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Monday, January 1, 2001

01/01/01 2000 Year in Review: Police make gains in unsolved cases

By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time

The year 2000 began with an arrest in a 25-year-old Greenwich murder mystery, and it came to and end with a local man being charged with homicide only a day after allegedly committing the crime.

In between the arrests of accused killers Michael Skakel in January and Joseph Benton in December, 2000 saw new life breathed into the investigation of another long unsolved Greenwich murder, that of 13-year-old Glenville resident Matthew Margolies in 1984.

Others who find themselves in this, the least enviable of Greenwich year-end compilations, include Blane Nordahl, who in October was sent to prison nearly five years after his arrest for breaking into the Greenwich residence of Ivana Trump and into the homes of other rich or famous victims; and William P. Benedict Jr., who in September pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the driving death of a promising young Greenwich woman.

Another notable in the Year In Crime review is former Greenwich resident Martin Frankel. He was more in the news a year earlier, when his alleged fraud scheme that authorities said was used to embezzle more than $200 million from insurance companies dominated local headlines and was news around the nation. But after fleeing the country in May 1999 and being caught as a fugitive in Hamburg, Germany, four months later, Frankel spent all of 2000 languishing in a German prison cell awaiting his expected extradition to the U.S. to face dozens of federal and state charges ranging from racketeering to money laundering.

As 1999 ended, there was an air of great expectancy concerning whether an arrest would finally be made in connection with the Halloween Eve 1975 slaying of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley. In December 1999, a Bridgeport grand jury completed an 18-month investigation into the 15-year-old girl's death and issued a report that on Jan. 18 was used to arrest Michael Skakel. At his arraignment three months later, as he waited his turn to file out of a packed Stamford courtroom, Skakel stunned the victim's mother when he walked up to Dorthy Moxley and said, "Dorthy, I feel your pain, but you've got the wrong guy."

The events led to a summer of more courtroom drama, beginning with a hearing lasting several days to determine whether there was sufficient evidence for Skakel to stand trial. After hearing from witnesses who claimed to have heard Skakel confess to the crime, Judge Maureen Dennis ruled in a courtroom packed with journalists from around the world that Skakel's case was indeed headed to trial.

But, as 2000 comes to a close, it remains unresolved whether 40-year-old Skakel will be tried as a juvenile before a juvenile court judge or as an adult before a jury of his peers for a crime he allegedly committed when he was 15 years old. A hearing to address the issue of the proper trial venue was held in October, and Judge Dennis has until mid-February to make her ruling.

Earlier this month, on Dec. 9, firefighters responded to a house fire at 37 Prospect St. in central Greenwich. No one was believed to be home at the time, but, as investigators picked through the smoldering rubble, they found behind a shut bathroom door the body of 22-year-old William DeWitt Romig. It was determined the fire had been deliberately set by one of Romig's six housemates, 42-year-old Joseph Benton, who was charged with arson murder.

In a confession to police, Benton said he lit a couch on fire because he was angry with his landlord over the $1,200 monthly rent he was being charged. Said by his attorney to be mildly retarded, Benton is to undergo a competency hearing Tuesday in state Superior Court in Stamford. If found competent to stand trial, Benton would face a possible sentence of life without parole if convicted.

On Sept. 26, 20-year-old William P. Benedict Jr. pleaded guilty to manslaughter in what authorities had called the alcohol-related automobile accident on Cat Rock Road that killed one of the three other teens Benedict had been driving home from a party early the morning of July 24, 1999. The victim was Monique Da Lan, an 18-year-old Greenwich High School graduate and National Honor Society member who was looking forward to returning to Loyola College for her sophomore year.

Benedict had been arrested on two counts of manslaughter, one count of which was dismissed because conviction would have hinged on a legal finding of intoxication. Benedict's blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident was 0.09, just below the legal limit of 0.10. Under the remaining manslaughter count, he had faced a possible 10 years in prison, but under a plea agreement, the prosecution will ask a Superior Court judge to sentence Benedict to six years in prison, and suspend that sentence after three years. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 8.

The end of the Nordahl saga came perhaps fittingly in a year that saw Greenwich burglaries at a 10-year low. Greenwich historically has attracted the best among the criminal class because of its wealth, and from time to time burglars who go on costly breaking-and-entering sprees are given nicknames by police, the media, or both. The latest in this spectrum of notoriety that includes the Dinnertime Bandit, Coastal Bandits and Social Register Bandits, is Blane Nordahl, dubbed Burglar to the Stars.

