PEOPLE Explains: All About Chappaquiddick, the Shocking Kennedy Scandal That Left One Woman Dead

Fifty-three years ago, Ted Kennedy was enmeshed in a fatal car accident that would haunt him until his death

Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick Incident
Sen. Ted Kennedy (center) leaves the courthouse after pleading guilty in the deadly Chappaquiddick crash. Photo: Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty

Every July, the anniversary of the tragic 1969 Chappaquiddick incident reminds the world of late senator Ted Kennedy's most damaging scandal. Over the years, PEOPLE has investigated the mysterious car accident that killed a promising young political aide — even launching an entire podcast dedicated to sorting out the facts — yet many questions remain unanswered about what exactly happened. Fifty-three years later, we revisit the details of the case.

On July 18, 1969, Ted's black Oldsmobile crashed off a small bridge on the tiny Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick and landed in the water. The next morning the body of Mary Jo Kopechne, a young woman who had worked for Ted's late brother Robert F. Kennedy, was found inside the mostly-submerged car.

Ted and Kopechne had attended a party with friends earlier that night at a rented cottage on the island, a small stretch of land that is part of the better-known island of Martha's Vineyard, a popular vacation destination for old-money families. Reportedly only 12 people were at the gathering — Ted, five other married men and six so-called "Boiler Room Girls," the name given to a clutch of young unmarried female campaign strategists, including Kopechne, who had worked on Robert's presidential campaign before he was assassinated in 1968.

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Whether because of the enormity of the tragedy or the unanswered questions, the scandal haunted Ted's political career and is believed to have sunk his presidential campaign some 10 years later, when he unsuccessfully challenged then-President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination.

Here are the facts you need to know about the infamous scandal.

1. Ted claimed he tried to rescue Kopechne, despite waiting 10 hours to notify the police.

Ted said that he was giving Kopechne a ride back to the ferry so she could return to her hotel when he took wrong turn and headed toward the Dike Bridge. The car crashed and they went over the bridge, falling into the water below.

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Ted managed to escape the submerged car, and he later said that he dove down multiple times to try to rescue Kopechne before giving up. He said he made his way back to the party and then returned to the car with a cousin and a friend who also tried to rescue Kopechne but were not successful. They did not notify the police about the incident until approximately 10 hours after the crash.

Explaining his actions at the time, Ted claimed he didn't call the cops because he was confused and still in shock. "I was overcome, I'm frank to say, by a jumble of emotions: grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion and shock," he said.

2. Ted's family — and lawyers — were called before contacting the police.

Ted did not call the police in the immediate hours after the incident, but other calls were made that night using his credit card.

Numerous calls charged to Ted's credit cards were placed from phones at the rented cottage and at his hotel to Ted's staff, friends, family, advisors and lawyers, according to the New York Times. In the hours that followed the crash, a group of family members, lawyers and advisers gathered at the Kennedy family's Hyannis Port compound on Cape Cod, presumably to figure out how to salvage Ted's political career.

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3. No autopsy was ever performed on Kopechne's body.

By the time local officials requested that an autopsy be done on Kopechne's body, it had already been flown off to a funeral home in Pennsylvania, where she was to be buried.

The district attorney in Massachusetts later petitioned a court in Pennsylvania to have Kopechne's body exhumed so that an autopsy could be performed. Despite a Martha's Vineyard associate medical examiner's determination that Kopechne had drowned, many remained skeptical and some, including the diver who pulled her from the car, argued Kopechne suffocated after oxygen ran out of an air pocket she was breathing in the car.

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"I know she suffocated when her oxygen ran out," the diver, John Farrar, said in Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-up, a 1988 book about the incident by Leo Damore. "She didn't drown."

Farrar claimed that Kopechne could have been alive for some time after the accident and alleges that she could have been saved if Ted had summoned the police earlier. "She could have lived a good while after the car went off the bridge," Farrar said in Senatorial Privilege.

The district attorney's request for a belated autopsy was opposed by Ted's camp and by Kopechne's parents at the time. It was rejected by a Pennsylvania judge following a hearing.

4. Ted was only charged with leaving the scene of an accident after causing personal injury.

About a week after Kopechne's death, Ted pleaded guilty to a charge of "leaving the scene of an accident after causing personal injury without making himself known". He was given a two month suspended sentence.

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5. Ted said the incident still haunted him decades later.

In his 2009 autobiography True Compass, Ted, who died in 2009, said Kopechne's death stayed with him for the rest of his life.

"That night on Chappaquiddick Island ended in a horrible tragedy that haunts me every day of my life," he wrote. "I had suffered sudden and violent loss far too many times, but this night was different. This night I was responsible. It was an accident, but I was responsible."

For more on the Chappaquiddick scandal, subscribe to Cover-Up on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or wherever podcasts are available.

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