By Timothy Dumas
By Mark Fuhrman
FOR true-crime devotees, this is about as good as it gets. Two books dealing with the same murder, committed in 1975 and still officially unsolved today, a murder with all the spicy ingredients. A beautiful victim. A weapon that speaks of privilege and savagery. A location that places the murder among America's wealthy and careless elite. And a cast of characters to, if you'll pardon the expression, die for: the Kennedy family (well, okay, Kennedy in-laws), homicide detectives who were either blundering dolts or on the take from the aforementioned in-laws, Mark Fuhrman (from the O. J. Simpson case, as if he needs an introduction) and, the straw that stirred the drink, none other than novelist and journalist Dominick Dunne.
The murder happened in the Belle Haven neighbourhood of Greenwich, Conn., a place name usually accompanied by such descriptives as "moneyed" or "flush" or "rich as Croesus." It was the night before Halloween, and Martha Moxley was out with the other Belle Haven kids raising a mild sort of pre-trick-or-treat heck. Martha's dad ran the New York City office of Touche Ross, a Big Eight accounting firm, and Martha herself was 15, bright, unspoiled and just coming into a beauty of the blonde, coltish, long-legged variety. Martha didn't return home that night, entirely uncharacteristic behaviour, and next day, a teen-age friend found her body partly concealed under a low-lying tree at one corner of the large Moxley lot. Someone had bashed Martha to death with a golf club.
At this early stage, the Inspector Clouseau factor kicked in. Greenwich police had apparently never heard of concepts such as securing the crime scene and not moving the body until the Medical Examiner got there. The cops trampled the ground around Martha and allowed her body to be disturbed at least twice. In the process, virtually all chance of finding trace evidence -- hairs, fibres, blood -- vanished. Then the detectives got really dumb.
The last person known to have been in Martha's company was a 17-year-old boy named Tommy Skakel, and the golf club that killed Martha, a Toney Penna six iron, was easily traced to the Skakel house on the other side of the street from the Moxley place. That's Skakel as in Ethel Skakel Kennedy, widow of Bobby. Tommy Skakel was a son of Ethel's older brother Rushton. The Skakels were richer than the Kennedys, making their fortune in carbon products, and they were almost as star-crossed. Tommy Skakel's mother died young of cancer, his father was a lush, one of his aunts choked to death on kabob meat, an uncle bought it when his small Cessna cracked into a canyon wall in Utah, and so on.
Young Tommy fell into the category of troubled youth. Or maybe rich, spoiled brat. And he was none too bright. A family friend, speaking against the notion that Tommy or a brother might have committed the murder, said, "The reason the Skakels couldn't have killed the girl is that they're too stupid to get away with it."
No more stupid than the Greenwich cops. Before the murder, the local police were in awe of the Skakels, deferred to the family, ran their errands, stopped by the Skakel kitchen for free lunch. They didn't much change their approach after the murder. The detectives steered away from the direction that the obvious clues seemed to lead, hied after other and much less likely suspects, stalled, dithered, and in the end -- though we might not have reached the end even today -- charged no one.
At which point enter Dominick Dunne, followed thereafter by Mark Fuhrman. As Dunne has made famously clear, he loathes people, especially rich people, who get away with murder. In 1993, he wrote a novel called A Season In Purgatory , which was not-so-loosely based on the Moxley case and which fingered the Tommy Skakel figure as the killer. That got the unsolved crime back in the spotlight. And when Mark Fuhrman, fresh from his book about the Simpson case, told Dunne he was keen to get his talents to work on a book about another case, Dunne put him onto the Moxley murder. (Just to make one point clear, Fuhrman, who showed himself to be a smart detective in the Simpson case, though a loose cannon, doesn't actually write; a guy named Stephen Weeks handles that end while Fuhrman tends to the sleuthing.)
Dunne, a man with more sources than Woodward and Bernstein combined, helped Fuhrman along by slipping him a secret report prepared in the early l990s by a detective agency working for Rushton Skakel. The report contradicted much of the story that Tommy Skakel and his younger brother Michael told the Greenwich police in the days and weeks immediately after the murder and therefore added intriguing new elements to the case. How did the report fall into Dunne's hands? A young would-be playwright, hired by the detective agency to stitch the documents and interview transcripts from the investigation into readable shape, smuggled a copy to Dunne, probably a good career move for the would-be playwright.
Possession of the report gave Fuhrman an edge over Timothy Dumas, a newspaper writer who was working on a Moxley book at about the same time. But Dumas had his own advantages. He was both a native of Greenwich and an almost exact contemporary of poor, dead Martha. Those circumstances provided him with easier access to local witnesses than Fuhrman, with a deeper understanding of Greenwich's culture. And Dumas is a better, more stylish writer than Stephen Weeks. On balance, the benefits to each side probably even out, and anyway both books investigate the same case, which happens to be a gem of mystery and horror.
So, which book to read? Even to buy?
True-crime fans won't settle for one. They'll read both. For those less committed, the Dumas book is the preference in a close call. It offers a more literary, reasoned, reflective analysis of the terrible case. The Fuhrman book is scrappier and gets closer to the story's nitty gritty. It also solves the problem of writing a murder story without a murderer. Fuhrman sorts his way through the clues and names the person who, he thinks, swung the six iron again and again at Martha Moxley's head. The killer is a Skakel. But no Tommy.
Jack Batten writes true-crime books and television scripts, sometimes telling the same story twice.