22 YEARS LATER, GREENWICH CASE RATES BOOK(S)

GREENTOWN: MURDER AND MYSTERY IN GREENWICH, AMERICA'S WEALTHIEST COMMUNITY
BY TIMOTHY DUMAS, ARCADE, $24.95, 283 PP.

Connecticut's most stubborn and famous unsolved case began on the afternoon of Halloween 1975, when 15-year-old Martha Moxley was found dead, brutally beaten and stabbed, near her home in the exclusive Belle Haven neighborhood of Greenwich. Police soon concluded that Martha probably had been killed about 10 the night before in her own front yard, where they found pieces of what was certainly the instrument of death -- a golf club. The club handle that might have borne the killer's fingerprints, however, had vanished. Suspicion first fell on a next- door neighbor whose bedroom overlooked the spot where Martha's corpse was found, but it soon moved across the street to the household of Rushton Skakel. It was there, for two reasons, that the Moxley case gained its exceptional mystery and persistent allure.

The first was coincidence. The Skakels were related by marriage to a family of mythic status in American life. Rushton's sister, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, was the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, the slain brother of the slain president John F. Kennedy.

The second reason was more substantial. The weapon came from a set that belonged to the Skakels and Martha was last seen alive at 9:30 p.m. in the Skakel driveway. The evidence, circumstantial, but tantalizingly incomplete, pointed to someone in the Skakel house.

Was it 17-year-old Thomas Skakel, who lingered with Martha in the driveway and years later admitted he went back outside to meet her for a "sexual encounter" at the exact time police theorized -- based on the agitated barking of dogs -- that she was killed?

Or was it 15-year-old Michael Skakel, who himself changed his story years later to say he had gone to Martha's bedroom window about 11:30 to tempt her outside? Or could it have been Kenneth Littleton, a private school teacher hired as a live-in tutor and guardian for the motherless Skakel brood, who later was discovered to be mentally unstable?

An Insular Community

No one, so far as is known, witnessed the killing and neither Skakel brother nor Littleton was ever arrested. Thus to classify "Greentown: Murder and Mystery in Greenwich, America's Wealthiest Community" as a true-crime book is misleading. There's no killer to follow, no trial to reconstruct, almost no crime at all, except what seems to have been a sudden, savage attack.

From such a vacuum, no writer can extract much new. Nevertheless, with "Greentown," Timothy Dumas proves the Moxley case deserves what he has given it: a book of its own.

Dumas, a former editor of The Greenwich News, was 14 years old and himself a Greenwich resident when Martha was killed. He set out to write a book exploring the reaction of his wealthy hometown to a murder it did not want to admit one of its own probably committed.

As a cultural study, "Greentown" falls short. It glances at difficult issues like denial and privilege and evil. But for readers unfamiliar with the history of the Moxley case, Dumas has succeeded in writing an eerie "Our Town" account of the killing that both heightens and extends its mystery.

Writing in the present tense, Dumas ingeniously locates the whereabouts and activities of all the key characters at what is believed to be the hour of Martha's death. He reconstructs the police investigation, brings the case up to date, and even adds a few details that so far as this reviewer knows are new.

(In 1997, I wrote about the case for Northeast magazine and interviewed Dumas, as well as some of the same sources he depended on. One is a retired Greenwich detective, Steve Carroll, who worked on the case, and another is Leonard Levitt, a Newsday reporter who over the years has broken most of the major news about the case.)

Dumas, for instance, tracked down a man named George Boynton, who preceded Kenneth Littleton as tutor to the Skakel children. Both Boynton and Littleton taught at the Brunswick School, a private school attended by Tommy and Michael. According to Boynton, both were slow students badly shaken by the recent death of their mother.

More ominously, Boynton also told Dumas that on the very day of the killing he had informed Tommy that his teammates had voted him off the school soccer team as punishment for missing a game. Carroll has theorized that Tommy may have attacked Martha after she spurned his sexual advances, and Dumas theorizes that the injury of being thrown off the soccer team may have been the trigger that led Tommy to react violently to Martha's rejection.

