Thursday, July 18, 2019

July 18th, 1969 - The Night That Mary Jo Kopechne Went Off A Chappaquiddick Bridge

Billie Joe McAllister be damned, even fifty years later it's hard to make light of the events of July 18th, 1969 ... a girl died at the hands of Senator Edward Kennedy and yet no penalty for this death or negligence on his part was ever served.  Kennedy was literally able to walk away from the scene, ultimately getting away with murder.

A 2017 film recaps (with a fair amount of speculation regarding private conversations that no one could possibly have been privy to) the events of that day and the days following as more and more details were being released (much of which were fed to the press by Kennedy's team.)  It takes the approach to the story based on the way Ted Kennedy presented it to the public ... not allowing for much of the conjecture and speculation that has followed over the past fifty years.

Perhaps the most amazing fact of all is that today, 50 YEARS LATER, we still don't know the truth about what really happened that night.  None of the people involved (many of whom are dead now) have EVER spoken about these events ... so all we're left with is all we've ever had ... speculation, conjecture and the presence of a logical mind to try and sort it all out.) 

The most widely-circulated tales of these events pertaining to the incident are as follows:

Senator Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne were at a party on Chappaquiddick Island on Martha's Vineyard when Mary Jo reportedly announced that she was leaving in order to catch the ferry in time to get back to her hotel room.  (Kopechne had worked diligently for Bobby Kennedy's campaign the year before and was a close friend of The Kennedys due to her hard work, dedication and on-going support.)  She was one of a group of girls referred to as "The Boiler Room Girls," a group of six women, all in their early-to-mid 20's, attending the party along with six older men, five of whom were married.  

At about 11:15 pm, Senator Kennedy offered her a ride and, as such, was the one driving the car, a 1967 black Oldsmobile, headed to drop Mary Jo off at the ferry to make her way back to her hotel room.  (Kennedy didn't typically drive this car and had to borrow the keys from his chauffeur in order to do so.)  Somehow, he missed the turn-off and headed off in the wrong direction, ultimately driving his car through the guardrail and into the Poucha Pond.  

Kennedy was able to free himself from the vehicle and said that he then made repeated attempts to dive back down and pull Mary Jo from the car ... but was unable to do so due to the complete darkness and heavy current below the surface.  He then walked back to the party he had left earlier and recruited two of his cronies, Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, to help him solve "a very big problem" ... at which time all three men made several more attempts to rescue Kopechne, all to no avail. 

Instead of immediately calling for more help, support and reinforcements, Kennedy then waited nearly ten hours before reporting the accident to the police, closing forever any remaining window of opportunity for saving the girl before she suffocated and drowned.  (Based on the position of the body when the car was ultimately retrieved, it was clear that Kopechne had done everything she could to keep her head above water before she succumbed to passing out and drowning.  Could she possibly have been saved had somebody been sent down on another diving mission in a timely fashion?  This is just one of the many questions raised that we will never know the answer to.)

[The diver who recovered Mary Jo's body, John Farrar, stated on the record that Kopechne most likely died from suffocation rather than from drowning or from the impact of the overturned vehicle.  He based this analysis on the position of the body, as she was clasping the back seat with her face turned upward, trying to breathe in the air pocket above the water level in the car.  Farrar stated that she probably could have been saved had a more timely rescue attempt been made.  He stated on the record that "It looked as if she were holding herself up to get a last breath of air.  It was a consciously assumed position.  She didn't drown.  She died of suffocation in her own air void.  It took her at least three or four hours to die.  I could have had her out of that car twenty-five minutes after I got the call ... but he didn't call."]  Still, the Medical Examiner signed the death certificate stating the official cause of death as "accidental drowning."  

This lapse of time between the accident and the reporting of the accident also provided Kennedy's team of political experts plenty of time and opportunity to concoct the perfect spin on their version of "what really happened."  Even fifty years later it's hard to believe that Kennedy walked away unscathed, forgiven by the public.  

Among the things that simply don't add up is the fact that, according to the other Boiler Room Girls, Mary Jo hadn't told anybody she was leaving ... and, in fact, had left her purse and hotel key behind at the party ... which makes all of this sound more like a joy ride than a trip home.  (Why would she be returning to her hotel room without her purse and keys ... to get into that hotel room???) It was also revealed that Mary Jo wasn't wearing panties when her body was pulled from the vehicle, indicating that Kennedy was likely "distracted" and quite possibly didn't have both hands on the wheel.  (Even stranger ... although Mary Jo didn't have her purse with her at the time of the party, the purse of another Boiler Room Girl, Rosemary Keough, was found in the vehicle when it was pulled from the pond ... which raises yet another question:  Could there have been a THIRD passenger in the car that night?)

