Senator Ted Kennedy was a well-respected but polarizing political powerhouse for decades before his death. Most people are familiar with the political causes he championed and the legislation he backed, but many do not know the details of what has become to be known as 'The Chappaquiddick Incident'―a dark and troubling time in Kennedy's life, that he was never able to put fully behind him.
On the evening of July 18, 1969, a party was being held on Martha's Vineyard for a group of women who had worked on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign the previous year. Ted Kennedy left the party with one of those women, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, in an Oldsmobile Delmont. Later that evening, Kennedy accidentally drove the car off the Dike Bridge into a tidal channel on Chappaquiddick Island. Although Kennedy was able to escape the car and swim to safety, he left the scene without calling authorities, and didn't tell anyone about the incident until the following day when Kopechne's body was found.
For months after the incident, as the accident continued to be investigated, and various people told their stories, a surprising number of inconsistencies and mysterious details about that night emerged to cast suspicion on Kennedy and his account of events. At an inquest during the investigation of the accident, Kennedy said that Kopechne had asked him to take her back to her hotel, and he drove rather than asking his chauffeur to drive, because the chauffeur was still eating, and Kennedy was leaving anyway. Kopechne didn't tell anyone she was leaving, and she left her hotel key and purse at the party.
Kennedy said during the inquest that he had made a wrong turn onto Dike Road, which led to the Dyke Bridge, a wooden bridge with no guardrail. Moments before turning onto the bridge, Kennedy realized he had made a wrong turn and applied the brakes, but the car went over the side of the bridge and plunged into the channel, coming to rest upside down on beneath the water. Kennedy said that he escaped and swam free of the vehicle, called to Kopechne several times, and then tried to swim down to rescue her several times unsuccessfully. He said that he rested on the shore for about 15 minutes before returning to the party on foot. He said that he didn't pass any houses with lights on during his trip back to the cottage, although a couple occupying a house only 150 yards from the bridge said that they had left lights on when they went to bed that night.
Christopher Look, a deputy sheriff who was working at the dance that night, left the yacht club at about 12:30. He testified during the inquest that he had seen a dark car approaching Dike Road with a man and woman in the front seat. The car turned onto a private road and stopped, which made Look wonder if they were lost. He got out and walked toward the car, but it began backing up toward him, then raced away in a cloud of dust. Look's description of the car and the license plate matched the details about Kennedy's Oldsmobile.
Kennedy testified that after he made his way back to the party, he returned to the channel with his cousin, Joseph Gargan, and a mutual friend, Paul Markham. The two men tried to dive into the water but were also unable to rescue Kopechne. They urged Kennedy to report the accident, and he assured them that he would, but he didn't want them to tell the other girls at the party because they would probably try to go to the channel to rescue their friend. Kennedy swam across the channel, returned to his hotel room, changed his clothes, and went to bed. He said during his testimony that he somehow hoped that Kopechne had been able to escape from the car. But he did not call the authorities.
When two amateur fishermen saw the car in the water the next morning, they told the people in the cottage nearest to the channel, and the authorities were called. A diver who went down and discovered Kopechne's body testified that her body was pressed upward inside the car at a place where there would have been an air bubble that might have kept her alive for some time after the accident. He said that he believed Kopechne would have survived if he had been called promptly when the accident happened, and he believed that Kopechne lived under the water for at least two hours.
Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and he received a two-month sentence that was suspended. After his sentencing, he issued a statement saying he had no defense for not reporting the accident immediately, but he added that he had not been driving drunk, and no impropriety had taken place between him and Kopechne. His statement was broadcast live by all the television networks, and Kennedy said that he himself did not understand his conduct in the hours following the accident. He said that he had suffered a concussion and shock, but he was not drunk when the car drove over the edge of the bridge. He added that among all the thoughts racing through his mind that night, was the idea that perhaps some awful curse was hanging over all the Kennedy clan. He ended his statement by saying that if the citizens of Massachusetts found themselves lacking confidence in his character or ability to perform the duties of his job, he wanted them to think about whether he should remain in office.
The formal inquest into Kopechne's death ruled that Kennedy did operate his car negligently, and that his negligence did contribute to Kopechne's death. The District Attorney did not charge Kennedy with manslaughter, despite the judge's ruling. A grand jury was later convened to review the case, but again, no manslaughter charges resulted. However, the Massachusetts Department of Motor Vehicles suspended Kennedy's driver's license for six months, after determining that the fatal accident was due to serious fault on Kennedy's part.
Hundreds of newspaper editorials, magazine articles, and books have been written outlining every tiny detail of the life and death of Mary Jo Kopechne, and the part that Ted Kennedy played in her untimely demise. Although dozens of people testified at several hearings and inquests, and through the decades there have been numerous speculations and opinions about what happened that night, the only person who knew the complete truth was Ted Kennedy. And now the secrets surrounding the Chappaquiddick incident will remain secrets forever.