Everything You Need To Know About ‘The Staircase’ Owl Theory

If you’re a true crime fan, you’ve probably watched (or perhaps are currently watching) Netflix’s latest docuseries craze ‘The Staircase.’

‘The Staircase’ documents the events following the death of Kathleen Peterson, a woman found in a pool of her own blood at the bottom of a staircase in the Durham, North Carolina mansion she shared with her husband Michael. Naturally, Michael is accused of being responsible for her suspicious death, and the documentary follows his journey as he defends his innocence in the untimely passing of his wife.

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The staircase where Kathleen Peterson mysteriously met her end, photo courtesy of thegeekden.com

After watching ‘The Staircase,’ I was left feeling immensely torn. I just couldn’t fathom how Michael cold have beaten Kathleen to death without causing any fractures to her skull. At the same time, the photos of Kathleen at the bottom of that staircase seemed far too bloody to constitute an accidental fall down a couple of steps. And then I found what I am almost ashamed to admit may be the most plausible theory surrounding the death of Kathleen: she was murdered by an owl.

In 2008, Larry Pollard, an attorney and neighbor of the Petersons, proposed what has come to be known as the “Owl Theory.” He believes Kathleen suffered injuries from an owl attack that led to her death at the bottom of the stairwell.

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Larry Pollard, photo courtesy of newsobserver.com

If you watched the documentary, you’ll recall the struggle between prosecutors and the defense to explain the large lacerations to Kathleen’s scalp without any associated skull fracture. The prosecution argued Michael had beaten Kathleen over the head with a blow poke while the defense claimed she sustained this injuries during an accidental fall down the stairs. Pollard proposes a third explanation by stating that these lacerations actually occurred from an owl swooping down onto and attacking Kathleen on that fateful evening of December 9, 2001.

According to Pollard, Kathleen was attacked by an owl (not an uncommon occurrence, apparently) as she arranged reindeer Christmas decorations outside. He believes the owl may have mistaken the decorations as prey, leading it to initiate the assault. Kathleen ran into the house to take cover, attempted to go up the stairs, but fell backward down them. He suggests that in her drunken, injured and partially conscious state, she tried to get up several times, causing the infamous blood splatter on the walls of the stairwell.

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Diagram of Kathleen Peterson’s autopsy, photo courtesy of wral.com

As crazy as this may seem, maybe it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. According to the SBI report, Kathleen actually had a microscopic feather and sliver of wood from a tree limb in her hand, along with her own hair, when they examined her body. Assuming they had nothing to do with her death, examiners disregarded these findings.

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the director of ‘The Staircase,’ also views the owl theory as being a possibility. According to Lestrade, “The first time I heard about the owl theory, I really laughed. But when I started looking at it and I met with Larry Pollard… It might be the more plausible explanation. How can you explain all the cuts and lacerations and the absence of fractures? When you start thinking about the owl theory, and the kind of injuries she had, you start thinking maybe there is something there.”

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Michael Peterson with his lead defense attorney David Rudolf, photo courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Even Michael Peterson’s lead defense attorney, David Rudolf, said the following regarding the owl theory: “When you step back and really start getting familiar with the fact that there have been literally scores if not hundreds of documented instances of owl attacking the heads of people… and you look at the wounds and you compare them with the talons of an owl, it starts having some real credibility.”

The theory has also been backed up by multiple expert witnesses. University of Minnesota professor of veterinary medicine Dr. Patrick T. Redig, who stated such an attack is “entirely within the behavioural repertoire of large owls.” Kate P. Davis, director of Raptors of the Rockies, reported that the lacerations “look very much like those made by a raptor’s talons, especially if she had forcibly torn the bird from the back of her head.” Davis goes on to say this would also explain why Kathleen’s body presented with her hand holding clumps of her hair that also contained the feather and wood sliver.

