Mary Jo Kopechne- Senator Ted Kennedy
(July 26, 1940 July 18, 1969) was an American teacher, secretary and administrator, died in a car accident in Chappaquiddick Island while being driven by United States Senator Ted Kennedy.
Kopechne, born in Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, was the only child of insurance salesman Joseph Kopechne and his wife, Gwen.
After graduation from Caldwell College for women in New Jersey, Kopechne moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to teach at the Montgomery Catholic High School.
She then moved to Washington, D.C., to work as secretary to Florida Senator George Smathers before subsequently becoming secretary to New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy following his election in 1964. At the time of her death, she was working for Matt Reese Associates, a Washington, D.C., firm that helped establish campaign headquarters for politicians.
She had taken that position in December 1968 after Kennedy’s death from an assassin’s bullet the previous June.
On July 18, 1969, Kopechne attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island, off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, held in honor of the “Boiler Room Girls.” This affectionate name was given to the six young women who had been vital to the late Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and who had subsequently closed up his files and campaign office after his assassination.
Besides Kopechne, the other women, all single, were Susan Tannenbaum, Maryellen Lyons, Ann Lyons, Rosemary (Cricket) Keough, and Esther Newberg. The men in attendance, all married but present without their wives, were Ted Kennedy, Joe Gargan, U.S. Attorney Paul Markham, Charles Tretter, Raymond La Rosa, and John Crimmins. The festivity was held at Lawrence Cottage, rented for the occasion by Gargan, Kennedy’s cousin and lawyer. The 12 attendees gathered at the cottage after two Kennedy boats raced in the Edgartown Regatta earlier in the day.
Kopechne left the party at 11:15 p.m. with Kennedy after he allegedly offered to drive her to catch the last ferry back to the Katama Shores Motor Inn in Edgartown where she was staying. (According to Kennedy, they left the party at 11:15 p.m. to catch the last ferry of the night — at midnight.) Kennedy stated, on his way to the ferry crossing back to Edgartown, that he accidentally turned right onto Dike Road – a dirt road – instead of bearing sharply left on Main Street (Chappaquiddick Rd), which was a paved road. After proceeding one-half mile, he descended a hill and came upon a narrow bridge set obliquely to the unlit road. Kennedy drove the 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 belonging to him, off the side of Dyke Bridge, and the car overturned into Poucha Pond, a fairly narrow tidal body of water. A Reader’s Digest investigation estimated that the car was traveling at about 35 miles per hour when it left the bridge.
Kennedy extricated himself from the submerged car but Kopechne died. Kennedy said that he made several diving attempts to free her and, after exhausting himself, rested for fifteen minutes. He then walked some fifteen minutes, past several houses, back to the Lawrence Cottage where the party had been held. When Kennedy arrived back at the cottage, he saw the white Valiant his group had rented parked near the front door. The Senator testified that as he came up to the back of the vehicle, he saw Ray LaRosa. Kennedy made no mention of the accident to LaRosa, however, and instead told him to go get Joe Gargan, Senator Kennedy’s cousin and lawyer, and another friend, former U.S. Attorney Paul Markham. Kennedy explained the situation, and although there was a working phone at the cottage, the trio allegedly drove to the scene of the
accident to attempt a rescue. The group claimed that the tidal current was too strong and prevented them from reaching Kopechne.
Still, despite their failure to rescue Kopechne, Kennedy, Gargan, and Markham made no attempt to contact authorities. Instead, Kennedy was driven to the ferry dock where he jumped into the water and swam the distance between Chappaquiddick and Martha’s Vineyard Islands, some 500 feet, and returned to his room at the Shiretown Inn, in Edgartown. Gargan and Marken claimed Kennedy said he was heading to contact the authorities, and they returned to the cottage. A night clerk at the Shiretown Inn said he encountered Kennedy on the premises at 2:50 a.m. The next morning, Gargan, Markham, and several female co-workers of Kopechne took the first ferry back to Edgartown. At the Shiretown Inn, Kennedy was seen around the hotel smartly dressed and calmly conversing with other guests. By 9 a.m. Gargan, Markham, and Kennedy were
on a ferry back to Chappaquiddick Island, purportedly to return to the cottage.
By this time, however, two fishermen had happened upon Kennedy’s submerged vehicle, rushing to a house a few yards away to notify the authorities at around 8 a.m. Police arrived by 8:20, and a diver was on the scene by 8:30, discovering Kopechne by 8:45. By this time, the car was identified as Senator Kennedy’s.
