Judgment Day

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The handsome young man in the navy blue blazer trades embraces with his girlfriend, a striking blond wearing pearls with her black trouser suit. He rubs her back, she brushes imaginary dust from his shoulders. They nuzzle and whisper tender secrets. When his parents approach, they join in a group hug. It is all so merry that for one sweet moment, it seems like an engagement party.

But it is not. It is a rape trial. And it is a courtroom drama that encompasses changing views about sexual assault, and about the lines of decorum in opulent America. It offers a prismatic study of entitlement, and it calls into question the sacred cultural contention that boys will be boys as well as the timeless allure of affluence, attractiveness and athleticism.

Alex Kelly, the handsome young man in the navy blue blazer, is in court to face charges of raping and kidnapping a 16-year-old in Darien, a pristine and prosperous suburb 10 miles from here. A second, eerily identical case involving Kelly and another teenage girl will be heard at a future date.

The alleged crimes occurred four days apart in 1986, when Kelly was the 18-year-old co-captain of Darien's wrestling team. His good looks and charm were legendary, his athletic prowess unquestioned. In particular, Kelly was known for a move wrestlers call the guillotine. "The best Darien ever had," marveled the brother of one of his accusers.

Kelly fled the U.S. in 1987, convinced public sentiment against him was so strong that he could not escape conviction. His parents, Joe and Melanie Kelly, drew from the fortune they made as plumbing contractors and in real estate to support their middle son in his life on the lam. Travel documents uncovered when the FBI gained access to his parents' safe deposit box make Kelly look like a stringer for National Geographic. In the decade since the alleged rapes, he traveled to France, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece, Portugal, Egypt, Italy and Sweden. In France and Switzerland, he skied and played tennis. In Sweden, he moved in with a well-to-do young woman and in a gesture of altruism, taught local children to windsurf, gratis.

So the family tableau that unfolds on this morning last Tuesday as prosecutor Bruce Hudock and Thomas Puccio, Kelly's powerhouse New York defense lawyer, deliver closing arguments is straight from the literature of American privilege. Darien is John Cheever country, a community of 17,000 where men come home from the city on the 6 o'clock train and where golf and hunt clubs pepper the landscape. Some of the houses have names. Money and good bones are valued commodities here, and Alex Kelly has both.

But just across the courtroom aisle, another family tells another part of this story. The 16-year-old Catholic school girl who accepted a ride home from a party with Kelly so she could meet her 11:30 p.m. curfew has grown into a poised 26-year-old woman who works as a pharmaceutical sales representative. She sits close beside her husband, their hands tightly clenched. Her parents are at her side as well. Behind them are her sisters, her brother and a favorite aunt. All the women are wearing black.

"He grabbed my throat with his left hand and started to squeeze as hard as he could," testified the young woman, who said she had never met Alex Kelly before that cold February night. "He said this could be easy or this could be hard. He told me I was going to make love to him or he would kill me."

The jury of three men and three women listened attentively as the young woman gave her version of the alleged crime. They heard how she raced, partially dressed, into her home following the alleged incident and how her older sister found her curled up in her bedroom "in the fetal position," and sobbing uncontrollably. They heard defense attorney Puccio's insistence that the young woman consented to make love with Kelly, and probably even helped him to lower the back section of the car he was driving so they would have a place to do it. They heard one of Puccio's well-paid expert witnesses, a sexologist, describe the kind of hysteria she experienced as a common reaction after first-time sex. But because the judge disallowed some defense measures, they did not hear Puccio's contention that a bloodstain in the back of the car contained traces of cocaine and marijuana, suggesting that her judgment could have been impaired by drug use.

Late Friday afternoon, the panel told Judge Martin Nigro that they were deadlocked. Nigro ordered them to resume deliberations on Tuesday, following the Veterans' Day holiday.

Journalists have refrained from printing the name of the young woman whose testimony early in the trial riveted the small courtroom. Her father also captivated the room when he described a post-midnight telephone call to the Kelly home, hours after the alleged rape was said to have taken place. "I told Mr. Kelly that his son Alex had raped my daughter," the father testified. "Being a father, I felt I should call him."

In turn, Joe Kelly testified that he woke his son. "He said, 'Dad, I didn't rape his daughter. We had sex.' " And Alex went back to sleep.

Even before that exchange was revealed, it seemed that Kelly and some of his supporters were in a somnambulant state. Reporters, in fact, have taken to calling the handsome young man who seems never to have aged "Rip Van Winkle." Others, reacting to the lack of expression Kelly has displayed throughout the monthlong proceedings, have dubbed him "the Halcion poster child," in reference to a prescription drug that often dulls the senses.

In his uniform of khakis, Timberland moccasins, button-down shirt with tie and of course the blue blazer (Menendez East?), Kelly is a boy in a bubble: a time warp traveler who seems frozen at 18 years of age. He is 29 now, yet displays no hint of a wrinkle, no trace of gray in his perfectly trimmed dark hair and not one tiny indication that he is bothered by what is going on around him.

