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Remembering Martha Moxley: Dorthy Moxley of Summit Reflects on Her Daughter's Life, Tragic Death, and the Aftermath

Jennifer Jean Miller

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 • 12:02pm

SUMMIT, NJ - She was described as sunshine by those who had the privilege to know her. According to those who knew her, when 15-year-old Martha Moxley walked into a room people were automatically attracted to her natural inner radiance. They say she had a wholesome goodness and kind heart, complemented by her sincere smile.

"None of us had known anyone like her. And that smile was infectious. It was hard not to be happy when you were around her. She was always laughing, forever upbeat. There really was no one that didn't like her in school. And her personality alone made her stand out," wrote friend Mei (Stone) Versailles on a website dedicated to Martha's memory.

Sometime between October 30 and October 31 of 1975, Martha Moxley's loving innocence was snuffed out during a grisly and horrific crime which rocked the affluent and safe Belle Haven neighborhood of Greenwich, Connecticut. She was found in her own backyard bludgeoned to death by a golf club, after she returned from a Halloween party. Her father, David, mother, Dorthy, and brother, John, were left to pick up the pieces in the shocking aftermath.

Friend Leigh LaPore Herrmann wrote, "They murdered Martha…and they murdered that which was within each & all of us...a belief that we were given the right to live to see our full potential without fear or loss of life or suppression of Justice as is guaranteed to us as Americans...and as human beings...."

Despite the diligent efforts of the Greenwich Police Department, the case went cold and Martha's murder went unsolved for many years. Neighbors Thomas and Michael Skakel, the nephews of Ethel Kennedy, were suspects but were largely shielded from the police by their family. However, Michael Skakel was was heard bragging about murdering Martha Moxley while he was in a drug rehabilitation program at the Elan School. A fellow student who later testified against Skakel said Skakel told him of Moxley's murder, "I'm going to get away with murder. I'm a Kennedy."

In 1991, the Skakels' cousin, William Kennedy Smith, was on trial for rape and a rumor circulated that Smith had possibly attended the same Halloween party that Martha Moxley had attended the night she was murdered.  This detail, although not accurate, reopened the interest in the case. A few books further acted as catalysts nudging Martha's story back to the surface including Jerry Oppenheimer's The Other Mrs. Kennedy, Dominick Dunne's A Season in Purgatory and Mark Fuhrman's Murder in Greenwich. Fuhrman's book specifically named Michael Skakel as the murderer.

The Greenwich Police picked up the ball in the investigation and, in June 2000, Michael Skakel was arrested for Martha Moxley's murder, nearly a quarter of a century after the crime. In June 2002, he was convicted and is currently serving a sentence of 20 years to life in prison. Skakel has since made numerous appeals all of which have been rejected by the courts.

A year and a half following Martha's death, her heartbroken parents and brother moved to Annapolis, Maryland. After her husband's death, Dorthy Moxley relocated to Chatham Township, New Jersey, and then later to Summit to be closer to her son John and his family.

Today, Martha Moxley's positive energy force is present in her mother's home in Summit with photographs and portraits of the vivacious girl smiling down on each and every person who enters the premises. Visitors are greeted in the foyer by the painting of the timeless beauty holding a stack of schoolbooks.

"I recalled a young girl nonchalantly going about her schoolday, putting up books and other things in her locker, imagining she had a half-century of life and love, happiness and pain ahead of her when in fact she was nearing the end of her short but meaningful life. At the edge of an abyss lies what we are not privileged as mortals to know at this time," classmate Chiku Misra reminisced on the Martha Moxley Website. Of Dorthy Moxley, Misra added, "…not to say that makes it any easier for that most elegant of women, Dorthy Moxley. A pillar of strength, decency, courtesy, and noble suffering."

Dorthy Moxley sits in her living room in Summit with a portrait of Martha and John hanging above the couch. Martha, a cat lover, casually sits and holds a cat and her brother John embraces a dog. The portrait was Dorthy's gift to husband David for his birthday.

Dorthy speaks candidly about how, despite the loss of her child, she was able to pick up the pieces and have faith that the right pieces would come together at the appropriate time to bring resolution to Martha's case. How does one pull it all together as Dorthy Moxley did and continues to do, while honoring the memory of her daughter and simultaneously helping others? She lives her life by what she considers are three important elements, factors which she believes have helped to carry her through the dark moments. These include the implementation of the Golden Rule, how kindness reaps kindness, and politeness will carry a person far.

"I grew up in the 1950's where I was taught by my parents to always do and say the kindest things in the kindest way," Dorthy said. She also quotes her mother-in-law with a chuckle, "Politeness will pay in one way or the other and lack of it will reflect on your mother."