Those at the scene feared another Kennedy tragedy might have occurred, and a search for other possible victims ensued; however, at 9:30 Kennedy was spotted on a phone at the Chappaquiddick side of the ferry, where he was asked by authorities if he knew that a dead woman’s body had been retrieved from his car. Kennedy initially denied any knowledge of this, but later acknowledged his involvement during questioning at the Edgartown police station, which he documented through a short, written statement about the previous night’s trip to the ferry with Miss Kopechne. When questioned about the details, Kennedy refused to answer without his attorney being present.
Kennedy’s statement already had problems, however. The previous evening, Deputy Sheriff Christopher Look, on returning from duty in Edgartown, had seen what he believed to be Kennedy’s black sedan driving erratically with a male and female passenger sometime around 12:40 a.m. The sedan failed to negotiate a sharp left turn on paved Chappaquiddick Road leading toward the ferry, the direction from which Deputy Look was returning home.
Instead, the sedan continued straight and came to a dusty, sudden stop on the dirt cemetery driveway then locally called Cemetery Road (today Willet Lane). The deputy came to a stop and in his rear-view mirror noticed the sedan backing up, leading him to believe the driver needed directions. Look exited his vehicle and walked toward the sedan, and the sedan’s reverse-taillights more closely illuminated him as it emerged from the dirt driveway. However, no sooner was Look’s deputy uniform lit, according to Look, the sedan quickly turned to its right — the opposite direction from the ferry — and sped down Dike road, which is dirt. Dike is the road leading to the beach, and the intersection where this occurred was about a half mile from Dike Bridge, where the accident was later discovered. Deputy Look caught an L and two 7s bracketing the Massachusetts license plate number, which would closely match Kennedy’s L-78207 Oldsmobile plate.
Kennedy avoided the press gathering outside the police station, quietly exiting to an unmarked car that took him to a privately hired plane at the airport nearby, which took him back to the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport.
Likewise, guests of the party also quickly left for the mainland via the ferry long before the authorities concluded there had been a party at the Lawrence Cottage.
The incident carries a controversial dark-cloud for Kennedy because John Farrar, the diver who retrieved Kopechne’s body early the following morning, stated Kopechne was in a position suggesting she had been breathing from a pocket of air trapped in the back-seat wheel well and had suffocated and not drowned, which implied that had Kennedy contacted authorities immediately, rescuers may have saved her life. However, since Kopechne’s parents’ lawyer, Joseph Flanagan, filed a petition barring an autopsy, the cause of death was never medically confirmed.
When the car was recovered, all the doors were locked and three of the windows were either open or smashed in.
Kopechne’s parents also claim that they learned of their daughter’s death from Ted Kennedy before he reported his involvement to the authorities, and that they only learned he had been the driver through wire press releases some time later.
Kennedy ultimately received a deferred six-month sentence for leaving the scene of an accident.
Kennedy defenders claim the legal case proved Kennedy was clear of guilt, whereas critics of the incident assert Kennedy got off lightly because of his family and political connections, and that many details were swept under the rug only to emerge later through journalistic efforts that suggested little effort was made to gather information detrimental to Kennedy.
On television Kennedy later said he was not driving under the influence of alcohol.
This has been widely disputed by many reports. He explained he was in a state of shock when he emerged from the creek and confused by “a jumble of emotions,” and that his conduct in not reporting the accident was “inexcusable.” He said he gave up hope and remembers little of how he got back to his hotel in Edgartown, except that he swam the narrow channel because there were no night ferries, and nearly drowned in the process.
Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. He received a two month suspended sentence and one year probation.
Questions remain about his attempts to save Kopechne and the possibility of interference in the investigation and the trial by his family and friends. Kopechne’s death severely damaged Kennedy’s reputation and is regarded as a major reason that he was never able to mount a successful campaign for President of the United States.
A funeral for Kopechne was held on July 22, 1969, at St. Vincent’s Roman Catholic Church in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, attended by Kennedy. She is buried in the parish cemetery on the side of Larksville Mountain.
