Pa. woman at center of Kennedy's Chappaquiddick scandal

Posted: August 27, 2009

The darkest scandal in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's colorful life - one that likely denied him the presidency - is indelibly linked to a young woman from Pennsylvania.

Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old secretary, was leaving a party with Kennedy on July 18, 1969, when the senator drove his car off the side of a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. Kopechne was found dead in the submerged car the next morning. Kennedy, unable to explain how he escaped the vehicle, did not report the incident to police until after Kopechne's body was discovered.

Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, received a suspended sentence, and faced no further charges. But Chappaquiddick haunted him for the rest of his political career.

Kopechne was from Forty Fort, Luzerne County, the only child of an insurance salesman and a homemaker. Joseph Kopechne, 90, died in an East Stroudsburg nursing home in 2003. Gwen Kopechne, 89, died in 2007 at a nursing home in Plains Township.

A graduate of Caldwell College for Women in New Jersey, Mary Jo Kopechne worked as a secretary in Washington, where her employers had included Sen. Robert Kennedy. The night of her death, she had attended a party with several other women who had worked for the Kennedys. Edward Kennedy, who attended the party, had offered to drive Kopechne back to her motel on Martha's Vineyard.

In a 1994 interview, Joseph and Gwen Kopechne said they had never received a direct apology from him, though other Kennedy family members had written them letters.

After their daughter's death, the Kopechnes received a $141,000 settlement from Kennedy's insurance company and moved to a new home in Swiftwater, Pa. They denied using Kennedy's money to build the home.

And when Gwen Kopechne died in 2007, there was no mention at her funeral of the Massachusetts senator.


Contact staff writer Larry King

at 215-345-0446 or lking@phillynews.com.

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