Bringing Mary Jo into the light

Pinney book puts the Dyke Bridge accident into fresh, human terms.


Updated July 19

Fifty years later, what we know, what we can take to the bank, is that Mary Jo Kopechne of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., died on the evening of July 18, 1969, on the island of Chappaquiddick, and that Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Ma.) was deeply involved in the events around her death.

What is clear (see related coverage in The Times’ News section) is that one of the most successful cover-ups in modern political history occurred in the aftermath of the Kopechne auto accident at the Dyke Bridge, and that the coverup continues to cloud the truth today. We don’t know for sure what happened, but Bill Pinney’s book, “Chappaquiddick Speaks,” at least the 15th in the Kennedy tragedy genre, is definitely worth a read, because the book has a focus on Kopechne, the human victim, and the few who wanted the truth told in her name. 

Many of the early books were long on scandal, thin on digging out the facts. Several later books were well-researched. Pinney has read ’em all. He spent five years writing this one, updating it twice. He gives credit to other authors, like Island dwellers Donald Nelson (“Chappaquiddick Tragedy”) and Les Leland (“Left to Die”), who was foreman of the doomed grand jury called to investigate the incident.

Pinney says early on that then-Police Officer Huck Look, Edgartown scuba guy John Farrar,

and Leland were the few who refused to get rolled, and who maintained their truths, inconvenient to the Kennedy version and to events subsequent to the incident. “There are really only three heroes in this story,” Pinney writes of the trio. Farrar, for example, maintains to this day that Kopechne did not drown, as the official cause of death says. Farrar said that it’s possible Kopechne could’ve survived if Kennedy notified authorities as soon as the accident occurred. “Since he had plenty of time to get help, why didn’t he get help? Might’ve saved her life,” Farrar says in “Chappaquiddick Speaks.”

As you read Chappy native Pinney’s hefty account, you can find how factual details and witnesses have been piling up for decades. The sum still does not tell us what happened that night. But it leads to the inescapable conclusion that what happened was not the story the senator told police, courts, and the world. 

For the record, Kennedy told police an Olds 88 he was driving plunged off the Dyke Bridge into the tidal channel fed by the ocean off East Beach, several hundred yards beyond it. He said he escaped the car, then dove repeatedly to try to free passenger Kopechne, but was unable to free her.

He told police this at 10:40 am the next morning, 11 or 12 hours after the event, depending on the timeline you prefer. He went to police several hours after Edgartown Fire Dept. scuba guy Farrar had freed the body and participated in raising the car from the water.

The Times spoke this week with Leland about his commitment to calling the grand jury into session despite repeated telephoned and mailed death threats to him and his family, and unrelenting pressure from state and local officials to drop the matter: “Well, two reasons, really. First, Mary Jo Kopechne was forgotten in all this. It bothered me a lot. We were the same age at the time [29]. Also, maybe I was naive, but I wanted to get to the truth of the thing and let the chips fall where they may. Very frustrating the way the courts put roadblocks in our way. 

“I will never forget walking up the courthouse steps in Edgartown, and District Attorney John Dinis was waiting for me with a message. ‘Judge Paquet is about ready to hold you in contempt of court,’ he said. My mouth dropped open. ‘Why? I asked. ‘Because you talk too much,’ he said, and walked away. Between that stuff and the death threats to my family, it was a rough time,” Leland recalled.

While Leland still wishes the outcome had been different, his conscience is clear. “Now, today, I feel like I did all I could at the time for Mary Jo and getting at the truth,” Leland said.

Having newpapered in Wilkes-Barre in the late 1970s, I can tell you that Kopechne, who was raised in New Jersey, came from a long line of coal miners. The mines were played out then, and the town had recently flooded. People did what they could, and they put food on the table. Their houses and their kids were clean. You could take a nap in the middle of Main Street on opening day of hunting season. That kind of place. Kopechne, working in Washington, D.C., with the Kennedys, had to be a local star in the then predominantly Catholic community. She is buried in Larksville, a Wilkes-Barre suburb.

Her now deceased parents would not do interviews, a longtime Wilkes-Barre editor told me then. Leland, however, had several conversations with Kopechne’s parents over the years. “I remember them telling me their only regret was not going to the inquest,” he said this week. Pinney notes in his book that Cardinal Richard Cushing, archbishop of Boston and bigger than the Pope in these parts, called to advise them against attending.

Pinney’s got all the theories about what really happened here. He names them, and offers evidence to refute most. He believes that the Dyke Bridge accident was a staged event, that the condition of the car indicates another accident had occurred before the Dyke Bridge accident.

He’s got new testimony from Carol Jones, an eyewitness Chappy resident whose account of vehicular movement that night, taken with Look’s eyewitness account, throws the Kennedy version into a cocked hat.

Pinney’s got a lot of detail and physics and whatnot in his volume, but the human aspect of the story emerges as the powerful element of the book.

“Chappaquiddick Speaks,” nonfiction by Bill Pinney in collaboration with a new witness, Carol Jones. Stormy Weather Press, Coconut Grove, Fla. $19.95, available online and at Island libraries.

Updated to change the date Mary Jo Kopechne died from August 18 to July 18. -Ed.