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That Was Then, Locals Say of Skakel

Crime: Attitudes were more lax in 1975, when Moxley was killed, some in Greenwich say. But others say the trial shows the rich are not different.

June 09, 2002|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENWICH, Conn. — Over grilled fish and white wine at the Belle Haven beach club, the consensus was this: The murder trial of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel really revealed nothing about the good families of this wealthy town today.

Rather, the trial, and Skakel's conviction Friday, opened a time capsule of an era gone by, when parents "were a little more laissez faire and still drinking martinis," said real estate agent Jane Galbreath. She dined with eight friends Friday night in Belle Haven, the neighborhood where Skakel and his victim, Martha Moxley, both 15 at the time of the murder, had been living.

After three days of deliberation, a jury announced Friday afternoon that Skakel was guilty of clubbing Moxley to death on Oct. 30, 1975, with a six-iron golf club after a raucous night of pre-Halloween mischief around Belle Haven's estates.

Skakel's lawyer maintains his client is innocent, but the trial showed a world of nothing near innocence: There were drugs, sex and sibling rivalry; absentee parents and others nonchalant about a daughter's beer habit; mansions, limousines and trust funds for all.

"The difference between '70s and '90s parents," Galbreath, 54, said that her dinner companions concluded, "is that people now are overly everything with their children--overly indulgent, overly concerned, overly worried about achievement. But at least they're watching."

Still, while Greenwich residents comfort themselves to think that was then and this is now, the saga of Martha-and-Michael, even with a space of 27 years, gives some pause as they wonder if such a tragedy is more avoidable today than it was then.

After all, Greenwich, the suburb that a bull market built, is even richer now than it was in 1975. A two-bedroom condo can sell for $1 million; Steamboat Road on the east side of the town, 28 miles from Manhattan and once rife with empty office buildings, now houses partnerships selling hedge funds for the richest of the rich; and what was once a Woolworth's five-and-dime on Greenwich Avenue is now a Saks Fifth Avenue with Prada shoes in the window.

Also, "The Avenue," as the main drag of this enclave of 60,000 is called, has no signals, but police officers direct traffic at intersections.

"There's just so much money around, you don't know what to think," said Janine Broadhurst, a Greenwich matron who attended several days of the Skakel trial in nearby Norwalk--just out of curiosity, she said.

"Everybody agrees the Skakels were a wild family and the kids could do whatever they wanted, and that's not typical. Still, you don't know," she said.

Skakel, who is the nephew of Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel, lived near Moxley's 26-room house in his own family's mansion with six brothers and sisters. His mother had died, and on the night of the murder, his father, Rushton, was away fishing. The children were left in the care of a live-in tutor, who had been a suspect in the murder.

While police had several suspects over the years, including Martha's boyfriend, who happened to be Skakel's brother Tommy, Michael Skakel was charged in 2000 only after several friends at a private school for troubled kids came forward to say he had confessed to them.

Certainly, Dorthy Moxley, Martha's mother, refused to let her daughter's death go unpunished, and the interest of journalists in this Kennedy-related matter also kept the unsolved case alive. Many people in this community said Saturday that they are simply relieved the case is over and believe that the jury properly found Skakel guilty. Still, there were no winners, they agreed.

"Mrs. Moxley lost a daughter and the Skakels are losing a son," said Carolyn Snow, a retiree, playing with her grandson in one of the local parks.

Broadhurst said she woke up in the middle of the night Friday, shaking. "I just felt sick, thinking: Here is this life of Michael Skakel totally ruined. I mean, someone who was just playing tennis a few weeks ago [in Florida] is now in jail. And it's not just his fault. His family ... mishandled the whole thing."

Sam Fishman, a teacher who lives in Greenwich, also held Skakel's family responsible for keeping authorities away from him for so long that, even though his attorneys tried, the case could not be heard in juvenile court. There a prison sentence wouldn't have exceeded four years.

Now a 41-year-old man, who has never held a job in his life, faces a sentence of 10 years to life in prison, Fishman pointed out. That said, Fishman does not think it is fair for outsiders to judge Greenwich by the Martha-and-Michael story.

"As a teacher, I see all kinds of problems around here, but I also see lots of good kids and good parents paying attention, trying their best," said Fishman, who teaches history at a high school in a similarly wealthy community nearby, Westchester, N.Y.

This trial says as much about Greenwich as the O.J. Simpson trial says about Los Angeles, Fishman's wife, Vicki, said. Both cases are aberrations. "And at least in ours," she added, "the rich guy didn't get away."

At a lawn bowling competition Saturday in Bruce Park near Belle Haven, Frances Novak, 82, said she was shocked by all the sex among the teens.

"Martha's diary was full of it," said Novak, a former town librarian, recalling what she read in the local newspapers. "First base, second base and so on!"

Yet, on a brilliant sunny weekend as the aging bowlers, dressed all in white, rolled black balls slowly across a pristine green and swans fluttered over a pond, Greenwich seemed like a place where nothing possibly could go wrong.

"Oh, don't kid yourself, dear," Novak scolded, narrowing her bright blue eyes. "This [trial] cemented in my mind about privileged people: They're just like the rest of us."

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