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Tuesday, September 5, 2000

09/05/00 Newly released reports detail police inquiry - Part 1 of a 4 part Series

By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time

On the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 31, 1984, the minds of most Greenwich residents were probably on plans for the long Labor Day weekend that would begin the following day, and children were thinking of ways to best enjoy the last days of summer vacation before returning to school.

But as the day came to an end, people - particularly on the western end of town - came together with a singular purpose: to find a boy from the Pemberwick section of Glenville who hadn't come home for dinner.

As darkness fell, with dozens of police officers, firefighters and other volunteers suspending their search until morning, some began fearing the worst for Matthew Margolies, as it was highly out of character for the 13-year-old not to let his family know where he would be. A remarkably able fisherman for a boy his age, Matthew was presumed by some to have possibly drowned in the Byram River where he spent so much of his time.

For five frantic days, sometimes in pouring rain, authorities, friends, neighbors and family members searched in and around the woods and river that coursed through back yards in Matthew's working class neighborhood, known as The Valley. It was all for naught. On Sept. 5, a day before he was to have begun eighth grade at Western Junior High School, Matthew was found, the victim of an unusually vicious murder.

Discovered beneath a pile of rocks, branches and leaves in a wooded area about a mile from his Pilgrim Drive home, Matthew had been stripped to his undershorts, stabbed over a dozen times with a knife, strangled with his own clothing and suffocated with dirt that was forced down his throat. It was later determined the young victim had been tortured before he was murdered. Although no evidence of sexual assault was found, the murder was thought to have been sexually motivated, and the killer to have acted out gory fantasies while committing the crime.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the murder was that police believed, and still believe today, that Matthew died at the hands of someone who knew him and lived in The Valley.

"People were nervous," is how longtime resident Judy Moretti recalled the mood of neighbors who realized not only had they known the victim, but possibly were acquainted with the killer as well. "It was disbelief. It was crazy."

The murder launched the most extensive criminal investigation in the history of the Greenwich Police Department. Initially involving all 16 of its detectives, the investigation put residents of The Valley under a microscope to see who among them had the means, motive and opportunity to fatally assault their young neighbor so savagely.

Recently released reports show that even though an arrest has not been made, Greenwich police, who were relatively inexperienced handling homicide probes, appeared to have conducted a thorough and professional investigation. A paid consultant and homicide investigations expert would conclude as much in a 1986 critique of the Margolies case. The consultant, retired New York City police homicide investigator Vernon Geberth, further concluded that the type of crime Greenwich police were investigating - which he termed a "lust murder" - was extremely difficult to solve because the motive usually can only be found inside the killer's mind.

Also working against police were a lack of both witnesses to the murder and physical evidence at the crime scene, which had been altered by heavy rain and contaminated by animals and insects in the five days Matthew's body had gone unfound.

To help develop a list of possible suspects, police enlisted the FBI to study the unique aspects of the crime and develop a psychological profile of Matthew's murderer. The profile was that of a white man who knew Matthew, was familiar with the crime scene area, abused alcohol or drugs, and acted out a sexual fantasy while killing his victim.

Using the profile as a guide, police identified approximately 20 possible suspects, nearly all of whom either lived or worked in Glenville. The suspect list was eventually pared down to eight people, all of whom police say remain suspects to this day.

Police reports show how detectives obtained and executed search warrants at the homes of three suspects who lived nearby and knew Matthew, and how some suspects cooperated with detectives in varying degrees while others flatly refused to help.

Tried and true investigative techniques were employed, including surveillance and surreptitiously recording conversations with suspects, as well as lie-detector tests. The hunt for Matthew's killer involved hundreds of interviews, unearthing an amazing array of characters in and around The Valley. Reports show these people were closely looked at as potential suspects either because of prior contacts with police, as a result of neighbors' suspicions, or because they fit the FBI's profile of Matthew's killer.

The released police reports also show unconventional tactics were employed, including the use of clairvoyants, one of whom seemed to be eerily on target with details of the crime scene even before Matthew's body was found. Hypnosis was used to help witnesses better recall what they had seen the day of the murder.

The reports provide not only the official record of an all-out attempt to catch a killer; they blueprint a largely circumstantial case in which investigators appear to have good reason to point their fingers at a variety of people, but lack the evidence to make an arrest.

The bulk of the investigative work was done during the 15 months following the murder. Of the 610 pages of the released police reports, 587 had been filed by the end of 1985.

On the murder's first anniversary, the frustration police were experiencing began to show.

"You pick up a newspaper and see there's a homicide somewhere and that the police have a suspect in two days," then-Capt. Peter Robbins told Greenwich Time on Aug. 31, 1985. "It hurts. They found a suspect and you didn't. They got the breaks, and you didn't."

After the final report of the year was filed on Dec. 12, 1985, additional entries to the Margolies case file became few and far between. The last of the recently released reports is dated May 1996 in which an unsuccessful attempt to use NASA satellite technology to further the investigation is detailed.

But by then Matthew's murder had become a cold case. No one was investigating it full time anymore; tips were no longer being phoned into the detective bureau.

Then, in 1998, Robbins, who had headed the Margolies murder investigation as captain of detectives, was appointed police chief. In June of that year he disclosed he was planning a new push to find Matthew's murderer.

"I believe the killer is still living here in town, and I think we have the ability to locate this individual and build a good case against him," Robbins said at the time.

Two detectives were assigned to reinvestigate the case, and after more than a year of preliminary work - which involved a thorough review of the voluminous case file and a re-examination of evidence by forensic scientists - the detectives hit the streets this March to track down witnesses and suspects.

Detectives Timothy Duff and Gary Hoffkins said last month that they already had conducted numerous interviews, and that many more were planned. They hope to test the veracity of witness and suspect statements through polygraph examinations.

Although the detectives would not reveal any of their findings so far, or whether progress had been made, they said their focus remained on the eight "key suspects" who had been identified during the original investigation.

As members of a police department long-criticized for an inability to solve homicides, the detectives may find new hope in the fact that a suspect in another Greenwich murder - one that has gone unsolved even longer than Matthew's - is headed for trial in the near future.

A Superior Court judge last month ruled that sufficient evidence exists for former Greenwich resident Michael Skakel to be tried for the 1975 murder of 15-year-old Walsh Lane resident Martha Moxley. The long-stalled Moxley murder investigation was given new life following Greenwich Time's 1990 publication of information culled from the Moxley case file that the newspaper obtained through a Freedom of Information complaint. The publicity generated new interest as well as leads that resulted in the convening of a grand jury, which in January issued a report that prosecutors used in obtaining a warrant for Skakel's arrest that same month.

Key to the judge's ruling that probable cause exists for Skakel to stand trial was that she found as credible the testimony of witnesses who allegedly heard Skakel make admissions about the murder while attending a substance abuse rehabilitation program with Skakel.

Police are hoping for a similar break in the Margolies case.

"The murderer could have made a slip or established a relationship with someone who has seen or heard him do or say something unusual that could implicate him," Robbins said.

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