Much speculation was made at the time (and during the years since) that Kennedy and Kopechne were having an affair ... or that he made unwanted (or possibly wanted) advances on her in the car ... or that she was pregnant with his baby at the time and perhaps even broke this news to him that night.  Because no autopsy was ever performed (Kennedy had the body rushed back to her family before this could take place), no one can state with all certainty as to the validity of any of these alleged rumors.  And then, once the body was discovered, Kennedy was not forthcoming with any comments, statements or explanations, leading the minds of the 450 press reporters now on the scene to wonder and speculate all kinds of scenarios.  

Kennedy was often captured on film and photographs as intoxicated during his Senatorial reign and, based on comments we received previously when covering the Chappaquiddick incident in Forgotten Hits, was cited for reckless driving four times while attending law school at the University of Virginia ... including once when he was clocked driving 90 miles per hour in a residential neighborhood after dark with his headlights off ... yet despite all these infractions, his Virginia driver's license was never revoked.  He was also expelled from Harvard when he was caught cheating on an exam ... leading to even more speculation regarding the likelihood that he was telling the truth. 

Of the Kennedy boys, Teddy was considered the "least worthy" and least qualified of any political ambitions or aspirations ... yet after the Chappaquiddick incident he would go on to serve 40 more years as a State Senator for Massachusetts until his death in 2009.  (Some will argue that the accident stripped him of any chances of ever becoming President ... and that this was penalty and punishment enough ... but there was far more wrong with Teddy Kennedy than just this one incident that contributed to the factor as to his worthiness for a Presidential bid.)  In fact, his only bid for the President fell short in 1980 when he was unable to secure the support of his party as their candidate, losing to Jimmy Carter ... he never attempted to run again.

It is no secret that the Kennedys lived a privileged life ... in the eyes of so many, they could do no wrong ... and were considered to be "above the law" by most.  The same set of circumstances surrounding Chappaquiddick for ANY other American citizen would not have yielded the same results. 

While the film offers an insightful view into the mechanics and strategy that went into the mission of how to protect Teddy and the Kennedy name, a far more in-depth and detailed account can be found in the British BBC Television Special "Inside Story" commemorating the 25th anniversary of these events and circumstances of that unnerving week. 

(Despite its "matter of fact" direct approach, however, this documentary also introduces some new theories including one that Kennedy wasn't even in the car ... fear of being seen with a young woman that late at night in the intoxicated state he was likely in would jeopardize both his marriage and his standing in the State of Massachusetts ... thus raising the possibility that Mary Jo drove herself off the bridge ... meaning that Kennedy wasn't even aware of the accident until the following morning, at which time he kicked things into high gear to make himself look like the driver as well as imply repeated failed rescue attempts.)  It all sounds a bit preposterous to me ... and I can't see Kennedy's aides going along with such a ruse.  (Most will agree, however, that one of the explanations Kennedy considered revealing to the press was that Mary Jo was the sole passenger and driver ... but his advisors shut down that angle immediately.)  A more logical preposterous explanation might be that Mary Jo WAS pregnant with his baby and that, rather than avoid a scandal, Kennedy arranged for the car to go over the bridge with only her in it.  Or that Mary Jo was already dead BEFORE the car went over the bridge ... and the accident was staged to look like Mary Jo had driven herself off the bridge ... so why cop to taking blame for an incident that most certainly would have a permanent impact on your career?  Like I said, fifty years later with no crystal clear explanation or verification, the mind can come up with all kinds of "what if" scenarios!  (I have since read THOUSANDS of pages on Chappaquiddick theories and watched dozens of hours of video clips and newsreel footage ... and still can't say that I could conclusively tell you what I think actually happened despite the validity of many solid points raised along the way.  The reason for this is because each new possible consideration invalidates what you thought about something else up to this point.  It truly is a vicious circle, all the more frustrating because NO new evidence has come to light in the fifty years since.)  

Most interesting about the BBC expose is their coverage of the inquest and reopening of investigations after the original round of Chappaquiddick coverage had pretty much been put to bed.  It shows several instances where Kennedy is caught in a lie ... changing his story and the sequence of events ... and at one point, even combining bits and pieces of two different versions of the story.  It's pretty compelling stuff and well worth watching. (The video link I originally had posted here has since been disabled ... but search for it ... it is definitely worth seeing.)