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The lacerations to Kathleen’s scalp juxtaposed with an owl talon, photo courtesy of owltheory.blog.lemonade.fr

And, as I stated above, owl attacks are not uncommon, especially in Durham. On NBC’s Dateline episode of the Peterson case, they interviewed a man who was once attacked by an owl. He stated the attack felt like being hit with a baseball bat, and that he bled so much he thought he had lost his eye.

If you are interested in learning more about Pollard’s owl theory, I highly recommend listening to episode 9 of the podcast Beyond Reasonable Doubt?. The episode is only 17 minutes long but thoroughly explores this bizarre yet surprisingly plausible theory.

All in all, it appears as though the only person who knows what happened in the stairwell the night of December 9, 2011 is buried beneath a beautiful rose bush in Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery. If only walls could talk — what would they say?

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Kathleen Peterson’s grave, photo courtesy of newsobserver.com

SOURCES

Esquire

The News & Observer

Vulture

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Jumped or Pushed? The Spreckels Mansion Mystery

I have been patiently waiting for a week when Tess needed a cover again for #MurderMonday so I could talk about this completely bizarre case. As you might be able to tell based on my last pick for #MurderMonday, complex, unsolved cases are kind of my thing.

But before we get into it, I’m excited to tell you guys that this is an extra special #MurderMonday because we have teamed up with True Crime Magazineto offer you guys 40% OFF your first purchase! True Crime Magazine is a best-selling true crime publication offering you the ultimate journey through the criminal mind. You can’t possibly call yourself a true crime enthusiast without a subscription to this e-magazine and now you can get it for a great price using the code HEXFILES at checkout. I’ll give you all a moment to go get your subscriptions and then I’ll meet you back here for this week’s #MurderMonday feature.

Okay, now that you’re all subscribed to True Crime Magazine, let’s get back to your regularly scheduled #MurderMonday. This case was actually introduced to me by my aunt (I have to say, it’s pretty fantastic how supportive my family has been about me starting a blog and podcast about murder, demons, etc. — hi, Aunt Jan!) and I’ve been dying to talk about it more. So, without further adieu, I present to you: the Spreckles Mansion mystery.

I use the term “mystery” because, well, that’s what it is. Was it a suicide? Or was it a murder? I know what my opinion is, but I’ll give you the facts and let you decide.

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Photo courtesy of travelandleisure.com

Welcome to beautiful Coronado Island, California.

On Coronado, there is a magnificent home known as Spreckels Mansion, a gorgeous 26-room French Baroque chateau designed for Adolph Spreckels, son of sugar tycoon and entrepreneur Claus Spreckels. The stunning mansion was purchased in 2007 by pharmaceutical tycoon Jonah Shacknai for close to $13 million dollars as a summer home. According to Shacknai’s former wife, Dina, Coronado was the chosen location because “… you felt like nothing bad could happen in Coronado.” But unfortunately, something bad did happen. In fact, multiple bad things happened.

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Sprenkels Mansion, photo courtesy of welcometocoronado.com

In July of 2011, Dina received the call that no parent ever wants to receive: Dina and Jonah’s 6-year-old son, Max, was in a medically-induced coma at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. Max had suffered a fall over a railing on the second floor of the mansion. Unfortunately, Max’s devastating fall would not be the only tragedy the mansion would see that week, but hold that thought.

It was concluded that Max had been running down the hallway at the top of the stairs when he went over the balcony, hit or tried to grab onto a chandelier, hit a banister before finally crashing to the floor. The young boy was found face-down beside the fallen chandelier.

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Photo courtesy of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department

At the time of Max’s fall, his father, 54-year-old Jonah, was not home. Watching Max was Jonah’s girlfriend of two years, 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau, who claims she was using the restroom at the time of the accident but rushed out the moment she heard the crash. Two days after Max’s fall, Rebecca was found hanging naked from one of the mansion’s balconies, her hands and feet bound with rope.

“I got a girl, hung herself.”

