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Ted Kennedy and the Lingering Mystery of Chappaquiddick

Nearly half a century later, questions remain about the fatal car crash. A new podcast is seeking answers.

The facts are these: On the evening of July 18, 1969, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, 37, drove his car off of Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, and into Poucha Pond below. He managed to escape the wreckage, but his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, was trapped inside and died. Kennedy waited until the next day — some 10 hours later — to report the accident to authorities, who by that time had already discovered the submerged automobile.

That is where the (mostly) agreed-upon-version of events ends and the questions begin: Why did Kennedy veer off of the main road? Why did he wait so long to alert police? Why was another woman's purse found in the car?

These are a few of the mysteries veteran People editor Liz McNeil is hoping to unravel in her new podcast series "Cover-Up," which re-examines the incident at Chappaquiddick over the course of seven episodes and dozens of interviews.

"There never really was a clear version of what happened," McNeil tells FOTO. "Ideally, as a journalist, I'm trying to get to some kind of truth. And then, why are there questions still? Why is it still a mystery so many years later? We're on an exploration together through the voices of the people I speak to."

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Following the accident, an inquest into Kopechne's death was held (the proceedings were closed to both the public and the press), during which Kennedy testified to the events of that night. His account, a summary of which follows, has since been made public:

On the evening of July 18, Kennedy hosted a reunion party for six women — including Kopechne — who had worked on his brother Bobby’s presidential campaign. At around 11:15 p.m., Kennedy announced that he was leaving and Kopechne asked if she could get a lift back to her hotel. During the drive, Kennedy made a wrong turn onto the unpaved Dike Road. Moments before arriving at the bridge, he hit the brakes and his car went off the south side of the bridge, which at the time had no guardrails. After the car plunged into the pond, coming to rest upside down, Kennedy swam out and attempted to rescue Kopechne, to no avail. He then returned to the site of the party and got reinforcements — his cousin Joseph Gargan and friend and U.S. Attorney Paul Markham — who were also unable to pull Kopechne to safety. Kennedy's companions eventually dropped Kennedy off at the island's ferry landing, where he swam to nearby Edgartown, with the promise that he'd take care of the accident. Instead, he returned to his hotel in Edgartown and got into bed. The next morning, Kennedy finally alerted the authorities.

"Although my doctors informed me that I suffered a cerebral concussion, as well as shock, I do not seek to escape responsibility for my actions by placing the blame either on the physical and emotional trauma brought on by the accident, or on anyone else," Kennedy later said in a public address about the incident. "I regard as indefensible the fact that I did not report the accident to the police immediately."

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A tow truck pulls Kennedy's car out of Poucha Pond.

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Before looking into the incident, People editor Liz McNeil visited Kopechne's remaining relatives, namely cousin Georgetta Potoski, to get their blessing. "I said, 'How do you feel if I start looking into this story?' and they said, 'That's fine because we don't know that much. We always had a lot of questions and her parents were really shattered by her death." Adding to the family's grief was the way Kopechne became a footnote in the story of her own death. "They felt she was forgotten," says McNeil.

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Mary Jo's parents, Joseph and Gwen, leave their daughter's funeral service in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. (Both have since passed.) "[The family was] supportive of our efforts because they thought, well maybe this will allow people to become aware of who she was as a person," says McNeil. "I know it sounds dated, but she was what you'd call a career girl in the old days. She had hopes and dreams and wanted to make a difference."

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Kennedy attends Kopechne's funeral wearing a neck brace.

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Within days of the incident, Kennedy's timeframe came into question when Deputy Sheriff Christopher "Huck" Look revealed that while driving back to his home on Chappaquiddick, he spotted a car on Dike Road — matching Kennedy's — around 12:45 a.m., about 90 minutes after Kennedy said the accident occurred. "There are these discrepancies," says McNeil. "How could you possibly explain that?"

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Despite prosecutor Edmund Denis' best efforts — including enlisting renowned attorney F. Lee Bailey (pictured here) to look at the scene — many of the key questions at the center of the case remained unanswered, and probably never will be since an autopsy was never performed. "So much of it goes back to the lack of an autopsy," says McNeil. "And in a way, you can see how that [creates] a vacuum. It might have verified the official version of events, but we just don't know."

That vacuum has created space for many theories of the incident to take hold over the years, including that there may have been a third passenger in the car (which would explain the errant purse) and that Kennedy may not have even been in the car when it crashed.

"I have to explore these theories because the theories also become part of the story," says McNeil. "Theories are usually based on one fact — something someone saw, something someone heard — but you also have to remember who is telling you the story and is there an agenda there."

(McNeil goes into greater detail on a number of the theories in "Cover-Up".)

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Ultimately, Kennedy pleaded guilty on July 25, 1969, to leaving the scene of an accident and was sentenced to a two-month suspended sentence. That same day, he delivered an address to the people of Massachusetts (written by JFK speech writer Ted Sorensen), telling them that his fate as senator was in their hands. "These events, the publicity, innuendo, and whispers which have surrounded them and my admission of guilt this morning raises the question in my mind of whether my standing among the people of my State has been so impaired that I should resign my seat in the United States Senate," he said.

Kennedy did not resign and went on to spend nearly 47 years in the Senate, earning the nickname "Lion of the Senate."

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Despite his political achievements, it's easy to imagine "what-if?" scenarios for Kennedy — not to mention, the country — had the events of Chappaquiddick never happened. After all, the accident occured a mere year after Kennedy's brother Bobby had been assassinated during a presidential campaign stop in Los Angeles, leaving Ted as a rumored favorite to take his spot. The scandal all but ensured Kennedy would not inherit that mantle. He did attempt a 1980 presidential run but was unsuccessful. "Many people believe [Chappaquiddick] is a significant reason why Ted Kennedy didn’t become president," says McNeil.

"It affected a lot of people who lived through it, and it has this haunting sort of effect. Stories are more complicated than just one reason or one thing, but it is a mystery and it's still a mystery. I'm just hoping that we get something closer to the truth."

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