Headmaster: Skakel expelled for 'threatening' woman with ski pole
By Kevin McCallum - Stamford Advocate
VERSHIRE, Vt. -- ©2002, The Advocate
Michael Skakel was expelled from a private school in Vermont for brandishing a ski pole at a teacher's wife, the former headmaster of the school told The Advocate.
The alleged incident occurred 2 years after Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley was bludgeoned to death with a golf club in 1975. Testimony in Skakel's trial in the murder of his former neighbor is to begin May 7 in Superior Court in Norwalk.
From his hilltop home in this rural village in central Vermont, Richard Wright, founder and former headmaster of The Vershire School, recounted for the first time publicly how Skakel raised a ski pole and "threatened" to strike a woman during a confrontation on a dormitory staircase.
"It was just some kind of flare-up," Wright said of the 1978 incident. "I guess he didn't like being told what to do by a woman."
Skakel's attorney, Michael Sherman, said yesterday that his client denied the incident ever occurred.
The confrontation, as well as other incidents, provides a glimpse into Skakel's turbulent life between the murder of his 15-year-old Belle Haven neighbor in October of 1975 and his enrollment in Elan School in Poland Spring, Maine, in 1978.
Jury selection in the 41-year-old Kennedy cousin's case was completed last week, followed by the filing of a motion by the defense team to introduce a videotape in which Skakel family tutor Kenneth Littleton offers what the lawyers claim is a confession.
The prosecution's case relies heavily on testimony from former students of the Elan School, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, according to Skakel's arrest warrant. The witnesses, as they did in the preliminary hearing in the case, are expected to testify that they heard Skakel implicate himself in Moxley's murder while he was a student at the school from 1978 to 1980.
Prior to Elan, Skakel attended at least three private high schools. In recent interviews with The Advocate, former headmasters, teachers and students at those schools provide a portrait of a troubled young man who was bounced across the country to private schools. The educators described Skakel's behavior as "disturbed," "pathological" and "a catastrophe."
The most dramatic incident uncovered by The Advocate details the alleged threat with a ski pole at The Vershire School, a boarding school that was on 1,000 acres about 30 miles northwest of White River Junction, Vt. The school opened in 1968 and closed in 1988.
Skakel's older brother, Thomas, attended the school and graduated in the spring of 1977. Rumors were rampant at the school that the police were investigating him for some sort of crime, but it didn't seem to prevent him from making friends at Vershire, said 1976 graduate John Beebe, owner of The Pines bar in nearby Chelsea.
Michael Skakel enrolled later that year after running afoul of authorities at a school in Steamboat Springs, Colo. He proved to be an excellent athlete, impressing people with his skills on the soccer field and later spending much of his time on the school's private ski slope, called Judgment Ridge, Wright recalled.
It became evident, however, that Skakel, in contrast to his older brother, wasn't fitting in well at the school, Wright said. He was making few friends, displaying "impulse control problems," and was seen as "pushy, rude, cocky and self-centered," Wright said.
Though Skakel didn't seem to be faring well academically or socially, the teen did not initially get into any serious disciplinary trouble, Wright said.
"I'd have been involved with it if it was a major case," said Wright, 75.
The Advocate first contacted Wright earlier this year in Florida, where he and his wife, Peg, spend their winters. Peg Wright runs the Vershire Riding School on their Vermont property.
At first, Wright was reluctant to divulge specifics about Skakel's time at the school, that he and his wife started after leaving the Peace Corps. Initially, Wright would only say the boy had been sent home after a confrontation with a teacher.
When visited at his three-story timber frame home in Vershire earlier last week, however, Wright, reclining in an armchair with his poodle, Zeus, by his side, elaborated on Skakel's abrupt departure from the school 25 years ago.
The woman who was allegedly threatened, and her husband, who was one of about 15 teachers at the school, lived in the Hill Dormitory along with Skakel and 25 of the school's approximately 100 students.
Maintaining order in the dormitory was part of the couple's responsibilities, Wright said.
After checking school records and discussing the incident with former staff members, Wright told The Advocate the confrontation occurred in late February of 1978.
"As I recall, it was a trivial dorm control issue," he said. "She told him not to make noise, or something like that, and he was feeling nasty."
Whatever the cause, Wright doubted it would have been precipitated by the woman, whom he described as "nice" and "not unreasonable."
He declined to provide the woman's name, citing her right to privacy and a concern that if identified, she might become embroiled in a sensational murder trial.
The Advocate has learned that the woman is Jane Taupier, who lives in a small town in New Hampshire.
Contacted by telephone last week, Taupier declined to comment.
"I have no desire to talk to you," she said. "I have nothing to say."
She did not deny the incident occurred.
"It doesn't have anything to do with the case," she added.
The cause of the confrontation is less important than the fact that a student had made a physical threat in anger against an authority figure, Wright said.
"Nothing like that had ever happened before," he said. "It got to the guidance people right away, and we decided to take a hard line with it."
Students were rarely expelled from Vershire, which prided itself on turning around troubled youth with a combination of fresh air, strong academics and a sense of community.
"For us, to have to send a kid home was a cop-out," said Jack Merrill, a former teacher who now works at Yale University.
Several former students said getting kicked out of the school was almost unheard of, as discipline at the school languished somewhere between lax and non-existent.