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The balcony where Rebecca Zahau was found hanging, photo courtesy of ABC News

Rebecca’s body was discovered by Adam Shacknai, Jonah’s brother. Adam had flown in from Tennessee to be with his brother during the difficult days following the accident, but was in the mansion’s guest house the evening of Rebecca’s death while Jonah was at the children’s hospital with Max. Only Rebecca and Adam were home the night of July 12th. Adam told investigators he had been watching porn that evening in the guest house and had not gone into the main house. Maybe it’s just me, but if I’m going to fly across the country to be with my family during a tragic time, I’m probably going to actually be with my family and not be back at their house watching a porno (if that’s what he was actually even doing, if you catch my drift). Regardless, the morning of July 13th, Adam discovered Rebecca’s body, cut her down and then called 911. Below is the audio of Adam’s call.

As you can hear in the audio clip, Adam performed CPR on Rebecca while waiting for emergency services to arrive. However, the only fingerprints and DNA found at the scene were Rebecca’s, despite the fact that Adam had cut her body down and also tried to resuscitate her. Investigators did not find Adam’s fingerprints on the knife he had used to cut Rebecca down. Adam also showed investigators the table he had stood on to cut her down — a 3-legged table. As you can imagine, it would prove quite difficult for a grown man to stand on a 3-legged table and be supported enough to then cut down a lifeless corpse.

If you think all this is strange, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

When investigators discovered the scene left behind in the bedroom attached to the balcony from which Rebecca’s body was found, it was certainly puzzling. On the door to the bedroom was a cryptic message written in black paint: “She saved him, can you save her.” Investigators also took note of a book found on one of Rebecca’s shelves: “Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft” which included images of a rite with a woman with her hands tied behind her back. Rebecca’s toe and heel prints were found on the balcony, as well as a print from a male boot.

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Rebecca Zahau’s bound feet, photo courtesy of cbs8.com

Let’s jump back to how Rebecca’s body had been found. She was naked. She was gagged with a T-shirt. Her feet were bound. Her hands were bound in complex sailing knots that Rebecca would have had to do blindly considering her hands were bound behind her back (seriously, think about how difficult this would be to do). Oh, and did I mention Adam Shacknai worked for a tugboat company and was very familiar with various nautical knots?

Dr. Lisa Boeski is a clinical psychologist who specializes in suicide cases. According to her, there are known suicides where the decedent had bound their hands as an attempt to keep them from changing their minds during the act, though very rare and never with such complex rope-tying. She also adds that she is unaware of any other suicide case, attempted or completed, where the decedent was gagged or their feet were bound, making Zahau’s suicide completely unique (if a suicide at all). Dr. Boeski also pointed out that the message on the door was written in the third-person, another unusual occurrence in a suicide case.

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Rebecca Zahau and Jonah Shacknai, photo courtesy of people.com

As investigators sorted through the strange evidence and tried to make sense of Rebecca’s suspicious death, Max Shacknai died on July 17th, 2011 at the age of 6 from injuries related to the traumatic fall. In an interview, Jonah Shacknai stated, “All I can think of, is that Rebecca saw what happened, felt responsible in some way, not that she did anything, but she was entrusted with Max. And that was too much to bear.” But let us not forget, Rebecca’s suicide occurred days before Max’s death. At the time of Rebecca’s hanging, Max was in critical condition but still alive.

On August 20th, 2011, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department ruled Rebecca’s death as a suicide, stating that her autopsy as well as DNA and fingerprints left at the scene did not show a sign of an attack. They presented this video to show how Rebecca would have been able to bind her own hands behind her back to support. According to them, the boot print found in addition to Rebecca’s toe and heel prints on the balcony were accidentally left behind by a police officer when investigating the scene.

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Adam Shacknai, photo courtesy of AZcentral.com

On April 4, 2018, a 12-member-jury found Adam Shacknai guilty of Rebecca’s death in a 9-3 vote. Jurors awarded $5 million dollars to Rebecca’s family, but for her mother and sister, it isn’t about the money. They just want to see justice for Rebecca. Because this was a civil trial, there does not need to be a unanimous decision. Also, Shacknai will not face any criminal charges and cannot be sentenced to prison.

