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Sunday, April 1, 2001

04/01/01 BOSTON GLOBE: Greenwich's other murder 1984 case reopened amid spotlight on Moxley slaying

By Lisa Prevost, Boston Globe Correspondent

GREENWICH, Conn. - Maryann Margolies has long accepted that the unsolved murder of her son can't compete for public attention with the fatal bludgeoning of fellow Greenwich teen Martha Moxley.

The killings were startlingly similar: Moxley was just 15 when she was found dead in the backyard of her family's estate in affluent Greenwich. Matthew Margolies was 13 when he was slain near his home in the Glenville neighborhood.

But the media appeal of the Moxley case has - as far as the Margolies investigation was long concerned - made all the difference in the world.

While Margolies was raised in an unremarkable working-class neighborhood, Moxley lived and died in exclusive Belle Haven.

More importantly, her suspected killer is her former neighbor, Michael Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy.

''The Moxley case has gotten the amount of attention it has primarily because of the Kennedy connection,'' said Maryann Margolies, a nursing director who still lives here. ''And that's a fact of life. That's reality.''

But more than 16 years after his murder, Matthew Margolies is about to get equal time.

Though they appear to have no new evidence to go on, Greenwich police and the state's attorney's cold case unit have come back to the Margolies case - a case that has long been known here as Greenwich's other unsolved murder.

Greenwich Police Chief Peter Robbins, who was a lieutenant detective when Margolies was murdered, has vowed to bring the case to some conclusion. The police recently enlisted renowned forensics expert Dr. Henry Lee to reexamine the evidence.

Though it's hardly common for police to reopen an investigation after so many years, the media frenzy driven by Skakel's arrest and impending trial - 25 years after Moxley's death - made it increasingly difficult for police to leave the Margolies murder alone.

The local newspaper, Greenwich Time, turned up the heat on police last year when it published a severe editorial: ''Another Old Murder Waits To Be Solved.''

And a local man has helped raise the Margolies murder's profile by maintaining the Web site www.matthewmargolies.com.

Greenwich native Tom Alessi launched the site a few years ago because, he says, he was frustrated by a widespread lack of attention to Margolies's murder.

The Margolies site averages an impressive 1,000 hits a day, although they may be primarily click-through traffic from Alessi's more popular sibling site: www.marthamoxley.com.

''I thought it was sort of wrong that there was all this interest in Martha's case and there was still a second murder that was just as important and not getting as much media attention,'' he said.

By reopening the Margolies case, police are hoping to capitalize on media interest in the Moxley murder, a case that has been profiled on television's ''Unsolved Murders'' and the subject of or thinly veiled in salacious novels.

At a press conference last month, the Greenwich police more than doubled the reward they had been offering for new information in the Margolies case, from $20,000 to $50,000. They also established a hotline for tips (203-532-1949), and brought Maryann Margolies forward to make an emotive plea.

''The media attention is already there because of the Moxley case,'' said James Walters, the Greenwich Police Department's deputy chief for criminal investigations. ''It sure helped the turnout at the press conference.''

But the odds of solving such an old case are not favorable.

Obtaining enough evidence to secure an arrest and conviction is very difficult in any cold case, acknowledged Deputy Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano.

''We are very clear when we meet with victims' families that we don't have any more answers than anyone else,'' Morano said. ''But what we do have is time to look into the case.''

The state's cold case unit has obtained arrest warrants in seven of the 15 cases it is working on, he said. So far, only one of the arrest warrants has led to a conviction.

Dr. Harry Bonell, chief deputy medical examiner in San Diego and a consulting expert for the national advocacy group Parents of Murdered Children, found that as few as 10 to 15 percent of cold cases are ever solved. But those 10 to 15 percent, he said, provide crucial hope to grieving families.

On Aug. 31, 1984, Matthew Margolies was stabbed repeatedly with a boning knife and suffocated with dirt that was forced down his throat. Five days passed before police found the body in a wooded area not far from a nearby river where he often went fishing.

Though police had a roster of suspects, no arrest was made.

Officials now hope advances in forensic science will enable them to identify Margolies's killer. ''We've always felt the case was solvable,'' Walters said. ''We believe the DNA analysis is going to be instrumental.''

According to Walters, work on the Margolies case slowed to a stop between 1990 and 1996.

Then, in 1998 - about a year after Robbins became chief and about the same time a one-man grand jury was appointed to consider evidence in the Moxley case - Robbins assigned two detectives to go through the 1,000-page Margolies file. Last November, the Greenwich police asked the cold case unit to join the probe.

As with the Moxley case, Greenwich police have been long and loudly accused of mishandling the initial investigation. In a 1986 report, an outside consultant faulted the Greenwich force for, among other things, failing to assign a detective to the case until after Margolies's body was found - and then only assigning one detective to view the crime scene.

''I think that if the police had had more experience and had involved the detective division, and had listened more closely to the things we had to say, they would certainly have not gone for that length of time without finding him,'' Maryann Margolies said in a recent interview.

But from Morano's perspective, the Greenwich police may have salvaged the case - albeit years later - with their conscientious handling of the evidence.

All crucial pieces of evidence were sealed after they were last viewed in 1984. All police reports are in the file.

And, rather presciently, the Greenwich police took hair samples from their suspects. Considering that in 1984 few in law enforcement had ever heard of DNA analysis, it was either far-sighted or inadvertently fortunate, Morano said.

Maryann Margolies says the ups and downs in the investigation of her son's murder have become increasingly hard on her.

This time, she says, she needs the case to be either solved or resolved.

''It's more painful each time it resurfaces than it was at the time of the murder,'' she said. ''With the passage of time, you've started to get your life back in some semblance of order and normality.''

And while legal closure may not mean emotional closure, ''it has to be less painful.''

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