"Martha would have wanted me to move forward," said Dorthy, "and I thought it was also important for me to do that for Martha's friends. I could have stayed in bed forever, but it would have done no one any good."

Instead, Dorthy's determination has been an inspiration for others. She was recently awarded the New Jersey Crime Victims' Law Center Endless Journey Award for her perseverance in finding justice for Martha. Dorthy has an inherent willingness to help others, which she describes as her "missionary complex". She has been a guest speaker at victims' rights events including The Melanie Ilene Rieger Memorial Conference. Melanie Ilene Rieger was murdered in 1994 by her boyfriend.

Dorthy hopes that her story will help to bring peace to those affected by the senselessness of violent crimes. She has also been a guest speaker at SAGE Eldercare of Summit to empower people locally with the tools in dealing with grief and loss.

Even with helping others through this type of outreach, Dorthy is humble and still feels she wishes she could do more, although she contends with some health struggles. She seems to not realize the impact her example has had on others. Richard Pompelio Esq. who heads up the New Jersey Crime Victims' Law Center remarked to Dorthy during a 2007 interview, "After all the hardship you and your family have encountered, your presence is so positive and inspiring."

"There is no such thing as fair," Dorthy told The Alternative Press. "We need to accept what we're given. I have a strong faith. I accept things and see how to fit it in and make it good."

Part of her faith is grounded in realizing the best in people can come out of the worst of situations. She is grateful to those she calls her "angels", including Frank Garr of the Greenwich Police Department, members of the media such as Len Levitt of the Greenwich Times, and authors Dunne, Furhman and Tim Dumas. "These are good, fine people," said Dorthy. She coined the nickname "Queen of Patience" for herself, realizing if she waited patiently enough, positive breakthroughs would eventually happen in Martha's case. She said once all of the elements were there, everything snowballed. She wanted nothing more than for the case to be solved, but realized in time things would work out on their own. She knew none of this would have come to fruition without the integral people and events coming into the picture at their proper times. This included Michael Skakel's arrest. "If he had confessed in the beginning, there would have been a different outcome," she said.

She was particularly touched by the outreach of the students who testified against Skakel from Elon. "These young people came forward and testified," she said. "They did it to be nice and do the right thing."

Part of her recovery is her belief that people are generally good and willing to help others and will do so without being asked. She said following Martha's death, some friends physically pitched in to help with sleeves rolled up while others offered moral support. "Everyone does it in different ways," Dorthy said. Some friends signed Dorthy up for tennis lessons to help keep her busy. Crafts and art were also therapeutic means which spiritually lifted her.

To this day she habitually remains busy, involved in social organizations in Summit, playing bridge and maintaining an active social schedule, which leads to her philosophy that people should not feel sorry for themselves.

As a child, Dorthy dealt with the death of a fellow classmate who she witnessed being hit by a truck on the way to school. There were the deaths of aunts and uncles. Then there was the death of her own mother when Dorthy was age 18. She feels these events prepared her to cope better with Martha's death.

Following the death of her husband David who had worked with the police and media after Martha's murder, Dorothy took over where David had left off. Prior to that she had been in the background taking care of others, but now she additionally adopted the leadership role. Her perseverance paid off and justice was served for Martha. "If you look for good you can find it," Dorthy said.

This even includes her opinion of Michael Skakel. "I am not a vindictive person. I don't care to be his friend but I hope he will get out of prison and spend time with his son. I hope he will have a productive, good life," she said. 

Her determination has helped her to remain as strong as she possibly can be despite the circumstances dealt to her with Martha's death. Her example has taught others to do the same. In her 2002 victim's impact statement, Dorthy Moxley wrote, "Michael Skakel sentenced us to a life without Martha."

"Our loved ones didn't choose to die," she said while concluding our interview. "Something like this changes a person's life forever. People want you to forget about it. You don't want to hurt but you can't forget about it."

About her daughter Martha she adds, "Martha loved life and lived a very happy 15 years. She had a lot of friends. As hard as it is, it makes it easier knowing she lived a good life."

Martha's friends couldn't agree more. Although they have grown older, they have never forgotten the legacy of the girl who radiated sunshine, a legacy which has helped them to carry on in the midst of the tears. In the words of Martha's classmate Jack Sherman, "I am a spiritual person, and I firmly believe she is in a better, higher place now.... full of light and love...that same light and love that she emanated to all of us here on earth."

For more information about the facts behind Martha Moxley's case as well as reflections about her by those who knew her, see the website: http://www.marthamoxley.com/ 

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