In conclusion, did Rebecca go over a railing because Max went over a railing? Or did this poor woman feel so much guilt related to the young boy’s accident that she took her own life in such a dramatic fashion? I hope for the sake of Rebecca’s family that one day, this case will be reopened.

Sources

ABC News 1

ABC News 2

Atlas Obscura

AZ Central 1

AZ Central 2

Marcia Clark Investigates the First 48: The Spreckels Mansion Mystery

NBC San Diego

Town & Country

Podcast Episode 11: “The Warrens”

I’m so excited that the podcast is back! Episode 11 is now available on iTunes, Stitcher & SoundCloud. Or you can click play right above and listen right here.

Episode 11 features psychic research couple Ed & Lorraine Warren whose work has been featured in cult horror movies like The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring and Annabelle. In Part I, I discuss the lives and career of the Warrens and in Part II, I’m joined by Hex Files’ contributor Craig to talk about our experience meeting Lorraine Warren and touring the Occult Museum.

As I promised in the episode, here are some of the photos I took while touring the Occult Museum. Light was certainly not on my side, so I apologize that most of the photos are poor quality but they’re still pretty awesome!

Possible Death Penalty in Bucks County Killings

Cosmo DiNardo and Sean Kratz brutally murdered four young men in Bucks County, Pennsylvania last summer. The young men went to DiNardo’s 90-acre farm near New Hope to purchase marijuana. The young men, aged between 19 and 22 years old, were shot, doused with gasoline and burned in a pig roaster.

Today, DiNardo pled guilty to homicide and was sentenced to 4 consecutive life sentences. Kratz, DiNardo’s cousin, pled not guilty. The Bucks County District Attorney plans on seeking the death penalty for Kratz with the use of his recorded confession. To hear the confessions and to read more about this horrific case, head over to NBC Philadelphia.

The Murder of Martha Moxley, Part II

So now that we understand the events surrounding the murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley, let’s dive into the charges, trial and recent overturned conviction of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel.

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Martha Moxley, photo courtesy of the Boston Herald

If you read part I, you’ll recall Michael changed his story from the original alibi he had given investigators back in 1975 that convinced them he couldn’t possibly be involved due to timing (he said he had gone to his cousin’s house with his brothers and had not returned until 11 p.m., but let’s be real — it seems the police were willing to use any excuse they could find not to look into the Skakel family). In his memoir years later, Michael revealed he had actually been on the Moxley property and even placed himself at the scene of the crime by admitting to masturbating in a pine tree (yes, you read that correctly) that matched the description of the tree Martha’s body was found under.

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The Moxley’s Belle Haven home, 1970s, photo courtesy of the Daily Beast

January 2000

And so, Michael essentially brought on his own demise by not being able to keep his mouth shut. He was charged with Martha’s murder on January 19, 2000, decades after her body was found. Later that day, Skakel, 39 at the time of the charge, turned himself into police and was released on $500,000 bond. Skakel returned to his home in Hobe Sound, Florida (which he shared with his now ex-wife who, ironically enough, was a professional golfer). Michael’s cousin, Douglas Kennedy, responded to the charges by saying, “Michael is one of the most honest people I know. He cares about people more than anybody I’ve ever met, and there is no possible way he’s involved in this.”

As I mentioned at the end of part I, Michael was originally charged as a juvenile because he was 15-years-old at the time the murder was committed. However, on January 31, 2001, Judge Maureen Dennis ruled that Michael should be tried as an adult and the case be transferred to the Superior Court.

