A mother's undying quest for justice
By Thomas Mellana - Greenwich Time
CHATHAM, N.J. - Sometimes, when she is alone, Dorthy Moxley talks to her pictures.
There's the large oil canvas of her daughter in the dining room, painted by a friend's father. The photograph in the living room of her children, Martha and John, when they were little. The one beside it, of a teenage Martha, blonde strands blowing across her face, which must have been taken shortly before she was killed.
"I still do (talk to them) every now and then," Dorthy Moxley said this week. "Sometimes I'll just look at her picture É or if I've just read an article."
She's had a lot to talk about lately, especially after all the news cameras and reporters have gone for the day. Nearly 25 years after her daughter's murder, a long-suspected neighbor named Michael Skakel was arrested on Jan. 19.
It was for this that Martha's mother has been working all these years. But the joy she felt was bittersweet. The milestone brought her back to the questions she's asked so many times before. Why did this have to happen in the first place? What if, all those years ago, we had moved to a different town instead? A different neighborhood even?
Any one of a hundred twists of fate and she would have her daughter to talk to, not a piece of canvas.
Exhausted from countless interviews, television appearances and phone calls since news of the arrest broke, Dorthy Moxley sat down this week to recount the time before and after her daughter's death, and her long search for justice.
Backtrack nearly 27 years. A couple and their two children are moving east from San Francisco. He has a new job in New York City. She makes scouting runs to find a place to live. Connecticut has an easy commute and no income tax. And the homes are gorgeous near the water in Greenwich.
"I've thought about that so many times - why on earth did we have to move there?" Moxley said. "But you can't think that way. It happened, and there's nothing you can do about it."
Moxley, 67, now lives in Chatham, N.J., a small town with one main road running past restaurants that have been converted from old homes. Everything about her home and the town says elegance, taste, affluence. But it's a different kind of house and a different kind of neighborhood than the ones they moved into all those years ago.
"Oh, you know, Belle Haven was wonderful," Moxley said. "We were all so happy."
David Moxley had initiated his family's move by taking a job heading the New York division of Touche Ross, an accounting and management consulting firm. The children suffered typical culture shock - "everyone here wears different clothes" - but flourished soon enough. John made Greenwich High School's football team. Martha spent a year at Western Junior High School before she moved on to Greenwich High. By June, she would be voted most popular.
"I had that big ol' house to fix up," Dorthy Moxley said. "We found that house on Walsh Lane and just loved it. It was really an exotic house on the inside with beautiful gardens in the back."
Given the social climate of the time, fitting into the new neighborhood couldn't have been easier.
"At that time, people used to have a lot of cocktail parties," Moxley said. "When we first went there, the neighborhood had a party to introduce us to everyone. It seemed like every weekend, there was some big cocktail party to go to."
Like everyone who lived there, the Moxleys joined the exclusive Belle Haven Club. One of their sponsors was a cocktail party fixture named Rushton Skakel. Wealthy even by Belle Haven standards, Skakel "liked to party," said Moxley. He also possessed a family connection to beat all others.
"That was the first thing I heard after we moved to Belle Haven," she said. "The Skakel family was related to the Kennedys." Rushton was the brother of Ethel Skakel Kennedy, the wife of Robert F. Kennedy.
But if Rushton, who lost his wife, Ann, to cancer in 1973, felt like a big shot, he didn't show it. He even sponsored David Moxley for the University Club in New York.
"He was very jovial, very likable," Moxley said. "Rush was becoming a good friend."
But today, it is the Skakel patriarch, the one-time "good friend" with whom she is most angry.
"How can I not be?" she asked. "I feel kind of sorry for Michael. If his father had done the right thing at the time, there wouldn't have been all this hurt."
By now, the story has been well-told, especially over the past two weeks. The Moxleys' idyllic existence in Belle Haven exploded on the night before Halloween 1975 when 15-year-old Martha didn't come home. Her body was found under a tree beside Dorthy's beloved house the next morning. She had been beaten and stabbed to death with a golf club and its broken shaft.
Equally well-chronicled has been the investigation of the murder, accusations of bungled forensic work and deferential treatment of the Skakel family - despite early indications they may have been involved. Investigators, for example, did not immediately search the Skakel home for evidence after they discovered a golf club of the same make as the murder weapon there - even though the make (Toney Penna) was not common.
Moxley, however, said the only thing she feels toward the Greenwich Police Department is gratitude for the help they have given her over the years.
