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"We Can't Find Mary Jo" - Kennedy at Chappaquiddick

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Just past midnight on Saturday, July 19, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy drove his black Oldsmobile sedan off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha's Vineyard, just off Cape Cod. The Senator escaped a watery death, but a passenger in his car, twenty-eight-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, did not.

Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin were preparing to be the first human beings to walk on the moon. The Black Panthers were holding a national convention in Oakland, California, while the Vietnam War troubled the consciences of millions of Americans. What brought Kennedy to Chappaquiddick, however, was the Edgartown Sailing Regatta, an event in which the Kennedys had participated for many years.

The accident at Chappaquiddick has cast a long shadow over Kennedy's political life, crippling his quest, for example, for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980.

At the time, and since then, nearly all newspaper and magazine articles, and even books, have concentrated on discrediting Kennedy's account of his actions both before and after the incident.

According to a Time-Harris poll (Time 8/6/69), the account offered by Kennedy over nationwide television on the Friday following the accident was not accepted by a majority of the American people. Fifty-one percent felt that it was an inadequate explanation of what he was doing at the post-regatta party and of what he was doing with Kopechne. The responses questioned his honesty. Even for that minority who believed him, the event raised questions about his ability to handle a crisis.

Many questions about this case have never been satisfactorily resolved. At what time did Kennedy actually leave the party? Was his turn on to Dyke Road a mistake as he claimed in his statement to the police and in his television address to the nation? Or was it intentional? After the accident, why didn't he seek help from people in nearby cottages? If he had been, in fact, too traumatized to ask for assistance as he claimed in his television talk, why didn't his friends immediately contact authorities when they were told of the accident?

The lack of credible explanations to these questions touched off speculation that the truth about Mary Jo's death was more shocking than Kennedy's statements about it. Teddy Bare, published by the John Birch Society in 1971, disparages the handling of the case by judges and prosecutors and ridicules the testimony of Kennedy's friends and associates, leaving the reader to believe that Kennedy was guilty of criminal negligence.

Now, as the fortieth anniversary approaches, it is high time to present a plausible explanation of what actually happened that fateful night. The following reconstruction, developed from general descriptions of the scene, numerous eyewitness interviews, investigative reports, and Kennedy's statements that have been published in newspapers and magazines, explains why events unfolded as they did.
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This approach demonstrates conclusively that the only hypothesis that fits the overall picture is that there were three people in the car. This theory has been mentioned in the media from time to time. For instance, Herb Caen, a well-known columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, noted in his column of July 9, 1981, that locals have come to believe that this was the case. In a step-by-step process, however, this reconstruction shows for the first time exactly how such a theory is the only credible explanation.

Kennedy's version is built around the premise that he knew that Kopechne was in his automobile when he only knew that in retrospect - after her body was discovered to be there by a scuba diver.

At a party hosted by Kennedy, attendees included Esther Newberg, an Urban Institute employee, Rosemary Keough, a secretary on Kennedy's staff, Maryellen Lyons, an assistant to Massachusetts Senator Beryl Cohen, Ann Lyons, Maryellen's sister and a Kennedy staffer, Susan Tannenbaum, an aide to Congressman Allard Lowenstein, and Mary Jo Kopechne, an employee of Matt Reese Associates, a campaign consulting firm. All six had worked in what we today would call "the war room" of Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign that ended tragically with his assassination in June of 1968. These young, unmarried women had been looking forward to this weekend reunion (NYT 7/24/1969).

In addition to Kennedy, the other men who attended the party were Charles Tretter, a lawyer who had been on Robert Kennedy's staff, Ray LaRosa, a civil defense official, who along with Tretter, was often a sailing companion of the Senator's, John Crimmins, a Kennedy employee and chauffeur, Paul Markham, an Assistant District Attorney for Massachusetts, and Joseph Gargan, a Kennedy cousin. All but one were married (NYT 7/24/1969).

After an afternoon of watching races from a Kennedy yacht, the party got under way about eight Friday evening with cocktails and barbecued steaks at a rented cottage.
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Newspaper reports described Mary Jo as being dedicated to politics, particularly where the Kennedys were concerned. Not a "swinger" by any means, she was relatively quiet, perhaps naive, and noted for her "thoroughness, industriousness, and discretion" (Time 8/1/69). The summer sun and ocean breezes combined with the day's activities, one or two drinks, and a full meal could easily have motivated her to look for a peaceful place to nap before the others were ready to call it a night and head back to Edgartown. Since the cottage was a small ranch-style with only three rooms, the darkened and quiet inside of the Olds with its commodious rear seat must have looked inviting.

Kennedy maintained in his statement to the police (NYT 7/26/69) as well as in his address to the nation (NYT 7/26/69) that he and Kopechne left the party at 11:15 p.m. to catch the ferry to Edgartown before its last scheduled crossing at midnight. This claim is not plausible for several reasons. If Mary Jo had decided to return to her motel in Edgartown she did so without bothering to retrieve her purse from the cottage or ask her roommate for the keys to their room. When she stretched out on the back seat of the Olds, however, she had no need for these items because she was not going anywhere. Or so she thought (DHG 4/14/1980).

No less a person then Judge James Boyle, who presided over the inquest, wrote in his report that if Kennedy's destination had, in fact, been Edgartown he would have asked his chauffeur to take him there so that the car could be driven back to Chappaquiddick to provide transportation for the ten remaining guests. They would have only the Valiant, a compact car rented for the occasion by Gargan, to get them back to Edgartown (NYT 4/30/79).

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Author of Discovering America: A Political Journey and of a free booklet on Patriarchy; a feminist and political activist.

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