Lost Little Boy
Nearly thirty years ago, thirteen-year-old Matthew Margolies was gagged, strangled and stabbed to death. Despite numerous leads and suspects, his murderer is still out there.Yet today, police attention seems stronger than ever
Matthew Margolies was a child of the Byram River, an angler skilled beyond his thirteen years. Already he’d acquired the fisherman’s virtues of patience, clarity of mind, and gentle cunning. But in other ways he was very much still a boy. At midday on August 31, 1984, Matthew walked to his grandmother’s house on Morgan Avenue, next to the river, dumped a freshly caught trout into her kitchen sink and tossed his soaked gray corduroys onto an upholstered chair. Stella Miazga came home at lunchtime and left her grandson a stern little note about the mess
Matthew, meanwhile, had changed into dry clothes and gone back out to roam the Valley’s conjoined neighborhoods of Pemberwick and Glenville. The Byram River Valley is narrow and densely populated, an old New England mill village known for producing, in turn, lead, cotton, wool and felt. “What Pittsburgh is to steel… what Detroit is to cars… what Butte is to copper… Glenville is to felt,” boasted an advertisement from 1956. Older residents of the Valley remember when fabric dye tinted both the river and the ducks that swam in it. The felt mill shut down in 1978, but the Valley’s girdled geography and snug working class layout had made their lasting imprint: No section of Greenwich invited closeness, or at least familiarity, more readily than the Valley did.
Everyone seemed to know Matthew Margolies. All that Friday, people saw him—a lean, handsome boy with sun-lightened brown hair and a fishing rod in his hand—working his way up and down the river, from the Comly Avenue bridge to the falls by the repurposed Mill commercial center. Around 5 p.m., several witnesses placed him within a one-block radius of the Sparta Deli, at the corner of Morgan and Comly avenues. The deli was a popular hangout for Valley kids, and on this afternoon a crew of them had propped their poles against the outside wall and loitered on the sidewalk. A contingent of older boys gathered there too; known loosely as “the Valley Boys,” a certain few of them had earned reputations as ne’er-do-wells and troublemakers, and Matthew’s mother, Maryann, had forbidden him to associate with them. At about 5:30, a young woman who lived on nearby Nicholas Avenue saw Matthew walking down Comly, next to the deli. She waved out her car window, and he waved back—the last definite sighting of Matthew alive. One or two thought they saw him climb into a car belonging to one of the Valley Boys, but, frustratingly, this seems to be more impression than fact.
As the sun dipped behind the western ridge of the Valley, word went out that Matthew was missing. Dan Warzoha, then assistant chief of the Glenville Volunteer Fire Company, had gone down to the firehouse after dinner. “It was a beautiful night. All the bay doors were open,” he remembers. “As I walked in, the gossip line in the old watch room was ringing. I picked up the phone and it was Matthew’s mom, wanting to know if anybody had seen Matthew, because he hadn’t come home for dinner. I said no, but I’ll see what I can find out, and I wound up talking to some of the guys who were sitting out on the bench in the Glenville green. A couple of them said, ‘Jeez, Matthew was supposed to meet us for fishing and never showed up.’ So we started thinking, Maybe there’s something going on here.”
Maybe Matthew had stumbled and fallen into the river—but everyone knew he was an adept swimmer. Or maybe he’d gone off to be alone. Just two weeks earlier, his grandfather, George Miazga, had died of cancer and his absence left an enormous hole in Matthew’s life. The two were kindred spirits, fishing buddies brought all the closer by Maryann and Paul Margolies’ divorce in 1983 and Paul’s departure for Texas. Could Matthew be off sulking in the woods, or could he have gone up to St. Mary’s Cemetery? Warzoha called Greenwich Police Youth Officer Stephen Paulo, Glenville-raised, and said, “I don’t know, Steve, something’s not right here.” Paulo drove to the firehouse to collect information and then went up to Maryann’s house, a trim white clapboard on Pilgrim Drive. Within an hour, the search had begun. By noon the following day, Warzoha recalls, “there was a shift, a change of feeling, that we were looking at something much bigger. There was no note, nothing that would lead one to believe that Matthew just decided to get out of Dodge.”
Days of heat and torrential rain followed. State troopers led search dogs along the Byram River, and Maryann took Matthew’s own dog, Freckles, up the river paths; Matthew’s older sister, Stacey, led a psychic up Pemberwick Road; scuba divers searched the pond above the falls; flyers went up in Glenville’s shop windows; helicopters chopped overhead. The strangest and most ominous sign came from the psychic, Sharon Robinson, who divined on September 3 that “Matthew’s body would be found on a nearby steep hill by an unknown male.” The mood of the searchers turned grim.
