PEOPLE's East Coast Editor Elizabeth McNeil spent eight months investigating what really happened on the tiny Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick on July 18, 1969

By Liz McNeil
July 18, 2019 10:01 AM
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PEOPLE’s first-ever podcast, Cover-Up, digs into the Chappaquiddick scandal that scarred two families and may have changed the course of American presidential history. In the seven episodes of the series, PEOPLE’s East Coast Editor Elizabeth McNeil seeks answers to the burning questions from the 1969 tragedy, 50 years ago on Thursday, which left one woman dead. Below,

McNeil details 10 surprising things listeners will learn about the tangled case in the podcast. This article was originally published on May 31, 2018.

Over eight months, I investigated what really happened on the tiny Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick on July 18, 1969, when Sen. Ted Kennedy drove his car off a narrow wooden bridge — an accident which took the life of his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne.

The results of my reporting can be heard in Cover-Up, which PEOPLE produced with Cadence 13.

The podcast explores the events of that night and the scandal that ensued — starting with the 10-hour delay between the time Kennedy escaped from the car and when he reported the accident to the police — all in an effort to understand a mystery that has lasted half a century.

1. Mary Jo Kopechne almost didn’t go to Chappaquiddick. According to her cousin and closest living relative, Georgetta Potoski, 79, “Mary Jo was never supposed to go to Chappaquiddick that weekend.” Potoski tells PEOPLE Kopechne had a work obligation in New Orleans that was going to prevent her from attending the reunion party for her fellow campaign workers in Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential run. But, at the last minute, Potoski says, “She got someone to cover for her and she went because she wanted to see her friends.”

Sen. Tedd Kennedy (center) escorts his wife to the courthouse after his fatal car accident. Inset: Mary Jo Kopechne.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images (2)
Mary Jo Kopechne
Getty Images

2. Mary Jo Kopechne was much more than just a “a blonde secretary,” which is how she was often described after her death. Her story was overlooked by the media, who instead focused on Ted. Kopechne was one of the “Boiler Room girls,” a group of accomplished women who worked for Robert’s presidential campaign, gathering campaign information in designated regions of the country and researching convention delegates. (They got their nickname from the windowless office where they worked.) Kopechne was at the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968, the night Robert was assassinated and she rode on the slow moving funeral train, along with his family and close friends, that brought his body from New York City to Arlington National Cemetery. “She was more than the girl in the car,” says Potoski’s son, William Nelson. “But her story was forgotten.”

3. Gwen Kopechne, Mary Jo’s mother, always regretted that she had opposed an autopsy for her daughter. “Years later, Gwen said it was the biggest mistake she ever made,” says Potoski. “There should have been an autopsy. She knew it would have cleared up a lot of things.” But at the time, Mary Jo’s parents were afraid the autopsy was solely to determine if their daughter was pregnant. And they did not understand its importance. Although it was ruled that Mary Jo died by drowning, there were always lingering questions about exactly how long she survived in the car and whether she suffocated or drowned. An autopsy would have answered those questions.

The scene of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s fatal car accident
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

4. Many believe the accident at Chappaquiddick changed presidential history by keeping Ted from the White House. “It hung over him like a permanent cloud,” a friend tells PEOPLE. “He felt like he let himself, his family and the country down in Chappaquiddick.” The tragedy haunted Ted for the rest of his life. As he wrote in his 2009 memoir, True Compass, “Atonement is a process that never ends … maybe it’s a New England thing, or an Irish thing, or a Catholic thing, Maybe all of those things. But it’s as it should be.”

5. Mary Jo’s final conversation with her parents left them with unanswered questions. In their last phone call, several days before she died, Mary Jo told her mom she had three things to tell her. “The first was she was thinking of getting engaged,” says Potoski. (Her boyfriend worked in the Foreign Service.) “The second thing was she had taken a job working for Matt Reese, a political consultant. But before she could tell them the third thing, her father got on the phone to say ‘hi’ and they never found out the third thing. We’ll never know what the third thing was.”

