Mary Jo Kopechne: 25 Years Later

8:47 pm Crime Stories

25 YEARS LATER: WHISPERS OF A YOUNG LIFE LOST

Sunday, July 10, 1994

Page: 1A
By DAWN SHURMAITIS

Even in death, Mary Jo Kopechne didn’t get top billing.

The most important thing wasn’t that she died. It was where she died —
inside the submerged car of U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy.

The investigators gathering at Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island that
muggy morning of July 19, 1969, didn’t even know the dead girl’s name.

Kopechne, a 28-year-old Forty Fort native, had no identification. Police on
the Massachusetts island assumed she was Rosemary Keough, the name found in
a purse recovered from the overturned Oldsmobile 88.

It wasn’t until a freshly showered and dressed Kennedy finally appeared at
the Edgartown police station — 10 hours after the accident — that police
heard the name Mary Jo Kopechne for the first time.

They heard it from Kennedy — who couldn’t pronounce it.

A Kennedy car was in the drink. That’s what mattered.

But for Gwen and Joe Kopechne, only one name remains important, even 25
years later: Mary Jo.

“They don’t write about Mary Jo,” says her mother, Gwen, who is 76 and
living in the Poconos with her husband, Joe, 81.

“She was a good kid. They don’t write about that.”

Kennedy survived his late-night plunge into the island’s Poucha Pond, but
his hopes for the presidency might have died with Mary Jo.

If Chappaquiddick hadn’t happened, Kennedy might have defeated Richard
Nixon in ‘72. Watergate might have remained just another D.C. hotel.

If Chappaquiddick hadn’t happened, Mary Jo Kopechne would be nearly 54
today. Like the other Kennedy campaign aides she partied with that hot July
weekend, Mary Jo might have continued her political work. She might be
married and a mother.

Instead, she lies in a Larksville grave simply marked “Mary Jo.”

There’s no plaque at Chappaquiddick commemorating Mary Jo.

Rotting pilings are all that remain of Dike Bridge and the scene of what
became known as the most famous traffic accident in American history.

It didn’t start off that way.

According to newspaper clippings from that time and a definitive book
written by Leo Damore — “Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick
Cover-up” — few questions were asked and little police work was ever
conducted into the circumstances surrounding Mary Jo’s death.

So casual was the initial investigation that Edgartown police chief
Dominick Arena swam to the overturned Oldsmobile and climbed on top. Feet
dangling, he sat there until the tow truck arrived.

Arena had no idea he was sitting on top of a body, no idea he was sitting
on top of the latest Kennedy tragedy.

From day one, Kennedy never wavered from his story: He was taking Mary Jo
to the ferry back to her Edgartown hotel when he took a wrong turn onto a
dirt road and accidentally drove off the Dike bridge.

Kennedy, 37 and serving his second term in the Senate, had summered on the
Massachusetts coast since childhood. By his own admission, he was in good
physical shape. Mary Jo weighed less than 125 pounds.

Kennedy told police he dove repeatedly to save her, but was beaten by the
strong current and exhaustion.

Through the years one question has persisted: Was Kennedy more interested
in saving his political career than in saving Mary Jo?

Chappaquiddick is a peninsula of Martha’s Vineyard, an island home to
numerous celebrities. Some island residents remain convinced Mary Jo could
have been saved had Kennedy immediately called for help.

Instead, he walked 1.2 miles back to the cottage where Mary Jo and other
former campaign workers for Bobby Kennedy, including Rosemary Keough, had
cooked steaks and sung Irish songs an hour earlier.

As he left the accident scene, Kennedy passed a cottage occupied by a
Lebanon, Pa. couple. That cottage had a phone.

When Kennedy reached the party, still in progress, he asked two friends to
take him back to the bridge. The two men — Joe Gargan, a Kennedy cousin,
and Paul Markham, a former U.S. attorney — told police they also failed in
their attempts to rescue Mary Jo.

Believing the girl was dead, Gargan and Markham dropped Kennedy off at the
ferry leading to town, and to the police station. Too impatient to wait for
a boat, Kennedy jumped in the water and swam the 500-yard channel that
fronted his hotel, the Shiretown Inn. His friends assumed he was going to
report the accident.

Kennedy did — at 10 a.m. the next morning.

Two boys fishing early the next morning were the first to see the submerged
car and call police. By 8 a.m. when police arrived, Mary Jo had been under
water nearly eight hours.

“We could have saved that girl. No doubt in my mind,” says Robert Maciel,
who, in 1969, was a member of the island’s newly formed rescue squad. A
diver could have been at the scene within 15 minutes, Maciel says.

“That’s hard to think about. It tears me up.”

Unnecessary suffering

Mary Jo’s body was floating in the upside down car, her face pressed into
the footwell — the last space to fill with water.

Her sandal-clad feet were the first thing diver John Farrar saw when he
looked inside the car, submerged in 8 feet of water. In 1975, during one of
their periodic visits to Chappaquiddick, the Kopechnes talked to Farrar in
an interview recorded by journalist Gerald Kelly of the Martha’s Vineyard
Times.

“They were very nice people, very quiet, very unassuming,” Kelly says of
the Kopechnes.

Farrar said Mary Jo spent the last minutes of her life re-breathing her own
air.

