Unsolved Murder Pushes Buttons of Celebrity, Notoriety, Wealth

Kennedy relatives, an exclusive enclave and a disgraced detective are all tied up in a revived inquiry into a 1975 killing.

By ELIZABETH MEHREN, Times Staff Writer

GREENWICH, Conn.--Here in this bastion of wealth and privilege, the combination is as intriguing as it is unlikely: a 23-year-old unsolved murder, the Kennedy family--and Mark Fuhrman.
     Some in this leafy enclave beside Long Island Sound credit the disgraced ex-Los Angeles police detective with jump-starting the investigation into the Halloween Eve death in 1975 of Martha Moxley, a 15-year-old Greenwich High School student who loved swimming, tennis, her cats and collage artwork.
     "I do credit Fuhrman with raising the profile in this case," said Timothy Dumas, author of "Greentown: Murder and Mystery in America's Wealthiest Community" (Arcade, 1998).
     But others, such as Greenwich Police Chief Peter Robbins, say the arrival of the onetime cop whose racist remarks tainted the prosecution case against O.J. Simpson had nothing to do with reviving the long-stalled inquiry. Robbins, working as a young patrol officer on the night Moxley was bludgeoned to death with a golf club, and others in law enforcement here also insist that Fuhrman's new book on the subject, "Murder in Greenwich" (Harper Collins), contains no new information and is riddled with inaccuracies.
     The fact that a grand jury was convened this month to reexamine the long-dormant Moxley murder "had nothing to do with Fuhrman or Fuhrman's book," Robbins said.
     But suspicion has long centered on two of Ethel Kennedy's nephews, neighbors who were among the last to see Moxley alive, and one thing Fuhrman and Robbins agree on is that the grand jury probe will likely focus on Thomas Skakel, now 39, or his brother Michael, 37. Both have maintained their innocence.
     When the grand jury convened last week, Dorthy Moxley, the victim's mother, was among the first to testify. From her home in New Jersey, she declined to be interviewed. But this spring she told a local journalist that Fuhrman "really has stirred things up, and if we can focus attention on the case, we're grateful to him."
     The truth is that in Greenwich, where the average home sells for $845,000, interest in Moxley's death has never fully faded. The ladies at Diane's Books, where both Moxley murder books were prominently displayed, were abuzz with theories about the killing. None would give their names, however, because they knew all the parties involved.
     Up the street, at Just Books, the Fuhrman and Dumas books were on sale next to the cash register. Owner Warren Cassell said little love is lost here for Fuhrman because "he screwed up the O.J. Simpson case" and because he came to the Moxley case as an outsider. As for the grand jury, Cassell said, "it's about time."
     Moxley was in the full bloom of youth--"she had turned into this beauty, not long before she died," said Dumas, who grew up in Greenwich and is one year younger than the dead girl--when, along with a couple of close friends, she set out on Oct. 30, 1975, for some pre-Halloween pranks. Their Belle Haven neighborhood was so exclusive it did not have street signs. Still, the teenagers took the opportunity to spray shaving cream on some homes, and to festoon the trees and crisply trimmed rows of hedges with toilet paper streamers. Then they stopped by the home of 17-year-old Thomas Skakel and his 15-year-old brother, Michael.
     The Skakels are sons of Rushton Skakel, heir to Great Lakes Carbon, one of the world's largest privately held companies. Their aunt Ethel is the widow of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Friends say Moxley and Tommy Skakel were seen roughhousing in the Skakels' driveway around 9 that night.
     David Moxley, a partner in the accounting firm of Touche Ross in New York, was off on a business trip, and when their daughter failed to come home on time, Dorthy Moxley called police. Teenagers often stay out late, they assured her.
     The next day, Moxley's body was found lying under a pine tree about 200 yards from her house. Her skull had been smashed repeatedly, and she was stabbed through the neck. Her jeans and underwear were pulled down around her knees, although no sign of sexual assault was found.
     The murder weapon was determined to be an unusual Toney Penna model 6-iron golf club. The only such set in town was traced to the Skakel family. Rushton Skakel said the clubs belonged to his late wife, Ann, and that his seven children used them for chipping around the lawn.
     From that point on, Fuhrman said from his home in Sand Point, Idaho, the investigation degenerated into "a parody of police work."
