The House Of Skakel

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On Friday, as Michael Skakel stood to hear the Norwalk Superior Court jury foreman read his guilty verdict, about 20 friends and family members stood behind him.

When judicial marshals stepped forward to handcuff him, David Skakel reached in support to lay a hand on his brother's shoulder, only to have it thrown off by a uniformed marshal.

That rare, tender moment between two brothers was especially telling. For nearly 27 years, the broken body of Martha Moxley has lain at the door of the Skakels' Greenwich mansion. Although the Skakels - six sons and a daughter, all teenagers like Moxley when she was beaten to death with a golf club - grew up and started careers and families, they've always had to step over that body.

From the moment Martha's body was found on the edge of her own yard, suspicions focused on a Skakel family tutor and on two Skakel brothers - Michael and Tommy. Last week, prosecuting attorney Jonathan Benedict said the entire family "has been under a cloud" since the night Martha was killed.

If Michael Skakel's generation had any hope of overcoming their mother's early death, their father's alcoholism, and little to no adult guidance during their formative years, that hope vanished the night Martha was murdered.

But in fact, the clouds had gathered over the Skakels years earlier. According to Michael Skakel, "chronic illness, alcoholism and a repressive Catholic moral and sexual outlook," as well as "systemic dysfunction, at times surfacing as extreme pathology" haunted his wealthy Connecticut family for as long as he could remember. In a proposal for an unsold book, Skakel chronicles his family's disjointed, sick-rich lifestyle, their rudderless household and their "love-hate" relationship with the powerful Kennedys, with whom they were joined when Skakel's aunt Ethel married Robert Kennedy in 1950.

Though they seemed to resist the comparisons to their more famous cousins, the Skakels - heirs to what was one of the nation's richest privately held companies - saw their own family history also marked by trauma, including violent death, fatal airplane and car crashes, arson, suicide attempts and a stiff vein of alcoholism.

"I have come to see this dysfunction as a price of wealth and power in a society that worships romantic myth at the expense of truth," is how Michael Skakel put it in his book proposal.

"I am a member of a family sick unto death with generations of secrets," wrote Skakel, who characterized himself as the family scapegoat and recalled being beaten by his father and brother Tommy.

Skakel described being able to overcome dyslexia that went undiagnosed until he was 26, as well as his "full-blown, daily-drinking" alcoholism from the age of 13. He has a 3-year-old son, George, from his 10-year marriage to golf pro Margot Sheridan Skakel, who filed for divorce in 2000 shortly after his arrest. Their marriage ended last year.

Skakel also contended that his legal problems stemmed from his having exposed his cousin Michael Kennedy's illegal affair with that family's underage baby sitter. Kennedy later died in a 1997 skiing accident.

`An Intense Level Of Chaos'

The trial's attempts to unearth answers about Martha's death revealed scant new information about generations of Skakel family secrets. Memories failed, stories changed, but this much is known: In the gated and privileged community of Belle Haven, the Skakels were a peculiar force.

From the stand, family friends recalled a home where the children were given free rein and unlimited funds, an environment that made the Skakel house a popular place for many teenagers from the neighborhood's wealthy families.

Some families worried about the lack of supervision there, especially after the children's mother, Anne Reynolds Skakel, died of malignant melanoma in 1973 at age 41. In the aftermath of her death, Michael Skakel wrote, "an even more intense level of chaos came to rule our household."

In his book proposal, Skakel wrote: "We called my father's Lincoln `the lust-mobile.' After my mother died, my father really went off the deep end trying to impress women with his money and with what he thought was his impeccable taste. ... He had a machine shop remove the Lincoln ornament from the front and replace it with a $5,000 Lalique eagle, and then he had them mount a little light under it. We used to joke around, never within his hearing, that we were going to buy him some fuzzy dice for the rear-view mirror."

Several witnesses at the trial testified that it was in this car that Martha had been sitting with the Skakel boys, smoking and listening to music, earlier in the evening on the night she was killed.

Beth Bye of West Hartford, who grew up in Greenwich and whose family belonged to the exclusive Belle Haven Club with the Skakels, remembers her parents warning her away from the Skakels' French provincial mansion at 71 Otter Rock Road.

"Everyone really liked the mother, and she had died and that was sad," Bye said.

Mark Fuhrman, former Los Angeles homicide detective and author of 1998's "Murder In Greenwich: Who Killed Martha Moxley?" attended the trial several days last week.

"You've heard it said there was no adult supervision in the house," Fuhrman said. "They had no intelligent supervision whatsoever. `Addams Family.' It was `The Addams Family,' and the Moxleys were `Leave It To Beaver.'"

