Chappaquiddick: a haven of isolated beaches. Perfect for the cyclist and the hiker; attracting the tourist and the sportsman; the leisure seekers and the adventurers to sandy shores and quaint towns. The illusion of sanctuary was broken on the night on July 18th, 1969, when Senator Edward Kennedy’s Oldsmobile hurtled off Dike’s Bridge and killed his passenger, 28-year old Mary Jo Kopechne. Yet, nearly 50 years after the incident, the events of the night remain questionable.
Kopechne was attending a party on Chappaquiddick Island with five of her friends from the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. The party brought them together as a form of reunion, organised and hosted by Senator Kennedy.
However, the night would turn deadly for Kopechne as Kennedy’s car overturned and landed upside down in the water. Kennedy would survive, but Kopechne would drown. Kennedy continually argued that he had repeatedly tried to swim back to rescue Kopechne from the car, diving down seven or eight times. When this was unsuccessful, Kennedy claimed to get help from Joseph Gargan, and Paul F. Markham. When all three were unsuccessful, they returned to the Shiretown Inn. At 9:45am the next morning, Kopechne had been discovered, with Kennedy reporting the incident, admitting he was the driver of the car.
The circumstances surrounding Kennedy and Kopechne’s departure are suspicious. Kennedy had told only one person, John Crimmins, that he was leaving with Kopechne. Neither Kennedy nor Kopechne had stopped to tell their friends that they were leaving which was especially strange as Kennedy was the host of the party and Kopechne had arrived with friends. Not only this, but Kopechne did not pause to take her handbag or her room key, raising suspicions that Kopechne had expected to return, or perhaps had not wanted to leave in the first place.
As well as this, both Kopechne and Kennedy had crossed the route to the ferry landing several times during their stay, each would have been familiar with the road, even in the darkness. Edward Kennedy maintained that he had taken a wrong turn, became confused, and the small bridge came upon him quickly, causing him to slam on the brakes in panic. This apparently sent the car over the edge of the bridge, which was easy to do as it had no guard rails. Despite its precarious appearance, in all the years the bridge has been standing, Kennedy remains the only person to have ever driven off it. What Kennedy decided to do next became the most mystifying actions of the case. After the incident, Kennedy left the scene and walked back to the cottage where the party had been held. Kennedy passed several houses, many of which still had their lights on and he also passed the island’s fire department, yet did not stop to report the incident until the following morning.
One theory was that Mary Jo and Ted Kennedy had been involved in an affair which had resulted in a pregnancy. Mary Jo’s parents reportedly filed a petition to prevent an autopsy due to the belief of Kopechne being pregnant. Another theory has always been that Ted Kennedy had not been the one driving and that Mary Jo had been driving, which may have been an explanation as to why he survived. There were also those who claim that she had been both drinking and driving. Even if he’d not been the one driving it would have made more sense for him to say that he had and to plead guilty to the lesser offense of leaving the scene and failing to report the incident.
Ted Kennedy was sentenced to two months in prison, which was suspended. He walked away with just a brief suspension of his driver’s license.
Vital questions on what happened the night in question remain unanswered, even now. Two vital questions remain: what happened on July 18th, 1969? Did Edward Kennedy get away with murder?
by Kellie Ayres