SUNDAY, July 5, 1998

By Ellen O'Brien, Globe Staff

GREENWICH, CONN. -- Belle Haven is a luxurious spread of green, a secret garden for very wealthy families who live and die behind its flower-draped gates.

It was where Martha Moxley lived for a short while, many years ago. People who cannot forget the golden-haired girl say they sometimes still imagine her ducking around the tall pines, thick with needles that hush any noise that might penetrate the borders of the enclave.

Now, loud voices are breaking through old barriers of money and power, and the whispers that have persisted for decades about who killed Martha Moxley on Halloween eve, 1975, when she was 15 years old, finally will be heard by a grand jury.

Twenty-three years after Moxley was clubbed to death with a six iron in what forensic specialists say was a sexually psychotic rage, a state attorney will present new evidence to a single grand juror appointed last month.

From the start, the homicide investigation was tainted by suspicions about cash and clout, and shadowed by a connection to the Kennedy family. The boys next door, it turned out, were Michael and Thomas Skakel, the nephews of Ethel Kennedy, widow of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. And the golf club, a rare Toney Penna model, was traced to the Skakel home, where the only set in town had been owned by the boys' mother, who had died two years earlier.

New evidence -- and dramatic changes in their alibis -- have raised fresh questions about the Skakel brothers, and the new investigation seems certain to focus on them.

The case has attracted a determined band of celebrity conspiracy unravelers -- from writer Dominick Dunne to O. J. Simpson detective Mark Fuhrman -- who want to know: Were the Skakels shielded from blame because of their wealth? Or have they suffered unwarranted scrutiny simply because of their connection to the Kennedys?

These days, people in Greenwich are wondering whether the wall of silence around the Skakels will come tumbling down.

``It is a case that just doesn't go away,'' said Warren Cassell, owner of Just Books, a Greenwich store that has sold 500 copies of ``Greentown'' by local journalist Timothy Dumas, and has ordered dozens of copies of Fuhrman's ``Murder in Greenwich,'' which was released in April.

Both books offer accounts of the Moxley killing that point to the Skakels as prime suspects.

``People talk about it all the time,'' Cassell said. ``Everybody knows somebody who knows something about it. There is so much controversy, about the police being so inept, and about how the Skakels had so much muscle in this town.''

Younger Skakel scrutinized

Thomas Skakel, who was 17 at the time of the murder, was reportedly the last person to see Moxley alive. Friends told police they saw him and Moxley flirting, engaged in horseplay on the lawn. The two were left alone that night, as other teens drifted for home.

For years, Thomas Skakel, who police say was known for violent outbursts, was named as a chief suspect by frustrated investigators. Thomas Skakel is the boy Moxley mentions in her diary as having a crush on her, according to her mother.

But it was the younger Skakel, 15-year-old brother Michael, the young girl wrote, who frightened her a bit.

Now Michael Skakel, who worked as a driver for his late cousin Michael Kennedy and testified in last summer's investigation into Kennedy's relationship with a teenage babysitter, stands at the center of the Greenwich case.

A source close to the investigation told the Globe that Michael, who originally claimed to have spent the evening at the home of a relative, now says that he climbed a tree outside Moxley's home and masturbated. The new alibi was told to a private investigator hired by the family in 1991, but prosecutors have obtained copies of the investigator's report, the source said.

The revised alibi is described in Fuhrman's book, and has fueled speculation among investigators that Michael changed his story because he believes new DNA tests could link him to the crime through semen.

The report states that Thomas Skakel also has changed his statement, the source told the Globe, saying that he now recalls leaving his house late at night to meet Moxley in his backyard. Thomas originally told police that he never saw Moxley again after he left her around 9:30 p.m. to complete a homework assignment on Abraham Lincoln.

That account raised eyebrows from the start: Thomas had been seen drinking at a restaurant that night, and he had not been given any assignment about Lincoln.

Initial police work, however, was shockingly sloppy, so amateurish that some forensic specialists believed the damage to the case was irreparable. But Connecticut officials declared this month they have new evidence that could justify an indictment, and that they subjected old evidence to new DNA testing methods. Connecticut Superior Court Justice George Thim, the lone grand juror, will reexamine the case and decide whether to issue an indictment.

Michael Skakel was unavailable for comment at his Cohasset home, where a small wooden sign posted on the lawn reads, simply, ``No.''

Michael, now 38, is distraught over new developments in the case, according to friends. In the past, he has attended several private institutions for people coping with addictions and emotional problems, friends say.

New York attorney Thomas Sheridan Jr., who commissioned the private investigator's report for the Skakel family, said last week that he no longer represents Michael Skakel. During the years that he did represent Skakel, Sheridan repeatedly told reporters he had never seen any evidence that connected his client to the Moxley homicide. Last week, he would neither confirm nor deny that either Skakel had changed his initial statement.

Connecticut attorney Emanuel Margolis, who represents Thomas Skakel, said last week that he found it ``grievous'' that law enforcement officials had, in years past, floated his client's name in connection with the killing.

Thomas took two lie-detector tests. After an initial inconclusive result, when he was too emotionally drained to provide an accurate reading, he passed a second test, police say.

Michael Skakel, however, was not questioned by Greenwich police -- a fact that still rankles in town, partly because he was a reputed troublemaker: Neighbors told police that Michael had killed small animals, such as chipmunks, with a golf club in his backyard.

