Skakel defense may eye other suspects
By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time

When Michael Skakel goes to trial for the 1975 slaying of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley, his defense team may attempt to deflect suspicion by pointing the finger at other people.

In addition to those whom authorities publicly identified as suspects prior to Skakel's January 2000 arrest - most notably former Skakel family tutor Kenneth Littleton and Skakel's older brother, Thomas Skakel - Greenwich Time has learned the defense also may target Skakel handyman Franz Wittine, who died in 1997, even though the lead investigator in the case says he is not a suspect and never has been one.

Wittine, who worked for the family as a chauffeur as well as doing odd jobs, was living in a basement apartment at the Skakel residence at the time Moxley was killed with a golf club owned by the Skakels.

Michael Sherman, who has represented Michael Skakel since 1998, said alternate suspects are fair game in a murder trial.

"I'm not going to tip my hand," he said. "But this is certainly a case where the evidence will show that police focused on many viable suspects before they elected to arrest Michael Skakel. It's certainly fair inquiry to go into the depth of the police investigation into other suspects."

That Littleton might be offered up as the possible killer would come as no surprise. Although he had no known motive to fatally bludgeon the 15-year-old Greenwich girl, Littleton for many years was viewed with suspicion primarily because he was a newcomer to Belle Haven, where Moxley and Skakel lived. Then a 23-year-old teacher at Brunswick School in Greenwich, Littleton was hired as a live-in tutor for the Skakel children. He moved into the Skakel residence the same day Moxley was killed

"We're confident he didn't do it, or we would not have granted him immunity" in return for his grand jury testimony, said State Inspector Frank Garr, the lead investigator for the prosecution.

The most likely other alternative murder suspect to possibly be named at trial is Thomas Skakel, the defendant's then-17-year-old brother, who was the last person to be seen with Moxley when she was alive. Other neighborhood youths told police of seeing the pair together outside the Skakel residence about a half hour before police believe Moxley was slain.

The older Skakel brother cast further suspicion on himself when in the early 1990s he admitted to private detectives working for his family that he had lied when questioned by police in 1975. According to a copy of a draft report from the Sutton Associates investigations firm, Thomas Skakel significantly changed his alibi, saying after leaving Moxley at around 9:30 p.m., he returned to have a sexual encounter with her on the rear lawn of his residence.

It was that same Sutton draft report in which Michael Skakel also changed his alibi - putting himself at the crime scene at about the time it is believed Moxley was killed - and apparently shifted the focus of the state's investigation onto him.

Thomas Skakel was never called before the grand jury and does not have immunity from prosecution.

After the grand jury issued the report that was used to arrest Michael Skakel, Stamford attorney Emanuel Margolis said Thomas Skakel had been exonerated by the grand jury's inaction against his client. State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict responded by saying Margolis' comment had been "ill advised."

The prosecutor said, "This office has done nothing to suggest that anybody has been cleared in this matter."

A less-publicized suspect had been an immediate neighbor of the Moxleys on Walsh Lane, Edward Hammond. Then a 26-year-old Columbia University graduate student, Hammond was cleared after a search of his residence produced no evidence, and he passed two polygraph examinations.

Skakel's defense is also expected to tell the jury that Greenwich police had spent considerable time investigating the possibility a transient had wandered into the private Belle Haven neighborhood from nearby Interstate 95.

Another person who was questioned and who will hardly be known to anyone who has not followed the Moxley case in minute detail is Skakel handyman Franz Wittine.

A 1978 memo prepared by Thomas Sheridan, the Manhattan criminal defense attorney hired to represent Michael Skakel in the immediate aftermath of the slaying, shows the scrutiny Wittine came under at the time. That memo is now in the hands of Sherman, Skakel's current attorney. While confirming he has the memo, Sherman refused to discuss it.

Although Sheridan had once thought Wittine a strong possible suspect, and his memo may be used at trial to show Wittine in an unfavorable light, Sheridan said he no longer believed the former Skakel handyman could have killed Moxley.

Among other things, the memo states that Wittine behaved in a way that could be considered inappropriate when the Skakel brothers had visitors to their Otter Rock Drive home before Moxley's death. The memo also said Moxley wrote in her diary that she was afraid of someone who could have been Wittine.

While following up on the diary entry, according to the memo, Sheridan learned that prior to Moxley's slaying, another neighborhood teen had an encounter with Wittine that Sheridan interpreted as having possibly been inappropriate.

Wittine began working for the Skakels in 1967. He was placed on the payroll of Great Lakes Carbon, the company owned by Michael Skakel's father, Rushton Skakel Sr. According to Sheridan's memo, Wittine applied for early retirement on Jan. 6, 1976.

In a recent interview, Sheridan said he no longer believed Wittine, who adopted the name Frank after immigrating to the United States from Yugoslavia, could have killed Moxley.

"Frank was interesting, but like a lot of things with this case, it just didn't pan out," Sheridan said. "All we could prove was that Frank Wittine was in that house the whole night" of the slaying.

Garr said, "As far as I'm concerned, Frank Wittine was never a suspect."

Despite being discounted by Garr, Wittine was asked by investigators to take a polygraph exam at least three times before he complied and passed in 1993.

Nevertheless, Sheridan said, Skakel's defense team is likely to evoke the handyman's name at trial.

"Frank Wittine is one of several who can be classified as suspects in this case," the attorney said.

Working for Skakel's defense is Stamford private investigator Vito Colucci, who refused comment when asked about his probe into alternate murder suspects.

If and when Wittine's name is evoked before a jury, there will be no one to defend him. He died a widower and childless in upstate New York in 1997, one year before the grand jury was convened in Bridgeport to further probe the long-stalled Moxley homicide investigation.

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