Kennedy said he didn't know how he got out
Kennedy maintains that he does not know how he got out but a possible exit for him and his companion, most likely Rosemary Keough since it was her purse that was later found in the car, would have been the almost completely withdrawn window on the driver's side. Then, too, a door could have been pushed open when enough water had gushed into the car to match the inside pressure with the outside (NYT 7/26/79).
The walk to the cottage from Poucha Pond, a distance of one and a quarter miles, would have taken about twenty-five or thirty minutes. This would have brought the twosome, dripping wet if they were fully clothed, back to the cottage shortly before one-thirty. Foster Silva, the neighbor whose cottage was nearest the party house, reported that the rather noisy gathering that had disturbed his family abruptly quieted down at just about that time (NYT 7/24/69).
It is not hard to imagine that Kennedy, consulting with the two people at the party who were closest to him, Joseph Gargan and Paul Markham, decided that it would be imperative for him to get off the island as quickly as possible in order that he suffer no damaging political repercussions in connection with his presence at the party and with what appeared to be an accident involving only his car.
The night was clear and warm with the moon shining brightly. Since it was Regatta weekend, there was much activity around the Edgartown harbor. People were strolling about, fishing from the pier, or visiting back and forth amongst the boats moored there. Two hotel employees on the Edgartown pier saw the lights of a car being driven onto the Chappaquiddick landing around one or one-thirty, they thought (LAT 7/29/69).
Car lights are a signal to Jared Grant, operator of the ferry, that someone needs to make a crossing. But these lights were quickly turned off. Since the plan was to give the impression that the Senator had spent the night in Edgartown, Markham and Gargan, after driving Kennedy to the landing in the rented Valiant, would not have wanted to reveal the Senator's presence on Chappaquiddick by calling out the ferry at that hour.
But there remained the problem of the Senator finding another means to cross the five-hundred-foot wide channel. He later claimed that after making valiant efforts to save Mary Jo he was in such a state of shock that he impulsively plunged in and swam the distance (NYT 7/26/69). However, it is not at all unusual - in fact, it is customary - for a person in need of getting to Edgartown to borrow a dinghy if it is promptly returned (NYT 7/24/69). In a Jack Anderson column that appeared a couple of weeks after the accident, confirmation of such a crossing came from a group on a yacht who identified Kennedy as one of three men on a boat docking at the Edgartown pier about this time.
The Senator then appeared, dry and calm, before the co-owner of the Shiretown Inn where he was staying, ostensibly to complain about a noisy party, but really to ask the time, establishing his presence in Edgartown at 2:25 a.m. (NYT 7/27/69). Markham and Gargan recrossed the channel in the borrowed dinghy and drove back to the cottage. Esther Newberg confirmed that the two men had left the party at some point but was not sure about the exact time or how long they were gone (NYT 7/24/69).
Was Mary Jo Kopechine unconscious?
What about Mary Jo Kopechne? Did she wake up at any point during the short trip from the cottage to the bridge, but decide not to make her presence known? When the car went into the water, was she momentarily knocked unconscious, only coming to as the others were escaping?
At any point did Mary Jo's friends begin to wonder where she was? Given the atmosphere of the party, its setting, and the activities of party goers, reminiscing, singing, dancing, going in and out of the cottage, and taking walks there was probably no time when someone specifically thought to ask about her whereabouts. There was no way for someone who was inclined to check with the motel to see if she had quietly returned to Edgartown to do so since there was no telephone in the cottage (NYT 7/24/69),
As the night wore on, the accident went unreported. The plan obviously called for someone other than Kennedy to claim responsibility for the car's being in Poucha Pond. It would be better, too--it must have been argued--for that person to wait until morning and face charges of leaving the scene of an accident than to report it promptly, submit to a Breathalyzer test, and risk a drunk driving charge.
The two-car "On Time" ferry began daily operations at 7:30 a.m. Several members of the party, Markham and Gargan and two of the women, Tannenbaum and Keough, made an early crossing that would have taken less than four minutes (NYT 7/24/69). It is likely that the women were driven to The Dunes, their motel, which was not in the center of town, to shower and change before eating breakfast. In the process, it would have been discovered that Mary Jo had not returned there the previous night.
