Revisiting Chappaquiddick After 35 Years

Thirty-five years after the night of July 18, 1969, when Ted Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile sedan off the side of a wooden bridge on Chappaquiddick Island on Martha??¢â???¬â???¢s Vineyard, Mass., and left for dead Mary Jo Kopechne, the 28-year-old former secretary of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, in his submerged car, unanswered questions linger over the events of that fatal evening. Kennedy escaped the wreckage with a concussion and waited nine hours before reporting the incident to the police shortly after a young boy noticed the sunken car.

Kennedy pleaded guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident, but no other charges were filed against the Massachusetts senator. Edgartown Police Chief Dominick J. Arena said that an examination of the evidence, shortly after the incident, showed that Kennedy could not be held legally responsible for Kopechne??¢â???¬â???¢s death.

Leo Damore, author of the best-selling 1988 book Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-Up (published by Regnery, a sister company of HUMAN EVENTS), described Chappaquiddick as ??¢â???¬?????the most famous traffic fatality in the history of American politics. . . . The mysteries of the case continue to haunt Sen. Edward Kennedy??¢â???¬â???¢s [D.-Mass.] career. For many, Chappaquiddick stands as the single obstacle in his path to the Presidency.??¢â???¬ 

HUMAN EVENTS covered the aftermath of the fatal drowning in the weeks that followed the incident and concluded at the time that ??¢â???¬?????the available evidence, in fact, suggests that Teddy, aside from his own statement that he dove repeatedly into the waters to retrieve Mary Jo Kopechne, did nothing else during this mysterious nine-hour interval to see that she received help. . . .

??¢â???¬?????While Kennedy has said he was ??¢â???¬????exhausted and in a state of shock??¢â???¬â???¢ after the accident, local officials found that he was not too shocked or exhausted to immediately call for his lawyer, Paul Markham, when he returned to the party at the Chappaquiddick cottage after the accident. The receptionist at his motel in Edgartown has also claimed the senator appeared ??¢â???¬????natural??¢â???¬â???¢ when he borrowed a dime from her to make a phone call two and half hours before he reported the accident to the police.??¢â???¬ 

The facts relating to the incident are as follows:

  • Kennedy participated in the 46th Edgartown Yacht Club Regatta Friday afternoon, July 18, finishing a dismal ninth place in the contest.
  • Kennedy??¢â???¬â???¢s cousin Joe Gargan, a Boston lawyer, arranged a party on Chappaquiddick with his friends that included a group of young women, primarily friends and Kennedy-family political staffers, who joined Kennedy, Gargan and the entourage for cocktails at a cottage on Chappaquiddick Island. A USMC veteran and lifelong townsman, John Sylvia, recounted the Shiretown ??¢â???¬?????cocktail party??¢â???¬  as one where ??¢â???¬?????there was yelling, music, and general sounds of hell raising.??¢â???¬ 
  • Around 11:15 p.m. on the evening of July 18, Kennedy left the party with Kopechne and, Kennedy claims, decided to take her back to the ferry and to Kopechne??¢â???¬â???¢s motel about three miles south of Edgartown.
  • Sometime after 11:15 p.m. Friday, Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile sedan off Dike bridge and into Poucha Pond where Kopechne drowned.

    Kennedy??¢â???¬â???¢s explanation of his actions immediately after the incident is strange to say the least. He couldn??¢â???¬â???¢t remember any details of the accident. Kennedy claimed he was in a state of shock, but made 17 phone calls although not a single call to reach police, fire, Coast Guard officials or nearby residents to summon help to assist in the rescue of Miss Kopechne.

    Kennedy also claimed he was confused and turned the wrong way on the dirt road toward Dike bridge despite the fact that he had been on this stretch of road several times and was in fact on it earlier that day.

    Shortly after the accident, Kennedy addressed the nation in a televised broadcast after spending several days in seclusion at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port and admitted that his actions were ??¢â???¬?????indefensible.??¢â???¬ 

    One troubling aspect is how the authorities handled the case, including the inquest into Kopechne??¢â???¬â???¢s death, subsequent investigation and release of information pertaining to the case. The assistant DA Jimmy Smith, according to author Damore, avoided prosecuting Kennedy.

    As HUMAN EVENTS pointed out in the issue of Aug. 2, 1969, ??¢â???¬?????The inconsistencies and the unanswered questions proliferate??¢â???¬ ¦quot;not only because of Sen. Kennedy but because of the police investigation into the incident. Why, for instance, did Police Chief Arena fail to interrogate Kennedy when the senator handed Arena his prepared statement some nine hours after the fatal accident? Why was it that neither Arena nor County Prosecutor Walter Steele has questioned any of the party participants, at least one of whom has given statements to reporters? Why is it that Dr. Donald R. Mills, the medical examiner, was so reluctant to reveal the exact alcoholic content of Miss Kopechne??¢â???¬â???¢s blood???¢â???¬ 

    For that matter, why did the family refuse an autopsy?

    In terms of a settlement, the Kopechnes eventually received $140,904 ($90,904 from Kennedy and $50,000 from his insurance coverage).

    Since the fatal accident 35 years ago, Kennedy has claimed that he has told the full story of what happened that night, but reporters and authors have raised numerous questions over the years that suggest otherwise.


    HUMAN EVENTS intern Joseph Calandra, Jr., with the National Journalism Center, worked on the preparation of this story.