School drama, court theater: Skakel at
the center of a `pure circus' act
by J.M. Lawrence - Boston Herald

Legal proceedings last week in one of the strangest criminal cases in the nation's legal history left Joe Ricci wondering whether Kafka was writing the script for Comedy Central.

The troubled kids he once had in his behavioral treatment program in Maine more than two decades ago are the star witnesses for the prosecution and the defense in the 25-year-old murder case against Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel.

``At least Kafka was serious,'' says Ricci, the tough-talking, ex-heroin addict millionaire who started the Elan School. ``This is out of National Lampoon. Chevy Chase should have been involved in this.''

The drama over a three-day reasonable cause hearing in a Stamford, Conn., juvenile court saw Skakel reduced to tears at the sight of his former childhood tormenter, a man who now fixes Volvos and called ``Unsolved Mysteries'' a few years back to claim Skakel confessed to him.

Skakel was comforted by his bodyguard, Kris Steele, a 6-foot-6 loaner from Michael Bolton.

And then there was Connecticut court magistrate Bernadette Coomaraswamy, a defense witness who once thought so highly of Skakel's recovery from substance abuse that she introduced him to Mother Teresa.

All the while, jokes and jibes from Skakel's tanned big-ticket attorney Mickey Sherman punctuated the scene until Judge Maureen Dennis peered over her glasses and warned him to reread lawyers Practice Book Rule 3.6 covering pretrial publicity. Sherman later joked the rule regulates the shade of pancake makeup lawyers can apply.

Dennis said she will now pore over transcripts of the testimony - mostly former Elan students dueling over whether Skakel ever confessed to the murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley - and decide if the evidence warrants a trial.

She also must decide if the 39-year-old paunchy balding man warming a seat usually reserved for teen offenders in her court should be tried as a juvenile or an adult under the 1975 law.

Ricci sees the whole thing as a ``political trial'' not to mention a huge bad publicity hit for his 31-year-old school.

Testimony last week included one former student, now a guest house manager in Key West, claiming Ricci orchestrated a campaign of beatings, group confrontations and humiliations to force Skakel to admit to murder.

``He said something to the effect of, `Skakel, you'll never leave here until you admit you killed that girl,' '' Sarah Petersen, 38, told the court.

``That's ridiculous,'' Ricci, 54, declared in an interview. ``What was I? Detective Columbo?''

Ricci doesn't believe the state's witnesses either, two men who claim Skakel confessed to them at the school.

One of the men, Greg Coleman, who is serving time in a New York prison for a domestic dispute, admitted he sent the prosecution a letter looking for money. The other, John D. Higgins, whom defense witnesses lambasted as a classic teen rat looking for dirt on fellow students to score points with Elan staff, admitted he lied when investigators first called him in '96 about Skakel's alleged confession.

``I can't even imagine that there would be a trial,'' Ricci said.

Not that Ricci is any fan of Michael Skakel's. Skakel once tried to shut the school down and writes scathing descriptions of his Elan days in a proposal for an autobiography called, ``Dead Man Talking.''

``If he didn't like the fact that he was a spoiled brat and held accountable, that's his problem,'' Ricci said.

Ricci says he did confront Skakel as a boy over his brother Tom's role in the Moxley murder. Tommy Skakel, who was 17 when Martha died and was the last person seen with her, was long considered a suspect. Even now with Michael under arrest, prosecutors have said Tommy isn't off the hook.

Several Skakel brothers and a sister attended all three days of the hearing. Tom did not. His long-time attorney Manny Margolis attended.

Ricci won't talk about that long ago conversation with Skakel. He went to court to protect the confidentiality of conversations between staff and students at the therapeutic school for behavior problems located in Poland Spring. Michael, however, could choose to waive that confidentiality agreement and ask Ricci to testify.

Former students last week testified that Michael once wore a long sign at Elan listing all of his faults, including the command, ``Please confront me on the death of my friend, Martha.''

They said students lined up to pummel Skakel one after another in a boxing ring to force a confession that never came.

The Elan ring is real, Ricci said, explaining it as a technique for handling bullies. ``The bully realizes quickly the whole house is against them and feels the peer pressure, recognizing intimidation is not going to prevail here,'' he said.

Enrollment at the school is now 186 with students from across the nation. Tuition is $44,000 a year.

Despite dramatic testimony last week from students claiming they saw a young girl beaten in 1978 at the school until she had open sores on her backside, Elan has never been found guilty of abusing students. The school weathered another storm of controversy in 1974 when Illinois officials pulled out 11 state wards sent there.

Ricci watched the strange story unfolding in Stamford over the past two weeks and seemed to enjoy the theater, especially when his former staff member Alice Dunn was tripped up under the state's cross-examination.

Prosecutors forced Dunn to admit she earlier told a grand jury about a conversation she once had with Skakel about the murder that left her with the impression that ``as far as he was concerned, he could have done it.''

``She got creamed there,'' Ricci said.

But with a streetwise eye for contradictions, Ricci points out the wide gap between the tenor of the Skakel confessions that Coleman and Higgins claim they heard.

Higgins described Skakel unburdening his soul in a confused teary torrent one late night when they worked together as porch ``night owls'' making sure other kids didn't run away.

Coleman - who was assigned to be Skakel's overseer and admitted being jealous of his charge's stereo and record collection - told a story of a swaggering teen Skakel declaring himself the killer who was going to get away with his crime because ``I'm a Kennedy.''

Add the fact that the case got new life from a book written by disgraced former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman - whom Ricci calls a ``convicted perjurer neo-Nazi racist'' - and the result is pure circus, Ricci says.

``The only thing one can deduce from three days of testimony is that Elan killed Martha Moxley,'' he says.

Judge Dennis is slated to post her decision on the Internet in the coming weeks.

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