Generation 'under a cloud' looks anxiously
to the future
By Susan Campbell - Stamford Advocate
NORWALK -- As Michael Skakel stood to hear the jury foreman read his guilty verdict Friday, about 20 friends and family members stood behind him.
When judicial marshals in state Superior Court in Norwalk stepped forward to handcuff him, David Skakel reached to lay a hand on his brother's shoulder, only to have it thrown off by a uniformed marshal.
The moment between the brothers was telling.
After Martha Moxley's body was found almost 27 years ago in the Belle Haven section of Greenwich, suspicion focused on a Skakel family tutor and two Skakel brothers -- Michael and Tommy.
Last week, prosecuting attorney Jonathan Benedict said the entire family "has been under a cloud" since the night Moxley was killed.
If Michael Skakel's generation had any hope of overcoming their mother's early death, their father's alcoholism and a lack of adult guidance in their formative years, it vanished with the murder.
But the clouds had gathered over the Skakels years earlier.
According to Michael Skakel, "chronic illness, alcoholism and a repressive Catholic moral and sexual outlook," as well as "systemic dysfunction, at times surfacing as extreme pathology," haunted his wealthy family for as long as he could remember.
In a proposal for an unsold book, Skakel chronicled his family's disjointed, sick-rich lifestyle, their rudderless household and their "love-hate" relationship with the powerful Kennedys, with whom they were joined when Skakel's aunt, Ethel, married Robert Kennedy in 1950.
Though they seemed to resist comparisons with their more famous cousins, the Skakels -- heirs to what was one of the nation's richest privately held companies -- saw their family history marked by trauma, including violent death, fatal airplane and car crashes, arson, suicide attempts and alcoholism.
"I have come to see this dysfunction as a price of wealth and power in a society that worships romantic myth at the expense of truth," Michael Skakel wrote in his book proposal.
"I am a member of a family sick unto death with generations of secrets," wrote Skakel, who characterized himself as the family scapegoat and recalled being beaten by his father and brother, Tommy.
Skakel, now 41, described overcoming dyslexia that went undiagnosed until he was 26, as well as his "full-blown, daily drinking" from age 13. He has a 3-year-old son, George, from his 10-year marriage to golf pro Margot Sheridan Skakel, who filed for divorce in 2000 shortly after his arrest. Their marriage ended last year.
Skakel contends that his legal problems stemmed from his having exposed his cousin Michael Kennedy's illegal affair with that family's underage baby sitter. Kennedy died in a 1997 skiing accident.
'Intense level of chaos'
The trial's attempts to unearth answers about Moxley's death revealed scant new information about generations of Skakel family secrets. Memories failed, stories changed, but this much is known: In the privileged community of Belle Haven, the Skakels were a peculiar force.
From the stand, family friends recalled a home in which the children were given free rein and unlimited funds, an environment that made the Skakel house a popular place for many teenagers from the neighborhood's wealthy families.
Some families worried about the lack of supervision there, especially after the children's mother, Anne Reynolds Skakel, died of malignant melanoma in 1973 at age 41. In the aftermath of her death, Michael Skakel wrote, "an even more intense level of chaos came to rule our household."
In his book proposal, Skakel wrote: "We called my father's Lincoln 'the lust-mobile.' After my mother died, my father really went off the deep end trying to impress women with his money and with what he thought was his impeccable taste. He had a machine shop remove the Lincoln ornament from the front and replace it with a $5,000 Lalique eagle, and then he had them mount a little light under it. We used to joke around, never within his hearing, that we were going to buy him some fuzzy dice for the rear-view mirror."
Several witnesses at the trial testified that it was in this car that Moxley sat with the Skakel boys, smoking and listening to music, earlier on the night she was killed.
Beth Bye of West Hartford, who grew up in Greenwich and whose family belonged to the exclusive Belle Haven Club with the Skakels, remembers her parents warning her away from the Skakels' French provincial mansion at 71 Otter Rock Road.
"Everyone really liked the mother, and she had died, and that was sad," Bye said.
When the Moxleys moved to the neighborhood in 1974, the senior Rushton Skakel nominated the newcomers for membership in the Belle Haven Club.
"As soon as you moved in, they'd tell you, 'That's where the Skakels live,' and that they were related to the Kennedys," Martha Moxley's mother, Dorthy, said in 1997.