On the other hand, Dumas also reports that Michael was a disturbed teenager who sadistically killed squirrels with a golf club and who, on the night of the killing, masturbated in a tree outside Martha's bedroom.

Attribution Vague

Some of the attribution for Dumas' information is vague, which, like his social analysis, may be the unfortunate result of his publisher rushing his book into print before a rival.

Last summer Dumas learned that Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles detective who starred in the O.J. Simpson trial and who wrote the hot-selling "Murder in Brentwood," had a contract to write a book about the Moxley case.

Fuhrman spent part of the fall in Greenwich, was barred from Belle Haven, and left saying that he would crack the case. Incredibly, Fuhrman claimed that the first two Greenwich policemen to arrive at the scene saw the shaft of a golf club projecting from Martha's skull. The horrific image aside, their statements meant police themselves must have lost the golf club handle they spent weeks searching for.

No one else ever reported seeing a golf club shaft and in Dumas' own interviews with the two officers before Fuhrman's arrival in Greenwich, they had not mentioned it. When Dumas checked back with them, one equivocated, saying he was no longer sure what he had seen; and the other refused to comment.

Might the two, both who were juvenile officers at the time, have been paid to embellish their stories, or might they have been infected by residual hysteria from the Simpson trial? Fuhrman's book is to be published next month.

Dumas writes that by 1998 so many overlaps had developed between the Simpson case and the Moxley case that they seemed to exist on separate planes of reality stacked back to back.

Fuhrman was alerted to the possibilities of the Moxley case by Dominick Dunne, the Hartford-born celebrity writer who met Fuhrman while covering the Simpson trial. Dunne's thinly disguised fictional account of the Simpson trial was published last year. In 1993, his fictional treatment of the Moxley case, "A Season in Purgatory," became a bestseller that was adapted as a television mini-series.

Dunne also is presumed to have provided Fuhrman with one of the crucial documents in the Moxley case: a report done in the early 1990s by private detectives hired by the Skakels, presumably to clear the family name. It was in that report that Tommy and Michael changed their stories about what they had done on the night of Martha's killing. Len Levitt, who already had obtained a copy of the private detective's report, shared it with Dumas.

Same Characters

Another overlap between the Simpson and Moxley cases is the involvement of the same criminal experts. Michael Baden, a Simpson case pathologist, reportedly consulted with Fuhrman on his Moxley book. Henry Lee, Connecticut's renowned forensic scientist, testified in the Simpson case and helped in a re-investigation of the Moxley case.

Fragments of evidence recovered by Lee have been sent to a lab for analysis. More than a year ago when I interviewed Fairfield County State's Attorney Donald Browne, he said the results of the lab analysis were expected soon and that once they were in he would decide whether to ask for a grand jury investigation of the Moxley case.

Earlier this year, Browne told Dumas virtually the same thing. Browne was scheduled to retire, but said he would continue as a special attorney with the sole purpose of prosecuting the Moxley case.

Dumas tried and failed to make contact with Michael Skakel at his home in Cohasset, Mass. Dumas reported that Michael suffered a mental collapse last year after he was caught up in the scandal of his cousin, Michael Kennedy, who admitted to an affair with his children's babysitter.

Dumas apparently did not reach Tommy Skakel, who lives in Stockbridge, Mass., with his wife and two young children.

Fuhrman's book may bring the greatest exposure yet to the Moxley case. Martha's mother, Dorthy, has cooperated with Fuhrman in the same way she has cooperated with anyone who writes about her daughter. She hopes publicity will bring someone forward with new information about the case, or even shame the killer, who is still at large, into confession.

For the time being, Henry Lee as quoted by Dumas in "Greentown" has the best judgment of the Moxley case.

"Ah, interesting. Interesting," Lee said, in his clipped English grammar. "Story without end."

(Copyright @ The Hartford Courant 1998)