2001 – 2006

On April 20, 2001, Superior Judge John Kavanewsky, Jr. ruled that there was enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial and so, testimony began May 7, 2002. Exactly one month later, even with no forensic evidence or eye witnesses (even to this day), Skakel was convicted of murdering Martha Moxley. On August 29, 2002, Michael was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. At the sentencing, Michael tearfully maintained his innocence, saying, “I have been accused of a crime. I would love to be able to say that I did it, but I cannot do that.”

Michael and his defense team refused to let this be the end and continued to fight for his freedom, but they were continuously shut down by the State Supreme Court. In April of 2005, the team filed a petition for a new trial but the conviction was unanimously upheld by the State Supreme Court. In February 2006, Skakel’s team filed a motion asking the State Supreme Court to rehear arguments in Michael’s appeal but the request was denied.

Not willing to give up so easily, the team filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court in July of 2006 stating their cilent’s due process rights were violated by the State Superior Court decision. Not surprisingly, the prosecution filed a brief requesting that the justices reject Michael’s attempts at freedom, arguing that his due process rights were not violated.

This back-and-forth between the defense team and the court went on for years and years. Michael’s defense attorneys worked tirelessly to get the Supreme Court to agree to take another look at Michael’s conviction with their answer always the same: nope.

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Michael Skakel, photo courtesy of the Connecticut Post

2013 – 2016

However, things started to look up for Michael when his conviction was overturned in 2013. According to Judge Thomas Bishop, Michael’s trial attorney, Michael Sherman, had botched his case. “The defense of a serious felony prosecution requires attention to detail, an energetic investigation and a coherent plan of defense capably executed. Trial counsel’s failures in each of these areas of representation were significant and, ultimately, fatal to a constitutionally adequate defense,” wrote Bishop in October of 2013.

On December 30, 2016, the Connecticut Supreme Court rejected the ruling that Sherman did not adequately represent Michael in a 4-3 decision. Still relentlessly pursuing Michael’s freedom (because they’re getting some nice paychecks courtesy of the Skakel family), his lawyers asked the State Supreme Court to reconsider the reinstatement of Michael’s conviction on January 9, 2017 (conveniently after the justice who wrote the 4-3 majority ruling left the court.)

May 2018

And finally, we arrive at the most recent addition to the timeline of this complex case. On May 4, 2018, in another 4-3 ruling, Connecticut Supreme Court vacated the murder conviction, stating Sherman failed to present evidence of an alibi. Hubert Santos, Michael’s attorney, told NBC Connecticut, “Today’s ruling makes clear that Michael Skakel spent 11-and-a-half years unjustly imprisoned in violation of the Constitution. To be absolutely clear: Michael Skakel is innocent of this crime. We are grateful to Judge Bishop and the Connecticut Supreme Court for correcting this miscarriage of justice.”

John Williams, New Haven Criminal Defense Attorney, is unsure if prosecutors will continue to pursue Michael’s case. According to Williams, “He did serve a pretty fair amount in prison before this habeas corpus petition was released. He did a lot of time and if he’s innocent, good lord… I think that a reasonable prosecutor could say, okay… it’s time to move on to other things, we have limited judicial resources. But who knows what they’re going to do. It would be an interesting trial if it happens though.”

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Martha’s mother, Dorothy Moxley, photo courtesy of the New York Post

Just as Williams said, it is hard to tell how this case will end (if it ever ends), but my biggest hope is that, regardless of the outcome, justice is found for the poor teenage girl who had her life so violently stolen. Dorothy Moxley, Martha’s mother, still stands firm in her belief that Michael is responsible for her daughter’s murder. On the day the conviction was overturned, she told NBC Connecticut, “I was very surprised and I’m very disappointed. I have no doubt in my mind that Michael Skakel is the person who murdered my daughter… People have to be responsible for their actions. You can’t do things and expect you can just get away with it.”

Sources:

Featured image courtesy of ABC News

CNN

Greenwich Time

New York Post

People

Hartford Courant

NECN

New Haven Register

The Murder of Martha Moxley, Part I

Tess has been working so hard lately that she has earned herself a little break! I’m taking over #MurderMonday for the next two weeks. But we’ve got a really in-depth case to go over, so let’s not delay any further.