“It is a terrible thing,” he said in the interview. “As the CO2 builds up,
you breathe heavier and heavier. The emotional trauma is extensive. The
anxiety is unbelievable. Imagine putting a plastic bag over your head.
Think of struggling to get out, knowing you might be breathing your last.

“She definitely was conscious.”

When Mary Jo’s body was pulled from the car, she looked asleep, Farrar
said. There was no sign of trauma, except for faint blood on her nose and
mouth.

She was fully clothed in a long-sleeved white blouse and navy slacks.
Everything was zipped and buttoned.

Dr. Donald Mills wrote “drowned” on the death certificate under cause of
death. He embalmed the body and shipped it to Wilkes-Barre without
performing an autopsy. No one ordered one.

Two months later, the district attorney whose jurisdiction included
Martha’s Vineyard petitioned Luzerne County Court to exhume Mary Jo’s body
for an autopsy. Judge Bernard Brominski refused to grant the request.

“I felt no crime was committed,” Brominski said recently.

Recalling the horror

Exactly what happened on Chappaquiddick 25 years ago continues to invite
speculation:

Mary Jo was asleep in the back seat.

Mary Jo was driving.

Rosemary Keough was in the car.

Kennedy wasn’t even in the car; a mystery man was driving.

The most damning evidence surfaced in 1988 in Damore’s book. For the first
time, a Kennedy cousin who was co-host of the Chappaquiddick party spoke at
length.

Kennedy wanted his cousin, Joe Gargan, to tell police Mary Jo was driving
the car. According to the book, Kennedy wanted Gargan to lie.

Gargan refused.

Seven days after Mary Jo was pulled from the water, Kennedy pleaded guilty
to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a two-month suspended
sentence and a year probation.

He faced no further court action.

“There were very serious reservations about how the story came out and how
it was handled,” says Richard Reston, co-publisher of the Vineyard Gazette.
Reston’s father, James “Scotty” Reston, executive editor of the New York
Times, was one of the first newsmen on the scene.

“Obviously, there are doubts,” says publisher Reston. “But if there are
those in this community who know more about the circumstances, they are not
talking.”

After the tragedy, the bridge became a maudlin tourist attraction. Visitors
broke off pieces as souvenirs. Eventually, it was torn down. But this year,
says Reston, island residents began talking seriously about rebuilding,
mainly to give fishermen access to the beach across Poucha Pond.

“The Kennedy tragedy put this place on the map in a very unfortunate way,”
says Reston.

Today, tourists still visit Chappaquiddick, still puzzle over the
circumstances of Mary Jo Kopechne’s death.

“JFK’s assassination and the incident at Chappaquiddick are two mysteries
we’ll probably never solve,” says a Connecticut woman visiting the island.

“It really was an American tragedy.”

Family above fault

Martha’s Vineyard resident Les Leland was 29 years old when Mary Jo died —
one week shy of her own 29th birthday.

A pharmacist working in his family store in Vineyard Haven, Leland was —
by coincidence — foreman of the grand jury already in session at the Dukes
County court house in 1969.

A few days after the accident, Leland asked law-enforcement officials about
convening the grand jury for a special session to look into Mary Jo’s
death. Almost immediately, he got a phone call. Police Chief Dominick Arena
and then-county prosecutor Walter Steele wanted to take Leland for a ride
in an unmarked police car.

“They wanted to assure me this was nothing more than an accident, a simple
accident,” Leland says. “They told me there was no reason for the grand
jury to be involved. They said `We’re going to take care of it.’ ”

Both men since have denied the conversation with Leland. Looking back, he
is convinced the two officials were trying to do the right thing. They
really were convinced it was just an accident, a freak occurrence.

“They didn’t have all the facts. They were naive, too. Unfortunately, a
young lady lost her life.”

During that period, Leland received three death threats. Sent in the mail
was a picture of Mary Jo’s grave, an image that still sticks in his mind.
Now 54, Leland remains in touch with the Kopechnes, calling at least twice
a year.

“I still get upset about it. I still think about it. I was able to go on
with life and hers was snuffed out.”

The grand jury finally did convene in April 1970. But Leland says District
Attorney Edmund Dinis frustrated their attempts to get information and
after two fruitless sessions, the jury dissolved.

On April 7, 1970, Dinis closed the case.

One month later, an investigative arm of the Massachusetts Division of
Motor Vehicles found Kennedy was speeding and “at serious fault” in the
accident. Kennedy’s license was reinstated in November 1970 — three weeks
after his re-election to the U.S. Senate with 64 percent of the vote. First
elected to the Senate in 1962, Kennedy hasn’t lost yet.

“You have to think back to what it was like 25 years ago,” Leland says.
“This was pre-Watergate. You believed in your senators and presidents. You
put them on a pedestal. They were above reproach.

“If they told you it was an accident, you believed, just like I believed.”

Dinis is an attorney in New Bedford, Mass. In 1988, he told author Damore,
“There’s no question in my mind that the grand jury would have brought an
indictment against Ted Kennedy for manslaughter, if I had given them the
case.”

This year, for the first time in a political career that spans nearly four
decades, Kennedy is facing a tough re-election fight. His main opponent,
Mit Romney, is a young, attractive and well-connected Republican.

But in the end, newspaperman Reston predicts, Kennedy will win.

“When you come right down to it, it’s awful hard to beat the Kennedy name.”
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