The "Inside Story" episode also allows for the Kennedy car being seen by the local sheriff prior to the accident.  In this scenario, after being spotted by the police car, Kennedy's car takes off at high speed when he believes the cop is going to follow him ... it just wouldn't look right to be seen out with a single woman at nearly 1 am, being a married man with a pregnant wife at home ... especially if you're likely intoxicated, too ... so he has Mary Jo drop him off (which is why he REALLY walked back to the party) ... and then, in a panic, Mary Jo drove herself off the bridge.  This supposition allows that Kennedy would have been completely unaware of the accident until the following morning when the car was pulled from the pond ... meaning he really hadn't waited 9-10 hours to report the accident after all ... because he didn't even know it had occurred.  Either way, it's all pretty sensational stuff ... even fifty years later ... with so many unanswered questions ... and so many of the participants no longer with us (and never having talked about any of this on the record.)

Much has been made over the years that nothing short of a man landing on the moon could have kept the story of Chappaquiddick off the front pages of newspapers from coast to coat but incredibly that is EXACTLY what happened!  Kennedy's car went off the bridge during the wee hours of the morning of the 19th ... and he didn't report it until much later that day, at which time a crew was dispersed to pull the wreckage from the river.  The following morning, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, an event watched worldwide by upwards of 500 million viewers ... and when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon's surface and uttered the infamous "One small step for man ... one giant leap for mankind" speech, nobody outside the Kennedy camp ... who were likely all still sweating bullets while trying to come up with the story they were going to tell the public  ... paid much attention to anything else.  

Still, Kennedy couldn't resist the P.R. aspect of this whole circus ... he showed up at Mary Jo's funeral wearing a neck brace for all photo opportunities ... something he had NOT been seen wearing since the accident.  Stories of a concussion also circulated as a contributing factor to taking him so long to report the incident.  (The neck brace idea backfired big time ... he was ridiculed in the papers the next day.  Even his closest aide, Joe Gargan, told him "You are not the victim here, Senator ... a woman has died.")  Gargan resigned after the Chappaquiddick incident was closed, severing life-long ties with the Kennedy family.  When his own mother, Rose Kennedy's sister, died when Joe was six, he was raised by Ted's parents from that point forward ... yet he found the circumstances of this event so appalling that he could no longer associate with his cousin.

Incredibly, Kopechne's family forgave the Senator immediately.  (Speculation has always been that they were financially compensated by the Kennedy Family for their loss.  Records released years later showed that in addition to a $50,000 life insurance policy on their daughter, they also received $90,904 from Kennedy personally, who also picked up the tab for all of the funeral expenses.  When asked why they didn't take further legal action and pursue more, they felt that this would be perceived as "looking for blood money.")  Although later admitting that they felt there were still a lot of unanswered questions, they never really discussed the incident again.

Neither have any of the Boiler Room Girls ... or Teddy himself, who took whatever undisclosed facts that may exist with him to his grave.  (Many of the key players in this God-awful horror show have also since passed on ... none ever revealing anything on the record that would help to fully explain the events that actually transpired on Chappaquiddick Island ... meaning that at this point, we will never really know the full story.)

Deputy Sheriff Christopher Look testified that he saw Kennedy's car (with a female passenger in the front seat) at about 12:40 am.  This, too, doesn't quite add up.  Teddy stated that he and Mary Jo left the party around 11:15 ... the last ferry departed at midnight ... and Look's eye-witness account states that at 12:40 am Kennedy and Kopechne were still driving around.  They easily could have made it to the ferry before midnight had they headed straight there ... even making the wrong turn doesn't add up ... there simply isn't enough road left to still be driving around at 12:40 am ... if that's the way they were headed, his car would have gone off the bridge an hour sooner if this were the case ... but it couldn't have if Look spotted the two of them together at 12:40 am.  Where were they really?  And had Mary Jo really intended to go back to the hotel if she left her purse and hotel key behind at the party?

Reports also state that on Kennedy's walk back to the party he would have had to walk past four houses ... yet he didn't stop at any of them to make a call for help.  Instead, he went to get his aides Gargan and Markham in order to make additional attempts to rescue the body.  Obviously at this point it was already clear in his head that he did NOT want the events of the evening to become public. (So much for his "clouded thinking" excuse.)