     Because of their influential position in the community, authorities pandered to the Skakels, Fuhrman maintained. Key evidence, such as the shaft of the golf club, which penetrated Moxley's neck, either was misplaced or never found in the first place, Fuhrman charged. Moxley's death was the first homicide in Greenwich in decades. Greenwich police officers were unprepared to deal with such a serious crime, in Fuhrman's view.
     But former Greenwich Det. Frank Garr said that in the Moxley investigation, "the same technology and techniques were used as you would have found in New York City. These guys were veteran cops, they knew what they were doing."
     Garr worked for years on the investigation, which at various times focused on a tutor who lived with the Skakels, as well as a 25-year-old alcoholic Belle Haven neighbor. The possibility that a "freeway phantom," or transient, might have wandered into the gated serenity of Belle Haven also was explored and discarded.
     Interest in the case was renewed, Robbins and Garr said, with the William Kennedy Smith rape trial of 1991. A rumor began circulating that Smith was visiting his cousins at the time of Moxley's death. The rumor was soon discounted but the buzz was enough to generate new interest in the case, and new leads.
     Then in 1993, Dominick Dunne published "A Season in Purgatory" (Crown), a novel based on the Moxley killing. (Dunne's own daughter, Dominique, died in a Halloween attack in 1982.) It became a bestseller, and was made into a television movie.
     New scrutiny followed. Forensic scientist Dr. Henry C. Lee, head of the Connecticut state police lab, staged a reconstruction of the crime, the results of which remain sealed. DNA testing was unavailable in 1975, but tests conducted since then on physical evidence from the murder scene were said to be inconclusive.
     Around the time of the Smith trial, Rushton Skakel hired a private investigating firm, Sutton Associates, to help his sons. Fuhrman and other critics note that no search warrant was ever obtained for the Skakel residence, although the family cooperated initially with authorities. Michael Skakel was never questioned, but Thomas originally told police he did not see Moxley after saying goodbye to her in his driveway. Then he said he went inside to work on a homework assignment on Abraham Lincoln.
     But the youth was seen drinking at a restaurant later that night, and his school showed no record of an assignment on Lincoln. In statements to the private investigator, both brothers changed their stories. Citing a report from Sutton Associates, Fuhrman's book says Thomas Skakel told the investigator that he and Moxley had a sexual encounter involving mutual masturbation near her house. Michael, who originally claimed to have spent the evening at the home of a friend, said he climbed a tree outside Moxley's window and masturbated there, according to the report.
     Neither Thomas Skakel, of Stockbridge, Mass., nor his brother was available for comment. For a time last week a sign outside Michael Skakel's home in Cohasset, Mass., said simply "no." A lawyer for Thomas Skakel said he considered it "grievous" that authorities continue to mention his client in connection with the case.
     One further development seems to have hastened the reopening of the investigation. Donald Browne, the state's attorney in charge of the case for 22 years, recently resigned. His successor, Jonathan Benedict, swiftly moved for the grand jury inquest, which carries with it the power to subpoena witnesses and documents.
     The Moxley case is one of 600 unsolved murders in Connecticut since 1975. But unlike the rest of them, Frank Garr said, this 23-year-old murder case is tinged by its association to this country's leading political dynasty.
     "It doesn't matter if it's tangential"--if the Skakels were "merely" cousins by marriage, Garr said. "There's plenty of money and power in Greenwich, but the whole fascination of this case is because of the Kennedys."
     Fuhrman, who said he was drawn to the case through the friendship he formed with Dominick Dunne during the Simpson trial, said the case was rooted in the evil of excessive wealth.
     "Martha died because of wealthy people, because wealthy people intimidate the police not to assert themselves," he said. "Rich people sit around, they go to the country club and they drink. They let their kids go wild. That's what causes these problems, too much money."
     Police Chief Robbins, for one, said he was glad to see the momentum in the Moxley matter speed up again.
     "It's going to bring closure one way or the other," he said. "Which is, I think, long overdue."

Copyright Los Angeles Times (July 29,1998)