This sobering and unsettling fact was the first indication that something may have happened that was more serious than a car submerged in Poucha Pond.
No doubt alarmed by this news about Mary Jo, Markham and Gargan found Kennedy chatting with Ross Richards, a Regatta winner and old friend, on the inn's deck about eight o'clock. The three immediately went to Kennedy's room for a conference to try to figure out where Mary Jo might be since her body had not yet been discovered in the Oldsmobile.
The game plan changes
The game plan might have to be changed. At one point, Kennedy came to the front desk, ordered newspapers, and borrowed a dime from the clerk to make a phone call, which he was unable to complete, to Burke Marshall, his lawyer and longtime friend of the family (NYT 7/14/74). Surely, they were all hoping that Mary Jo, wherever she was, was safe and sound.
At just about this time, two young men knocked on the door of Mrs. Pierre Malm's cottage near Dyke Bridge to tell her that they could see the wheels of a car submerged in Poucha Pond. Later, she would tell reporters that she read past one o'clock the night before but that no one came to her house seeking help (NYT 7/27/69).
Edgartown Police Chief Dominick J. Arena was notified and left Edgartown at 8:20 a.m. to cross to Chappaquiddick to the scene of the accident. Putting on trunks, borrowed at the scene, he dove into the water, which was less than six feet deep by this time, but the strong current prevented him from getting deep enough to determine if anyone were in the car. He then called John N. Farrar, a scuba diver with the Edgartown Rescue Squad, to come help out (BG 7/22/69).
Putting on his equipment on the way to the scene, Farrar quickly entered the water and saw Mary Jo Kopechne's feet through the rear window of the overturned automobile. He swam around to the right side window and found her with her head cocked back and pressed up into the foot well with her hands gripping the edge of the rear seat. He thought that the position of her body indicated that she had found an air bubble in her struggle to stay alive. Even though the car was upside down with the open windows allowing the seawater to rush through, it was possible, he thought, for an air lock to form. Air bubbles that emanated from the car when it was hauled out and the lack of water in the trunk were further indications of an air lock. Farrar felt that it would have been extremely difficult for Mary Jo to extricate herself from this situation without help (NYT 7/22/69, USN & WR 11/3/69).
If Mary Jo had been one of the two people that Deputy Sheriff Look saw in the front seat, how would she have gotten to the rear of the overturned car? Even in its quest to disprove Kennedy's rendition of the accident the press did not expend ink on examining this mystery. Given the manner in which the car had overturned, it is unlikely that someone would have been thrown from the front to the rear. It is even more unlikely that a passenger could have crawled from the front to the rear once the car was submerged. Mary Jo's body was found in the car's rear section because that is where she was when the accident happened.
By now, the area was buzzing with news of the car accident and the commotion that it had caused. A wrecker had been contacted to come pull the Oldsmobile out of the water. Assistant Medical Examiner Donald Mills had been called to the scene to determine the cause of death and a local undertaker had also made the trip over. It would take almost half an hour to remove the body from the car.
While these activities were taking place, Kennedy, Markham, and Gargan caught the ferry to Chappaquiddick. Kennedy claimed at the inquest, probably truthfully, that he returned to Chappaquiddick in order to have more privacy in calling Burke Marshall (NYT 5/1/70). Then, too, they may also have been intent on locating Mary Jo.
After waiting around for twenty minutes, hoping maybe that his phone call would be returned, Kennedy and his entourage left the shelter of the landing house on the Chappaquiddick side just about nine o'clock. When a ferry operator asked them if they knew about the accident, one of them replied that they had just learned of it. Upon getting back to Edgartown, Kennedy, accompanied by Markham, went directly to the police station (LAT 7/22/69).