"The place was basically insane," said Chip Allee, a biotech engineer who graduated in 1977. "There was hardly any structure of any kind."
Though Wright said drug use was strictly forbidden, several students described it as rampant.
"That school was like a (Grateful) Dead show without the band every day, I'm telling you, man," said Darren Jachts of Manhattan.
Though there were few rules, the ones that did exist were taken very seriously, said Allee, who now lives in Maryland.
One of these was a strict prohibition against violence of any kind, said graduate Bill Spain.
"You couldn't get kicked out for anything," said Spain, a financial reporter for CBS MarketWatch in Chicago. "The only thing you could get kicked out for was violence."
Though Skakel didn't physically harm the woman, she feared for her safety, Wright said. "She felt some fear. She thought she was going to be hit," he said.
Skakel was thrown out almost immediately, Wright recalled.
The school sent his father, Rushton Skakel, a letter explaining that Vershire was "not the right placement for him," and that the boy would not be readmitted until he received psychological treatment, Wright said.
About two weeks later, on March 15, the school received a polite letter explaining that Skakel had been accepted at Elan and requesting a transcript be forwarded there, Wright said.
What Wright didn't know at the time was that Skakel had already been forcibly taken to Elan as part of a deal to avoid jail following a March 5 drunken-driving accident in Windham, N.Y., where the family had a second home. Skakel had nearly run over a police officer before crashing a family car.
It does not appear the prosecution team knew about the threat with the ski pole until asked about it Friday.
Tom Keegan, deputy chief of the Greenwich Police Department, and another officer visited Vershire in December of 1977, Wright said. They were investigating whether Tommy Skakel had been involved in the Moxley murder.
Wright said he told the detectives Tommy had graduated six months earlier, gone on to Elmira College in New York, and that he didn't think Tommy could have been involved in such a vicious attack.
Wright said he told the investigators Michael Skakel had been enrolled at the school for three months, and that he was showing impulse control and attitude problems.
But since the ski pole incident did not occur until late February or early March, detectives didn't learn of it when they visited in December, Wright recalled.
Frank Garr, lead investigator on the case for the State's Attorney's Office, on Friday would only confirm that Vershire was a part of the original investigation.
Asked whether he knew about the incident with the ski pole, Garr declined to comment.
The state's list of potential witnesses does not include anyone connected with the school.
Skakel's attorney, Sherman, declined two previous requests from The Advocate to help compile a timeline of the various schools Skakel attended.
After talking with his client yesterday, Sherman said no such incident occurred. "He categorically denies anything of this nature," Sherman said. "He never threatened anybody at any time with a ski pole."
Asked to explain why Skakel left the school, Sherman said: "He was failing."
In a book proposal written before his arrest, Skakel, with the help of author Richard Hoffman, had this to say about his teenage schooling: "I continued to careen and carom through my life without an understanding of either dyslexia or alcoholism. After failing out of more than a dozen schools, and after several brushes with the law, I was sent to a reform school in Maine called Elan."
From 1971 to 1975, Skakel attended Brunswick School in Greenwich. By the fall of 1975, the time of the murder, he was attending St. Mary Catholic school in Greenwich, according to State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict's questioning of potential jurors.
Skakel didn't complete the year, however. He was kicked out in May after mouthing off to an administrator, recalled Bill McAndrews, who taught at St. Mary and now works at Trinity Catholic High School in Stamford.
"He was just kind of an obnoxious kid," McAndrews recalled.
The following September, Skakel found himself enrolled at the Whiteman School, a private boarding school in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
"He wanted to go out west and to a small school," said Howard Greene, the Skakel family's educational consultant at the time.
Very soon after Skakel's arrival, however, teachers and administrators realized something was not right.
"Michael was a very disturbed boy," retired headmaster John Whittum said last month. "I recall him very well. He probably had the worst span of attention that I've ever seen."
Whittum, 70, explained that while there were no incidents of violence he could recall, Skakel's mental and emotional problems made him profoundly difficult for the staff to deal with.
"He was just a frightened, terribly unstable, disturbed kid that was creating havoc for the school because he was always so unstable, unreliable and unprepared," Whittum said.
While noting that he is not a psychologist, Whittum said he felt Skakel's problems stemmed from an inability to distinguish fact from fiction.
"I don't think I've ever met a kid that was more pathological in terms of his inability to distinguish truth and falsehood," he said.
For example, Skakel would tell a teacher one minute he was planning to go skiing that afternoon, but moments later deny he ever said such a thing, Whittum explained.
Former French teacher Gill Barbier recalls Skakel's antics with exasperation.
"He was a catastrophe," said Barbier, who, like Whittum, still lives in Steamboat Springs.
The year Skakel attended the Whiteman School, which is now called the Lowell Whiteman School, was a disaster in other ways, as well.
The main academic building burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances in February 1977, forcing teachers to hold classes in their cars and, later, a nearby local ski lodge, Whittum said.
Several students were questioned about the blaze, including Skakel, but it was never determined what or who started the blaze, Whittum said.
In retrospect, Whittum said he does not blame Skakel for the problems he caused at the school. It was simply not set up to handle youngsters with serious psychological problems, Whittum said.
Barbier struggled to find words to describe just how difficult it was to deal with Skakel.
"Those kids are just so vivid in your mind because they were just so bad, they were really just unique in how bad they were," he said. "You can't say anything good about the kid."