Now, if you are unfamiliar with the story, it is hard to sum it up in just a few lines, after all, three books and two movies have either discussed the story or been based on it, but I will kind of boil it down for those of you. The main suspect was a dashing, reckless and attractive youth by the name of Tommy Skakel, who happened to be the nephew of Ethel Skakel, Robert Kennedy’s widowed wife. That was what made it especially newsworthy. That is where all the attention came from. The Kennedy connection.
Ethel was raised in Greenwich, and she and Robert said their nuptial vows at St. Mary’s Church on Greenwich Avenue in 1950.
Her brother Rushton also lived in town with his children, practically next door to Martha. His wife Anne died of cancer at the age of 42 in 1973, leaving him in charge of seven children he never really knew how to manage in the first place. That event was said to have sent the now infamous Skakel rowdiness into an abysm. Tommy was believed to have had a particularly troubled childhood.
In any event, as the focus of the investigation began to center on him, so rose the interest in the case. People seemed to feel that his wild nature made him the only real candidate, but there were other suspects. After all, an unmonitored teenager with issues doesn’t necessarily have to vent his frustrations out by taking a 6-iron to a young girl’s head.
There was another sibling named Michael who was also considered a suspect, but deemed to young at the time to have performed an act which required unusual strength and violence. Michael was quieter, more introspective, and on the surface, less unruly. But he was known to possess a sadistic coldness in his treatment of animals and could be thrown into fits of rage when he snapped. In short, he was a potential psychopath and a motherless one at that.
He also had an inferiority complex towards his brother the size of horse and was infatuated with Martha, who fell for the older and more confident Tommy. These were certainly classic sibling rivalry issues which did not have to result in such a horrible outcome for the girl. But they were conceivably valid circumstances and motives that might lead to a murder all the same. The thing is, no one seemed to put two and two together and the case died on the investigative vine. For about ten years.
In those years the Moxley murder received a lot of attention for its ties with America’s royal family, and the insinuation that the rich clan was able to outwit the authorities. How it managed to literally get away with murder, but the investigation was also heavily criticized by experts for its sloppiness. The Greenwich police department took flak for being over its head in the case, as it had no real experience handling these affairs. This was fair enough. They had proceeded correctly in many ways but they had also committed several crucial errors, such as practically befriending the Skakel family and catering to its generosity unaware that they were cavorting with the doers of the deed. When the sons became prime suspects, one of the nation’s wealthiest families suddenly shut up like a clam.
Despite not having been formally accused, the Skakel boys earned a reputation for being a pair of crazied kids. I remember my childlike ears being spooked by my friend once telling us “Don’t go down that way, the Skakel boys live on that street”, which wasn’t true by the way. Then we heard a branch crack in the woods and that sent us screaming and bolting down the road towards home. It was sort of the Boo Radley effect.
Time went by, and we all thought the case was closed forever. Then, one of those extraordinary events of irony occurred.
Years after the events, when it seemed that the murder would go unsolved forever, an entirely separate set of events brought it out into public viewing once again, and this time more than ever. Down inFlorida, the nephew of the Kennedy clan was charged with rape on the family compound and it was, for a time, thought that he might have had something to do with the Moxley death. As it turned out, he didn’t. But the rumor did bring renewed attention to the case, which was compounded by a novelized bestseller based on the crime written by Dominique Dunne.
In an attempt to exonerate his children once and for all, Rushton hired some private investigators to prepare a detailed report on the events so that they would prove his children’s innocence. Good idea? Nope.
The new report revealed relatively little new except for one fairly startling point: the Skakel boys (now men) had changed their stories notably, and on some very important issues. For instance, Michael suddenly “appeared” at the scene of the crime, when for years he had claimed he was at his cousin’s house across town. That proved very suspicious indeed. This was just about the tie when experts began to formally discard Tommy as the perpetrator and centered their efforts on Michael’s movements that fateful evening. Rushton had inadvertently made things worse. When Mark Furmon of the O.J. Simpson trial got involved and wrote a book openly accusing Michael as the only possible doer of the crime, pressure began to build. A case was presented against him andMichael was finally indicted, tried and convicted on June 7, 2002, nearly twenty-seven years after the murder.
I will say that, even though I feel it is very, very possible that Michael committed the crime, rarely have I seen a person declared guilty on such a wealth of flimsy circumstantial evidence. Honestly, I have combed all sorts of sources in search for that bit of hard proof that makes me say, “That’s it! The little bastard did it!” But as hard as I try, I have never fully understood it. Even the sum doesn’t add up. I’ve seen suspects get off with much more going against them. They even tried him as an adult when the crime was allegedly wrought when Michael was a minor. It’s as if society was going to make up for its mistakes no matter how weak its arguments were. A Skakel boy needed to pay dues for Martha to rest peacefully. And I’m saying this convinced that the right guy is in jail.
Now the media were getting all pumped up again because the death took place on a huge backcountry estate in Greenwich and had all makings of a good scandal. Details were sketchy, but just from the initial reports, the whole scene sounded about good and grisly. I would have to wait and see.