Even the most discontented family in the world has a vision of happiness. And so, in the Kissel family, people liked to look back at their times at Stratton Mountain in Vermont. “We skied together,” says Bill Kissel, the father. “It’s a family sport.” The Kissels had one house, and when Bill made his money, they built a bigger one, Dad’s gift to the family. Then, as often as possible, it was a speedy getaway in Bill’s Cadillac. From their New Jersey home, it was just a few hours to Vermont.
Bill likes to recall those times. Bill’s wife, Elaine, whom everyone adored, was still alive. The house was abuzz with kids. Bill’s children brought their friends along, then showed off for them. All three Kissel kids were great skiers, though Rob was the best. Everyone remembered his slalom racing and how he sometimes joined his sister, Jane, who did ballet on skis. Andrew liked to bring his girlfriend and taught her to ski.
Bill, now 78, has photos on his desk in Florida, where he moved years ago, snapshots of the kids during the Vermont years. “I have a picture of Andrew with his mother when he was 2 years old, adorable,” says Bill by phone one day. He says that Andrew had a light in his eyes. “Life started out beautifully for all of us. We were a happy family.”
But that was long ago. Before Rob was murdered by his wife—drugged, bludgeoned, wrapped in a rug, and thrown in storage with used odds and ends—and before the nasty public battle between Andrew, his sister, his wife, his father, his brother’s father-in-law over custody of the kids. It was before Andrew was indicted for a host of swindles and facing years in prison. And before he was found stabbed to death in his basement, a T-shirt pulled over his head, his wife a possible suspect. Andrew’s murder last month was the final blow. Vermont, with its happiness, seemed out of another lifetime. A lifetime before people started to wonder if the Kissel family was cursed.
The tragedy of the Kissels is, in ways, a story about a father and his sons, Rob and Andy (as they were called as children). Rob was the extrovert, the more readily likable. Most things seemed to come easily to Rob, younger than Andy by four years. He was taller, better looking, and the superior athlete. Andy was bright but somewhat bored in school, and didn’t make it to college till a couple of years after high-school graduation. Rob got A’s with what to his friends seemed little work. “Everything Rob did was natural with him,” says Bill, who readily lists his exceptional qualities. “At age 5, he could calculate things in his mind.” For Bill, Rob’s character was exemplary, too. “Robert is the man I would have liked to have been,” says Bill.
Bill can offer compliments about Andy too. “Andy was very successful, very bright, and very creative,” says Bill, who quickly adds, “He was in a hurry.” For Bill, it’s this last impression that endures. One son was an achiever, the other sniffed for shortcuts. Bill recalls how he gave his two teenage sons credit cards. With his, Rob bought a pair of cheap shoes from Sears. Andy purchased a fur jacket. “I don’t know if the money was the important thing for Andy,” he says, “or what it said about you.”
Later, Andy would tell friends that he hadn’t ever been close with his father. Bill never did know if Andy graduated from college—he attended Boston University. Perhaps Andy felt shunned, the second-place finisher in a two-brother race. Andy once told a friend that his father belittled and humiliated him. Apparently, for Andy, the feeling went way back. One of his oft-repeated stories was how the brothers would race through dinner rather than linger with a difficult father.
Whatever frictions existed, Andy’s father provided the family with a comfortable life, and later a very comfortable life. Bill was a chemist, “a tinkerer,” he says modestly. When his business, Synfax, which made toner for copiers, took off, he moved the family into a 7,500-square-foot Saddle River home on a couple of acres of land. It had a swimming pool, a semicircular driveway, and a three-car garage that held Bill’s Cadillac and his wife’s Mercedes. Soon there was also a boat.
Perhaps the family’s sudden rise in status intrigued Andy. He seemed precociously attuned to the impression fancy things made. In high school, he owned a Jeep and a souped-up Chevy Le Mans. Lots of teenage boys like cars. With Andy, they seemed, in part, a prop for his personality. People couldn’t always get a fix on Andy. Says one friend, “You had to choose to like Andy if you wanted to find the goodness in him.” And not everyone made the commitment. To many, Andy seemed aloof. It was sad. “He really fundamentally wanted to be liked,” says the friend. Maybe, as he rumbled into the school parking lot in his Le Mans, it seemed he was.