What Really Happened in Chappaquiddick? 15 Eerie Facts About the Shocking Ted Kennedy Scandal
In 1980, Reader’s Digest commissioned reports on tidal conditions and the speed of the car on the night of the fatal crash. Our investigative journalist directly contradicted Kennedy’s account—and some say cost him the election. It’s 38 years later, and what have we learned?
On July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy’s Oldsmobile careened off a 10.5-foot-wide bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Edgartown, Massachusetts, resulting in the death of 28-year-old campaign strategist Mary Jo Kopechne. For reasons he was never able to convincingly explain, it took Kennedy 10 hours to report the accident, and he ultimately pled guilty to a misdemeanor for leaving the scene. It seemed certain the scandal would dog his career. But eleven years later, he appeared headed for the comeback of a lifetime, as frontrunner in the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1980. That February, Reader’s Digest commissioned reports and published a story that directly contradicted Kennedy’s sworn testimony. Written by investigative journalist John Barron, “Chappaquiddick: The Still Unanswered Questions” gained national attention. In fact, many believe our article played a major role in Kennedy’s failure to win the nomination. Fast forward to today, with the April 6, 2018 release of Apex Entertainment’s film Chappaquiddick, we are reminded about questions raised back then that have gone unanswered. Here are fifteen puzzling facts you may not know about the Chappaquiddick tragedy.
Senator Kennedy was visiting Edgartown to participate in the annual Edgartown Regatta, as he had done for the past 30 years. At his direction, close advisors had rented a cottage and invited a group of friends and campaign workers to a party on Chappaquiddick island after the race. Attending the party were Kennedy; his two closest friends Joseph Gargan and Paul Markham; a pair of aides; civil defense official Raymond LaRosa; Mary Jo Kopechne; and five other young women, Kennedy-clan campaign workers and friends of Kopechne. What began as a celebration earlier in the day would become a haunting tragedy by midnight. Kennedy and Kopechne left the party together at 11 pm, and only one of them made it back alive.
Kennedy claimed he’d left the party with Kopechne because both wished to return to their hotels in Edgartown, however, circumstances surrounding their departure are murky. Kennedy told only John Crimmins—his aide, who handed him the car keys—that he and Kopechne were leaving. Neither said good night to their friends, which was especially strange, considering Kennedy was the host of the party. Even more puzzling, Kopechne didn’t take her handbag—or her room key. John Barron, author of the Reader’s Digest cover story, raised suspicions that Mary Jo, at least, had expected to return.
That Kennedy chose to drive that night was in itself unusual. Generally Crimmins was his driver and had, that very morning, driven Kennedy back and forth across the same bridge to go swimming in Chappaquiddick. At the inquest, which took place in January 1970, Judge Boyle asked Crimmins why Kennedy chose to drive. Crimmins said that he had chosen to take Kopechne home himself because she wasn’t feeling well. But no one else who testified at the inquest—including Kennedy himself—remembered Kopechne mentioning feeling sick.
In his first statement, made the day after the accident, Kennedy claimed a wrong turn onto the road led to the crash. “I was unfamiliar with the road and turned right onto Dyke Road instead of bearing a hard left on Main Street,” his statement read. However, given Kennedy had traveled to Edgartown for the Regatta every summer for thirty years, his claim that he “was unfamiliar with the road” is questionable. In addition, he and Crimmins had traveled that exact route twice earlier that same day.
Equally puzzling is a claim Kennedy made in his second statement, which was televised across the nation on July 25. In it, he claimed that he wasn’t aware that he’d made a wrong turn until he was seconds away from hitting the bridge. As Main Street was paved and Dyke Road was a dirt road, many believe he should have immediately felt he was on the wrong road.
But had he in fact intended to go down Dyke Road all along?
