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Questions remain 40 years later Add to ...

In most people's minds, Chappaquiddick isn't just an island off Martha's Vineyard: It's a tragic and controversial incident that happened 40 years ago this weekend involving a young Edward Kennedy and a younger campaign secretary. Here's what's known about what happened, and what may never be known.

The people

  • Mr. Kennedy was 37 at the time, brother of assassinated president John Kennedy and slain presidential candidate Robert Kenned

  • Mary Jo Kopechne was a 27-year-old former campaign worker for Robert.



The party

Mr. Kennedy went to a party on Chappaquiddick Island on July 18 that was a reunion of sorts for the "Boiler Room Girls," as the six women who'd worked on Robert's campaign were known. Several Kennedy associates were also there in what was described as a casual affair, with moderate drinking.

The accident

Around 11:15 p.m., Mr. Kennedy said he was leaving to catch the ferry and would drop Ms. Kopechne off at her hotel on the mainland. They left together. Somehow, they ended up driving in the wrong direction of the ferry, and Mr. Kennedy failed to navigate his car over a narrow wooden bring spanning a tidal inlet. The car ended upside down and under water. Mr. Kennedy made it out, but Ms. Kopechne didn't.

The aftermath

Mr. Kennedy said he failed in several attempts to rescue Ms. Kopechne, and then made his way back to the party to retrieve two other men, bypassing several other residences without asking for assistance. The three returned, but couldn't reach Ms. Kopechne. After giving up, Mr. Kennedy instructed the two men to take care of the remaining women at the party. He said he would deal with the accident. He then returned to his hotel room, and went to sleep. By the time he reported the accident to the police at 10 the next morning, the car had been found and a diver had recovered Ms. Kopechne's body.

The fallout

Mr. Kennedy's licence was suspended for one year and he quickly pleaded guilty to the misdemeanour of leaving the scene of an accident, receiving a suspended sentence. A later inquest into the death found that the pair did not intend to drive to the ferry slip and didn't end up at the bridge by mistake. It found that Mr. Kennedy's driving had been negligent, possibly reckless, contributing to Ms. Kopechne's death. A grand jury, however, failed to return any indictments. He had to abandon a nascent run for the presidency against Jimmy Carter, and future White House dreams, but remained a U.S. senator. He paid $90,000 in compensation to Ms. Kopechne's parents.

Unanswered questions

  • Why did they leave the party?

Mr. Kennedy said he was heading back to his hotel and would drop Ms. Kopechne at hers on the way, but it's unclear why he didn't have his driver take them, and why they left with one of the only two cars at the party, leaving one car for the remaining 10 people who also had to return to their hotels. Ms. Kopechne left her purse and hotel keys at the party, and no one recalls hearing her say why she was leaving the party. Mr. Kennedy says that they ended up driving away from the ferry by mistake.

  • Could Ms. Kopechne have been saved?

The diver who pulled her body out found it in the spot where an air pocket would have been, and speculated she could have survived for 25 minutes - enough time for a rescue.

  • Was Mr. Kennedy drunk driving?

Despite his reputation as a heavy drinker, he maintains he was not drunk. When he went to the police it was more than 10 hours after the accident and too late to test for alcohol. Ms. Kopechne had a blood alcohol level indicating she'd had three to five drinks.

  • Was there a cover-up?

Ms. Kopechne's parents allege people that were paid off not to tell the truth about the incident. The grand jury foreman says he was barred from calling key witnesses, and that the local police chief and district attorney took him aside to insist the incident was an accident, nothing more.

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