You may have heard in the news this weekend that a man had his murder conviction overturned by the Supreme Court this past Friday. Michael Skakel, a relative of the Kennedy family, was convicted in 1975 for the murder of his 15-year-old neighbor, Martha Moxley. Before we get into the details of the overturned conviction, let me get you up to speed on this poor young girl’s violent murder and the search for her killer.

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Martha Moxley, photo courtesy of the Hartford Courant

October 31, 1975

Halloween would never feel the same again for the residents of Belle Haven, a posh gated community in Greenwich, Connecticut. On the afternoon of October 31st, 1975, the body of 15-year-old Martha Moxley was found beneath a pine tree at the edge of her family’s estate, her head smashed in by a #6 Toney Penna golf club. The teenager was hit with such force that the club actually broke into three pieces, only two of which were recovered. One of those two pieces was used to stab Martha through the neck. Forensic pathologists estimated her death occurred around 10 p.m. on October 30th, the night before her body was discovered.

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Autopsy drawings, photo courtesy of Mark Furhman

The kind of excessive violence displayed at the scene is known as “overkill” and it is suggestive of personal anger. If there was one thing that was clear when Martha’s body was discovered, it was that whoever was responsible for the murder of this young girl had some deep-seated rage.

A matching Toney Penna golf club was discovered at the home of Martha’s wealthy neighbors, the Skakels. Here is where the tie to the infamous Kennedy family comes in: the father, Rushton, was the brother of Ethel Kennedy. What I want you to pick up on here is that this family is in a position of extreme wealth and privilege, to the point where it’s possible people even feared them. Regardless, here’s the real kicker: the piece of the club missing from the scene was part of the handle and shaft. The club discovered at the Skakel house had an engraving on the handle and shaft that read ‘Anne Skakel,’ Rushton’s late wife.

So clearly, the club found in the Skakel home was obviously the smoking gun, right? Wrong. It seems law enforcement couldn’t fathom that someone from their perfect little community could possibly be responsible for such a heinous act. Despite the discovery of the matching club, no warrant was immediately sought nor were any of the members of the Skakel family separately interviewed. Officers assumed it had to have been a stranger who had senselessly murdered the 15-year-old girl.

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By now it’s pretty obvious something was a little off in Greenwich. With that being said, let’s dissect the inner-workings of this community a bit further. Many of the Greenwich detectives actually worked second jobs as chauffeurs and bartenders for the wealthy residents of the community. It appears this lead detectives to feel uncertain about how to approach the possible involvement of the Skakels in Martha’s murder. Steve Carroll, one of the detectives on the case, confirmed this by saying, “Maybe it was the Skakel money. Maybe it was their position. But I believe I was subconsciously intimidated by them.” Wow, this is a mess.

Suspicion eventually did fall on 17-year-old Tommy Skakel, who was seen as one of the most troubled members of the Skakel family, along with his younger brother, 15-year-old Michael.  At the age of four, Tommy fell out of a moving car, leaving him hospitalized with head injuries for two weeks. According to a neurologist who treated Tommy after the accident, the injuries he sustained caused him to develop changes in his personality, including frequent violent outbursts.

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Tommy Skakel, left, and Michael Skakel – Photo courtesy of the New York Times

Tommy had been the last person to see Martha alive. Martha and two of her friends had gone over to the Skakel house around 9 p.m. the night of October 30th. Three of the Skakel brothers, including Michael, allegedly left around 9:30 p.m. to go to their cousin’s house, but Tommy, Martha, and the two friends stayed behind. Tommy told investigators he had been with Martha until 9:30 p.m., leaving her to write a school paper on Abraham Lincoln. According to teachers at the private school Tommy attended, no such paper had ever been assigned. Years later, Tommy admitted the two had engaged in mutual masturbation for about 20 minutes before Martha left to go home.