When these additional efforts proved unsuccessful, all three men went to the ferry landing, where Kennedy then dove into the water and swam across the 500-foot channel back to his hotel room.  Why? Perhaps he was, as stated, a little bit crazed at this point ... or perhaps he wanted to look as drenched as possible as a means of presenting the look of someone who made repeated attempts to save the body.  Kennedy says he returned to his hotel room at about 2:30 am ... and made it a point to run into the hotel desk clerk and ask him for the time (thus establishing a solid alibi as to his whereabouts at that hour) ... but despite assuring Gargan and Markham that he would call the accident into the police, he still failed to do so.  The following morning, before notifying the police, he called numerous friends and lawyers for advice ... all from a pay phone back at the ferry station rather than from his hotel room.  (Several calls ... including a couple to another mistress ... were also made from a detached room at the cabin where the party had been held that night.  Kennedy aides quickly cleared out all evidence of liquor and any other party paraphernalia and, once the story had been leaked to the press, all of the remaining Boiler Room Girls were rushed off the island before they could be questioned by the police.  (Nope ... no cover up going on there!)

At around 8 am, a fisherman's son saw the submerged car in the pond, told his father and they notified the authorities ... again before Kennedy himself had made the call.  He was still at the ferry pay phone when he heard that the car and body of Mary Jo had been discovered ... at which point he went straight to the police station to make a statement:

On July 18, 1969, at approximately 11:15 pm in Chappaquiddick, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, I was driving my car on Main Street on my way to get the ferry back to Edgartown. I was unfamiliar with the road and turned right onto 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 with me, one Miss Mary Kopechne, a former secretary of my brother, Senator 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 the 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 in an attempt 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 backseat.  I then asked for someone to bring me back to Edgartown.  I remember walking around for a period and then going back to my hotel room.  When I fully realized what had happened this morning, I immediately contacted the police.

A full week after the accident, on July 25th, Kennedy plead guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident causing bodily harm.  His lawyers argued that any impending jail sentence should be suspended due to his age and prior reputation.  The prosecutors agreed. Judge James Boyle sentenced Kennedy to two months' incarceration, the minimum penalty for these charges in the state of Massachusetts, which he then suspended, referring to Kennedy's "unblemished record," stating that he "has already been, and will continue to be punished far beyond anything this court can impose."  (He did, however, have his driver's license suspended for sixteen months ... yeah, that'll show him!!!  Kennedy didn't even have a valid drivers license when he was driving the death vehicle on the island!)

That evening, Kennedy made a prepared statement, which was broadcast live on all three networksThere was no press present and there were no questions asked afterwards.  It is believed that Kennedy had two speeches prepared that night ... one resigning his position as State Senator and one asking for forgiveness and appealing to the citizens of Massachusetts as to whether he should continue his term in office.  He chose to go with the latter ... and leave the resigning decision up to his public.

Highlights of the fifteen minute speech included statements that:

"Only reasons of health" had prevented his wife from accompanying him to the regatta.  (Kennedy's wife Joan, pregnant at the time, was confined to bed rest, due to two previous miscarriages.  She ultimately attended Mary Jo's funeral and stood beside her husband in court three days later.  Shortly thereafter, she suffered a third miscarriage, which she blamed on the Chappaquiddick incident.)

There was "no truth whatever to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct" regarding his behavior with Kopechne that evening.  (This remains a huge matter of debate.  All of the Kennedy boys were known for their libido!)

He "was not driving under the influence of liquor" ... also a bit hard to believe for such a well-known drinker ... I mean he DID leave a party where plenty of alcohol was being served.  Kennedy had also consumed a number of drinks earlier that day at the annual boat races in which he was a participant.  (One might wonder if Senator Kennedy ever spent day not "under the influence of liquor!")

He stated that his doctors had informed him that he had suffered a cerebral concussion and shock (something that is believed to have been concocted after meeting with his political advisors ... the "Chappaquiddick" motion picture says the doctor never examined him at all).  He said that he was not seeking to use his medical condition to escape responsibility for his actions ... and that his conduct during the hours immediately after the accident made no sense to him at all, going on to state that "I regard as indefensible the fact that I did not report the accident to the police immediately." 

He stated that "all kinds of scrambled thoughts" went through his mind after the accident, including "whether the girl might still be alive somewhere out of the immediate area," whether "some awful curse actually did hang over all the Kennedys" (another sympathy tactic ... brothers John and Bobby didn't bring their unfortunate circumstances upon themselves!), whether there was "some justifiable reason for me to doubt what had happened and to delay my report" and whether "somehow the awful weight of this incredible incident might in some way pass from my shoulders."  He said that he was overcome by "a jumble of emotions ... grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion and shock."