On September 5, Fred Lambert, a volunteer fireman who worked as a superintendent at The Mill, decided to climb a steep, scrub-wooded ridge behind Greenway Drive and overlooking Pemberwick Road. There, among beer cans and bike parts, Lambert came upon a pair of black-and-white checkered slip-on sneakers. Minutes later he led officers Paulo and Michael Panza to the site, and the three of them then noticed a swarm of flies and a strong, fishlike odor of decomposition. Matthew’s body lay hidden beneath leaves and branches and heavy rocks, only his toes and an ear visible through the burial layer.
Profile of a Killer
Two killings have haunted Greenwich above all others. The first was that of Martha Moxley, in 1975, savagely beaten with a golf iron and stabbed through the neck with its broken shaft. That case would not be put to rest until 2002, with the high-profile conviction of Michael Skakel. In many ways Matthew’s case mirrors Martha’s: both victims were young teens who happened to have the same initials; both murders were unusually brutal, with sexual overtones; and both cases went unsolved for decades—Matthew’s was still unsolved as of last October, though a reporter can hardly fail to notice a pregnant silence around the investigation these days. Twenty-eight years in, and it appears that something new is happening. Police Chief James Heavey did allow that two detectives and their immediate supervisor, all born in Greenwich, are working the case vigorously. As for their present level of confidence? “At this particular time it would not be appropriate to comment.”
The temper of the Moxley and Margolies murders differed notably in one respect. Michael Skakel, assuming he was rightly convicted, seems to have flown off the handle, had some sort of meltdown triggered by uncontrollable jealousy, against a broader background of anger, confusion and fear. Matthew’s killer committed an act so deliberately evil as to defy all understanding. As detectives uncovered the body, clothed only in underpants and a single sock, they found that Matthew had been stabbed multiple times in the chest and abdomen, and his white T-shirt had been knotted around his neck. Only when Matthew’s body was taken to the coroner’s office in Farmington, however, did police learn the full horror of the crime: The killer had shoved dirt and sticks down Matthew’s throat, gagged him with the missing sock, and lacerated his neck in a sadistic prelude to making the deeper knife wounds in his torso.
What sort of person could have committed such an act?
John Douglas, the FBI’s psychological profiling guru, surmised a month after the murder that the killer was a white male familiar with Matthew and his fishing routine. He was also “a classic loser with a poor self-image,” perhaps unkempt and overweight with a drinking or drug problem. Though Matthew’s body bore no overt signs of sexual assault, Vernon Geberth, a leading homicide expert whom Greenwich police hired to critique the Margolies investigation in 1986, tells me the crime bore the hallmarks of a “lust murder.” “This offender was a psychotic sexual sadist—almost a dual diagnosis,” Geberth says. “Where you and I would recoil at the infliction of pain on a person who can’t defend himself, for him it’s just the opposite: It’s the pain that gratifies him, the pain that drives his obsessive fantasy.” Geberth notes that 70 percent of sexually motivated killers engage in strangulation—“a major modality in lust murders”—and that half of all children abducted by lust killers are dead within an hour. This turned out to be true of Matthew. A woman who lived in a condo across the river from the ridge where he was found reported hearing a young person’s prolonged scream between 6 and 6:30 p.m. on August 31—less than an hour after Matthew was seen walking down Comly Avenue.
It was chillingly clear that the killer knew his terrain, and therefore must live among the people of the Valley. Police seized upon a suspect the very day Matthew was found: a sixteen-year-old bully who lived on Greenway Drive, just a few feet up the hill from the murder site. The bully had harassed Matthew repeatedly and pulled a knife on another boy. Most intriguingly, however, he had stalked and abducted a thirteen-year-old that very summer, luring him to a vacant apartment with the promise of soda. That victim’s name was Jeff Payne. Greenwich magazine found him almost accidentally, and he agreed to talk publicly for the first time about the incident he feared would claim his life. “To this day it still haunts me,” he said over coffee. “Not really for me—but for what happened to Matt. Because I think that if he’d finished me off that day, Matt might still be alive.”