In 1991, the state of Connecticut reopened the case. The investigation was lead by Donald Browne and Jack Solomon. Browne and Solomon focused their efforts on linking a man named Kenneth Littleton to the murder as they were convinced of his involvement due to a failed lie detector test. At some point, Solomon mentioned their vigorous pursuit of Littleton to Rushton Skakel’s lawyer. Catching wind of this information, Skakel hired private investigators to supposedly “clear the family name”, but actually, they were hired to ensure that Littleton was found responsible for Martha’s murder. The hired investigators attempted to link Littleton to the murders of four other teenage girls. It sounds to me like Rushton was aware someone in his family had killed Martha and he was stuck trying to clean up the mess.

Solomon and Frank Garr, a Greenwich detective also working on the case, started a tip line to get more information on both Littleton and Tommy, but to their surprise — PLOT TWIST — the calls that came in where actually about Tommy’s younger brother, Michael. Michael had been dismissed early on as a suspect because his alibi was that he had gone with his brothers to their cousin’s house the evening of October 30th and did not return until 11 p.m.

Sometime during the summer of 1998, Garr received information from a woman who had had a conversation with Rushton about a confession Michael had made to his father. Michael told Rushton he had been drinking the evening of Martha’s murder. He said he had blacked out and was fearful he had been responsible for the girl’s death. The woman’s loyalty to Rushton kept her from disclosing this conversation until this time.

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A former Skakel chauffeur told Garr he would drive Michael to his psychiatric appointments once a week. Several years after the murder, while stuck in heavy traffic on a bridge, the chauffeur said Michael jumped out of the car, telling the driver he had done something so bad he was either going to flee the country or jump off the bridge. Michael also confided in a school counselor that he had been covered in blood the night of the murder. As the saying goes, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, IT’S A DAMN DUCK.

Michael eventually got himself involved in some family drama with the Kennedys that lead him to discuss said drama as well as the night of Martha’s murder back in 1975 in a 37-page, audio-taped memoir for an autobiographical book proposal. Not a good idea, Michael. In the memoir, Michael describes returning from his cousin’s house around 11 p.m. and going over to Martha’s. He describes how he had a crush on Martha and was going over to her house in hopes of getting a kiss from her. He goes on to say he climbed a pine tree outside Martha’s window and was throwing rocks to try and get her attention. When didn’t get a response, he pulled down his pants and masturbated briefly before leaving. The only problem? There had been no pine tree outside Martha’s window, and the tree Michael described was actually the one her body had been found under, therefore placing Michael at the scene of the crime. Garr brought all of this to the attention of Browne, who took no action due to lack of evidence to indict.

However, after supervising the case for almost 25 years, Browne eventually withdrew. The new prosecutor, Jonathon Benedict, indicted Michael for the murder of Martha based on Garr’s interviews. Michael was charged on January 19, 2000. Although Michael was 39 years old at the time of the charge, he is actually charged as a minor because he was 15 at the time of Martha’s death.

Next week, in part II, we will cover Michael Skakel’s trial and the recent overturn of his conviction.

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Photo courtesy of News Max

SOURCES:

The Daily Beast

Hartford Courant

The New York Times

The New York Times

Town & Country Magazine

Hart Island: New York City’s Island of the Dead

The dead are coming out of the earth on a New York City burial ground not far from the Bronx borough. Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly the zombie apocalypse I’ve been hoping for seeing as the corpses are not coming back to life, they’re just being exposed due to erosion. However, the recent media coverage of this issue lead me to finally write about a place that has intrigued me for quite some time now — Hart Island.

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Hart Island, located in the western Long Island Sound and spanning over 100 acres in size, was purchased by the city in 1868 for $75,000. The original intent behind its purchase was to establish a workhouse for boys from the House of Refuge on Riker’s Island, but it soon began being used as a burial site for unknown or indigent people. Burial records date all the way back to May 1881 and continuing to the present day. Due to gaps in documentation, it is unsure exactly how many bodies rest on Hart Island, although it is estimated it may be as many as one million. It is the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world.

