Theirs was such a sunny, happy family that it seemed like something out of a Hitchcock movie when Maria Marshall was shot to death at a Garden State Parkway rest stop in Lacey Township three years ago and her husband was convicted of hiring her killer.
The three Marshall brothers broke into tears when the verdict was delivered in March 1986, unable to accept the jury's decision that Robert Marshall paid at least one Louisiana man to murder his wife so he could collect a $1.3 million life insurance policy. No one was ever convicted of pulling the trigger of the gun that killed Maria Marshall.
In an interview yesterday at the beach in Dover Township, Ocean County, where Chris Marshall, 21, works as a lifeguard, he described how the three brothers had attempted to recreate something of their old life in the town where they grew up. In the process of restoring a semblance of normalcy, Chris said, he has come to terms with his father's death sentence: He has become convinced that his father was responsible for his mother's murder.
It was not one single piece of evidence that changed his mind, he said, but the accumulation of many facts over a long period of time. "Each issue can be refuted," he said, "but when you look at the whole thing, plus and minus, it adds up." His brother Robert, 22, a senior at Villanova, has come to the same conclusion, he said.
In April, 13 months after his father's conviction, Chris sent his father a lengthy letter outlining point-by-point the reasons for his change of heart and announcing that he was breaking off their relationship.
He made 27 points related to his decision, from "I hate you for what you did to mom" to "I hate you for what you did to our family." In each one, Chris made it clear that his father had destroyed his and his brothers' lives.
He is particularly angry that his younger brother, John, 16, a junior in high school, will not have the same idyllic childhood that he and Robert did.
"What he did to John kills me," he said. "My personality was formed. I was away at college" when the murder occurred. "John still had four or five years of mothering, of having someone making him pancakes in the morning. It bothers me that John is not going to have a mother."
Although Chris is most worried about his younger brother, for whom he has been appointed guardian, he said that John remained convinced of his father's innocence. Robert Marshall is appealing his conviction.
Chris and Robert stopped visiting their father in Trenton State Prison after breaking contact with him in the spring. John remains in touch with his father.
Chris said it is the dark side of his family's story that has made it one of public fascination. Yesterday, the New Jersey Network aired a documentary about the case. A book on the murder is due out next year, and NBC-TV is planning a mini-series for 1989.
Until his mother was killed, Chris said, his family life had been nearly perfect.
His mother had endulged her three sons, he said. She served them breakfast every morning, drove them to school, attended every swim meet and made cookies to raise money for the teams. Chris said he never made his own bed until he was a sophomore in high school. His mother was pert, pretty and enthusiastic about everything they did, he said.
All three sons were avid swimmers. Chris, who continues to work as a lifeguard at Ortley Beach, had hopes at one time of making the U.S. Olympic swim team.
Chris said his father seemed a perfect counterpart. Dashingly handsome, he would take his sons swimming, boating and skiing. After the murder, some Toms River residents described the Marshalls as "Ken and Barbie," a term that Chris said he had come to despise.
But, he acknowledged, "they were like the perfect couple. We were like the perfect family."
In hindsight, he said, it is clear that things weren't as perfect as they seemed. He recalled that the telephone in their home would often ring and no one would be at the other end. He remembers seeing his mother crying in the kitchen. Once she ran out of the house after her husband to see where he was going. Chris said he thought it was odd, but quickly forgot about it.
As it turned out, his mother suspected what Chris later learned to be true: His father was having an affair with a Toms River high school administrator. His mother had even hired a private detective to follow Robert Marshall.
More than anything, he said, the affair made him doubt his father's version of events.
Chris said his father told his sons about the affair the day after the murder, "so we wouldn't hear about it from somebody else." At first, he said, he tried to understand. But soon afterward, Chris said, his father began bringing the woman to their house and going out to bars.
Once when he needed to see his father he found him dancing in a local bar with another woman. "I saw him dancing with some woman. I thought he wouldn't be the same person afterward, but I didn't think he'd be that way. . . . It wasn't a normal way or reacting. I told myself he wasn't himself and let it go."
His father's little lies gnawed at him. If he could lie about the little things, couldn't he lie about the big things, Chris Marshall wondered.
He learned of his father's arrest shortly before Christmas break during his first year at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., where he is an architecture student. What was to be a happy, normal time was strange. "That was the day of my last exam in my first semester in college. It was great thing to come home to," he recalled bitterly.
But since his father's conviction, he said, he has tried to return his life to normal. He has sold the family's house and bought a smaller, less demanding condominium in Toms River for the three brothers.
There, the young man who never fixed his own breakfast or made his own bed makes sure that the house runs smoothly. He does the shopping, cooking and laundry and keeps all the family's finances straight.
Chris continues to participate on the Lehigh swim team and will be captain of the team in the fall. He maintains a 3.1 grade-point average. He serves as an adviser to others in his dormitory and helps recruit swim team members. In the summers, he works 10 hours a day as lifeguard.
He regrets that he slacked off a little during one semester, when he took fewer classes than normal. He will have to spend an extra semester at school before he graduates. "I lost my drive for a while," he explained.
It's still awkward to explain to new friends why he and his brothers live alone. "When I meet somebody new, they come over my house and say, 'You live here all by yourself?' So I lie and say, my parents passed away," he said.
"I didn't want to change my life because of this."