Jeff was spending the day on the playground at Hamilton Avenue School; throughout the late morning and early afternoon the attacker—we’ll call him Perry—kept wheeling up on his ten-speed, asking if Jeff wanted to go for a soda. The day was hot, and Jeff was sweating. But even at thirteen, Jeff registered that Perry looked at him with intense interest—“almost like a woman trying to pick you up”—and perhaps for this reason he kept rebuffing Perry. (A detective later pointed out the physical resemblance between Jeff and Matthew.) But a soda sounded good, and at last Jeff relented. He assumed they’d go to Tom’s Deli down the hill on St. Roch’s Place. But Perry turned left onto Alexander Street, where his parents owned a rental house. “I’m like, ‘Yo, where you going? The store’s down there.’ Perry goes, ‘Oh, my father’s renovating the basement in our old place, and he has soda there for the workers.’ Well, sounds right. I go along with it.” Once in the basement, Perry made an elaborate show of looking for the soda; only later did Jeff realize he was actually checking windows to make sure nobody was around to bear witness. Next Perry told Jeff to search the bathroom. “That’s when it hits me: I’m in trouble. Just as I turn around and say, ‘Perry, there’s no soda here,’ he’s right at me. No words, just a flat-out attack.”
Perry slammed Jeff headfirst into the bathroom tile, knocking him out cold, shook him awake, and again slammed his head into the floor. Then Perry dragged Jeff into a workroom. Perry had him lie stomach-down on a strip of carpet, straddled him, and, with his hand, drove a nail into Jeff’s back. There were five puncture wounds in all. “While I’m laying there he says, ‘Now pull down your pants.’ I know at this point what he wants. He goes back to the door, checking to see if everything is fine. I know this is the last time he’s going to check. When he comes back, he’s going to do what he’s going to do to me—then I am dead.” Fortuitously, the upstairs tenants pulled in the driveway at that moment. Perry had been thwarted.
He took Jeff to the backyard, hosed off his wounds (he’d also cut Jeff’s knee with a piece of glass, Jeff says; the scar is still visible), and rode with Jeff back to Pemberwick. Perry waited to hear Jeff tell his mother he was safely home—as he’d carefully instructed Jeff to do—and then he rode off in the direction of Greenway Drive. When Perry was gone, Jeff broke down in tears and told his mother what had happened. Elizabeth Payne called the police. A detective arrived promptly at the Paynes’ door and soon was taking Polaroids of Jeff’s injuries down at headquarters. In juvenile court Perry denied any involvement in the crime, Jeff says. “[Perry] said I’d never been there! I described the place to a T, just like I’m describing it to you now. He lied, right there on the stand.” The judge found Perry guilty, but Jeff never learned his punishment.
Later that summer, when Matthew Margolies turned up dead, there was no doubt in Jeff’s mind who had killed him. Perry’s assault did seem to demonstrate an ingrained pathology, the sort of thing that could only worsen with time. On the night of September 5, detectives grilled Perry for three hours and searched his house. Nothing. And Perry had an alibi. A time-clock card at Wendy’s on the Post Road showed him working from 4 to 10:40 p.m. on the night Matthew was murdered, and at least one witness corroborated this. For these and reasons the police will not share, investigators ruled out Perry, this most tantalizing of the early suspects.
Greenwich police had embarked on the Margolies case with the shadow of Martha Moxley still very much upon them. The public waited for a result as with folded arms. None came. Vernon Geberth judged the Margolies investigation to be “professional and exhaustive” but hardly error-free. Police made their big mistake before anyone knew Matthew had been killed, according to Geberth. This was their decision to treat Matthew as a missing person rather than a crime victim in that first week, despite Maryann’s insistence that Matthew would never willingly disappear. “They effectively lost six days of investigative time,” Geberth says. During that span, detectives would have canvassed the neighborhood door-to-door, looking for signs of sketchy behavior. “The offender would have been in almost a fugue state, a panic: ‘Did anybody see me?’ People who knew him would have seen his demeanor change drastically.” But with the passing of days he could have collected himself, fit himself back into his daily routine. “Time was on the side of the offender.”
