The crash that launched Chappaquiddick

50 years later, how Mary Jo Kopechne died, and Sen. Kennedy’s role in it, are still in dispute.

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As he pressed through the tidal rip under the Dyke Bridge on Chappaquiddick in 1969, scuba diver John Farrar testified he could see two feet through the rear window of what was later identified as an Oldsmobile owned by 37-year-old U.S. Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy. 

Captain of the Edgartown Fire Department’s search and rescue dive team, Farrar was before Judge James A. Boyle in the inquest on Mary Jo Kopechne’s death. These were her feet. And until he was able to gain entry into the car and feel the stiffness of rigor mortis, Farrar testified, he did not know if Kopechne was alive or not. 

With the removal of her body from that car, Martha’s Vineyard gradually became the focus of national media attention. That the Oldsmobile plummeted from the Dyke Bridge onto its roof in Pocha Pond wasn’t in dispute. Kennedy testified he had been at the wheel. And in what was perhaps the most difficult aspect of the incident for Americans to reconcile, he also testified he left Kopechne underwater in the middle of the night for about nine hours after failing to free her from the car, and that over the course of those hours, he did not inform police or other first responders of her plight. In a televised speech, he blamed “utter exhaustion,” “confusion,” and a concussion for his behavior that night. “I regard as indefensible the fact that I did not report the accident to the police immediately,” he said.

Dr. Donald Mills, who arrived on the scene at the Dyke Bridge just after the body was recovered, testified Kopechne drowned — ”this girl was completely filled with water.”

That was disputed by Farrar, who was 29 years old when he went into the pond beneath the Dyke Bridge and pulled Kopechne’s body from the car. He believes to this day that the evening before, Kopechne was alive in the backseat because of an air pocket, that she did not drown, but had suffocated after exhausting the air. And he holds Kennedy accountable. 

“If we had been called promptly, I believe we had a chance to save her. I told Judge Boyle that we found her in a ‘consciously assumed position’ — that she positioned her body to avail herself of available air. The car was on its roof, and we found the trunk was almost dry. There was air. When they pumped her chest, she exuded blood froth, not water. Blood froth is consistent with suffocation,” he told The Times this week in a phone interview from his home in Arizona. “He [Boyle] didn’t want to hear any of it, telling me I wasn’t an expert. I told him experts had provided the information I was providing.”

Some people saw Kennedy as a hero, and politicians didn’t want anything to happen to him, Farrar said. “I was not about to roll over for him. He didn’t have the guts and gumption to try to save her. Atrocious disregard for her safety. We weren’t called,” he said. “Looking back 50 years, it’s hard to say what we would have done differently. That incident was my first major disappointment, in that I didn’t get a chance to try to save her. Mary Jo wasn’t the first fatality I saw, but one we weren’t called for. I saw other cases in which quick response saved lives.”

In his written opinion, Judge Boyle indicated he did not believe key parts of the narrative Kennedy and his colleagues put forth, and a fog has remained on portions of what happened before, during, and after the incident. Boyle found Kennedy operated the Oldsmobile negligently, and that his negligent operation contributed to Kopechne’s death. But the judge didn’t charge Kennedy with a crime, as he was empowered to do as inquest investigator. A Dukes County grand jury investigation at the time produced no indictments against Kennedy, though surviving jurors say the jury’s investigative powers were hamstrung by court officials. Ultimately, the only charge Kennedy faced was leaving the scene of an accident with bodily injury, brought by Edgartown Police Chief Dominic Arena. Kennedy pleaded guilty to the charge, and received a two-month suspended sentence. His reputation was forever tarnished, and the questions about what happened dogged his presidential pursuits, becoming the fodder for conspiracy theorists, authors, satirists, and filmmakers. Nevertheless, Kennedy went on to be known as the Lion of the Senate, one of the most influential lawmakers in that body in modern history. 

Kopechne, 28 years old, was one of the Boiler Room Girls who worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and remained a professional political aide at the time of her death. Her future was widely considered to be bright. 