On the night of Moxley's murder, Rushton Skakel Sr. was hunting in upstate New York. Early in the evening, Ken Littleton, the newly hired family tutor, took some of the Skakels, including Michael, to dinner at the club. In his book proposal, Michael Skakel wrote that, then just 15, he nonchalantly ordered rum and tonics and a planter's punch and waited for the reprimand from Littleton, which never came.
Over the years, with suspicion for Moxley's death centering first on Thomas Skakel, then on Littleton, and finally on Michael Skakel, the pressure on the family intensified.
"Just think what Tommy's life has been like all these years," said Martha Moxley's brother, John Moxley, a commercial real estate broker in New Jersey, "being a suspect and knowing Michael did it. That would create some animosity."
Oddly, during the trial, Benedict drew attention to the solidarity of the Skakels, a scene not often repeated outside the courtroom.
"Julie Skakel is the best example of a family support group continuing to this day to do whatever it takes to keep the wraps on Michael Skakel," he said in closing arguments, referring to Skakel's older sister.
Julie Skakel offered a glimpse into family dynamics during earlier questioning by Benedict.
"Did your brother have a turbulent relationship with your father?" Benedict asked.
"We all did," she replied.
"Did Michael have a turbulent relationship with Thomas?" Benedict asked.
"We all did," she replied.
"Did Michael have a turbulent relationship with you?" Benedict asked.
"We all did," she replied. The response brought laughter from the courtroom, but with that, Julie Skakel painted a picture of a family in disarray.
Under a cloud
At the time of Moxley's murder, Rushton Jr. was 19, Julie was 18, Thomas was 17, John was 16, Michael had turned 15 a month earlier, David was 11, and Stephen was 9.
Though they were able to start families and careers -- in real estate, interior design, recycling, international relief, insurance -- the murder always followed them. Michael Skakel, the most natural athlete of the bunch, tried a career as a speed skier. He obtained a degree from Curry College in Massachusetts that offers programs for dyslexic students. He worked in real estate and for Michael Kennedy's Citizens Energy Corp.
During the trial, the scattered Skakel family -- including Rushton Sr., who remarried and moved to Florida -- came to court, some under subpoena. Rushton Skakel Jr. came from Bogota, Colombia. David and John Skakel each came from Oregon, where David works with a recycling company and John works for an insurance company. Stephen Skakel, who used to work with AmeriCares Inc. in New Canaan and was not called to testify, was in court with his brother every day of the trial.
When Thomas Skakel -- who lives with his family in Stockbridge, Mass., and works for a time-share company -- made a surprise visit to the court Wednesday, family attorney Emanuel Margolis, hired by Rushton Sr. in 1976, said, "He came because it was time."
"For them, it's been an incredible amount of pressure," said Michael's defense attorney, Mickey Sherman. "The focus has shifted from one brother to another, so it adds an element of tension that's beyond my comprehension."
At times, Sherman sought to defend his client by subtly shifting blame to Thomas Skakel. During jury deliberations, Margolis said Thomas understood the strategy and bore Michael no ill will.
"I think they love each other, but they're not close, as many siblings aren't," Margolis said. "They're leading very different lives, but I have no doubt they love each other."
A woman who called herself a family friend but refused to be identified said it was the first time the Skakel brothers were in the same room in decades.
After the verdict, when Michael Skakel was led out of the courtroom to be taken to jail until his sentencing July 19, the Skakel family and friends remained in the courtroom, standing quietly. Some hugged, and some, such as Kris Steele, Skakel's bodyguard through the trial, wiped their eyes. They could hear well-wishers outside applauding a quietly smiling Dorthy Moxley, who said she felt empathy for the Skakel family.
As most of the reporters and well-wishers followed Dorthy Moxley outside, the Skakels began to leave. Ann McCooey, the aunt with whom Michael Skakel was staying during the trial, and others were ushered out by bodyguards hired by the family.
After a brief, private conference with Sherman, three of Skakel's brothers -- John, Stephen and David Skakel -- followed Sherman outside to the members of the media waiting behind the courthouse.
Standing in front of a cluster of microphones, Sherman vowed to appeal. Then David Skakel read a statement in which he said his brother was innocent and spoke of his hopes for the next generation.
"For our family," he said, "grieving (for Martha Moxley) has coincided with accusations. For our entire family, the most important thing for each of us is raise our children and strive to ensure the next generation in our family does not inherit the denigration we ourselves have endured."
-- Susan Campbell is a reporter for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.