Trial puts focus on odd school Skakel's
Elan classmates recall a place so
unique it had its own language
By Kevin McCallum - Stamford Advocate
NORWALK -- Former students at the Elan School recounted in vivid detail last week how the Poland Spring, Maine, drug and alcohol rehabilitation center Michael Skakel attended was like no place else on Earth.
Just as the environment was unique, so, too, was the terminology they used to describe it.
Jurors in Skakel's murder trial heard tales of "cowboy ass-kickings," late-night confessions to "night owls" and rules enforced by "expediters."
They also learned of "general meetings" where students would "get their feelings off" about other students by screaming in their faces, as well as "primal scream therapy" sessions designed to release the inner demons of these troubled youths.
Skakel, 41, is accused of beating Martha Moxley to death with a golf club in 1975 in Greenwich. Skakel and Moxley were 15-year-old neighbors at the time.
Prosecutors arrived at a key part of their case last week, presenting testimony that Skakel allegedly confessed or made incriminating statements when he attended Elan in the late 1970s.
Two former Elan students have alleged Skakel confessed. Gregory Coleman died last year, so prosecutors read a transcript of his pretrial testimony Friday to the jury.
Other former Elan students have said Skakel never admitted the killing but often said he didn't know what happened because he was drinking and may have blacked out the night Moxley died. Skakel also suggested that his brother, Thomas, could have committed the killing, according to testimony.
Defense attorneys are challenging the credibility of the witnesses and underscoring what they call the harsh treatment at Elan.
"Anything he said has to be understood in the context of the Elan program," said Michael Sherman, Skakel's defense attorney.
Not unlike the military, the school utilized its own jargon as a way of impressing on the students that Elan was a different place, where different conduct was expected .
A glossary of some of the "Elanese" used during Skakel's trial:
Cowboy ass-kicking: In the movie "A Few Good Men," U.S. Marines in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, land in hot water for giving a "code red" to a fellow soldier. The weakest in the unit, the soldier dies from the brutal beating he receives at the hands of young men who thought they were only teaching him a lesson.
The code red at Elan was called a cowboy ass-kicking. Former student Chuck Seigan testified last week that when a resident of the school failed to respond to the school's other "behavior modification" methods, students were authorized to gang up and beat him. School officials "encouraged it and promoted it," Seigan said.
General meeting: Similarly brutal conduct would occur at a general meeting, which was called and presided over by the school's director, Joseph Ricci.
" 'General meeting' was probably the scariest words that you would hear if you were at Elan," Seigan said.
Students dropped whatever they were doing and headed straight for the dining hall, where they would be informed of the transgressions of a fellow student and encouraged to confront him about it.
In Skakel's case, after he escaped from the school and was sent back by his family, Ricci called a general meeting to get the point across that running away was "intolerable," former student and staff member Alice Dunn testified.
Before Skakel's arrival, the school's 160 students and staff were whipped into a frenzy by another staff member in a sort of "pep rally," Seigan said. The students clapped and stomped while Skakel waited in the wings. Seigan called the ritual "being sacrificed to the gods of therapy."
Students were encouraged to charge up to Skakel and "get (their) feelings off" about his conduct, which involved numerous students simultaneously screaming in his face.
In addition to Skakel's escape, Ricci informed the gathering about Skakel's alleged involvement in the slaying of his neighbor, confronting him about why he killed Moxley, Dunn said.
Skakel initially denied he had, Dunn said.
"He was saying, 'I didn't do it, I didn't do it,' " Dunn recalled. "And every time he would say, 'I didn't do it,' he would be put in the boxing ring."
Placed in the ring with boxing gloves and what Dunn called "substandard head gear," Skakel was forced to duke it out with several students.
"I was never a victim of this," Seigan said. "I can only say it must have been horrendous . . . to go through."
Former student Elizabeth Arnold described the incident as Skakel being "brutalized."
Sherman has argued that the beatings conditioned Skakel to stop saying he didn't do it and to start saying he didn't know whether he did.
Expediter: A member of the "police force" of Elan. As part of their rehabilitation, residents were encouraged to take responsibility for the orderly running of the school. Expediters were responsible for enforcing many of the rules, especially in the dormitories, and reporting any misconduct to school officials.
Night owls and night men: By all accounts, Elan was not a pleasant place. Many students were taken to the school "kicking and screaming," Seigan testified. To guard against possible escape attempts, residents were recruited to be night owls, who would stand watch over their dormitory throughout the night, taking head counts every half-hour.
The reports would be passed on to the night man, who would circulate among the three dorms, Seigan said.
According to witness John Higgins, Skakel worked with him as a night owl on the warm night the two sat on a dormitory porch and discussed the Moxley killing. Higgins testified that Skakel told him he was drunk and remembers running around with a golf club and seeing pine trees.
Primal scream therapy: One of the daily group therapy sessions residents were required to attend, primal scream therapy involved six to eight people in a darkened room with a staff member. According to Dunn, this session involved encouraging the person to "get in touch with" their feelings and to "give them a forum to let it out."
In the transcript of Coleman's testimony, he said that during the session, Skakel was discussing the guilt he felt over Moxley's killing and Skakel "had to finally repeat the words, 'I'm sorry.' "
Sherman argued this was not a reference to the Moxley murder but to the guilt his client felt because he had prayed for his mother, Ann, to die because she was in such pain. Ann Skakel died of brain cancer in 1973, when Skakel was 13.
Prosecutors have additional former Elan students on their list of possible witnesses, but it's unclear whether more will be called.