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Chappaquiddick Victim's Family: "There Are People Out There Who Know More"

Mary Jo Kopechne's cousins are still looking for answers 50 years after her death.

The Chappaquiddick incident has haunted Americans for over 50 years due to the nature of the situation and the questions left unanswered. But, while those who read or watch films about the tragedy can only understand it as outsiders, the family of the woman who died in Ted Kennedy's car that day, Mary Jo Kopechne, are driven by a much more personal need for answers.

In a recent interview with People, two of Kopechne's cousins spoke out about the way their family member is remembered and why they believe that there are still people out there who have more information on what exactly happened the night Senator Kennedy crashed his car into a pond, killing Kopechne. Read on to see what they have to say, half a century after the mysterious death of their family member.

First, here's what happened in 1969.

Ted Kennedy speaking to reporters on January 5, 1970
Bettmann / Contributor

The Chappaquiddick incident occurred on July 18, 1969 when Kennedy drove his car off of a bridge while Kopechne was his passenger. The two had been at a party together on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, and Kennedy later explained that he was trying to drive Kopechne to a ferry so she could get back to her hotel. While Kennedy was able to escape from the car that was submerged in water, Kopechne was not.

One of the major questions surrounding the incident is why Kennedy did not alert authorities about the accident immediately. It wasn't until the next morning that he spoke to police, and that was after two passersby had already spotted the car in the water. There's also the fact that another women's purse was found in the car, while Kopechne's bag and her hotel key were left at the party. Kennedy ended up being sentenced to two months of suspended jail time and a year of probation after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. His license was also suspended for a little over a year.

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Kopechne's cousins wrote a book about her. 

The cover of "Our Mary Jo"
Barnes & Noble

Kopechne's cousin Georgetta Potoski and Potoski's son William Nelson wrote a book about Kopechne in 2016 titled Our May Jo. With their book and through their interviews, the pair hope to shine a light on Kopechne's life, since for so long she had been only known as the woman who died in Kennedy's car.

"In the beginning when you searched for Mary Jo online, all you would see is that she was the daughter of an insurance salesman. Very Catholic. A secretary to Bobby Kennedy," Potoski told People. "The stories were always about Ted Kennedy. But now if you research her name, people are beginning to learn how accomplished and talented she was. She was much more than a secretary."

They think she would have become a politician herself.

Portrait of Mary Jo Kopechne
Bettmann / Getty Images

Kopechne, who was 28 when she died, had worked on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign prior to his assassination in 1968. "She was so dedicated and smart," Nelson told People. "I think she would have gone into politics. The more you think about it, the more tragic it becomes—because you realize what might have been."

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The cousins believe someone has more information about the incident.

People look at Ted Kennedy's car following the incident
Bettmann / Getty Images

The Chappaquiddick incident happened 52 years ago, but Kopechne's family members believe there are more facts to be discovered and a chance people may still come forward to share them.

"I think there are people out there who know more about what happened that night," Nelson said. "The more awareness that is created around Chappaquiddick and Mary Jo, I think it shakes the tree a little bit and maybe there will be people out there who will share a small detail, another piece of the puzzle, and help us get to the truth."

Potoski added, "I'm delighted that Mary Jo is being recognized for the bright woman that she was, but I will never stop looking for the truth. There are still people alive who know more about what happened that night. Even if it's not what I want to hear, the truth at least has some dignity about it. And so we must try."

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Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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