Murder suspect attended Whiteman
Copyright 2000 Steamboat Today
Steamboat Springs — A former Whiteman School headmaster describes murder suspect Michael Skakel as a disturbed, pathological liar, but his skiing buddies in Aspen say he’s normal, sweet and innocent of the charge against him.
Skakel, who was arrested in January as a suspect in a 1975 Connecticut murder case, attended the Whiteman School outside Steamboat Springs the year after the murder.
Twenty-five years ago, Martha Moxley was murdered outside her home in Greenwich, Conn. The crime remains unsolved, although her neighbor, Thomas Skakel, was treated as a suspect. More than 20 years later, suspicion would fall on Thomas’ younger brother, Michael.
The 15-year-old Moxley was brutally beaten with a golf club in the fall of 1975 and left under a tree in the front yard of her family’s home in an upscale neighborhood of Greenwich. The six-iron used in the attack came from the Skakel home, which was full of teen-agers the night of the murder.
In the spring of 1976, Whiteman headmaster John Whittum was approached by an educational consultant interested in placing 16-year-old Michael at the private school nestled in the Rocky Mountains — thousands of miles away from the controversy in Greenwich.
Whittum, who said he didn’t learn about the murder until about five years ago, said the consultant painted a picture of a large wealthy family that was disintegrating because of the death of the mother from cancer.
Whittum doesn’t remember the man’s name, but he said the consultant never mentioned that Skakel was a possible suspect in a murder — a serious violation of the profession’s ethical code.
“I was obviously duped,” Whittum said. “If I had had any inkling, I would have called up the head of the consultant’s association. This was criminal. If this had come out during his career, he would have been finished.”
Whittum said he felt the influence of the boy’s family when he met Michael’s father, Rushton Skakel, the brother of Ethel Kennedy.
“I lunched with Rush Skakel at the University Club in New York,” Whittum recalled recently as he sat on the porch of his home near the school from which he retired about 10 years ago. “Everyone at that table knew, but not a word was mentioned to me.”
After more than 20 years, the former headmaster doesn’t remember everything about the now infamous student, such as if Skakel was ever caught abusing drugs or alcohol or whether anyone else visited him. But Whittum said he does remember that Skakel was a poor student.
“He couldn’t retain very much and had to be tutored,” Whittum said. “He was strange, a terribly disturbed kid. Whether he swung the golf club or not, the event still involved him.”
He said Skakel never got into trouble serious enough for expulsion but constantly lied.
“He was absolutely pathological,” Whittum said. “He could not differentiate between truth and fiction. He always responded with what would best suit him. We often caught him in a number of lies and I think he was unaware that he was telling falsehoods. Many of them were perfectly innocuous lies.”
Skakel was in Bob Krautkramer’s English class.
“He wasn’t an easy kid, but a lot of kids weren’t,” Krautkramer said. “He wasn’t extraordinary in a good or a bad way.”
Krautkramer said he can’t remember anything violent about Skakel’s behavior. Neither could Bob Bear, the disciplinary dean at the time.
“Whatever reputation he has now, there was no sign of that then,” Bear said.
Steamboat Springs resident Gil Barbier started teaching French at Whiteman in 1976 and said the students that year were one of the rowdiest bunches he can recall. Barbier said he didn’t realize the local connection to the Connecticut murder until he read a newspaper account of Skakel’s arrest in January.
Barbier was one of the chaperones when the students went to France in the spring of 1977.
“It was a difficult class that year. Skakel was one element of that. He was difficult, always rebelling,” Barbier recalled. “They all ran amuck on the trip to France.”
Barbier said the 1976-77 term was further complicated by a fire that destroyed the Whiteman library and most of the school’s records. Officials said the cause of the fire was never determined.
When Skakel was at Whiteman, the co-educational facility had about 50 student boarders. Barbier said the kind of student at Whiteman in those days was different from today. Local children, called “day” students, mix with boarded students at the private school now, but in the 1970s, the school primarily boarded children of wealthy families from outside Steamboat and Colorado. The skiing program that most people connect with the Whiteman School did not exist 25 years ago, although Skakel later was named to the short-lived U.S. Speed Skiing Team.
At the end of the 1976-77 term, Skakel was not asked to come back to Whiteman, according to Whittum.
“He was a handful. He couldn’t do anything right,” Whittum said.
Skakel returned to the East Coast and was sent to a treatment center after almost hitting a police officer while allegedly driving drunk in Windham, N.Y. At the Elan rehabilitation school in Maine, he allegedly made incriminating statements about the Moxley murder. However, his attorney, Michael Sherman, said Skakel never made any admission of guilt.
“Michael never confessed,” Sherman said. “There’s an enormous amount of public opinion in this case, but I’m confident when all the facts are known, Michael will be exonerated.”
Sherman said Skakel is not granting any interviews, but two of his former ski team members said the Michael Skakel they know is a great friend who is not capable of murder.
Jeff Hamilton and Bill Miller run a sporting goods store in Aspen and were on the U.S. Speed Skiing Team with Skakel in the early 1990s. Likened to drag racing on snow, speed skiing took Skakel and his teammates to ski areas in France and around the world for competitions.
“I know he’s innocent and I look forward to the world finding that out, too,” Hamilton said. “I’ve never seen him be even slightly violent.”
Miller said he’s never seen any evidence of the lying that the Whiteman headmaster recalled.
“It’s a tragedy for everyone involved, but Michael is one of the sweetest guys you could ever meet. He always has a smile and you couldn’t ask for a better friend,” Miller said.
Skakel, now 39, lives in Hope Sound, Fla., with his wife and son. He could not be reached for comment.
According to police reports, Skakel originally said he left his house the night of the murder to drive to his cousin’s house and went to bed when he returned. Published reports say he changed his story when interviewed by a private investigator hired by his family in 1992. Skakel allegedly said when he got back from his cousin’s, he went back out to try to meet up with Moxley, on whom he allegedly said he had a crush.
A grand jury began investigating the case in 1998 at the request of Connecticut State Attorney Jonathan Benedict. Skakel is scheduled to appear in Stamford Superior Court June 20 for a probable cause hearing.
— To reach Michelle Bales call 871-4208 or e-mail email@example.com
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
Submit your photos for publication in print and online by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to include the name of the photographer who captured the image and a short description of what’s happening in…