By Leonard Levitt.
Twenty years ago this Halloween eve, the teenage daughter of a
Manhattan executive was murdered as she left the Greenwich, Conn., home
of her neighbor, a 17-year-old nephew of Ethel Kennedy.
Martha Moxley, 15, was found the next day at the edge of her property, a few hundred yards away, beaten to death with a golf club, hit so hard that the club broke into three pieces. Her dungarees and underpants were pulled down around her knees, although there was no evidence of sexual assault.
Thomas Skakel, Ethel Kennedy's nephew, was the last person known to see Martha alive and became the prime suspect after police found golf clubs in the Skakel house they believed matched the murder weapon.
The case immediately attracted national attention because of the prominence of both the Moxley and Skakel families.
Martha's father, David, was then the head of the New York City office of the accounting firm Touche Ross. Thomas' father, Rushton, who is Ethel Kennedy's brother, was the chairman of the board of the Great Lakes Carbon Corporation, one of the country's largest privately held companies.
The murder also formed the basis of a best-selling novel, "A Season in Purgatory," by Dominick Dunne.
No arrest was ever made, and the case has haunted local authorities for two decades, amid allegations that the Skakels failed to cooperate with investigators and that the Greenwich police engaged in a coverup.
Now, Thomas has admitted to private investigators that he lied to Greenwich police in 1975 about his whereabouts the night of the murder.
Then, he told police he last saw Martha outside his house at 9:30 p.m., then went inside to write a school report. Witnesses told police the two had been "making out," which the witnesses described as including pushing each other playfully and flirtatiously.
In 1993, married and the father of two, Thomas told the private investigators that shortly after 9:30 p.m., he returned outside to meet Martha, who he says waited for him. The two remained together, he says, for an additional 20 minutes in a sexual encounter.
Connecticut authorities believe Martha was killed between 9:50 and 10 p.m. that night, based on the fact that two neighborhood dogs began barking uncontrollably at that time. Thomas' revised account places him with Martha at precisely the time police believe she was murdered, although, as he had in the past, he told the private investigators he had no knowledge of her death.
Connecticut State's Attorney Donald Browne, who is conducting the investigation, said of Thomas' new account, "It . . . clearly impacts on the time line and could have other obvious significant ramifications."
Thomas gave his new account not to Connecticut police, who have been prevented by Skakel attorneys from interviewing Thomas and all other Skakel family members for the past 20 years, but to Long Island-based private investigators hired by the Skakel family four years ago.
Jim Murphy, a former FBI special agent who heads the firm of investigators, Sutton Associates of Jericho, L.I., said, "While I cannot comment on statements furnished during the investigation, Thomas and other Skakel family members cooperated fully with the Greenwich police in 1975. The Greenwich police had Thomas alone for hours shortly after the murder and he still maintained his innocence. He also passed a lie-detector test."
The question, according to a source close to the case, "is what would motivate Thomas to tell investigators a different story 20 years after Martha's death? Why would he place himself closer to the time of her death? Is he innocent of her death or was he made to believe that new information - possibly new DNA evidence - had been developed that linked him to Martha's death?"
Skakel did not return messages left on his answering machine at his home in Stockbridge, Mass. His attorney, Emanuel Margolis, of Stamford, Conn., said, "As I have in the past, I decline all comment."
The private investigators to whom Thomas made his admissions were hired in late 1991, after Connecticut authorities had reopened the dormant case. The reopening followed rumors during the rape trial in Florida of William Kennedy Smith, another nephew of Ethel Kennedy, that Smith had been at the Skakel home the night of the Moxley murder.
Those rumors proved to be untrue but led to the publication in the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time of a full analysis of the Moxley case. It concluded that while there was no cover-up, the Greenwich police had failed to obtain a warrant to search the Skakel house thoroughly after detectives found a set of golf clubs they believed matched the murder weapon. One detective said investigators initially felt intimidated by the Skakel's social status.
Within days after the article appeared, Connecticut authorities announced they were reopening the Moxley murder case. While the original investigation had been conducted by the Greenwich police, who believed Thomas to be the prime suspect, the new investigation was headed by the Fairfield County state's attorney, whose investigators leaned toward another suspect as Martha's killer.
The authorities told the Skakels they believed Kenneth Littleton had murdered Martha. Moreover, they said, Littleton may have murdered other young women, although they lacked hard evidence.
Littleton, a Williams College graduate and science teacher at Thomas' private school, had been hired as a live-in tutor for Thomas and his younger brother. He'd moved into the Skakel house the night of the murder.
Littleton became a suspect nine months later when he was arrested for grand larceny in Nantucket, then failed two lie-detector tests about the murder. He has subsequently been hospitalized for alcohol and mental problems and has repeatedly denied involvement in Martha's death or any other, saying he is the victim of a "witch hunt".
In an interview in 1991, Littleton's mother said, "Those rich people ruined my son's life."
Meanwhile, a Skakel family friend and attorney, Thomas Sheridan of New York City, hired Sutton Associates "to clear the family name," as Murphy put it. In early 1992, he, Sheridan and another Sutton investigator, Willis Krebs, a retired New York City police lieutenant, approached this reporter, saying they had been hired to conduct an impartial investigation.
"If it turns out Thomas or any Skakel is involved in the murder," Murphy said, "the family would acknowledge this and seek to provide him with proper legal and medical help. "Our original objective was based on the premise that Kenneth Littleton committed a homicide and that Connecticut authorities were serious about prosecuting him,"
Murphy said. "Sheridan never believed Thomas committed the crime and wanted to gain as much knowledge of the crime as he could, should Thomas be called as witness."
Events, however, suggest otherwise. First, Krebs reinterviewed witnesses, including Littleton. Sheridan sought an analysis by former FBI agents who had run the bureau's Behavioral Science Lab and had studied hundreds of serial killers. But the agents, known as the Academy Group of Manassas, Va., concluded that the savagery with which Martha was beaten, including 14 or 15 blows to the head with the golf club, indicated the killer knew her and was engaged in a personal rage, possibly, they said, because she had rejected him sexually.
In addition, they said a lack of defense wounds suggested that, as the report put it, the victim did not feel threatened because she knew the offender. So far as anyone knew, Littleton had never spoken to or even seen Martha before the night he moved into the Skakel home.
Then, under questioning by Krebs, Thomas admitted lying in his original story to the Greenwich police. But when Krebs, who refused to comment for this article, sought to question him further, Sheridan intervened. And when Murphy prepared a written report, including Krebs' interview of Thomas, Sheridan, who also refused to comment for this article, told him his report was not needed.