Skakel Gains An Unlikely Defender
In Moxley Murder Trial
By Dwight F. Blint - The Hartford Courant

POLAND, Maine - Michael Skakel once described the Elan School as a ``concentration camp for kids.''

He said he was beaten and abused at Elan, where he was treated for alcoholism in the late 1970s; twice he ran away. A few years ago, he threatened to write a book and tour the talk-show circuit to bring down the school.

Now, more than 20 years later, the school's co-founder, Joseph Ricci, has emerged as perhaps Skakel's best hope for beating a murder rap.

A self-made millionaire and former heroin addict who has twice unsuccessfully sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Maine, Ricci disputes critical elements of the prosecution's case against Skakel, the 39-year-old nephew of Robert and Ethel Kennedy.

Specifically, Ricci challenges allegations by former Elan students who say they heard that Skakel confessed to fatally bludgeoning his neighbor, Martha Moxley, in October 1975 when they were both 15. Some of what Ricci says appears to be corroborated by two former students and a former school employee.

The killing, in the exclusive Belle Haven neighborhood of Greenwich, Conn., had become one of the most written- and talked-about mysteries in the country.

Skakel was arrested and charged with murder last month. His arrest warrant remains sealed in juvenile court, but sources familiar with the case describe the evidence as heavily circumstantial and including grand jury testimony by several former Elan students and Skakel's childhood friends.

Ricci's account of Skakel's stay at the Elan School - and what he may or may not have said - could raise serious questions about that evidence. Ricci says that although the Moxley killing was discussed at the school during Skakel's stay there, Skakel never confessed.

Ricci's account is supported by some former Elan students, but conflicts with others.

One former student, interviewed recently, said he never heard that Skakel confessed - publicly or privately. Another student, according to the transcript of a 1996 interview, said he learned in the early 1990s that Skakel may have confessed privately to his roommate. Still another student, according to investigators, claims to have heard Skakel privately admit guilt. Ricci discounts such statements, attributing them to greed for reward money.

``I'd like to see Martha Moxley's mother get closure because I have two children of my own, but this is a big lie,'' Ricci said.

In March 1978, following a drunken-driving incident in New York state, 17-year-old Michael Skakel was committed to the Elan School by his father, Rushton Skakel.

The younger Skakel spent two years at Elan, which was licensed to treat teenagers with substance abuse and behavioral problems. Many of the clientele were from well-heeled families who could afford the then-$30,000 annual tuition.

The school still enjoys a good reputation, although its boot camp- style disciplinary techniques are controversial.

Ricci and his co-founder, the late Dr. Gerald Davidson, created Elan in 1970, drawing upon peer-counseling methods Ricci had learned from adult drug-treatment facilities. Methods included group sessions and heart-to-heart discussions; often, students wore signs and demeaning costumes as punishment or therapy.

While attending the school, Skakel was confronted by peers and counselors about his suspected involvement in Moxley's death, Ricci said. School officials made Skakel aware that, if found guilty, Skakel would have been imprisoned only until the age of 18 under juvenile laws in force at the time.

``It's illogical for him not to have come forward back then,'' said Ricci, interviewed recently at the school.

Ricci denied that one potentially incriminating episode ever occurred. In an outline for a proposed book, Skakel wrote that part of his group therapy included wearing a cardboard sign stating: ``I am an arrogant rich brat. Confront me on why I murdered my friend Martha.''

Skakel never wore such a sign, Ricci said.

One former student, who didn't want his name used, said Skakel wore a sign that described him as an arrogant brat. But there was no mention of a murder, said the student, who once helped return Skakel to Elan in restraints after the youth had run away.

The former student said he never heard that Skakel had confessed, and suspects that Skakel exaggerated the sign episode to make his book proposal more appealing.

Stories that Skakel had publicly confessed to the killing were first unearthed by Sutton Associates, an investigative firm hired in 1992 by the Skakel family - primarily to clear Michael's brother, Thomas. Instead, the report shifted the focus to Michael Skakel.

Leaked in 1995, the report revealed that the two brothers had changed their alibis for their whereabouts on Oct. 30, 1975, the night Moxley was killed. A former Elan student and worker, Dan Benison, said Skakel talked about the killing during a therapy session, according to Sutton investigators.

Mark Fuhrman, author of ``Murder in Greenwich,'' said Skakel indicated during that session that the weapon, a golf club, was found sticking out of Moxley's chest and that its handle was missing.

``Only three people would have known that: the two officers who first arrived on the scene and the suspect who left it there,'' said Fuhrman.

A transcript of a 1996 interview with former Elan student Chuck Seigan by state investigator Frank Garr questions whether a public admission was ever made. Seigan said whenever Skakel was confronted about the killing, he would become withdrawn or start to cry and say, ``I don't know if I did or didn't, I don't know.'' Sometimes Skakel would simply deny any involvement, Seigan said.

Seigan said he had no firsthand knowledge of a confession. He said he had been told around 1990 that Skakel privately admitted the killing to a school roommate, John Higgins. According to Seigan's statement, Higgins and Skakel were talking in their room. ``Well, did you or didn't you do it?'' Higgins asked Skakel. ``Yeah, I did do it,'' came the reply, according to Seigan. ``What?'' a surprised Higgins responded. The subject was then dropped, Seigan said.

Seigan said Higgins never discussed the alleged admission with school officials or students. Seigan said he learned of the confession more than a decade later when the two became friendly while living in the Chicago area.

Seigan said he thought about the confession five years later in February 1996 after seeing an episode of ``Unsolved Mysteries.'' He called investigators a few months later after seeing Martha's mother, Dorthy, appear on another show.

Fuhrman said another former Elan student, Harry Kranick, who testified before the grand jury, said Skakel admitted to the killing while he and Kranick were standing on a porch at the school. Persistent rumors about Skakel's admissions prompted state investigators in 1997 to search Elan for records and the names of students who might have heard it.

Skakel's lawyer, Michael Sherman, says his client made no confession.

``I honestly do not believe that he ever made any kind of confession and I truly believe the evidence will support it,'' Sherman said.

Asked to explain the accounts of a public confession, Sherman said if it were true, more than a handful of people would have heard it.

``Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame,'' Sherman said.

Benison, Higgins and Seigan could not be reached for comment. Kranick has declined comment.

Prosecutors have declined to discuss the specifics of the case. ``We are optimistic with regards to our investigation,'' said Garr, the state investigator.

Ricci said he doubts Higgins or any of the other students would have kept quiet about a confession for so long.

``Word spreads like wildfire about everything,'' Ricci said. ``It would be impossible for that to be kept quiet for 25 minutes much less 25 years.''

Ricci accuses Higgins and other students of trying to cash in on the tragedy. At the time, a reward of $50,000 was being offered for information leading to a conviction.

Ken Zaretzky, who attended Elan before Skakel's arrival, questions Ricci's motives for sticking by Skakel, saying he might be doing it to protect the school or to further his political ambitions. ``Maybe he wants the Kennedys beholden to him,'' Zaretzky said.

Still, Zaretzky believes a Skakel confession was unlikely, particularly if it involved wearing an incriminating sign that would have been viewed by visitors, students and workers. ``A lot of crazy things happened at Elan, but not that crazy,'' he said.

The Rev. Robert Allanach, executive director of Boys Hope in New Orleans and a former Elan staffer, said he doesn't buy the scenario put forth by prosecutors either. ``I never heard the name Michael Skakel and that would have been one of the old hallowed tales - the stuff we'd tell each other,'' said Allanach, who worked at the school from the mid- to-late 1980s.