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To think that this many unidentifiable people have died in New York City that they’ve designated an island to bury them on is mind-blowing, but what is even crazier is that this is not the first of its kind. Most large cities have one of these designated areas, which are known as “potter fields.” In fact, Hart Island is actually NYC’s tenth potter’s field, with previous locations in Washington Square, Bellevue Hospital, Madison Square, the NYC Public Library, Wards Island and Randall’s Island.

Potter’s fields are defined as a piece of land used as a burial place for the poor, or in some places, strangers to the community. The term originates from the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew. Judas Iscariot was paid thirty pieces of silver for betraying Jesus, but his guilt drove him to return the money to the temple. However, the priests at the temple did not want to accept what is known as “blood money,” so they used it to purchase an area of land near Jerusalem where they could bury the poor and the foreign. The area of land was purchased from a pot-maker and thus, the term “potter’s field” was born. Because the land was purchased with the blood money, it is also referred to as “the Field of Blood.”

“Then Judas, which had betrayed Him, saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests… and they took counsel, and bought with them the potters field to bury strangers in.” – Matthew (27:3-8)

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So what determines that a body is sent to Hart Island? Well, when a body turns up, it goes into the custody of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner where it will remain until identified and claimed by relatives. Any bodies that are unclaimed are transferred to the Department of Corrections for burial.

The Department of Corrections? Huh? Yes, you read correctly. The Department of Correction maintains and operates the City Cemetery on Hart Island and the burials are performed by inmates. The video below shows inmates performing a mass burial in 1990.

Today, the inmates are transported from Rikers Island on weekdays where they perform the burials, disinterments and maintenance of the island. They are paid a small hourly fee for their labor. An average of 2,000-3,000 burials are performed each year.

Aside from a massive graveyard, Hart Island has served many purposes over the years. Originally, the island was used as a prison camp for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War in 1865. In 1870, a portion of the island housed patients with yellow fever in isolation. It is around this time that the island first served as a grave site. It is said the first body to be buried was a woman named Louisa Van Slyke. She was a 24-year-old orphan who died from yellow fever.

The island also served as a tuberculosis hospital, a reformatory for men that later housed aged male prisoners and overflow from other New York City prisons. During the second World War, Hart Island became a barracks for Navy, Coast Guard and Military troops. At one point, three German soliders appeared in a U-Boat near Long Island. They were captured and imprisoned on the island. Since WWII, the island operated as a jail and a narcotic rehabilitation program.

Now that you understand the history, let’s talk more about why Hart Island has been popping up in the news recently. This past Monday, 174 exposed bones were recovered from the City Cemetery due to years of storms causing erosion to the shoreline. According to Melinda Hunt of The Hart Island Project, “Entire skeletons are sort of flling out of the hill onto the beach, and then they’re washed away with the tide.”

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According to Hunt, who has been following the ongoings at Hart Island for several decades, the Department of Corrections has been aware of the problem for some time but has not done anything about it until just recently. Archaelogists have been using red flags to mark human remains once identified and the plan is that they will be re-buried by inmates.

Council Mark Levine is just as shocked as you probably are that the island is being run by the Department of Corrections and he is trying to have control of the island transferred to the Department of Parks and Recreation to allow families of the deceased to visit the graves. Levine makes a great point by saying, “It’s simply wrong that people who are neglected in life, who are marginalized in life in the city are now getting the same treatment in this burial ground.”

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The Department of Corrections is claiming it is working on getting its act together, telling CBS2 recently that it will start monthly inspections and reconstruct the shoreline to ensure the graves are stable.

 

Featured image courtesy of The Hart Island Project.

Sources:

Atlas Obscura

CBS News

correctionhistory.org

The Hart Island Project

NYC.gov

Oxford Biblical Studies Online

Untapped Cities

The Word Detective