of balance in that family. It was as though those kids were orphans."

It was in 1975 that a golf club belonging to Ann Skakel, police would say, became a weapon in the shocking murder of the girl next door, 15-year-old Martha Moxley.

Near her home on Halloween eve, Martha was bludgeoned repeatedly with the golf club until it broke. She was then stabbed through the neck with the shaft.

Dumas' book focuses on the murder. Tommy Skakel was a suspect for many years, but, after a recent 18-month investigation by a Connecticut grand jury, his younger brother, Michael, was arrested Jan. 19 and charged with the killing.

Michael Skakel is due to be arraigned Feb. 8 in state Superior Court in Stamford. His lawyer, Michael Sherman, said Skakel is innocent and will not entertain any offers of a plea bargain.

Many friends and old classmates and teachers would not comment on Skakel or spoke in guarded terms, providing few details of his life. Some are tired of the endless coverage of the case, or are mindful of upcoming legal proceedings.

Dumas, a Stamford resident who grew up in Greenwich, attributes the silence to a common desire for privacy in wealthy towns. While troubled, the Skakels were known to be charming and were well-liked, the mother in particular, Dumas said.

Long prominent in Greenwich, the Skakels represented the established families of the town, said Christy Kalan, a close friend of Martha Moxley. The Moxleys, on the other hand, moved to Greenwich from California less than two years before Martha was killed.

"It seemed that a lot of old Greenwich families decided to support their own,'' Kalan said.

Their silence has troubled Kalan since she was a teenager.

"The Moxleys were kind of ostracized'' after the killing, Kalan said. "It seemed that most of the local support was going to the Skakels. The town was not really interested in returning to an unpleasant subject.''

But the subject never went away. Once again, authorities are focusing on Michael Skakel's life in Greenwich in 1975.

The Brunswick School yearbooks show a free-spirited time - students with long hair parted to the side, wearing plaid pants and wide ties, and teachers with thick sideburns. Social and political upheavals, including the Vietnam War and growing drug use, were dividing the country as the boys entered their teens.

"The 1970s have brought problems and turmoil to much of the world,'' the yearbook noted. "Even though Greenwich is an affluent community, we are not immune to these problems."

Indeed, the aroma of marijuana was evident at Greenwich High School, Dumas said.

"Pot smoke was everywhere,'' Dumas said. "Kids were openly smoking pot back then.''

Brunswick School also was known for a party atmosphere in which some of the wealthy parents were absent from their children's lives, according to Dumas.

The Skakels had a history of that, dating to Michael and Thomas' grandparents, George and Ann Skakel. George Skakel founded the Great Lakes Coal & Coke Co. in 1919 and amassed a fortune. Their daughter, Ethel, would marry Robert F. Kennedy.

"There is a theme in Skakel child-rearing - very little supervision," Dumas said.

The grandparents were known to throw frequent parties for business clients.

"George and Ann stepped up their partying, and the discipline of the children disintegrated further," C. David Heymann wrote in his biography of Sen. Kennedy. "The boys, in particular - Jim, George Jr. and Rushton, then teenagers - became notorious for their arrogant, rowdy antics.''

George bought guns for his sons, according to Heymann.

"Aiming .45-caliber pistols out of the car window, the boys would shoot up mailboxes and street signs as they sped along sedate Greenwich streets at 90 mph," Heymann wrote. "The unamused local police chief frequently stationed a patrol car at the bottom of the family driveway in hope of catching any one of the pack in a violation."

But when Greg Reilly, a friend of the boys, suffered a gunshot wound to the shoulder while playing on the family grounds, the police made little effort to investigate and kept the incident quiet, according to Heymann.

In another incident, George Skakel's eldest daughter, Kick, accidentally killed a neighborhood girl she had taken for a joyride in the 1950s, according to Dumas. Shortly after that, his son, Mark, took a match to a glass salt shaker he'd filled with gunpowder and caused an explosion. He survived.

In the next generation, the children of Rushton Skakel continued the wild behavior. Tommy Skakel tumbled out of a limousine in 1965 while wrestling with his sister, Julie. He cracked his skull on the pavement.

"He recovered, except for the seizures and the paroxysms of rage that seemed to date from the injury," Dumas wrote.

An older brother showed up at Brunswick one day with two broken legs from a skiing accident, according to a teacher who spoke anonymously. He related another story in which the boys were nearly mauled by a bear while at a family vacation house in Canada.

In 1978, Michael Skakel was sent to the Elan School in Poland Spring, Maine, a private school for teens with drug and alcohol problems, after he led police on a high-speed chase in Windham, N.Y.

Michael Skakel had two sides, one that was generous and charismatic, the other cruel, according to Dumas.

"The most disturbing incidence of violence is told by a neighborhood boy about Michael - he liked to corner squirrels and chipmunks and beat them dead with a golf club, the boy says,'' Dumas wrote in his book. "He also liked to entice birds with food and then blow them away with a gun."

Michael began drinking when he was about 12 and soon turned to other drugs, Dumas said.

Michael and Tommy Skakel both had learning disabilities and were not good students, according to Dumas and some of their teachers and classmates.

"I don't think he really applied himself very well to his studies," said John W. Vorder Bruegge, referring to Michael, his classmate. "He was interested in everything but his studies."

As a student, Skakel would fail to pay attention, talk out of turn and act as the class clown, according to a science teacher at Brunswick, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"He was a troublemaker,'' the teacher said. "He was hard to manage.''

But the Skakels were good athletes, especially in soccer.

"All of them were good at soccer. Soccer was their forte,'' said Robert Cosby, who coached the boys at Brunswick.

Now 39, Michael Skakel lives in Florida with his wife, Margot, and their 2-year-old son, Steven. After a decade drifting in and out of rehabilitation centers, Skakel graduated from Curry College in Milton, Mass., in 1993 with a bachelor's degree in English.

Skakel worked as an aide on U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy's 1994 re-election campaign before joining his cousin, Michael Kennedy, in 1995 at Citizens Energy Corp., a Boston nonprofit. In 1996, he went to Cuba with cousins Michael and Robert Kennedy Jr. to meet Fidel Castro.

Skakel also went on humanitarian missions with New Canaan-based AmeriCares. He was named to the national speed skiing team in 1992 and narrowly missed making the U.S. Olympic team, according to The New York Times.

Sherman, the Stamford attorney representing Skakel, described him as kind and compassionate.

"Mr. Skakel is very likely one of the nicest, if not the nicest, persons I've ever dealt with in my life,'' Sherman said.

About 10 years ago, the former Brunswick science teacher was driving a limousine. His fare? Michael Skakel.

"He was a much different kid,'' the teacher said. "He was a very interesting, intelligent, personable, witty young man. He wasn't a problem child any more."

But the troubles of Michael Skakel's childhood will be in the forefront as he faces charges in the murder of Martha Moxley.