``Most of the people in Greenwich were appalled that the Skakels were never interviewed,'' said Doris Benedick, a town librarian and Greenwich native. ``You can only do that if you have money. Everybody knows that.''

Stephen Carroll, a former Greenwich police detective, acknowledges being embarrassed by the initial investigation.

``You feel so inept,'' said Carroll, recalling that his fellow detectives had never worked a homicide prior to the Moxley case. ``You feel like a real jerk. You learn more about what should have been done, and you think, `Why didn't I know that?' ''

Father initially cooperative

The Skakels were among Greenwich's most prominent families, heirs to Great Lakes Carbon, once one of the largest privately held companies in the country. Rushton Skakel, Ethel Kennedy's older brother, inherited the family business in 1955. He and his wife had seven children, six sons and a daughter, most of whom carried the same reputation for wild antics as their Kennedy cousins -- but with an even rougher edge.

In the first frenzied days after Moxley's body was discovered under a tree in her front lawn, Rushton Skakel opened his door to police, Carroll said. But when detectives arrived at the private school the Skakel boys attended, armed with information that both boys were emotionally troubled, the family stopped cooperating.

Carroll helped Fuhrman and Dumas with their books, he said, because he is determined to help bring some answers to Moxley's mother, Dorthy, and brother, John. Moxley's father, John Sr., died in 1988 from a heart attack. His widow says he was consumed with his daughter's homicide, telling friends early on that he believed the local police had lost control of the investigation.

Fuhrman, the swashbuckling former Los Angeles police detective infamous for his racial slurs revealed during the Simpson trial, tells readers that he has seen the document in which the Skakels spell out their new alibis.

It was given to Fuhrman by Dunne, who wrote a fictional account of Moxley's killing, ``A Season in Purgatory,'' and whose own daughter died from a Halloween eve attack seven years after Moxley was killed. The report, according to the two authors, was leaked to Dunne by a private investigator.

Both Dunne and Fuhrman are passionately devoted to making wealthy people pay for their crimes.

``Are there two systems of justice in this country -- one for the rich and another for the rest of us?'' Fuhrman asks in his book.

There is no evidence that anyone was paid, or received favors, to keep the Moxley case from being solved, but the feeling persists in Greenwich that a coverup existed.

Donald Browne, a retired state's attorney, was expected to prosecute the case, but stepped aside after it was alleged by Carroll, and reported in ``Greentown,'' that he was reluctant to prosecute a Skakel.

``Money has always talked in this town,'' said Greenwich resident Ronny Pucci, sitting on a bench outside the Holly Hill Deli last week. ``If one of the rich kids got in trouble, you would never hear about it. But if one of our kids got into trouble, you'd be reading about it on the front page.''

Early probe badly botched

The worst mistakes in the case were in the initial stages of the investigation. The Connecticut chief medical examiner did not visit the crime scene, and Moxley's body was removed by a local funeral director. Without a properly processed crime scene, it became difficult to determine how long Moxley had been dead.

As a result, several people, including Michael Skakel, were not considered suspects because they could account for the time police believed Moxley was killed, an estimate based solely on when neighbors remember hearing their dogs bark.

One of those dogs licked blood evidence from the grass while police fanned out in a haphazard manner to interview witnesses, Carroll said.

The killer did not plan the homicide, investigators believe, but struck Moxley with the club in a flash of anger, then brutalized her body in a way that indicated a sexually motivated rage. Moxley's blue jeans and underwear were below her knees when her body was discovered, but it has not been determined if she was sexually assaulted.

The killer struck Moxley's skull repeatedly, and stabbed her neck with the jagged shaft of the club after it splintered from the force of the blows.

Moxley was left in a pool of blood near the end of her driveway. Later, the trail of evidence made clear, she was dragged to another spot on the lawn.

The night she was killed, Moxley wore faded Tretorn sneakers and a puka-shell necklace. She spent her last summer carefree, discovering hiding places with her girlfriends, and savoring the realization that all the boys liked her because she was pretty and smart.

``I have these notes we would pass back and forth, and her mother gave me her puka necklace,'' said Christy Kalan, one of Moxley's closest friends, whose family still lives in Greenwich. ``We used to make those collages, you know, where you cut things out of magazines and paste them all together.''

Kalan said many people in Belle Haven wanted the furor of the Moxley murder to die down, the gruesome details to fade away.

``It's messy, and it's not nice, and it just tarnishes their world, I think,'' said Kalan. ``It's disruptive to them.''

Moxley's mother, who now lives in New Jersey, said she finds it cathartic to talk about the young daughter who had just discovered basketball and boys, the girl who liked to draw, and spent time talking to her cats as she cradled them in her arms.

She reads the books about her daughter's death, but skims over descriptions of the blood and Martha's mutilated skull.

``I am not sure I know today who killed her,'' said Dorthy Moxley. ``I just know it had to be someone who was at their [the Skakels'] house that night. And now I know the boys changed their stories. Of course, later we found out they had all these emotional problems. And they haven't cooperated with us. The more you learn. . . .''

Dorthy Moxley waits each day, hoping that a killer will confess.

``I live for that,'' she said. ``It is what I want. I understand I still have a long way to go.''