Kennedy claimed in his televised statement that after the car had overturned and landed in the pond below the bridge, he remembered cold water rushing in around him. He had no recollection, however, of how he got out of the car. What he did remember was struggling to the shore, regaining his breath, and making several attempts to dive back down to the car and locate Kopechne. He claimed that the current was too strong and that he quickly became too exhausted to keep trying. There were no witnesses to his would-be rescues.
Kennedy recounted stumbling back to the cottage where his friends were, about a 20 minute walk. On the way, he would have passed two separate houses with lights on—two doors he could have knocked on and asked to use the phone to call for help. He would also have passed a fire station, where he could have pulled a “well-marked” alarm that would have alerted the whole Island. Yet he continued on to the cottage. When he got there, instead of going inside and calling the police, he claimed to have climbed into the backseat of one of the cars parked there. A party guest, Raymond LaRosa, saw him, and Kennedy asked him to get Gargan and Markham. Kennedy claimed to have told the two what had happened, and they all three drove back to the scene of the accident, again passing the fire house and the other lighted residences, without alerting anyone for help.
The rescue attempts
When the trio arrived at the bridge, Kennedy claimed in his statement to have sat and watched as his two friends spent over 40 minutes diving down to the car. He maintained that the current was too strong for either to reach the car and find Kopechne, even adding that Gargan’s arm was bruised and bloodied when he climbed out of the pond. But at the inquest, other partygoers said neither Gargan nor Markham appeared injured when they returned to the house on Chappaquiddick at around 2 am. The next morning, Gargan was wearing a short-sleeve shirt, and the police chief noticed no arm injuries.
In testimony that seemed characterized by a frustrating lack of detail, this vivid recall in his second statement stands out. After Gargan and Markham failed to rescue Kopechne, Gargan implored Kennedy to report the incident. Assuring his friends that he would “take care of it,” Kennedy dove into the water and began swimming back toward Edgartown. He claimed he chose to swim across the harbor channel, as he realized the last ferry had departed at midnight. Kennedy provided a dramatic account of what he assured his listeners had been a harrowing swim, where for a second time that night he felt he surely would drown. Still feeling weak, he began to be dragged out to sea by the current, he claimed. “I was probably 50 yards off the shore, and I remembered being swept down toward the direction of the Edgartown Lighthouse and well out into the dark… ”
But Gargan and Markham tell a different version, where Kennedy’s swim was in fact uneventful. Both said they’d left to return to the cottage, fully confident that Kennedy would be safe the rest of the way.
“Weren’t you concerned about his ability to make it?” Judge Boyle asked.
“No, not at all,” Gargan replied. “The Senator can swim that five or six times both ways.”
How strong was the current really? For our 1980 cover story, Reader’s Digest commissioned a study assessing the tides. Esteemed oceanographer Bernard LeMehaute used data from the channel between Chappaquiddick and Edgartown to ascertain what the current would have been like on the night of the accident. The findings revealed that, if anything, currents that time of night (around 1:30 am) would have pushed a swimmer inward, toward the bay on the south side of the island, not outward toward Nantucket Sound, as Kennedy had claimed.
After swimming to Edgartown, Kennedy arrived back at his hotel at around 2:00 in the morning, and he did not report the accident, as he’d promised his friends he would do. He told them the next morning—and later said the same to the District Attorney—that he couldn’t bring himself to accept that what had happened was reality. “He still hoped that the accident had not occurred and that Miss Kopechne was alive,” reported Barron in Reader’s Digest. “That is what he ‘willed.’ …He acted as if she might be alive.”
However, Kennedy also had claimed that the reason that he, Gargan, and Markham hadn’t called for help the night before was because, after their failed attempts to dive down to the car, they were convinced that it was too late and that she was dead.
The next morning, Kennedy appeared composed when he ran into friend and fellow participant in the Regatta, Ross Richards, who was the first person to see Kennedy that morning. Richards claimed Kennedy seemed normal, was well-dressed and groomed, as he conversed with Richards about the weather and yesterday’s race. It was 7:30 am, and Kennedy had still not informed authorities about the accident. A full ten hours would elapse before he’d finally report it.
