The Ghost of Martha Moxley

The baby-sitter investigation put Michael Kennedy on the front pages, but an even greater family skeleton lay behind the tortuous unfolding of this affair. This shadow entered the case through the person of Michael Skakel, a cousin of Michael Kennedy and fellow worker at Citizens Energy. Michael is the son of Rushton Skakel, brother of Ethel Skakel Kennedy. In 1994, at the age of 37, Skakel came to Massachusetts to work for Michael Kennedy. The two Michaels grew close and often commuted together to the Citizens Energy office. Skakel also befriended the Kennedy family baby-sitter and her family.

At some point in late 1996, according to unrefuted press reports, the girl's family learned about her long-term affair with Kennedy. At 2:40 a.m. on November 7, 1996, shortly after the revelation, the girl's mother climbed to the roof of her Back Bay townhouse in a cold rain and stood teetering on the gutter dressed in a white nightgown, while her daughter watched from the street below. Skakel came to the scene as rescue workers talked the woman down, and he went with her to the hospital. Although friends say he bragged about his role in covering up the incident, it apparently affected him deeply. He tried to get his boss to break off the affair while, according to some reports, another family friend asked Joe to intervene. (Congressman Kennedy denies getting such a request.) When the pleas failed, Skakel took letters that the infatuated Michael Kennedy had written the girl and gave them to Kennedy's wife Victoria (the daughter of sportscaster Frank Gifford). According to the reports, Victoria, now estranged, gave them unread to her husband, who destroyed them.

At the same time, Skakel began to complain about the business practices at Citizens Energy. Norfolk County prosecutors called Skakel in this June for three and a half hours of questions about the potential statutory rape. But, as Kennedy family supporters told the press, the prosecutors met with the girl only after she had turned 16 and had no first hand evidence of a crime. When the case was dropped, Skakel's complaints about Citizens Energy subsided and, according to his lawyer Michael Mone, he works there to this day. (Skakel himself has refused to talk to the press.)

Without the reports of Skakel's intervention, the story would not have been as substantial as it proved to be. The intensity of his reaction remains unexplained, however, until one remembers the case of Martha Moxley, another pretty 15-year-old fatally entangled with the Kennedy clan.

Moxley was beaten to death with a golf club on Halloween eve ("mischief night") 1975, in the upper class enclave of Belle Haven in Greenwich, Connecticut. The murder was so savage that the club broke on her head, and whoever did it stabbed her neck with the broken shaft. Her body was found the next day beneath a pine tree in a wooded hollow by her front yard. Police theorize that she was knocked down near the street end of her large circular driveway and then dragged face-down to the shade of a Chinese maple, where her assailant flew into a frenzy and clubbed her fourteen times. The murderer then dragged her partially disrobed body to the hollow, diagonally across the street from the house of Rushton Skakel. The golf club matched a set in the Skakel house.

Michael Skakel and his older brother Thomas were two of the last people to see Martha alive. According to Inspector Frank Garr, now attached to the State's Attorney's Office in Fairfield County, they remain among the four active suspects in her death.

The investigation lay dormant for more than a decade, but other Kennedy troubles in 1991 brought it back to life. During the notorious rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, tabloids pursued a tip that the defendant had been in Belle Haven the night of the murder. The story was false, but according to Garr, the publicity prompted then-State's Attorney Donald Browne to launch a complete reinvestigation of the case. Inspector Garr, who wears snappy red suspenders and his thinning gray hair in a pony tail, was one of two veteran Greenwich police detectives who reinterviewed more than 200 witnesses. They also called on the renowned forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee, head of the state police crime lab. Thanks to Dr. Lee's sophisticated techniques, said Garr, "we learned a lot about what took place. We learned new things about what happened in 1975."

The details are still under wraps, but Dorthy Moxley, the victim's mother, has said that Dr. Lee thinks her daughter was facing her killer and that the lack of struggle suggests it was someone she knew. The tests apparently have not refuted a long-standing theory that someone else may have been holding Martha from behind, in a prank that went horribly wrong. Dr. Lee apparently also recovered evidence for a scheduled series of advanced forensic tests, which are awaiting their turn in a heavy caseload. Garr said results should be in within several months, and the decision whether to go to a grand jury would then fall to Donald Browne, now retired as State's Attorney but still designated the special prosecutor for the case.

The revived investigation reawakened public interest. The Hartford-born writer Dominick Dunne, whose own daughter was murdered, recast the case into his novel A Season in Purgatory, which portrays the fictional killer as a rising young politician. It was broadcast last year as a television mini-series. While covering the O.J. Simpson trial, Dunne interested Mark Fuhrman in the case, and the retired Los Angeles police detective is now writing his own book about it.

The state investigators encourage the attention, hoping it will shake loose new information, and Garr is directing the pressure to the Skakels. Interviewed in his small but neat office in the dingy state court building in downtown Bridgeport, he stressed his frustration with the Kennedys' cousins. "I have never been allowed to talk to the Skakel brothers," he said. "The Skakels have never cooperated with the police at all, even when they were talking to the police."

He referred to one damning recent development. Reacting to the renewed probe, the Skakel family hired its own investigators to prepare for a possible trial. Their investigators expected the Skakels to be witnesses only, but according to one exhaustive press account, Tommy and Michael startled them by sharply changing the stories they told the police. In 1975, the older Skakel brother said he had talked to Martha in his driveway and then gone inside at 9:30 to write a paper on Abraham Lincoln. This time around, according to Newsday reporter Len Levitt, he added that Martha had waited and they met again for "a sexual encounter" that lasted 20 minutes. This "encounter" would have lasted until 10 p.m., which police fix as the time of Martha's death. This new detail may have been designed to preempt the results of any DNA tests. Michael in his turn added another detail to his 1975 account, in which he said he had been at a cousin's house most of the evening and then come home and gone to bed. This time he said he left his house around 11:30 and went to the Moxley property, where he climbed a tree by Martha's window and tried to call her out. Neither of the brothers' revisions amounts to a confession, and they are still known only second-hand through Levitt's article. But, said Garr, "the article by Len Levitt revealed that they had lied to the police in the original investigation." All the other suspects, added Garr, "have cooperated in one degree or another."

Whether he is bluffing or seriously expecting a major break from the lab tests, Garr projects iron determination. "We're at the 22nd anniversary of the murder," he said, "but no one is going to give up on it. We're not going away until it's solved."

It's a matter for speculation how memories of the Moxley case may have affected the erratic behavior of Michael Skakel in his cousin's baby-sitter affair. He relocated to Boston under the Kennedy family wing as the renewed investigation turned up the pressure on his family. Just when he had started a new life at Citizens Energy, he found himself the witness to another scandal involving a pretty 15-year-old girl. Whatever Michael Skakel's role in the Moxley murder or the cover-up, it can only have been a searing experience for a sheltered teenager, and one wonders about the memories that must have come flooding back two decades later when the case refused to die. Did these memories drive the younger Skakel in his strenuous efforts to break up Michael Kennedy's involvement with his baby-sitter?

Whatever the answer, there is wide agreement that without Skakel's intervention, the baby-sitter scandal would never have become as widely known or as well sourced as it proved to be. And it was only the notoriety of Michael Kennedy that prompted press attention to the inner workings of the family empire he happened to head.

As in a Jacobean tragedy, the ghost of Martha Moxley continues to haunt the Skakels and their cousins. Because of this human drama, the non-philanthropic business of Citizens Energy has come into view, with all its sinister connections and malign influence on American foreign policy. If Joe Kennedy worried that a run for governor would mean more damaging revelations about his brainchild, and his family, he was right.

Copyright © The American Spectator 1997, all rights reserved.