6. Many people were haunted by what happened at Chappaquiddick. Edgartown Police Chief Dominick Arena, who took Ted’s statement the next morning and later charged him with leaving the scene of the accident, still wonders why the senator waited so long to report what happened. Arena, who died earlier this year, told PEOPLE in 2018: “I’ll never understand why he left Mary Jo in the car for 10 hours before he reported the accident.”

The scene of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s fatal car accident
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

7. Deputy Sherriff Huck Look saw Ted’s car 90 minutes after Ted said his car went over the Dike Bridge. On July 19, 1969, around 12:45 a.m., Look was driving back to his home on Chappaquiddick when he saw a dark car and thought the driver appeared “unsure or lost.” He parked his car and got out to see if the driver needed help, but before he could get there the car took off and went down Dike Road toward the bridge. Look continued home. But the next morning, when he went to the scene of the car accident on Dike Bridge and saw Ted’s car overturned in the water, he said “That’s the same car I saw last night.” The 90-minute time difference between 11:15 p.m., when Ted said the accident occurred, and 12:45 a.m., when Look said he saw the senator’s car, was never fully explained.

8. The Ballou family had a strange encounter on the water that night. A little before 2 o’clock on the morning of July 19, 1969, C. Remington Ballou and his family were on their boat, which was moored close to the ferry channel. As Ballou told the New Bedford Standard Times, he saw a small boat, carrying three people, douse its lights and its motor — an unusual occurrence. He then saw the small boat drift toward a larger boat that had crossed the channel to the Chappaquiddick landing. And that boat also turned off its lights. A few minutes later, the smaller boat revved up its motor and sailed out of the harbor. At the time, Ted’s press aide Dick Drayne denied any connection. “If there was a boat, the senator wasn’t on it,” he said. “The senator swam across [the water].” But Remington’s daughter, Cristy Ballou, tells PEOPLE her father always wondered if the boats were somehow linked to what had happened earlier that night. “The next day when he heard what happened at Chappaquiddick, he thought they were definitely connected,” says Cristy. “He thought it was very odd for that time of night.”

Sen. Ted Kennedy
GETTY

9. Mary Jo’s family is hoping for a “death bed confession” from someone who knows more about what happened that night. “The truth has never come out,” says Nelson, her cousin. Adds Potoski, his mom: “Mary Jo’s parents never had her final hours explained to them. We are hoping some day more information will come out. Maybe someday there will be a death bed confession.”

10. Last year, Potoski and Nelson, received a letter titled “The Untold Story of Chappaquiddick.” The man who wrote the letter — who declined to participate in Cover-Up — wrote about a lunch he had had years earlier with a woman who had attended the party the night Mary Jo died. (He referred to the party guest by a pseudonym “Betty.”) According to the letter, the woman said Mary Jo had too much to drink the night of the accident and wasn’t feeling well, so Betty laid her down in the back seat of Ted’s car where Mary Jo fell asleep. Then Betty went back to their cabin where the party was still ongoing and also fell asleep.

The letter went on to say later that night, Ted went for a drive with another woman. But that neither he nor his female passenger realized Mary Jo was in the back seat. According to the letter, Potoski says: “The car went off the bridge and Ted and his female companion escaped from the car and returned to the party. And Ted was not aware Mary Jo was asleep in the back.”

According to the letter, it was only the next morning, when Betty asked where Mary Jo was, that she was shocked to find out Ted’s car had gone over the bridge. That’s when she told her fellow party guests she had placed Mary Jo in the back seat to rest the night before. According to the letter, once they all realized what had happened, Ted was informed Mary Jo had been asleep in the back.

Still, says Potoski, “It doesn’t answer all the questions. If he hadn’t known she was asleep in the back seat, why didn’t they just say that?”

Now that a year has passed since she received the note, Potoski adds: “I’m still not convinced the mystery has been solved. There are still things we do not know about what happened that night.” But she and her son try to focus on the positive, including the scholarship in Mary Jo’s name at Misericordia University, Potoski’s alma mater.

“In that way Mary Jo continues to help people,” says Potoski, “and she has brought the recipients happiness. And we’re grateful for that.”

For more on the Chappaquiddick scandal, listen to PEOPLE’s podcast Cover-Up on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or wherever podcasts are available. And to continue the discussion, join our Facebook group to share your thoughts and theories or reach us directly at coverup@people.com.