`I wanted to find justice for Martha'

Mother's resolve, celebrity kept focus on 1975 Conn. killing

January 21, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

It was a celebrated case from the outset. A bubbly, blond 15-year-old bludgeoned to death in a gated enclave of mansions and manicured lawns in Greenwich, Conn. The primary suspects, the boys across the street, were the sons of wealth and privilege and the nephews of Ethel Kennedy.

For nearly 25 years, the slaying of Martha Moxley remained one of the thousands of unsolved crimes in America. But as most of the others languished in dusty police files, celebrity kept this case alive. Celebrities and Moxley's mother, Dorthy, a dignified, genteel woman who patiently persisted, held the spotlight on the teen-ager's slaying.

Yesterday, Dorthy Moxley appeared on the "CBS Morning News" and confidently answered questions on the arrest of Michael Skakel, the 39-year-old Kennedy nephew charged Wednesday in Martha's death on Halloween eve 1975 in the affluent Belle Haven neighborhood.

"I wanted to find justice for Martha, and I -- you know being a mother, you just -- how could you forget?"

It was only the latest television appearance for Moxley, 67, who was thrust into the public spotlight and role of family spokeswoman after her husband's death in 1989. "Geraldo," "Montel," "Hard Copy," "Unsolved Mysteries" -- she's told the story of that night when her daughter didn't come home. To best-selling author Dominick Dunne, Los Angeles police detective-turned-author Mark Fuhrman and Connecticut writer Tim Dumas, she recounted the ups and downs of a police investigation that trailed on and on.

"We've pushed for 25 years. We tried to keep this thing alive and get people interested in our story. And we're more encouraged than ever before," son John Moxley, 41, a commercial real estate salesman, said yesterday.

Martha Moxley's bludgeoned, stabbed body was found early Oct. 31 on the lawn about 200 yards from her house. A bloody, splintered golf club lay near her body. She had been out with friends for an evening of pre-Halloween pranks. The group included Michael Skakel and his older brother, Thomas.

The slaying would have shocked any small town, but in Greenwich, among the wealthiest communities in America, burglary, not homicide, was the crime that kept police investigators busy. Questions about the Greenwich Police Department's handling of the case surfaced. So did allegations that the wealth and reputation of the Skakel family -- Rushton Skakel, the boys' father, is the brother of the widow of Robert F. Kennedy -- intimidated investigators. Police and prosecutors have long denied that they were daunted by the suspects' connections.

But the slaying remained unsolved and, some say, the case languished until a series of events brought it back into the national spotlight.

During the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith in 1991, a rumor circulated that Smith had been at the Skakel house on the night Martha was killed. Dunne, who covered Smith's trial in Florida, went to Connecticut to check it out. The rumor turned out to be false, but Dunne became interested in the Moxley killing. He wrote to Dorthy Moxley.

She was living in Annapolis, where her husband had wanted to retire. Dunne proposed writing a novel based on Martha's death. The mother was wary.

"She is very media savvy now," Dunne said yesterday in a telephone interview. "And she wasn't back then. She was so wary that she didn't ask me to go to her house. We met in a restaurant" at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Dunne told Moxley that he, too, was the parent of a murdered daughter.

"From that moment on she trusted me. I said to her, I can guarantee you that this will put a focus on your daughter's case," Dunne recalled. The publication of Dunne's book, "A Season in Purgatory," was followed by a miniseries.

A reporter working for the Greenwich Time, Len Levitt, sued the Police Department for records on the Moxley killing, documents he says showed that the department mishandled the case in the crucial early days.

"She was desperate to have anybody to pursue this case because law enforcement had let her down badly. She didn't do it in a pushy way at all. She is the most retiring, shy woman you could ever imagine, prim almost," Levitt said.

Long finished with his book, Dunne wasn't finished with the case. He got another celebrity interested in Martha's slaying: Fuhrman, the former Los Angeles police detective who investigated the O. J. Simpson case. Dunne provided Fuhrman with a secret report on the slaying prepared by a private investigative firm hired by Rushton Skakel to clear his sons' names.

The report contained potentially damning information -- not for the prime suspect, Thomas, but for his brother Michael.

"I knew that Mark Fuhrman was famous and infamous and that he could ride with this and get the kind of publicity that neither Len nor Tim could," Dunne said.

Prosecutors say neither fame nor publicity surrounding the Moxley case led to their recommitment to find Martha's killer. The case was assigned to a new prosecutor, Jonathan Benedict, and he requested the appointment of an investigative grand jury. In Connecticut, this consists of a single judge.

Superior Court Judge George N. Thim's report led to the charges filed against Michael Skakel. Because he was 15 at the time of the slaying, the case is initially being prosecuted as a juvenile crime.

On the day Skakel surrendered to Greenwich police and declared his innocence, Dorthy Moxley opened her house in Chatham, N.J., to the hordes of reporters who came knocking.

"She never stopped, and she never cracked," said daughter-in-law Cara Moxley. "She just spoke for hours. She said she was going on adrenalin. She has a lot of fortitude, and she's driven and compelled to understand what happened. This really had occupied her life.

"She was just trying to get the job done."

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