1969 The Ted Kennedy Episode by H. Don Hastings
1970 Olsen, Jack. The Bridge at Chappaquiddick. Little, Brown and Co.
1971 Teddy Bare, the Last of the Kennedy Clan. by Zad Rust
1973 You, the Jury — in re: Chappaquiddick by R. B. Cutler
1975 The Inspector’s Opinion: The Chappaquiddick Incident by Malcolm Reybold
1976 The Last Kennedy by Robert Sherrill
1976 Burns, James M. Edward Kennedy and the Camelot Legacy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
1979 Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick Revisited: What Really Happened by John Haggard
1979 Tedrow, Thomas L. Death at Chappaquiddick. New Orleans: Pelican Company.
1980 Chappaquiddick Decision by Larryann C Willis
1988 Damore, Leo. Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-Up. Washington D.C.: Regnery Gateway.
1989 Chappaquiddick Revealed What Really Happened by Kenneth Kappel
1992 Oates, Joyce C. Black Water. New York: E. P. Dutton.
1993 Chappaquiddick: The Real Story by James E. T. Lange, Katherine, Jr. Dewitt
2006 The Gemstone File: A Memoir by Stephanie Caruana. Victoria, B.C., Trafford.
Mary Jo Kopechne
The name Chappaquiddick brings to mind the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who was a campaign worker in the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy. Kopechne was killed when the Senator drove his mother’s 1967 Oldsmobile Delmonnt 88 sedan off a bridge and into a channel after a booze party on Chappaquiddick Island, just off Martha’s Vineyard.
After Robert was murdered by Sirhan Sirhan in 1968, it was thought Ted Kennedy would surely run for president in 1972 and be the favorite. The incident became a national scandal and likely affected the Senator’s decision not to run for president that year.
On this day in 1969 Kennedy, some of his cronies and a few of the Robert Kennedy boiler room girls which included Kopechne, met at the Lawrence Cottage on the Chappaquiddick Island for a party where much liquor had been brought to the cottage. The party was intended was intended to be a reunion of those who had worked on his brother’s presidential bid in 1968.
Kennedy drove away from the party with Kopechne in his mother’s car late in the evening. According to Kennedy, he planned to drive to the ferry landing but made a wrong turn onto an unlit road that led to Dyke Bridge, a wooden structure and drove over its side. The car plunged into tide-swept Poucha Pond. Kennedy was able to free himself and swim away from the vehicle, but Kopechne was not able to do so. Kennedy claims he tried to swim down to the car to reach her several times, then rested on the bank for several minutes before returning on foot to the party at the Lawrence Cottage.
Kennedy cousin Joseph Gargan and party co-host Paul Markham then returned to the pond with Kennedy to try to rescue Kopechne. Although there was a telephone at the Lawrence Cottage, amazingly nobody called for help. When their efforts to rescue Kopechne failed, Kennedy decided to return to his hotel. However, the Edgartown-Chappaquiddick ferry (which connects Chappaquiddick to the rest of the island) had shut down for the night. Kennedy swam across the 500-foot channel, back to Edgartown.
The next morning, the police recovered Kennedy’s car and Kopechne’s body. Kennedy discussed the accident with several people, including his lawyer and Kopechne’s parents, before discussing it with the police the next morning. Her death was ruled an accidental drowning, and no autopsy was performed.
Oddly the diver who brought the body up from the car said, unlike a typical drowning victim her lungs were not full of water bu rather a pink foam came from her nose, indicating the possibility she had lived in a bubble trapped in the rear of the car and she may have eventually died of asphyxiation.
Kennedy entered a plea of guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. He received a sentence of two months in jail, which was suspended. The sentence raised many eyebrows since the statute for the crime provided only for mandatory jail time and not the discretion of a suspended sentence. An Edgartown grand jury later reopened the investigation but did not return an indictment.
Many (including the writer) have not forgiven Kennedy for failing to save Kopechne, for not seeking help immediately, and for contacting not the police. In true Kennedy fashion he called his lawyer first.
Kennedy later appeared on statewide television to present a sob story designed to resurrect the ghosts of his fallen brothers to elicit sympathy for him. Here is the link for that forgettable televised speech: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/tedkennedychappaquiddick.htm
Only Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne knows for certain what happened that night. Kopechne can’t talk and Kennedy won’t.
Was it murder? I doubt it.
Was it a boozy drive off a bridge? You bet it was.
The swim to Edgartown while half in the bag? What do you think?
I can only imagine this man with the responsibility to make serious decisions on anything. If he panicked on 7/181969, what would he have done on 9/11?
Kennedy receives admiration while Mary Jo life was destroyed.
Was Kennedy a great man, many do not think so!
Posted by Moe Lauzier