Skakel case shifts focus to school Classmates
are key in murder trial
By John Larrabee - Special for USA TODAY

Page 3A

POLAND SPRING, Maine -- A teenager stands at the front of a dining hall, leading 50 students in a drill that's part pep rally, part attitude adjustment.

''If you are negative,'' he shouts, ''raise your hand.'' Only a few do so.

''Not what I'd call a very honest answer,'' he says. More hands go up.

This is Elan School, a private facility whose setting in the woods of southern Maine belies its purpose.

A brochure describes Elan as ''not for the fainthearted,'' a place where children of the wealthy and famous or simply those who wind up in the state court system can be sent for help with drug and alcohol abuse or out-of-control behavior. The Elan prescription is a mix of boot camp discipline and intense encounter groups.

It was here in the late 1970s that Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel's former classmates say he discussed a grim secret: the death of a neighbor back home in Greenwich, Conn. Skakel is the grandson of industrialist George Skakel and the nephew of Ethel Skakel Kennedy and the late Robert Kennedy.

Now, with Skakel charged in the 25-year-old murder, it is here that lawyers plan to focus much of the case.

According to sealed court documents obtained by USA TODAY, Skakel's former schoolmates told investigators that he was badgered to talk about an unsolved killing, he sometimes wept and claimed alcohol had clouded his memory, he changed his story, and in private moments he admitted to the crime.

''The big fact that everybody who was there pretty much knew about was that he was placed there because they did not know whether or not Michael murdered the girl,'' said former Elan student Chuck Seigan in a taped police interview.

Skakel's lawyer, Mickey Sherman, disputes accounts of the former classmates or won't comment because they are potential witnesses. In the instance of Seigan, he won't comment.

Skakel pleaded innocent to the murder at an arraignment on March 14. Because he was 15 when the crime occurred, a judge must decide whether to try Skakel as a juvenile or an adult. The ruling, possibly coming as soon as next week, will draw on accounts of Skakel's days at Elan.

Prosecutors allege Skakel killed Martha Moxley, 15, on Oct. 30, 1975, after she left a Halloween party. Her body was found the next day beneath a tree near her home. Police said the weapon was a golf club from Skakel's house.

Michael Skakel was never questioned. Family members told police he'd been at a cousin's house until 11 p.m., then returned home and went to bed.

Skakel arrived at Elan in March 1978, following a drunken-driving accident. He was not then a suspect in the Moxley case, but at 17 he was already an alcoholic. He stayed at the school almost two years.

Elan director Joseph Ricci, who was at the school when Skakel was a student, dismisses claims that anyone at the school got Skakel to admit to murder. ''If we ever tried to force a confession from him, his father would have heard about it and pulled him out of here in two minutes,'' he says.

But Elan alumni have other memories. When Connecticut authorities reopened the Moxley murder case in 1991, they turned to TV crime shows such as America's Most Wanted. It paid off: Skakel's classmates began calling.

John Higgins, now a mechanic in Illinois, told Frank Garr, an investigator with the state attorney's office in Greenwich, that Skakel confessed during a late-night conversation. First Skakel said he only remembered finding a golf club and running through the woods with it. But as the conversation continued, Higgins said, he began to cry and sound more certain.

''He was probably crying for five minutes or so,'' Higgins recalled. ''Then he said that he killed her.''

Diane Hozman, now a therapist in California, recalled how Skakel opened up while they sat alone in a campus dining hall. She asked why he was at Elan. His unsettling answer: a hometown murder. Breaking into sobs, he told her, ''I think I did it, but I'm not sure.''

Sherman won't comment about what Higgins says, but of Hozman's account he says, ''It's simply not true.''

Skakel changed his story in the mid-1980s, according to Michael Meredith, son of former ABC sportscaster Don Meredith.

He met Skakel in 1986, when both were volunteers in a campaign and became friends when they realized they both attended Elan (though at different times). Meredith was later a summer guest at Skakel's home in Greenwich.

While there, Meredith said he heard about the murder. One evening during Meredith's visit, Skakel began to discuss the incident. According to Meredith, Skakel said he left his house late at night, walked to Moxley's yard and climbed a tree that reached her bedroom window. From his perch he watched Moxley come out of the shower. But when he looked down he saw his older brother Thomas crossing the lawn toward the Moxley house. He slid down the tree and ran home.

''Baloney,'' says Skakel's lawyer Sherman. ''That story about a girl in the shower is pure fiction.''

Investigator Garr got a close-up look at Skakel's life at Elan School when he traveled to Chicago to interview Seigan, a self-employed businessman and aspiring actor now in his early 40s. Garr and Seigan talked over coffee with a tape recorder running.

Seigan described Skakel as a quiet teen with bitter memories. ''He would say that his father would sometimes lock him in the closet, and his father would put cigarette butts out on him on his arms and legs,'' Seigan told Garr. ''There was anger in him when he said it, and disgust and hurt.''

Eight months after he arrived at Elan, Skakel ran away. He was 18, old enough, under school policy, to leave on his own. But after several weeks he was back. Soon after, Skakel got his comeuppance at a ''general meeting.''

''The purpose of those general meetings is to humiliate and to get people really angry at you,'' Seigan said. ''I don't know if it's actually therapeutic or if it's a way for them to get revenge on the person that split.''

Seigan said Skakel was placed in front of his classmates, ''and they'll say, 'Do you have anything to say to him?' and literally 50, 60, 70 people run up and circle around the person and yell . . . ''

Seigan then told of the meeting's shocking climax. ''They just basically said, 'Do you know why he's here? He's here because there was a murder in the area of his home, and Michael just doesn't know if he did it or didn't.'

''They were kind of, ya know, putting that on him and 'Michael, did you?' and Michael would just say, 'I don't know.' ''

From that day on, Seigan told Garr, the murder became a regular topic in group sessions at Elan.

''Michael would get very nervous,'' Seigan said. ''When the question was asked, 'Did you, did you murder this girl?' he would always come up with the answer, 'I don't know.' . . . That would start the tears. The tears flowed pretty easy for him.''

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