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Judgment Day

Alex Kelly stands accused of rape and kidnapping. But his trial is about more than a 10-year-old encounter. It's about affluence and privilege.

November 11, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STAMFORD, Conn. — The handsome young man in the navy blue blazer trades embraces with his girlfriend, a striking blond wearing pearls with her black trouser suit. He rubs her back, she brushes imaginary dust from his shoulders. They nuzzle and whisper tender secrets. When his parents approach, they join in a group hug. It is all so merry that for one sweet moment, it seems like an engagement party.

But it is not. It is a rape trial. And it is a courtroom drama that encompasses changing views about sexual assault, and about the lines of decorum in opulent America. It offers a prismatic study of entitlement, and it calls into question the sacred cultural contention that boys will be boys as well as the timeless allure of affluence, attractiveness and athleticism.

Alex Kelly, the handsome young man in the navy blue blazer, is in court to face charges of raping and kidnapping a 16-year-old in Darien, a pristine and prosperous suburb 10 miles from here. A second, eerily identical case involving Kelly and another teenage girl will be heard at a future date.

The alleged crimes occurred four days apart in 1986, when Kelly was the 18-year-old co-captain of Darien's wrestling team. His good looks and charm were legendary, his athletic prowess unquestioned. In particular, Kelly was known for a move wrestlers call the guillotine. "The best Darien ever had," marveled the brother of one of his accusers.

Kelly fled the U.S. in 1987, convinced public sentiment against him was so strong that he could not escape conviction. His parents, Joe and Melanie Kelly, drew from the fortune they made as plumbing contractors and in real estate to support their middle son in his life on the lam. Travel documents uncovered when the FBI gained access to his parents' safe deposit box make Kelly look like a stringer for National Geographic. In the decade since the alleged rapes, he traveled to France, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece, Portugal, Egypt, Italy and Sweden. In France and Switzerland, he skied and played tennis. In Sweden, he moved in with a well-to-do young woman and in a gesture of altruism, taught local children to windsurf, gratis.

So the family tableau that unfolds on this morning last Tuesday as prosecutor Bruce Hudock and Thomas Puccio, Kelly's powerhouse New York defense lawyer, deliver closing arguments is straight from the literature of American privilege. Darien is John Cheever country, a community of 17,000 where men come home from the city on the 6 o'clock train and where golf and hunt clubs pepper the landscape. Some of the houses have names. Money and good bones are valued commodities here, and Alex Kelly has both.

But just across the courtroom aisle, another family tells another part of this story. The 16-year-old Catholic school girl who accepted a ride home from a party with Kelly so she could meet her 11:30 p.m. curfew has grown into a poised 26-year-old woman who works as a pharmaceutical sales representative. She sits close beside her husband, their hands tightly clenched. Her parents are at her side as well. Behind them are her sisters, her brother and a favorite aunt. All the women are wearing black.

"He grabbed my throat with his left hand and started to squeeze as hard as he could," testified the young woman, who said she had never met Alex Kelly before that cold February night. "He said this could be easy or this could be hard. He told me I was going to make love to him or he would kill me."

The jury of three men and three women listened attentively as the young woman gave her version of the alleged crime. They heard how she raced, partially dressed, into her home following the alleged incident and how her older sister found her curled up in her bedroom "in the fetal position," and sobbing uncontrollably. They heard defense attorney Puccio's insistence that the young woman consented to make love with Kelly, and probably even helped him to lower the back section of the car he was driving so they would have a place to do it. They heard one of Puccio's well-paid expert witnesses, a sexologist, describe the kind of hysteria she experienced as a common reaction after first-time sex. But because the judge disallowed some defense measures, they did not hear Puccio's contention that a bloodstain in the back of the car contained traces of cocaine and marijuana, suggesting that her judgment could have been impaired by drug use.

Late Friday afternoon, the panel told Judge Martin Nigro that they were deadlocked. Nigro ordered them to resume deliberations on Tuesday, following the Veterans' Day holiday.

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