Senator Edward Kennedy Charged in Fatal Accident
Around midnight on July 18, 1969, something mysterious and tragic happened on Chappaquiddick Island, off the shore of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, that had three very direct results: 1) the passenger in the car driven by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned when he drove his car off a bridge into the water; 2) while escaping serious physical injury himself, Kennedy’s presidential aspirations were permanently damaged; 3) the name “Chappaquiddick” would never again be obscure, becoming a permanent part of the tragic saga of the Kennedy family in American history and politics.
This much is known: Kennedy threw a party on Chappaquiddick Island on July 18, 1969, for six women who had worked for Kennedy’s brother Robert during the 1968 presidential campaign. Along with the women the party also had six men, including Kennedy. The senator’s pregnant wife, Joan Bennett Kennedy, was not at the party.
At around 11:15 that night, Kennedy left the party with Mary Jo Kopechne, an attractive blonde 29-year-old former secretary, allegedly to drive over to the ferry for a return to their respective hotels on Martha’s Vineyard. At that point a series of strange circumstances and decisions transpired.
For example: one of the men at the party was Kennedy’s chauffeur, who had driven the senator to the party—yet when Kennedy left the party, he asked his chauffeur for the keys and drove away with Kopechne, leaving the chauffeur behind. It has been reported that Kopechne did not say goodbye to anyone, or bring along her purse and hotel room key; strange behavior for someone who was leaving the party for good. Kennedy did not drive to the ferry when he and Kopechne left the party; instead, he headed down an unlit dirt road where he later drove off the side of Dike Bridge. The senator escaped from the car and swam to the shore, although he claimed he had no recollection of doing so. Kopechne drowned in the car, even though Kennedy said he made several dives down to where the car was resting, overturned, in about eight feet of water.
What Kennedy and Kopechne were doing alone together in the senator’s car on an unlit dirt road is obviously subject to speculation, even though the senator stated during a July 25 televised address that there was “no truth whatever to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct.” What is not subject to speculation or interpretation is the plain fact that Kennedy broke the law by not immediately reporting the accident.
After the crash he walked around for a while, then went back to the cottage where the party was still going on. Although there was a telephone at the cottage, Kennedy did not call the authorities. He pulled two men away from the party and took them to the accident site, then returned to his hotel room and went to sleep. Later that morning, the two male friends from the party showed up at his hotel where they confronted Kennedy for not having alerted the authorities. Kennedy still refused to call the police, and the three of them returned to Chappaquiddick Island.
While they were there Kennedy had several phone conversations using a pay phone, during one of which he learned that Kopechne’s body had been discovered. Only then, sometime after 9 o’clock that morning, did he contact the police. He issued a statement that concluded “When I fully realized what had happened this morning I immediately contacted the police.”
Clearly these are suspicious circumstances, and Kennedy was charged with leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. He pled guilty, received a suspended sentence of two months’ imprisonment, and paid Kopechne’s parents a large sum of money—reportedly more than $90,000. Kennedy did not run for president in 1972, as had widely been expected before the “Chappaquiddick Incident,” nor did he run in 1976. He did try to win the Democratic nomination from incumbent President Carter in the next election but lost. However, throughout all this he remained a senator from Massachusetts, holding onto that post until his death in 2009.
The following two newspaper articles are about the Chappaquiddick Incident. These copyrighted articles were published by the Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts) on the front page of its July 20, 1969, issue:
Kennedy Charged in Fatal Accident
Secretary Drowns in Cape Mishap
Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard (UPI)—A car driven by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., plunged off a narrow wooden bridge Saturday, killing a pretty blonde secretary riding with him. Police said he would be charged with leaving the scene of an accident.
Kennedy, Senate whip and regarded as a potential presidential candidate in 1972, was not hurt. He said he dived repeatedly into about 10 feet of water to try to rescue Miss Mary Jo Kopechne, 29, of Washington, who once worked as a secretary for his brother, the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y.
The accident, according to police, happened between midnight and 1 a.m. Saturday, and Kennedy did not report it until 9 a.m.
A police spokesman said late Saturday night Chief James Arena and other officials had decided “within the past hour or two” to file a citation.
Kennedy will be charged with leaving the scene of an accident in District Court on Monday morning, the spokesman said.
Arena earlier had said he believed the mishap was “strictly accidental” and there was “no sign of negligence, speed, things like that.”
Kennedy said he walked around for a time, then went to a cottage where friends were eating, climbed into a car and asked his friends to take him back to Edgartown.
The senator said he was in a “state of shock” after escaping from the car at the bottom of Chappaquiddick Island, which lies just off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Nantucket Sound.
Arena said the shock was so great “that he didn’t tell the people that he came over with” about the woman’s death.
The 38-year-old Kennedy apparently escaped serious injury. It was the second serious accident in which he was involved and another in a series of tragedies which have struck the Kennedy family. In 1964, the Massachusetts senator was seriously injured in the crash of a light plane.
Sole Surviving Son
“Ted” Kennedy is the only surviving son of multimillionaire financier Joseph P. Kennedy. Two brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, were shot by assassins and a third, Joseph Kennedy Jr., died in World War II.
Kennedy, who had come to this Cape Cod resort island to watch the Edgartown Regatta, returned to the family compound at Hyannis Port in early afternoon and went into seclusion.
The woman’s body was recovered from about six feet of water in the pond on Chappaquiddick Island.
Kennedy and his wife Joan have two children. Richard C. Drayne, Kennedy’s press secretary, said in Washington there would be no statement made by Kennedy at the Hyannis Port family compound, where the senator returned after the accident.
Ted Tells about It
Edgartown (UPI)—The text of the statement given by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., to Edgartown police regarding the fatal auto accident on Martha’s Vineyard in which Mary J. Kopechne was killed:
“On July 18, 1969, at approximately 11:15 p.m., I was driving my car on Main Street in Chappaquiddick on my way to get the ferry back to Edgartown. I was unfamiliar with the road and turned right on Dike Road instead of bearing hard left on Main Street.
“After proceeding for approximately one half mile on Dike Road, I descended a hill and came upon a narrow bridge. The car went off the side of the bridge.
“There was one passenger in the car with me, Miss Mary Jo Kopechne, a former secretary of my brother, Robert Kennedy. The car turned over and sank into the water and landed with the roof resting on the bottom. I attempted to open the door and window of the car but have no recollection of how I got out of the car. I came to the surface and then repeatedly dove down to the car and tried to see if the passenger was still in the car. I was unsuccessful in the attempt.
“I was exhausted and in a state of shock. I recall walking back to where my friends were eating. There was a car parked in front of the cottage and I climbed into the back seat. I then asked for someone to bring me back to Edgartown. I remember walking around for a period of time and then going back to my hotel room. When I fully realized what had happened this morning I immediately contacted the police.”
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