Beginning September 5, though, the department’s sixteen detectives worked the Valley aggressively, one might say ruthlessly. “The cops harassed me twenty-four-seven,” recalls Richard Salvatore, then sixteen, a Valley Boy who expected to fish with Matthew the afternoon he went missing. “They’d threaten me. They’d tell me, ‘We’re coming back for you, we’re coming back.’ They’d hide in their cars and wait.” Their strong-arm tactics did, however, yield suspects, from misfit Valley Boys to suspected pedophiles. One sevventeen-year-old Valley Boy who intrigued police had been arrested for rolling logs into Pemberwick Road from the approximate murder site, and for growing marijuana; indeed, he blamed Matthew and his grandfather for informing police about his pot patch. This Valley Boy was known to inspire dread in other kids. “He is the sickest, he could have done it,” one reported to police. In 2000 Greenwich Time’s Joe Johnson learned from police sources that the Valley Boy might have ingested the potent hallucinogen mescaline on the day of the murder—possibly adding a new twist to the motive. A year after the killing, detectives acted on a warrant to search the Valley Boy’s house and person for clues to the murder. Arkady Katsnelson, the assistant state medical examiner, noticed a healed scar on the young man’s right shoulder, and reported that it “appeared to have been caused by a fingernail.” Detectives believed Matthew could have gouged the shoulder—he clearly did put up some sort of defense—but they found nothing concrete to link the Valley Boy to the murder.
The investigation kept turning up shady characters, so many of them that the Valley began to resemble Twin Peaks. There was a thirty-two-year-old maintenance worker who, a year earlier, had tried to sexually attack a young male jogger along the river—“Don’t try to stop me, it’ll be over soon,” he’d said—only to be thwarted by a kick to the groin. Then there was a thirty-eight-year-old man who worked in Glenville, knew the crime site, and supposedly acted suspiciously there on the day Matthew was found dead. Yet another was an alleged pedophile in his late twenties—there had been complaints, but no arrest—often seen fishing the Byram River in the company of young boys. Among the odder suspects was a thirty-seven-year-old Glenville man who said that as a teen, he was lashed to a tree in some Pemberwick woods and sexually molested. In October 1984 the man spoke disjointedly to police, telling of his fear that he was going to die, in part “because of the Margolies kid.” When detectives drove him down Pemberwick Road and reached the base of the steep hill, the man looked squarely at the murder site and asked, “Is that where the kid was killed?”
Though a teen would seem likelier to have lured Matthew up the hillside, Geberth believes that someone slightly older committed the murder. He bases this on the notion that a certain number of years must elapse to develop and then act upon sick sexual fantasies. “I see this as the work of a young adult,” Geberth says. “Sixteen, seventeen—I don’t see it.” But Charles Bahn, a forensic psychologist who reviewed the case for Greenwich Time, favored a revenge motive and thus probably a younger killer. He pointed among other details to the dirt that suffocated Matthew: “You opened your mouth, and now I’m going to make you eat dirt.” But it seems equally viable that the killer could have used the dirt to stifle Matthew’s screaming.
Just before Christmas 1984, a Glenville man came forward with a nagging memory from August 31. Under hypnosis, he recalled driving up Pemberwick Road and passing a boy carrying a fishing pole followed by an older, “dumpy-looking” boy with black hair who may have emerged from an older-model green Chevy parked at the roadside. (This description loosely matches that of “Perry.”) The time was between 5:30 and 6:00; right above the boys was the hill where Matthew was found. When the hypnosis witness reached his destination, a house on Grey Rock Drive, he believed he heard a scream resounding from the woods behind Greenway. This was but one of many promising clues that led nowhere.
Then there was the competing story of the red pickup truck. It goes that Matthew and an older boy went fishing late in the afternoon, around 6:00, near the falls by The Mill. They were supposedly dropped there—on Pemberwick Road—by the older boy’s red pickup-driving uncle. Matthew supposedly left the older boy to try his luck upstream, never to be seen again. Greenwich magazine could not verify the integrity of this story. But what complicates it is a retired Greenwich police officer’s sighting of a red pickup parked directly below the murder site at roughly the time Matthew was killed. Within the same time frame, yet another witness claimed to see a red pickup—this one with wooden side panels—stop to collect two boys roughly Matthew’s age. One of them was carrying a fishing pole. Police apparently had reason to discount the story of the uncle’s red pickup, but they continued searching for other red pickups for months, without any luck.
Meanwhile, life in the Valley turned inward. Playing fields normally humming with activity were deserted, crossing guards stood idle and shopkeepers stared wanly out their plate-glass windows. Residents of Glenville and Pemberwick anxiously imagined brushing shoulders with the killer at Molly’s stationery, or Glenville Pizza, or Stop & Shop. Behind the scenes, suspicious neighbors reported on one another, magnifying petty offenses. “Within a few days, suspicion was pretty rampant,” says Dan Warzoha, who would become Greenwich’s fire chief and is today its emergency-management director. “There were a lot of people calling the cops, ‘Hey, you’ve got to take a look at this kid, you’ve got to look at that.’ A lot of people were working off of rumors, innuendos, and not many facts. There were things said about people that ruined friendships. There are people who won’t talk to each other to this day.”
