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Friday, September 8, 2000

09/08/00 16 years later, family waits for justice

By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time

Stella Miazga turned 84 last Friday, but she didn't really celebrate.

Sitting in the living room of her house on Morgan Avenue, the woman cheerfully accepted the love and best wishes of three generations of family that surrounded her - but real joy was not in her heart.

That's pretty much how it's been each of the 16 birthdays Miazga has observed since Sept. 1, 1984 - one day after 13-year-old grandson Matthew Margolies was reported missing, and four days before his mutilated body would be found in the woods up the road from Miazga's house.

"I miss Matthew terribly, and I wish he was here. I think about him all the time," Miazga said. "This (the murder) puts a real damper on my birthday. I just don't want to celebrate it."

When he was alive, Matthew was a constant presence in the Miazga household. Living just a few blocks away, on Pilgrim Drive, Matthew would always drop by the Miazgas, usually to go fishing with grandfather George. After George Miazga was diagnosed with cancer, Matthew began making extra visits to help care for his grandfather, who succumbed to his illness two weeks before Matthew was murdered.

"He was such a loving child," Stella Miazga said. "He cared for his grandfather when I went to work. Matthew would make his grandfather's breakfast and make sure he took his medication."

Miazga, who is in her 31st year as receptionist for the Greenwich-Laurelton Nursing & Convalescent Home, vowed: "I won't rest until the person who did this to Matthew is found."

The murder has gone unsolved this long not for lack of trying by authorities. The 610 pages of the Margolies case file recently obtained by Greenwich Time chronicle the most intensive criminal investigation ever undertaken by the Greenwich Police Department, an exhaustive effort to track down a sadistic killer who tortured, repeatedly stabbed, strangled and forced dirt and a stick down his victim's throat.

Police reports show how the investigation was guided by an FBI profiler, and physical evidence recovered at the crime scene was analyzed by one of the nation's preeminent forensic scientists, Dr. Henry Lee. Detectives canvassed the victim's neighborhood, known as The Valley - a working-class neighborhood along the banks of the Byram River in the Pemberwick section of Glenville - where they knocked on countless doors and interviewed hundreds of people looking for witnesses and possible leads.

Despite those efforts, the investigation does not appear to have resulted even in a circumstantial case against the killer or killers.

Police said they have eight "key suspects," but lack any evidence that directly links any of them to the Aug. 31, 1984 murder.

But both police and members of the Margolies family have found a new sense of optimism from an arrest earlier this year in another long-unsolved Greenwich murder case. The investigation of the 1975 Martha Moxley homicide, which culminated with the Jan. 19 arrest of former Moxley neighbor Michael Skakel, had been sustained for many years by circumstantial evidence that pointed toward members of Skakel's family.

"It certainly gives me hope in the justice system," Maryann Margolies, Matthew's mother, said of Skakel's arrest. "It's not that I've ever lost hope, it's just that (the arrest) shows that anything's possible."

Skakel, now 39, was one of the last persons seen with 15-year-old Moxley prior to her murder the evening of Oct. 30, 1975. The murder weapon was identified as a 6-iron from a set of golf clubs owned by Skakel's family, who lived across the street from the Moxleys in the town's Belle Haven neighborhood.

Those circumstances, coupled with alleged incriminating statements Skakel made years later, led to a Superior Court judge's finding last month that sufficient evidence exists for Skakel to stand trial.

As in the Moxley case, the weapon used to torture and murder Matthew Margolies was recovered at the crime scene - a 10 inch Foster Brothers knife, commonly used for de-boning fish and poultry. Police say they have been unable to determine where the knife came from, and have therefore been unable to begin circumstantially linking the weapon's owner to the crime.

Determining ownership of the knife would give police one of the three legs of a case - the means to commit murder, with the other two being opportunity and motive. Some of the key suspects appeared to have established solid alibis for their whereabouts when Matthew was killed, and so would apparently not have had an opportunity to commit the crime.

Whether all of the suspects had alibis that withstood scrutiny could not be determined from the heavily edited pages of the Margolies murder case file that were released.

And as for motive, the released reports appear to show that only one of the key suspects may have had a reason to murder Matthew - the 17-year-old neighborhood boy who was arrested for growing marijuana and apparently blamed Matthew for tipping off the police. This suspect also had been familiar with the hillside crime scene area, according to police, as he had also been arrested once for rolling logs from there into traffic on Pemberwick Road below.

The psychological profile the FBI developed a month after the murder concluded that Matthew's killer was familiar with the crime scene area and felt comfortable being there while committing the crime.