Not a quiet Island anymore

At the time, Chappaquiddick wasn’t on anyone’s radar. The Kennedy who owned the national spotlight was Ted Kennedy’s brother, John F. Kennedy, who had made the space program and a moon mission a priority of his brief presidency. On that day, July 18, 1969, what happened at the Dyke Bridge was slow to emerge. Twitter, cell phones, and the Internet itself were technological advances decades away. Americans got their news primarily from broadcast television, print newspapers, and radio, none of which were geared to the rapid news cycles of today. Through those mediums, the country at the time was riveted to the Apollo 11 mission, which blasted off from Cape Kennedy, Fla., on July 16, 1969, and culminated in Neil Armstrong’s legendary proclamation four days later as he stepped onto the moon, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Margaret Knight, who grew up on Chappy in the ’50s and ’60s, wrote in a piece for The Times, “Before Kennedy’s accident at the Dyke Bridge, Chappaquiddick was a world away from the big white houses, picket fences, yacht club, and pink and green shops of Edgartown. It was more like the backyard of Edgartown. On Chappy, we summer kids went barefoot all the time, and went to town once or twice a week for church and the penny candy store. Some Chappy summer residents would complain about the lack of services for their tax dollars, but most everyone took full advantage of living out of sight of town hall — unregistered vehicles, underage drivers, building whatever you wanted back in the woods. I think the town’s attitude was that if we were crazy enough to want to live over here, it was best to just leave us alone. We were free to live life amidst the poison ivy and mosquitoes, without the prying eyes of officialdom.”

Knight’s characterization of Chappy, which is only accessible by a short ferry ride across Edgartown Harbor, is echoed in the testimony contained within the archives of the Dukes County Superior Court, where the original inquest transcripts, among other documents, are kept. 

There, in a typewritten transcript, Kennedy asserts in his testimony that despite visiting Martha’s Vineyard for about 30 years, he had “never been to Chappaquiddick before 1:30 on the day of July 18th.” 

Chief Arena, who would testify he couldn’t withstand the strong current under the Dyke Bridge and therefore couldn’t access the car before Farrar arrived, initially rolled up on a scene evocative of a Charles Addams drawing. 

“And what did you find upon arriving there? Who was there, first of all?” the court asked Arena.

“On arriving at the Dyke Bridge, I parked my car, the cruiser, just at the head of the bridge, the island side of the bridge, and there were two young men fishing off the bridge,” Arena replied. “They were in fact, they were fishing when I arrived.”

“Which side of the bridge were they fishing off?” the court asked. 

“They were fishing off, as I looked at the bridge, off the left side of the bridge,” Arena replied. “I said to them, is there a car over here and they said yes, over the other side …”

The Edgartown lawyer Richard McCarron, who died in 2009, was selected to join Kennedy’s legal team as the local attorney. McCarron’s name appears on various inquest documents. His son, Rob McCarron, also an Edgartown lawyer, said his father, who was an insurance attorney previously, had only moved to the Vineyard three years prior. He became a “jack of all trades” country lawyer on-Island, with a few towns as clients, and a probate court judge as work-on-the-side partner, McCarron noted. He emphasized how small and modest the Island was in that day. 

“We were all watching the moon landing on television [when I] got hired to do the case,’’ he recalled his father saying. Rob McCarron, who was 6 at the time, said his father was present when Kennedy pleaded guilty. “We saw my dad on television that night,” he said.

McCarron said his father always said the average person off the street wouldn’t have gone through such an involved legal inquiry, but Kennedy’s fame and political stature drew so much media scrutiny that “it heightened the obligation to investigate,” and the court, the district attorney, and police bowed to the pressure. McCarron said his father described the inquest as an obscure mechanism conceived to allow Kennedy to supply the media with information. It had been a long time since Massachusetts had held such a proceeding, his father told him.

McCarron recalls his father coming home one night with a “big green plastic bag of letters.” These were death threats made against Kennedy that the FBI had examined for credibility, he said. After reading them, “we sat in front of the fireplace and just tossed them in one at a time,” he said. 

American’s viewpoints reflected in letters

In a trove of documents kept at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, additional Dyke Bridge legal paperwork, including original subpoenas and letters, are archived. Also stored there is a hoard of letters written from people all over the country commenting on the legal proceedings. Most were addressed to prosecutor Walter Steele.

A woman from Stockton, Calif., who signed her letter V. Miller, described herself as “Just a plain housewife — not Republican or Democrat …” Miller wrote that Kennedy leaving Kopechne behind in the submerged car was “ALMOST BEYOND BELIEF AND INEXCUSABLE … This is MANSLAUGHTER.” She went on to write in a postscript: “Mr. Kennedy’s TV address did not answer any of the questions because they are unanswerable — he is guilty.”

From Hollywood, Calif., musical legend Rudy Vallée wrote, “There are many persons out here watching the Kennedy case and wondering if you are going to be persuaded to ‘whitewash’ this case!”