The next day
By 9:15 on the morning of July 19, Kennedy, Gargan, and Markham were standing together on the ferry landing on Chappaquiddick. After seeing the tow truck and being asked by a ferry operator if they’d heard about the accident, Kennedy finally was moved to contact police. As he boarded the ferry into town, he said to Gargan and Markham, “Look, I don’t want you people put in the middle of this thing. I’m not going to involve you. As far as you know, you didn’t know anything about the accident that night.”
When Kennedy made his first written statement a few hours later that day, the carefully worded account omitted the fact that there were at least ten witnesses to events preceding and following the accident, two of whom possessed detailed knowledge.
So, what about those ten people—the rest of the party guests—who had been with Kennedy and Kopechne on Chappaquiddick before they left for their fateful drive? Omissions in Kennedy’s statement enabled all the witnesses to leave the island before they could be questioned while their memories were fresh and, points out investigative reporter Barron, before they could be coached by legal advisors, whose fees would be ultimately paid by Kennedy.
Mary Jo Kopechne’s body was removed from the pond at 8:55 am on July 19. Without conducting a full examination or even looking at the entire body, the medical examiner on the scene determined that she had drowned. John Farrar, the rescue diver who was called to the scene and oversaw the car’s removal from the pond, noted that many air bubbles rose from it. The Oldsmobile’s trunk was nearly free of water entirely. This, as well as the position of the body in the car, suggest to many that Kopechne had been breathing from an air pocket for some time before her death. Mortician Eugene Frieh examined the body and found that it contained far less water than most drowning victims. Farrar, too, agreed that she likely did not drown, but actually suffocated.
Could Mary Jo Kopechne have been saved if Kennedy had immediately called for help from a passing residence or pulled the alarm at the fire station? This is the most haunting question of all.
The body was moved from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, where Kopechne’s family lived, without undergoing an autopsy. An official cause and time of death were never determined.
Shortly before delivering his televised statement, Kennedy pled guilty to a misdemeanor for leaving the scene of an accident. His lawyers persuaded the prosecution to let him make this plea, and this prevented the prosecution from charging him with negligence and, therefore, precluded his examination and cross-examination in court. For the misdemeanor, Kennedy received a sentence of two months in prison (suspended) and revocation of his driver’s license for one year.
Kennedy would claim repeatedly that he was sober and only traveling around 20 miles per hour when he reached the bridge, a speed at which a reasonably attentive driver could react in time, according to authoritative data at the time.
Crimmins had stocked the house party for a dozen people with three half-gallon bottles of vodka, four fifths of scotch, two bottles of rum, and two cases of beer, Barron reported. Though, according to inquest testimony, during the entire evening nobody had more than three drinks, and Kennedy drank his last rum and Coca-Cola at 9 p.m.
Kennedy claimed that he didn’t see the bridge until he was nearly upon it. But if he was traveling 20 mph, he still should have been able to see the bridge in time, even in the dark, and come to a stop before reaching it. John Barron, therefore, believed that he was actually traveling much faster, and he set out to prove it.
Reader’s Digest commissioned a second study for the 1980 cover story; this time calling upon the expertise of an automobile-accident analyst. The expert, Raymond McHenry, used a computer recreation of the scene, including analysis of the skid marks left on the bridge, to conclude that Kennedy’s car was indeed traveling faster than he had claimed. The study estimates that he was approaching the bridge at 30 to 38 mph, slammed on the brakes, and skidded off the bridge at a speed of 22 to 28 mph. If approaching the bridge at 20 mph was inadvisable, Barron writes, going over 30 “clearly invited the disaster that in fact ensued.”
We will likely never have answers to all the questions raised about events of that night in July 1969 that sent a senator’s car careening off a bridge and Mary Jo Kopechne to a premature death. Half a century later in August 2009, the only man with the answers, Ted Kennedy, took his secrets to the grave.