He explained that instead of notifying the authorities immediately, he instead "requested the help of two friends, Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, and directed them to return immediately to the scene with me, it then being sometime after midnight, in order to undertake a new effort to dive down and locate Miss Kopechne."  After unsuccessful efforts to find and save her, he instructed Gargan and Markham "not to alarm Mary Jo's friends that night" and then returned to the ferry with the two men and "suddenly jumped into the water and impulsively swam across, nearly drowning once again in the effort, returning to my hotel around 2 am and collapsed in my room."  (Please note that absolutely NO mention of enlisting the help of Gargan and Markham was in Kennedy's original police report written at 11 am after the body had been found.  Read it again above and you'll see how the lie evolved to fit the circumstances.)

Before concluding his statement by reading a passage from his brother John's book "Profiles In Courage" (another sympathy ploy), he asked the people of Massachusetts to decide whether or not he should resign ...

If at any time, the citizens of Massachusetts should lack confidence in their Senator's character or his ability, with or without justification, he could not in my opinion adequately perform his duties, and should not continue in office.  The opportunity to work with you and serve Massachusetts has made my life worthwhile.  So I ask you tonight, the people of Massachusetts, to think this through with me.  In facing this decision, I seek your advice and opinion. In making it, I seek your prayers.  For this is a decision that I will finally have to make on my own.

Clearly, he had the support of the People of Massachusetts, who stood by him then ... and for the next forty years, regardless of conduct and innuendo.

In the fifty years since the Chappaquiddick Incident, dozens and dozens of books have been written, claiming to tell the story of "what really happened" ... new "eye-witness accounts" ... hidden back-stories by some of those involved with "the cover-up" ... (is there ANYTHING related to the Kennedys that doesn't have some sort of a conspiracy theory attached to it???) ... but perhaps the most interesting angle of all ... is that there was a third person in the car that night.

That scenario goes something like this ... 

Kennedy was NOT having an affair with Mary Jo Kopechne but WAS having an affair with either the wife of a highly placed political figure, who was also on the island that night ... or another one of the boiler room girls, most likely Rosemary Keough, whose purse was found in the car when it was recovered.  Mary Jo had too much to drink at the party and went to lie down at some point ... but the party noise was still so loud and boisterous that she couldn't sleep ... so she instead went to sleep in the back seat of Kennedy's car.  (This would also explain why her purse and hotel key were left behind ... she had every intention of "sleeping it off" and then returning to the party.)

However, at some point and time Kennedy and his REAL lover decided to rendezvous ... driving off in that car completely unaware that Mary Jo was sound asleep in the backseat ... and really DID drive off the bridge and into the water.

This would mean that both Kennedy and his "date" were able to escape, leaving the car in the water before making their way back to the party.  (Kennedy apparently still planning on not notifying the authorities until the morning, thinking it was nothing more than a minor traffic accident.)  Mary Jo eventually woke up in the submerged vehicle and tried, to no avail, to escape.  This would explain why she was found in the backseat of the car ... and why some other woman's purse was found in the vehicle.  Some reports say that when Kennedy informed his confidant Joe Gargan about the accident, the original plan was for Joe to take the blame for driving the car off the bridge, absolving Kennedy from any wrong-doing completely, which he was fully willing to do as a means of covering his boss's ass ... but that Gargan reneged on his offer the minute he learned that a death was involved.

Following this scenario, when Kennedy got the news the next morning that his car was found in the pond with a dead Mary Jo Kopechne inside, it was the very first he had ever heard about the severity of his accident.  There may be some truth to this.  Prior to learning the news, Kennedy was completely relaxed and interacting with other folks on the island.  Once Gargan and Markham informed him of the current state of affairs, Kennedy spun into a horrified mess.  It was at this point that he and his team of experts began concocting the elaborate story and sequence of events that supposedly happened the night before.

Why Kennedy would risk putting himself at such a high risk of exposure politically still isn't clear ... but that's exactly what he would have done had any of this happened.  (Perhaps this still makes for a safer story to be driving one of his supporters to the ferry rather than admit to an affair with the wife of some high-stakes politician???)  

Still, I'm not sure I buy it.  Kennedy essentially gave up his highest aspirations for a political career that could have included the Presidency of the United States ... he fully admitted to wrong-doing (albeit at the lowest level of offense ... leaving the scene of an accident where he knew there was bodily harm ... apparently he had SOME assurance that this is all he would be charged with.)  I just cannot believe that THIS story would have been the one his father and all their political advisors would have chosen had Kennedy not been the one driving the car that night. 

We will never know for sure what really happened that night in Chappaquiddick.  (kk)