"I think the police treated them like that because we all did," Moxley said. "I know all of those police officers as sincere. I know each and every one of them wanted to solve the case."
Moxley said she remembers little from the weeks following the murder. In her grief, she lost contact with the world.
"I do remember the police telling us the golf club matched a set found in the Skakels' home," she said. "And we knew that was the last place Martha was seen alive."
Moxley said she didn't know Michael Skakel or his brother Thomas, who appeared a stronger suspect than Michael until just a few years ago. She had never met them. Martha's friends who came around the house went to public school with her. The Skakel boys went to the private Brunswick School. She does not believe Martha knew them very well, either.
"She didn't talk about them," Moxley said. "I read her diary after she died. It just mentioned them something like 10 days or two weeks before she died."
In the weeks following the murder, the Moxleys, like everyone else in the neighborhood, refused to believe one of their own could be responsible for the crime. They even accepted an invitation by Rushton Skakel to visit his ski house a couple of months afterward.
"We all wanted to believe it was some guy off of (Interstate) 95," she said.
But it was soon becoming hard to ignore her suspicions about the Skakel boys.
"We were told one day the police couldn't ask the Skakel boys any more questions," she said. "When somebody refuses to cooperate - especially when it's a friend - it does seem that something's wrong."
After initially answering questions and cooperating with the investigation, the Skakel family circled the wagons. Rushton Skakel hired a criminal lawyer and access was cut off.
"The person I'm the most angry with is Rushton Skakel," Moxley said. "Because he didn't do the right thing for his child. Before or after."
The growing tension also put strains on the Belle Haven clique.
"You could tell they were tried and true friends of Rush's," Moxley said. "It was obvious that some people just didn't want to talk about it. And it's all I wanted to talk about."
Nevertheless, she says, their Belle Haven friends for the most part remained sympathetic.
"They were still kind to us," Moxley said. "Whenever you'd call, they were more than willing to talk. We weren't treated that badly."
But it quickly reached the point where they could not stand to be near Rushton Skakel. Dorthy Moxley remembers one time stalking off the tennis court at the Belle Haven Club when he showed up. And, a year and a half after Martha was killed, she could no longer live in that big house. The Moxleys moved to a condominium on Lyon Farm, but they only lasted there a few months.
"One day I said, 'Why are we living here if Martha's case may never be solved?' " she recalled.
For the next 12 years, home would be New York City. The move sparked something of a rebirth. In addition to his career, David Moxley was appointed to several boards in New York City, including the New York Public Library.
"We got really involved in New York," she said. "It all kept us very social also. We were very busy."
Once David retired in 1986, the Moxleys moved to Annapolis, Md., where he could get a boat.
"I was the kind of wife who felt I had to take care of my husband," Moxley said. "And I was the kind of mother who felt I had to be there for John. I always felt I just couldn't give up."
Longtime friend Marilyn Robertson said Moxley is helped by a "great pixie sense of humor" that she never lost. Still, Robertson, who now lives in Phoenix, said she and her friend have shed a lot of tears together. ("I cried for years," acknowledged Moxley.)
"She's never ceased; this is never out of her mind," Robertson said. "It's become the thread of her life."
Another old friend, Ed Mein, said he remembers visiting the Moxleys in Maryland and taking a boat ride on Chesapeake Bay one evening.
" 'Unsolved Mysteries' came on, and Dorthy said, 'Gee, I hope we can get Martha's case on there someday,' " said Mein, who lives in Lafayette, Calif. "She never let herself believe it wouldn't be solved."
Through the years, it was David's job to follow up with police, checking up every so often with the Greenwich department for updates .
"They would call once or twice a year to say something had come in," she said. Nothing ever panned out.
"That's when it was so frustrating with the Skakels," Moxley said. "We never gave up hope, but the thought (that the murder would never be solved) occurred - especially after Dave died."
That was in 1988. For Dorthy Moxley, the bottom dropped out.
"For a long time, it was all I could do to get myself going," she said. "I really had to find out who I was after my husband died. I relied on him a lot."
Enveloped in grief, Moxley eventually came to a realization: She was coping with David's death. She was not coping with Martha's. She also knew that regardless of how she felt, the job of tracking the investigation of Martha's murder was now hers.
"I asked everyone I knew, 'What can I do?,' " she recalled. "And they all said, 'There is nothing you can do.' "
Then, in 1991, fate stepped in.
