By Danny Morrison
Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy refused to meet Gerry Adams on St Patrick’s Day in Washington last week.
He gave Irish republicans’ ‘contempt for the rule of law’ and the failure to cooperate with the police in the murder of Robert McCartney as his reason.
Now, that set me thinking about an incident where there was a celebration, where drink was taken and, at the end of the night a young person died, and where one of those involved asked people to lie about what happened. I know it was a long time ago - 18 July 1969 - and that since then Kennedy has done much good, political work, but it was certainly rich of him to boycott meeting Gerry Adams on the grounds of Adams’ alleged contempt for the rule of law.
In July 1969 Ted Kennedy organised a party for himself and his pals to coincide with the Edgartown Regatta - a weekend of festivities around yacht races. His cousin Joseph Gargan rented Lawrence Cottage on the nearby island of Chappaquiddick near the beach.
There were six married men and six single women at the party, crowded into a small living room. Ted Kennedy’s wife Joan, who was pregnant, was at home.
Besides having drank during the day, the supply of drink for the party was three half gallons of vodka, four bottles of scotch, two bottles of rum and two cases of beer.
Kennedy left the party with 29-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign worker for his assassinated brother, Robert. He later claimed he was driving her back to catch the last ferry. He also claimed that he took a wrong turn - despite having been on the road twice that day. This road led to Dyke Bridge.
Kennedy, who had a record of serious traffic violations, had no current driving licence. He took the narrow bridge too quickly and the car crashed through the bridge and plunged into Poucha Pond, landing upside down under the water.
Kennedy escaped and says that he repeatedly dived under to rescue Kopechne. He said he was confused and in a state of shock. He walked past four occupied houses yet asked no one for help. He walked back to the party, climbed into the back seat of a car and asked one of the men to get him Joseph Gargan, who was also a lawyer. He didn’t tell the girls what had happened.
Kennedy, Gargan and Paul Markham, another lawyer, left the party and drove to the bridge. His two friends stripped and dived repeatedly. They fought a strong current but could not locate Kopechne. They came out, got changed and then drove to the ferry landing at Edgartown. Kennedy told them:
“Why couldn’t Mary Jo have been driving the car? Why couldn’t she have let me off, and driven to the ferry herself and made a wrong turn?”
His lawyer told him that he had to report the accident. Kennedy asked to be brought back to the cottage to establish the story that he had lent Kopechne the car. After a while he would leave, then when he got back to his hotel Gargan could ‘discover’ the accident and report to police that Mary Jo had been alone in the car.
His two friends insisted he inform the police. Kennedy said that he would and that they should go back and take care of the women at the party. Kennedy suddenly jumped into the water and swam across to the other side. It was 2.30am. Instead of informing the police he went to his hotel. His two friends didn’t tell the women what had happened - in case they went to the police before Kennedy. It wasn’t until the next morning that Gargan broke the news. He ordered that the place be tidied up to disguise evidence of a party. He then got them off the island and back to the mainland before Edgartown police even knew they were there.
At eight o’clock the following morning two fishermen noticed the submerged car and alerted the authorities. A diver gave the registration number to the police. They radioed through the details and were informed that it belonged to Edward Kennedy. On closer inspection the diver saw Mary Jo Kopechne and later testified that she was in a position that suggested she had survived the crash, and that she could have been saved if rescue personnel had been promptly called to the scene.
It wasn’t until 10am, nine hours after the accident, that Kennedy linked in with the police. During the night he had made numerous phone calls including one to Mary Jo Kopechne’s parents. The Senator, however, neglected to mention that he was the driver of the accident car when he called to report their daughter’s death. Instead, they learned that information later from a wire service story.
Kennedy gave the police a short written statement in which he made no mention of the party, the women and the drinking, nor that he and his two lawyers had gone back to the scene of the accident in the early hours of the morning, nor that they had urged him to report the accident immediately. Furthermore, they sat with him in the station when the written statement was taken.
An inspector read over the statement and thought there was something wrong with it. He said:
“I would like to know about something.”
“I have nothing more to say!” Kennedy answered brusquely. “I have no comment.” Markham said, “The Senator will make a further statement after he has contacted his [New York] lawyer,” but he never did.
Kennedy was charged with leaving the scene of an accident after causing personal injury. The hearing, eight days after Kopechne’s drowning, lasted seven minutes and smacked of a deal worked out in advance. His guilty plea precluded cross-examination and the taking of evidence. He was given a two-month suspended sentence. The police didn’t hear about the party until after the trial. Nor was there an autopsy carried out to find the exact cause of death.
So, with that example of a cover-up, the destruction of evidence, contempt for the law and failure to fully cooperate with police, I think it ill-behoves Senator Ted Kennedy to be lecturing anyone.