NEW YORK — Leonard Levitt, a longtime New York City crime reporter known for his incisive writing on the inner workings of policing and dogged coverage that helped reopen the investigation into the Connecticut killing of Martha Moxley, died Monday at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 79.
Mr. Levitt died of lung cancer complications, said his daughter, Jennifer. Friends, colleagues, and even some of his targets remembered him as a one-of-a-kind journalist who brought integrity and depth to his reporting — and zero tolerance for people who hid the truth.
“He was a thorn in the side of authority,” said Richard Esposito, the New York Police Department’s chief spokesman, who reported alongside Mr. Levitt at the now-closed New York Newsday in the 1980s.
A fiercely independent reporter, Mr. Levitt was lauded as a reform-minded inspiration by his supporters and attacked as a nitpicker by his critics.
The article he wrote in 1991 on the Moxley murder in Greenwich, Conn., led to charges against Michael C. Skakel, a neighbor and cousin of the Kennedys.
Mr. Levitt accused the local police of deferring to the Skakel family in the early stages of the investigation, which he detailed in the book “Conviction: Solving the Moxley Murder: A Reporter and a Detective’s 20-Year Search for Justice” (2004), written with Frank Garr, the prosecution’s lead investigator.
That labyrinthine case provided tabloid fodder for nearly three decades. Skakel was found guilty of murder in 2002, but the conviction was overturned by the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2018. Prosecutors appealed, but the US Supreme Court declined to revive Skakel’s conviction the following year.
Mr. Levitt’s other books include: “NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country’s Greatest Police Force” (2009); “The Healer: A True Story of Medicine and Murder” (1980), about a Long Island doctor, Charles Friedgood, who was convicted of killing his wife; and “The Long Way Round” (1972), a novel about growing up.
Mr. Levitt was probably best known as a New York City police reporter who pulled no punches. His reporting ranged from revelations that Muslim communities were being kept under surveillance after the World Trade Center attack in 2001 without specific evidence of wrongdoing, to a rumor that a deputy commissioner’s dog was nipping her colleagues in the office.
When he left New York Newsday in 1995, the year the newspaper closed, and began his NYPD Confidential blog, the Police Department said he no longer qualified for credentials that allowed him to pass police barricades, and it barred him from Police Headquarters. After the department rescinded his press card, he enlisted the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union and won it back.
Still, he defended the department at times. In 2013 he disagreed with an article in The New York Times when it reported that an officer’s secretly recorded words about stop-and-frisk tactics suggested that a person’s race was a deciding factor in who was stopped. “There is a much more nuanced picture” that the Times was not presenting, Mr. Levitt wrote on his blog.
Alice McGillion, who was deputy police commissioner for public information in the 1980s, described Mr. Levitt as a “journalist advocate for reform” who followed his own path.
“Reform maybe is a loaded word, but it is reform in his mind — an injustice or something that made no sense,” McGillion said. “My friends in the department would not necessarily agree, but I do think that voice will be missed.”
Leonard Hugh Levitt was born on April 27, 1941, in the Bronx to Boris and Celia (Kossovsky) Levitt. His mother taught English at Hunter College in Manhattan; his father, who was known as Ben, ran an import-export business.
Len was raised in the Five Towns area of Long Island and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1963 from Dartmouth College, where he majored in history.
After serving in the Peace Corps for two years teaching English in Tanzania, he graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, worked for the Associated Press, The Detroit News, and Time magazine and joined Newsday, on Long Island, in 1975, 10 years before it launched its New York version.
He left the paper in 1979 to work briefly for the New York Post, then was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant to find the students he had taught in Africa and write about them. The project led to an article in The New York Times Magazine in 1982 and as an essay in his book “Going Up Country.” He began his New York Newsday column, One Police Plaza, in 1985.
In addition to his daughter, he leaves his wife, Susan (Gina) Levitt; his son, Michael; and a granddaughter.
Jennifer Levitt said her father was a “fabulous dad,” who regularly played driveway basketball or backyard football with the kids and enjoyed weekend trips to regional tournaments to watch her play softball and Michael play soccer.
His adversaries saw a different side.
“Whatever he covered, he immediately alienated the mainstream sources, the leadership, and thus ingratiated himself with the disenfranchised and the unhappy,” John Miller, a former reporter who is now NYPD’s top counterterrorism official — told The New York Times in 2000. “They are much better sources.”
Still, Mr. Levitt became required reading at Police Headquarters. “Lenny was usually a good read unless he was writing about you,” Miller said in an e-mail to the Associated Press on Monday.
“He was in contact with a lot of powerful people — in law enforcement, in government, among prosecutors — but eventually when they crossed into the sights of his column, he spared no one,” Miller said. ‘‘And that circles back to integrity.”
Murray Richman, a longtime defense lawyer from the Bronx, described Mr. Levitt as “the last angry man.”
Would Mr. Levitt himself have made a good cop?
“Definitely not,” Richman said in a phone interview. “A cop must compromise, and Len couldn’t compromise. He didn’t accept the excuses of why you couldn’t do the right thing.”
Material from The New York Times and the Associated Press was used in this obituary.