Another member of the Kennedy clan, William Kennedy Smith, went on trial for rape in Florida. In the ensuing media frenzy, reporters started chasing down a rumor that Smith was with his cousins years before in Greenwich on the night their neighbor was killed.
The story was not true, but Dorthy Moxley's phone started ringing. Greenwich police encouraged her to talk to reporters. You never know, they said, somebody may be out there who knows something.
"I was so pleased that I could actually do something," she said. "I started and I just kept going."
The first writer who had helped her was Leonard Levitt, a Newsday reporter she met in the early 1980s while he was working on a story for Greenwich Time and The (Stamford) Advocate that helped get the investigation reactivated.
Eventually, she was talking to anyone who asked and seeking others out. Dominick Dunne wrote a novel based on the murder. Timothy Dumas and Mark Fuhrman wrote nonfiction books. J.A. Johnson Jr. wrote about the case regularly in Greenwich Time. On Tuesday, Moxley credited them all with keeping her, and her daughter's case, moving forward.
She said she doubted whether the arrest would have occurred, now or ever, without the intense interest.
"Possibly Frank Garr," she said, referring to the state's chief investigator. "But the media really helped hurry it along."
Garr, a former Greenwich detective, joined the case in 1991 under the state's chief investigator, Jack Solomon, whose role he took over after Solomon's retirement three years ago. Moxley credits Garr more than anyone with the outcome.
"I really feel I have been blessed," she said.
But her friends say Moxley deserves the credit as much as anyone.
"I have to say, all of us were trying to get her ready for a big letdown," Mein said. "But she just kept going. She never let herself believe it wouldn't be solved."
"She's very tenacious, as you can tell," Robertson said. "She clearly cannot put it to rest until it's settled. But she's never harbored anger or gone through all the 'why me?' It's not what she does."
A high point of the 1990s was new State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict's decision to convene a grand jury 1 1/2 years ago. Finally, the Skakels would be made to testify. But after the initial excitement - Moxley testified on the first day - there was nothing to do but wait. Because grand jury proceedings are secret, she was no more privy to what was going on than anyone else.
When the grand jury expired on Dec. 31, she knew crunch time was near. Soon Judge George Thim, who served as the one-man grand jury, would issue his recommendation whether an arrest should be made. Investigators told her that if he said no, they would continue tracking down leads. But for all intents and purposes, Moxley knew this was her last chance.
"The last 30 days were the hardest, I swear," she said. "I've had to keep very busy."
Elated as she was to learn of the arrest, and happy to grant interviews and field calls from friends, Moxley knows her fight is far from over.
Because he was 15 at the time of the murder, Michael Skakel initially will be tried in juvenile court. Some experts predict a fight to move him into adult court could take a year or so. After that would come a trial in which evidence and memories are a quarter-century old.
"I've been told for a long time now by many people that it will be hard to get a conviction," Moxley said. "But it's a miracle we've come as far as we are today. I just think there's going to be another miracle, and we're going to get a conviction - in Superior Court."
The years ahead will not be pleasant - and Moxley knows it. Court means facing the man she believes killed her daughter. And the one-time friend she believes covered it up. When Michael Skakel walks into court, it will be the first time Dorthy Moxley sees him face to face.
"I don't look forward to it at all," Moxley said. "But nothing can keep me away."
Until then, Dorthy Moxley will content herself with her family. She moved to New Jersey nine years ago to be near her son and his wife, Cara, and her two grandchildren, Caroline, 8, and David, 6.
"There will always be something missing; Martha's killing took away half my life ," she said. "Even though I still miss Martha so much, now my life has changed because of Caroline and David."
"It doesn't replace her," she said. "But it's like when you have your first kid, you question if you could ever love a second one as much. What you realize is love isn't something you have to share. You have enough for everybody."
That still includes her daughter. What happened 25 years ago hasn't changed that one bit, Dorthy Moxley says.
"Martha was very happy," she said, suddenly choked up for the first time in a two-hour conversation. "Martha was only 15 when she died, but they were 15 very happy years.
"That makes me feel good."
Above her hung an oil portrait from those happy times. Martha, 13, cradling Tiger, her tabby cat, sitting on the floor next to John, 15, his arm draped over their Dalmatian, Rowdy.
Perhaps it was the painting she stopped to speak with this week. Moxley confessed she did take a moment from the cameras, lights and commotion to have a word with her daughter.
"I said 'Yes Martha! Now we're gonna get him.' "