"I know they're going to find me innocent," Kelly said following his extradition from Switzerland in 1995, "because I am." It was among the few public remarks from Kelly, who did not testify in his own behalf.

Closing arguments by Puccio, the lawyer who successfully defended socialite Claus von Bulow against charges that he attempted to murder his wife, harked back to Kelly's 11-year-old distinction between rape and sex. Puccio painted a scenario in which Kelly's accuser "lied to her family about what had happened" on a darkened cul de sac in the back of a Jeep Wagoneer owned by the family of Amy Molitor, who was Kelly's high school girlfriend and who now accompanies him to court each day. Puccio further attempted to plant doubt that a nice boy like Alex Kelly could be capable of rape.

"Like a homicidal maniac he jumps on her and rapes her?" Puccio asked. "Does that make any sense to you? Does that strain the limits of credulity? Without any provocation, he decided to turn into a homicidal maniac, what evidence is there of that?"

But attitudes about rape have changed significantly in the 10 years between the alleged crime and the trial, observed Anne Burt, a Stamford rape counselor who attends the trial each day. "Ten years ago, people thought of rape as something that had to do with sex. The public now has a better understanding that this is a crime of violence, and it is a crime of power."

In the community, however, "the reaction has been, 'How could something like this happen here?' How could it be one of their good people?" said Barry Larkin, the editor of the Darien News-Review, which has covered the case in minute detail.

In a place like Darien, one is expected to have one's name in the newspaper on just three occasions: at birth, upon marriage and at death. So the negative attention attracted by a high-profile rape case is especially discomfiting--an opinion shared by at least one News-Review letter writer from a nearby town.

"I think you Darienites should seriously reflect on the proceedings as being symptomatic of your own town's general character," she lambasted. During the summer, this reader complained, when Alex Kelly strolled on the beach, "your own sense of smug competitiveness and entitlement was all over [his] face."

Almost since the first disclosure of the alleged crimes, Darien has felt ambivalent about the involvement of one of its favorite sons. Two and a half weeks after Kelly was charged, his parents posted bond of $200,000. It was the first of many generous outlays they would make. Kelly showed up at a Darien High hockey game at just about that time, and the guys in the audience gave him a standing ovation.

Still, his presence was a problem. The sister of one of his accusers became hysterical when she saw him at the high school. Officials finally arranged for Kelly, then a senior, to graduate early.

The 10-year-old specter of the case has made many residents weary of the whole subject. At the Sugar Bowl luncheonette, the Kelly trial was not a subject patrons wanted to discuss. "The town's fed up," said the manager, who opted not to give his name. "They just want it to be over."

The persistent portrayal of Darien as a haven of wealth, privilege and overindulged young people has grown tiresome, he said. "They're making it sound like everybody here is a Rockefeller," he protested. "Every town has people like him."

Maybe that is why some parents confess to some measure of sympathy for the Kellys when they hear that a younger son is estranged from the family, working as a river guide somewhere out West and wearing dreadlocks, and that an older son died of a drug overdose in 1991. Maybe that is why some parents understand why the Kellys mortgaged themselves up to their earlobes to support the one son they have left.

But just as quickly, compassion shifts across the courtroom aisle to the young woman who challenged local etiquette to press rape charges, and who did not flee to the tennis courts or ski slopes of Europe. Kelly's sojourn as an artful dodger flummoxed the FBI and a fleet of private detectives, not to mention Interpol, which in 1989 posted "wanted" notices for the young man in 176 countries. From the French Alps he wrote to his parents that "I haven't been doing much but skiing and getting in shape." From Sweden, he wrote, "Sorry I am late, but Happy Birthday, Mom. I hope you had a nice day and got your new Jaguar."

With his passport soon to expire, and the FBI closing in on him, Kelly came home to a $1-million bond posted by his parents--who also shelled out $25,000 to have disgraced White House pollster Dick Morris survey the potential jury pool--as well as a court-imposed 9 p.m. curfew and ankle-bracelet surveillance that allowed him to remain at home pending the trial outcome. But Kelly seemed determined not to fade into Darien's woodwork. In July he was charged with breach of peace following an altercation with three women and a police officer in a Stamford bar. Then, days before court proceedings were set to begin, a white Nissan with Kelly at the wheel and Molitor in the passenger seat sped past a police radar speed trap. When police tried to pull the car over, it sped up still more. Finally it flipped, leaving Molitor with broken ribs and a lacerated scalp. Kelly, apparently uninjured, fled into the woods.

Back in the courtroom, awaiting a verdict that might send Kelly to prison for up to 45 years, the two are lovey-dovey once again. She nestles her nose in his neck, he runs his fingers through her hair. They are ever-so-well dressed, he in his crisp navy blazer, she in her trouser suit and pearls. They are beaming.

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