It is not clear exactly when the three learned that Mary Jo's body was in the car. It might well have been that Kennedy and Markham had it confirmed for them at the police station. In any case, Gargan, after leaving the landing house, got into his Valiant and driving up Main Road found Newberg and the Lyons sisters heading for the ferry landing. He drove them back to the cottage, where he told them, "We can't find Mary Jo." Perhaps he did not want to be the person to break the news of Mary Jo's death to her friends at that time or perhaps he really didn't know that she was dead. Later, after depositing them at their motel, he telephoned to tell all five that Mary Jo had drowned in the car and that Senator Kennedy had tried to save her (NYT 7/24/69). At least one of the group would have known that this last bit of information was not true.
The car had been quickly identified as belonging to the Senator. Look, who was at the scene, recognized two "L"s and a "7" as being on the plate of the car he had seen hours earlier at the intersection. After Farrar's discovery, Arena called the police station to ask that Kennedy be contacted although he did not know then that Kennedy had been the driver. He immediately left the accident scene when he was told that the Senator was at the station and wished to see him. Since Arena assumed that the purse that had been found in the car after it was pulled from the pond belonged to the dead woman, when he arrived at the station he asked Kennedy if Rosemary Keough's relatives had been notified of her death (DHG 4/18/80).
The discovery that Mary Jo Kopechne had drowned in his Oldsmobile changed everything. Kennedy now had to acknowledge responsibility for the accident since it was out of the question for someone else--that someone else most likely would have been his cousin, Joseph Gargan--to claim to be the driver.
The effort that had been made to show that Kennedy had been in Edgartown for the night--his conversation with the motel owner at 2:25 a.m.--now became a major sticking point in preparing a new version of events. How could it be explained that Kennedy was in Edgartown at that hour when a young woman had met her death in a car he acknowledged he had been driving in an accident that he had not reported?
Kennedy and Markham sat in the Edgartown police station, cobbling together a story that would incorporate an improbable answer to this question, generate some amount of sympathy for the Senator, and provide him with a defense--"I don't remember" and "I can't explain this"--in the event that criminal charges were brought against him.
Later, an added feature of his television statement was its attempt to cast him in a hero's role through his valiant but imaginary efforts to rescue this young woman.
Kennedy also claimed in his television address that he had alerted Gargan and Markham concerning the accident and they, too, had tried to rescue Mary Jo. This may have been an effort to explain their absence from the party. But the claim that they undertook rescue efforts are just as ludicrous as Kennedy's, since none of them knew at that time that Kopechne was in the car.
Even if they had known that Kopechne was in the car and Kennedy had been incapacitated as he claimed, it is inconceivable that one of them would not have alerted the authorities. After all, the firehouse with its alarm was across the street from the cottage. Clearer heads than Kennedy's would have understood that, come morning, the body would not have disappeared from the car.
Even if events had taken place in the manner in which Kennedy depicted them--that he and Mary Jo had been on their way to the ferry, he had taken a wrong turn, he, and then Markham and Gargan, had tried to save her and had failed--the nine-hour delay in reporting the accident would have given them more than enough time to come up with a better story than the one that Kennedy and Markham concocted on the spot at the police station, and which was later revised for national television.
Within five days of the accident, his lawyers arranged for him to be charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving personal injury. He pleaded guilty, thus avoiding any possibility of a cross-examination, received a two-month suspended sentence, was placed on probation for one year, and had his driver's license temporarily revoked. An inquest was held the following winter, as well as a grand jury investigation in the spring, but no further charges were brought against him.
Why didn't Kennedy simply tell the truth in his statement to the police? In doing that, he would have had to admit that he and a young woman, not his wife, were going to the beach for a midnight swim (that they were both under the influence of alcohol could not have been proven), that he did not have his automobile under control, and that because he, along with everybody else at the party, did not know that Kopechne was in the car no attempt was made to save her, and that since he did not know this, he planned to foist responsibility for the accident on to someone else.
Could the truth have been worse than being stuck with the image of being a cold-hearted monster as well as a liar that many people have retained of him to this day? Like many politicians before and since, he did not want to 'fess up to anything that made him look other than honorable and upright. But like many before and since, he came off looking worse than if he had come clean.
In general, people find it easier to forgive the truth-teller than the liar. By telling the truth early on he might have won his bid for the presidency in the 1980 campaign. By telling it now, he can remove a stain from his own legacy as well as from his family's.