Founder Of School Refuses To Testify

This story ran in the Courant September 25, 1998

BRIDGEPORT - The founder of a school for troubled teens on Thursday refused to testify before a grand jury about a nephew of Robert F. Kennedy who is a suspect in the 1975 murder of a Greenwich teenager.

Joseph Ricci, founder of the Elan school in Poland Springs, Maine, cited confidentiality rules governing mental health facilities as he refused to answer questions regarding the slaying of 15-year-old Martha Moxley.

Prosecutors believe Ricci overheard suspect Michael Skakel admit involvement in Moxley's murder, while Skakel was a student at the school between 1978 and 1980. Ricci, however, refused to answer questions from Judge George Thim, the one-man grand jury, citing the confidentiality of communications between patients and mental health professionals.

Ricci later told reporters that he does not remember hearing Skakel admit to the killing, and criticized prosecutors for attempting to force his testimony. "I don't know anything about the case," he said. "This is a fishing expedition. I think it has political ramifications." After Ricci refused to testify, prosecutor Jonathan Benedict immediately applied for a court order to compel Ricci's testimony.

A hearing was scheduled for Oct. 8, when a judge will decide whether Ricci will be forced to testify. At that hearing, Skakel's lawyer, Michael Sherman, will ask for an injunction barring Ricci and Peter McCann, a former counselor at the school, from testifying, citing a Connecticut law that protects communications between psychiatrists and their patients. "When you go to a doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist, there's an expectation of privilege . . . if you allow psychologists or psychiatrists to abandon that privilege, no one is going to seek professional help," said Sherman.

Michael Skakel and his brother Thomas, both nephews of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, have long been identified by authorities as suspects in Moxley's slaying. Their father, Rushton Skakel, is the brother of Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's widow.

At the time of the slaying, the Skakel family lived near the Moxleys in Belle Haven, an exclusive gated community in Greenwich. Michael, then 15, and Thomas, 17, were among a group of friends who were with Martha the night she was beaten to death with a golf club, Oct. 30, 1975. Authorities say the golf club used to kill her came from a set owned by the Skakel family.

No one has ever been charged in the killing. Both Michael and Thomas Skakel have repeatedly denied any involvement. Ricci said he has only vague recollections about Skakel as a student at the school. His lawyer, Edward MacColl, said even though Ricci is not a psychologist and did not treat Skakel, anything Skakel said while at the school is confidential.

Ricci, a two-time unsuccessful candidate for governor in Maine, is known for his flamboyant style. He arrived at Bridgeport Superior Court in a limousine. During breaks in the closed-door grand jury proceeding, he told reporters stories of his self-made success. He said the $600 limousine ride to Bridgeport from Portland, Maine, was paid for by the state of Connecticut as witness transportation.

Interest in the case was revived this spring after two books were published. One claims Michael Skakel said during a group therapy session at Elan that he killed Moxley with a golf club.