Probe of Rape Case Obstruction Ongoing : Crime: Sen. Kennedy says he left Palm Beach not knowing the seriousness of allegations against his nephew. Police had sought to question him there.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Police said Wednesday that their investigation is proceeding into whether obstruction of justice hampered their probe into an alleged rape of a woman at the Kennedy family's oceanfront estate here.

Despite the insistence by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that he left Palm Beach not knowing that rape was being alleged against his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, sworn statements disclose that he contacted an influential Miami lawyer to look into the case while police were trying unsuccessfully to question him and Smith.

Moreover, the sworn testimony of Kennedy's son Patrick, released Tuesday along with 1,500 other pages of investigative files in the rape case, called into question Kennedy's repeated statements that he thought only possible "sexual harassment" was at issue.

Palm Beach police spokesman Craig Gunkel described the obstruction inquiry as "ongoing," and did not specify the targets or suspects of the probe. But the primary focus appears to be statements to police by William Barry, a longtime Kennedy friend and security man. Police say Barry led them to believe Smith and Kennedy had already left Palm Beach on Easter Sunday, the day after the alleged rape, when detectives sought to interview them, although Kennedy did not depart until Monday.

Under Florida law, obstruction of the legal process is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

But any obstruction case would likely overshadow the felony sexual battery charges against Smith, 30, a fourth-year medical student, because they would more directly involve Kennedy. Such a case likely would rekindle criticism of Kennedy's conduct nearly 22 years ago when he waited 10 hours before reporting to police that a young woman had been trapped in his submerged car after he drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick, Mass.

Kennedy issued a statement Wednesday saying "there is no truth to suggestions that I attempted to interfere at any time with the police investigation into charges against Willie Smith." Kennedy said he spoke to police from Washington as soon as he became aware of the seriousness of the charges, and the desire of police to interview him.

In his deposition to investigators, Patrick Kennedy said Barry spoke with him and his father at the mansion Easter evening, saying: " 'There's an allegation, a complaint by a woman who was visiting the other night, that there was a sexual assault or sexual battery.' "

"So your father was there to hear of the allegation of sexual battery from the lips of Bill Barry?" prosecutor Moira Lasch asked. "Yes," the younger Kennedy answered.

Sen. Kennedy said Wednesday that he did not understand that the term "sexual battery" means "rape" under Florida law.

"I thought the police were investigating a different offense such as sexual harassment. This was nothing more than an honest semantic misunderstanding," he said.

Nevertheless, that evening Sen. Kennedy called Marvin Rosen, a family friend and attorney, on Smith's behalf. Smith now is represented in Palm Beach by Mark P. Schnapp, a partner in Rosen's firm.

In a sworn statement to police, Sen. Kennedy said Smith called him later that Sunday evening from Washington. " 'You know, there's some allegations against me,' " Sen. Kennedy recalled.

" 'Do you want the whole story?' " Kennedy said Smith asked.

"I said, I think I said, 'You better tell the whole story to someone, to Marvin Rosen.' "

Smith has declined to be questioned by police.

Barry's side of the story remains untold, because he declined to give a sworn statement to Lasch, after Lasch refused to give him immunity from any charges.

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