“How can people so quickly forget and jump to say ‘Senator Kennedy isn’t being prosecuted correctly because he is a Kennedy[?],’” Darlene Sawyer of Saratoga, Calif., wrote. “I say, with much conviction, that [it] is because he is a Kennedy we should have the deepest compassion and concern for him and his family after all that they have gone through these past few years.”

From the Spartanburg Auxiliary Police Dept. in Spartanburg, S.C., Major in Charge R.L. Holden wrote to Chief Arena specifically: “Had this been some poor Southerner who pulled a deal of this nature in your town, he would spend the rest of his life in jail.” Holden went on to write, “When you took the oath of office, you swore on the Bible as we all do, that you would maintain law and order and enforce all the laws without fear or favor.” 

“Would you interest yourself in this accident case if it involved a man by the name of John Doe rather than that of Senator Edward M. Kennedy?” wrote Peggy Saunders of Norfolk, Va. “Would not the winning of this case promise you, a small-town prosecutor, much fame and even fortune?” Saunders also wrote she had “faith in the goodness of the Kennedy family” and the “innocence of Senator Kennedy.”

Attorney Joe Caldwell of Rockport, Texas, wrote in a letter to both the Boston Traveler and the court, “The world now knows Massachusetts has the best public officials that money can buy — Kennedy money, that is.”

The Kopechnes

On the 20th anniversary of the crash, The Times interviewed Mary Jo’s parents, who described a 1975 visit to the Island, and explained why they didn’t attend the inquest.

It wasn’t until that 1975 visit, they told The Times, that Farrar told them he believed their daughter suffocated and did not drown. He found their daughter “gripping the seat tightly and her head raised to suck in the last breaths left in the pocket of air formed inside the car.”

Farrar’s contention never wavered in saying that their daughter was “holding herself in a position so she could avail herself of the air remaining in the car, a consciously assumed position,” The Times reported.

The Kopechnes did not allow Mary Jo’s body to be exhumed for a second inquest in Pennsylvania. “We were made to believe that the autopsy was primarily to find out if my daughter was pregnant,” Gwen Kopechne said, noting that her daughter had just had a menstrual cycle. “That was a foolish thing. She was at home with me just two weeks before that, and I know she wasn’t pregnant, so I wouldn’t consider that.”

While Dr. Mills said Kopechne drowned, Eugene Frieh, proprietor of the Island funeral home, testified that he found “very little moisture” in Kopechne’s lungs during the embalming process, a fact that surprised him, The Times reported.

The Kopechnes visited Dyke Bridge on their visit to the Island in 1975. “I was rather afraid of what her reaction would be when we went up to the Dyke Bridge,” Joe Kopechne recalled in the 1989 story. “It was raining like hell, and you know, I was afraid to go over that little bridge. Then we got over it — it goes down a ways — turned around and came back again.

“It was raining like hell, and she got out herself and looked over the bridge. In fact she reminded me of what part of the bridge the car went over. I had clean forgotten. She even started picking up shells. She loves shells, and she wanted to take some of them home.”

 

Jack Shea contributed to this report.

3 COMMENTS

  1. As the only other police officer, along with Chief Arena, that morning 50 years ago at the Dyke Bridge, I helped transfer Mary Jo’s body from a skiff to my litter. Back in those days all police vehicles on the island were standard station wagons, as our cruisers were both an ambulance, with a litter in the back, and a police car. Our communications from the cruiser by radio were made to the Edgartown Jail. After 10 PM, all calls were made to Barnstable 376 on the Cape. When doctor Donald Mills, acting as the Medical Examiner, Dr. Robert Nevin was on vacation, arrived on the scene, I was standing next to him watching him press on Mary Jo’s chest cavity. Water flowed freely from her nose and mouth, and I was throwing up my breakfast, as I had never witnessed anyone a drowning victim before, just as the doctor stated, she drowned. When the Oldsmobile was removed from the water by John Album’s tow truck, I found a pocket book on the floor of the front seat. In the pocket book I found the senate pass of Rosemary Keough. I also found the keys to her room at the Dunes Motel out at Katama. When a call was made to the Dunes, the reply told me her bed was never slept in.

  2. There still exists on Martha’s Vineyard special privileges accorded to the well connected. When the decision whether or not to bestow these special privileges falls within law enforcement circles, outside of the court system, you can be sure the favortism will flow fast and furious. Nothing much has changed in 50 years, it’s just not the Kennedys as recipients anymore.

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