When the Moxleys moved to one of Greenwich's wealthiest corners in 1974, the senior Rushton Skakel nominated the newcomers for membership in the Belle Haven Club. "As soon as you moved in, they'd tell you `That's where the Skakels live,' and that they were related to the Kennedys," Martha Moxley's mother, Dorthy, said in 1997.

On the night of Martha's murder, Rushton Sr. was hunting in upstate New York. Early in the evening, Ken Littleton, the newly hired family tutor, had taken some of the Skakels, including Michael, to dinner at the club. In his book proposal, Michael wrote that, then just 15, he had nonchalantly ordered rum and tonics and a planter's punch and waited for the reprimand from Littleton, which never came.

Over the years, with suspicion for Martha's death centering first on Thomas, then on Littleton, and finally on Michael, the immeasurable pressure on the family intensified.

"Just think what Tommy's life has been like all these years," said Martha's brother, John Moxley, a commercial real estate broker in New Jersey, "being a suspect and knowing Michael did it. That would create some animosity."

Oddly, at one point during the trial, prosecutor Benedict drew attention to the solidarity of the Skakels, a scene not often repeated outside the courtroom.

"Julie Skakel is the best example of a family support group continuing to this day to do whatever it takes to keep the wraps on Michael Skakel," he said in closing arguments, referring to Skakel's older sister.

Julie offered a glimpse into family dynamics during earlier questioning by Benedict.

"Did your brother have a turbulent relationship with your father?" Benedict asked.

"We all did," Julie replied.

"Did Michael have a turbulent relationship with Thomas?" Benedict asked.

"We all did," Julie replied.

"Did Michael have a turbulent relationship with you?" Benedict asked.

"We all did," Julie replied. The response brought laughter from the courtroom, but with that, Julie Skakel painted a picture of a family in disarray - motherless, with a largely absentee father and a cast of household help tending to the children.

Under A Cloud

Perhaps the Skakel offspring were too close in age to be close as children. At the time of Martha Moxley's murder, Rushton Jr. was 19, Julie was 18, Thomas was 17, John was 16, Michael had turned 15 a month earlier, David was 11, and Stephen was 9.

And although they were able to start families and careers - in real estate, interior design, recycling, international relief, insurance - always that cloud followed them. Michael Skakel, the most natural athlete of the bunch, tried a career as a speed skier. He obtained a degree from Curry College, a Massachusetts college with programs for dyslexic students. He worked in real estate, and for a while worked at Michael Kennedy's Citizens Energy Corp.

During the trial, the scattered Skakel family - including Rushton Sr., who had remarried and moved to Florida - came to court, some under subpoena. Rushton Jr. came from Bogota, Colombia. David and John each came from Oregon, where David works with a recycling company and John works for an insurance company. Stephen, who used to work with AmeriCares Inc. in New Canaan, and who was not called to testify, was in court with his brother every day of the trial.

When Thomas - who lives with his family in Stockbridge, Mass., and works for a time-share company - made a surprise visit to the court last Wednesday, family attorney Emanuel Margolis, hired by Rushton Sr. in 1976, said simply, "He came because it was time."

"For them, it's been an incredible amount of pressure," said Michael's defense attorney Mickey Sherman. "The focus has shifted from one brother to another, so it adds an element of tension that's beyond my comprehension."

At times Sherman sought to defend his client by subtly shifting blame back to Thomas. During jury deliberations, Margolis said Thomas understood the strategy, and bore Michael no ill will.

"I think they love each other, but they're not close, as many siblings aren't," Margolis said. "They're leading very different lives, but I have no doubt they love each other."

Yet Thomas' arrival in court moved one woman - who called herself a family friend but refused to be identified - to say she was "touched." It was, she said, the first time the Skakel brothers had been in the same room in decades.

After the verdict, when Michael Skakel was led out of the courtroom to be taken to jail until his sentencing on July 19, the Skakel family and friends remained in the courtroom, standing quietly. Some hugged, and some, such as Kris Steele, Skakel's bodyguard through the trial, wiped their eyes. They could hear well-wishers outside applauding a quietly smiling Dorthy Moxley, who said she felt empathy for the Skakel family.

As most of the reporters and well-wishers followed Dorthy Moxley outside, the Skakels began to leave. Ann McCooey, the aunt with whom Michael Skakel had been staying during the trial, and others were ushered out by bodyguards hired by the family. But after a brief, private conference with Sherman, three of Michael's brothers - John, Stephen and David Skakel - followed Sherman outside to the press gantlet behind the courthouse. Standing in front of a cluster of microphones, Sherman vowed to appeal. Then David read a statement in which he argued that his brother was innocent - and spoke of his hopes for the next generation.

"For our family," he said, "grieving [for Martha Moxley] has coincided with accusations. For our entire family, the most important thing for each of us is raise our children and strive to insure the next generation in our family does not inherit the denigration we ourselves have endured."

Courant staff writer Lynne Tuohy contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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