While others who preceded him snuck into backcountry mansions while residents were busy having supper, or arrived at their waterfront targets in Zodiac inflatable boats, or culled victims from the Social Register, Nordahl's specialty was ripping off his wealthy victims sterling silver service items. Among the loot taken from the 40-room Vista Drive mansion of Ivana Trump, ex-wife of real estate billionaire Donald Trump, were 24 silver dinner plates worth $30,000, 12 antique French show plates worth $14,000, and 32 pairs of salt and pepper shakers valued at $120 each.

Altogether, authorities have said, Nordahl admitted to stealing silver items worth more than $500,000 in the seven Greenwich burglaries he committed between August 1995 and August 1996. He is believed to have stolen millions more in break-ins all along the East Coast - including the homes of rock star Bruce Springsteen and sportscaster Curt Gowdy - until his spree came to an end in October 1996, when arrested on a Greenwich warrant in his native Wisconsin.

Much legal wrangling and confusion over a plea bargain stalled judgment day for the 38-year-old defendant, who was finally sentenced Oct. 26 in federal court in Central Islip, N.Y. When ordering Nordahl to a prison term of five years, U.S. District Judge Jacob Mishler credited Nordahl with "time served," meaning the burglar can be freed as early as this October.

When he fled his Lake Avenue mansion in May 1999 with suitcases full of cash and diamonds - assets which authorities said were products of money laundering - Martin Frankel was several steps ahead of federal investigators who were zeroing in on Frankel's Liberty National Securities, the bogus brokerage firm Frankel allegedly used to funnel more than $200 million in embezzled assets from nearly a dozen insurance companies in seven states.

But it was other players in Frankel's alleged criminal enterprise who made headlines in 2000, most significantly Tennessee businessman John Hackney, who on Sept. 22 admitted in U.S. District Court in New Haven to having acted as Frankel's front man in diverting more than $200 million in stolen insurance funds through Liberty National Securities and into Frankel's Swiss bank accounts. Hackney, 51, had been installed by his alleged co-conspirator as head of each of the insurance companies which Frankel secretly controlled.

Hackney pleaded guilty to racketeering and money laundering for his role in Frankel's scheme, and he could be sent to prison for as long as 40 years when sentenced March 14.

Crime related stories are almost never positive, but developments that arose during 2000 concerning the unsolved 1984 murder of 13-year-old Matthew Margolies of Pilgrim Drive in Glenville could hardly be seen as anything but encouraging.

After years of dormancy, the homicide probe was revived when two Greenwich police detectives were assigned to reinvestigate the case on nearly a full-time basis. Police officials said there had been no new leads that caused them to revive the investigation, but the Margolies murder was so brutal, and many advances in forensic science had been made in the past 16 years, that they thought it was worth the time and effort to try to solve the case.

Then in September, Greenwich Time published a series of stories on the Margolies case, based on interviews, the autopsy report, and previously unreleased police reports obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The stories contained information about the crime itself as well as the eight "key" suspects that detectives had identified and other facts never before made public. Previously, police had only publicly said that five days after Margolies disappeared his body was found in a shallow grave about a mile from his house in Glenville's Pemberwick section, and that the boy had died as a result of multiple stab wounds and asphyxiation. As a result of the newspaper's series, the public found out just how brutal the murder had been, that not only had Margolies been stabbed more than a dozen times, but there was evidence of torture as well. According to the autopsy report, a stick and dirt were forced down the victim's throat - while he was still alive.

One theory investigators have been pursuing is that the murderer was a teenager who lived near Margolies and possibly held a grudge against the victim for having blamed Margolies for telling police about a marijuana patch he was growing along the Byram River. At the time of the fatal Aug. 31, 1984, confrontation, according to the theory, the murderer was possibly under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug.

About a month later, in mid-October, a state investigative unit that specializes in old, unsolved homicides agreed to assist the Greenwich Police Department with the Margolies case. The "cold case" unit operating out of the chief state's attorney's office in Rocky Hill assigned a squad - consisting of a veteran homicide investigator, prosecutor and forensic scientist - to coordinate efforts with the two local detectives on the case.

Greenwich Police Chief Peter Robbins and Deputy Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano both confirmed the combined state and local effort would involve the forensic testing of physical evidence, but they would not be specific.

News of the state's involvement in the case had been greeted with great enthusiasm by the victim's mother.

"I think it's a very positive move," Maryann Margolies said in an Oct. 31 interview. "The Greenwich police are asking for a fresh pair of eyes to look over the material, to look over the evidence, and maybe they'll see something or find something by looking at it from a different perspective."

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