A Cold Case Heats Up
The investigative trail went cold, and stayed cold for many years. Detectives spent interminable hours working promising leads, only to watch them dry up and blow away. Then they retired in vexation, just as Moxley-case detectives had done before them. “The whole thing has been very, very frustrating,” the late detective Richard Haug told Greenwich News in 1994. “At times we’ve thought we were so close.” In 2000, not long after the arrest of Michael Skakel, Police Chief Peter Robbins convinced Connecticut’s cold case squad to take up the Margolies case. This was something of a coup. The squad is notoriously picky, choosing only those cases that strike them as solvable and thus worth huge expenditures of money and manpower.
Two factors persuaded them that Matthew’s was such a case: First, Greenwich police had collected from the crime scene—and carefully preserved—valuable trace evidence, including hair from a person unknown; and second, they’d also collected biological samples from roughly ten persons of interest. Now all this material could be tested using the latest crime-lab technology. There were other reasons for confidence: The man leading the investigation was Jim Rovella, an unusually gifted homicide detective known as “Father Jim” for his ability to draw out a suspect. His men in Greenwich were Timothy Duff and Gary Hoffkins, talented detectives in their own right whom Robbins had assigned to the Margolies case full-time in 1998. Presiding over the squad was Christopher Morano, the deputy chief state’s attorney, who would soon take part in the prosecution of Michael Skakel.
By August 2002 the signs seemed more promising than ever. DNA testing had eliminated several suspects—police would not say which ones—and winnowed the field to two or three. One suspect was a recent addition to the list: Roger Bates, a retired Port Chester police officer who lived in Texas and had been arrested near Dallas for molesting a fourteen-year-old boy. Bates was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to twenty-two years in prison. But here’s the strange thing: At Bates’ trial, the son of another Port Chester cop testified that he’d been molested by Bates in 1984. The cop’s son claimed to be a sometime fishing companion of Matthew’s and said that Bates once took them both fishing on the river. Further, he reported that Bates had behaved erratically after the murder and urged him not to cooperate with detectives. It was hard to imagine a better suspect than Roger Bates. Rovella, Duff and Hoffkins traveled to Pack Unit Prison in Navasota, Texas, and scraped cells from the inside of Bates’ cheek—but again there was no DNA match. (Bates is the only suspect in the Margolies case to have been identified publicly, owing to the Texas conviction, the Port Chester abuse allegation, and his adult status at the time of the Margolies murder.)
After the DNA failures, the drumbeat of confidence began to wane. Three years passed with barely a mention of the Margolies case in local papers. And when it was mentioned again, there was an air of diminished hope. “We are following up leads, but they don’t appear to be as promising as the ones we’ve had in the past,” Duff told Greenwich Time in 2007. That Greenwich police appear to be treading so carefully now should be read as a good sign, a sign of new investigative hope. Certainly, one imagines the person who killed Matthew was not cut out to lead an orderly, law-abiding life, and that one way or another, sooner or later, his DNA will enter the ever-growing national databank. Did the detectives finally get their hit? Or did they uncover, at long last, some admission made in confidence? Or get some manner of confession? If any of these things have happened, then David I. Cohen, the state’s attorney for our corner of Connecticut, would have to weigh the totality of the evidence before signing an arrest warrant. The last thing Cohen would want is to try a middling case and have the killer escape justice.
As for Matthew, those who knew him would prefer to remember how he lived rather than how he died. Jim Clifford, the soft-spoken former chief of the Glenville Volunteer Fire Company, amassed his share of bad memories on the job, from the 1974 blaze at Gulliver’s nightclub, which killed twenty-four, to the death of Matthew Margolies ten years later. It was Clifford who brought a truck to the murder site and lighted the hillside as the detectives carried out their sad work in the failing afternoon light. But that is not what he thinks about when he thinks about Matthew. “He came to the firehouse just about every day in the summer. Oh, he was so polite! Just the way his family brought him up.” Clifford laughs lightly and recalls the opening sequence of the Andy Griffith Show, in which Andy and Opie amble down a dirt path, fishing poles resting on their shoulders—a vision of American innocence. “That’s just what Matthew and his grandfather were like. I think Matthew wanted to grow up to be one of the best professional fishermen in the world. But to see him back then, you didn’t know which was more important—the fishing or the companionship of his grandfather. It seemed to me it was the companionship.”