But that profile, a product of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, also provides another possible motive for the crime, one that could only be found deep within the killer's mind. The profile speculates the murder had been sexually motivated: while torturing Matthew, who had been stripped to his under shorts, and shoving dirt and a stick down the victim's throat while still alive, the killer was acting out a sexual fantasy.

Officials said that this type of killer would likely strike again. But according to Police Chief Peter Robbins, "No similar crimes have been committed anywhere else, so we're even more confident the murderer lived, and possibly still lives, locally."

Other than means, motive and opportunity, police would be able to make a case from physical evidence other than the murder weapon found at the crime scene. But this avenue of investigation was severely limited by the fact Matthew's body went undiscovered for five days.

"From the outset of the investigation we had complexities," Robbins lamented. "We had no eyewitnesses. The body wasn't located immediately, which hampered us. The elements - extreme heat and rain - had an impact on what trace evidence was left at the crime scene."

Trace evidence can be anything left at a crime scene by the killer, including hair, fibers, and bodily fluids. A medical examiner's report indicates fingernail scrapings and hairs were removed from Matthew's body during the autopsy.

"There were a number of hairs and fibers, et cetera," Robbins said. "But the crime scene was a literal dump, and it was contaminated by wild and domestic animals, so distinguishing what came from where was nearly impossible."

The hillside crime scene was behind a group of homes on Greenway Drive, where appliances, mattresses and other household refuse had been discarded.

There were other problems early on as well. A 1986 critique by a paid consultant praised the Police Department for a thorough and largely competent investigation, but it also noted the following missteps:

Despite indications Margolies' disappearance might be due to foul play, a detective was not assigned to the case until after the boy's body was found. This meant six days of investigative opportunities were lost.

Only one detective was given the opportunity to view the crime scene while it remained intact, which placed severe limits on different perspectives that could be brought to bear.

When officers were given assignments to assist with the homicide investigation, explanations of what those assignments meant to the probe were not given;

Sensitive information was given to the press, decreasing the amount of information that would only be known solely by Margolies' murderer, a crucial element when questioning suspects.

The new push in the Margolies case began in earnest in March of this year, when Sgt. Timothy Duff, who had recently completed specialized training in cold case investigations, and Detective Gary Hoffkins started re-interviewing witnesses and suspects. Assisting them is Richard Haug, a retired Greenwich detective and one of the original lead Margolies case investigators, who has been retained as a consultant. All three investigators declined comment.

In the year leading up to active stage of the re-investigation, in which much preliminary work was done, police had trace evidence re-examined by forensic scientists for possible DNA identification. They have not disclosed what, if any, results those efforts have produced. In fact, none of the reports generated by the current re-investigation were released to Greenwich Time.

The emergence of new physical evidence notwithstanding, police have not placed all of their eggs in the basket of forensic science.

"I don't want to leave the impression that this is the only opportunity we have to bring this case to a successful conclusion," Deputy Chief James Walters of the Criminal Investigations Division said of the new round of laboratory testing.

Another potential solution to the Margolies murder mystery could come in the form of an admission someone may have made concerning the murder. Having already had somewhat of a circumstantial case against Michael Skakel, it was only after people began coming forward with recollections of admissions to the Martha Moxley murder that authorities sought the grand jury that ultimately issued a report that was used to obtain an arrest warrant.

The Margolies investigators are hoping for a similar break.

"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.

The police chief added, "Relationships change through the years. Some people may be more willing to talk about an individual now because they've taken separate paths than people they were once friends with."

Maryann Margolies met with the investigators last month, and nothing she heard changed her belief that Matthew's killer will someday be identified and brought to justice.

"I met with them as recently as the 31st of August and was updated on the investigation," the 59-year-old Pemberwick woman said. "I remain optimistic that at some point we will find some form of closure."

Maryann Margolies said she suggested specific ways she believed she and her family could assist the investigation, but she declined to say what they were.

Also attending the meeting with Greenwich police was Greenwich attorney Thomas J. Williams, who has been retained by the Margolies family to provide legal advice pertaining to Matthew's case.

"It is unfortunate that this horrific crime has remained unsolved for 16 years because Matthew and his family are entitled to justice," Williams said. "In our recent meeting with the Greenwich Police Department, the department confirmed to us its determination to pursue this case and bring it to a resolution. I am hopeful that determination will continue until such time that there is an arrest."

With success, Greenwich police may be able to lessen the pain Stella Miazga feels on her future birthdays.

"My hopes are we can bring this to a successful conclusion," Robbins said. "But it's not going to be easy. It's going to take a lot of time and a lot of work."

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