Hallowe'en murder haunts Kennedys

The unsolved killing of a teenager 23 years ago threatens to add another stain to the family's reputation. David Usborne reports
IN GREENWICH, Connecticut, it has long been bad form to mention the name Moxley. This is swell-town, USA, a seashore idyll of country clubs and mansions favoured by the well-heeled and the famous. But Moxley is a like a family secret that refuses to stay hidden and is casting its shadow once more.

It happened on Hallowe'en night 23 years ago. Fifteen-year-old Martha Moxley had left her home in Belle Haven, one of the best addresses in Greenwich, to play tricks with some friends. But she never returned. Her badly battered body was found under an old fir in the family garden the next day.

What befell Martha was never in doubt. She had been bludgeoned and stabbed with the shaft of a 6-iron golf club, sections of which remained on the scene. But, beyond that, there was nothing. Amid whispers of bungling if not actual evidence suppression, the police department failed to solve the murder. No trial has been held and no charges brought.

Spurred by two books about the case published this spring, one by Mark Fuhrman, the detective made notorious for his racism in the O J Simpson murder trial, state prosecutors have reopened the case, convening a grand jury in nearby Bridgeport. For weeks, the jury, consisting of a single judge, has been issuing serial subpoenas to compel anyone possibly tied to the murder to testify.

If and when charges are finally filed, the murder that Greenwich would rather forget is likely to burst, meteor-like, back into American consciousness. It is not just the high-society setting that will draw attention, or even the involvement of Mr Fuhrman. It is the identity - and the breeding - of the two individuals, who, according to press leaks, have surfaced as principal suspects.

They are Michael and Thomas Skakel, brothers who were among those who went out with Martha that night and who were identified even then as the last people to see her alive. Thomas and Michael, then 17 and 15 years old, lived across the road from the Moxleys, the sons of Rushton Skakel, a wealthy and respected industrialist. But something else distinguishes the family: they are part of the Kennedy clan.

Rushton Skakel, who is now 74 and lives in Florida, is the brother of Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F Kennedy. Thomas and Michael, therefore, are the late senator's nephews, a link which reinforced gossip that the boys were investigated with kid gloves. "I think they got deferential or preferential treatment," John Moxley, Martha's brother, said. "The Kennedy thing probably played a part."

Suspicion fell on the Skakel boys from the start. The golf club was matched to one that had belonged to the family. At first, Thomas came in for the closest scrutiny. He told the police he had left Martha outside his own house at 9.30pm, and had gone to the home of a cousin. He took a lie detector test that was reportedly inconclusive.

But in his book, Murder in Greenwich, Mr Fuhrman points the finger instead at Michael. Accusing the town police of hopeless sleuthing, he says that a critical item of evidence, the grip of the club, was embedded in the skull of Martha when her body was found, but then was lost or mislaid by detectives.

Indeed, it is on Michael that the closed-door grand jury is now said to be concentrating. As a child, it has been reported, he took pleasure in decapitating small rodents - with a golf iron. Critically, he is said to have confessed to the murder during a therapy session at a drug treatment centre in the late 1980s. Former workers from the centre testified to the jury last week.

"There is a powerful case there," said Wendy Murphy, a former prosecutor and legal commentator. "The problem, though, will be figuring out which of the two brothers did it. Have you solved the case because you've narrowed it to two suspects? Probably not."

The brothers, both married and living in Massachusetts, have always professed their innocence. Michael assisted Senator Edward Kennedy in his 1994 re-election and worked for the late Michael Kennedy at his Citizen's Energy Corporation in Boston. Recently, Robert F Kennedy Jr, their cousin, came to their defence. "Those boys had nothing to do with the tragic murder of Martha Moxley. Their lives have been absolutely beleaguered by innuendo that has hounded them for 22 years."

The work of the grand jury threatens to add another stain to America's most famous - and famously troubled - political dynasty. But for Martha's mother, Dorthy, it promises relief. "It is like having an open wound and no hope to close it." That closure may, at last, be in sight.