LUZERNE COUNTY--- It’s been almost 50 years since Luzerne County Native Mary Jo Kopechne was killed when then-Senator Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts.
A new movie about the crash called “Chappaquiddick” is coming out this Friday.
Newswatch 16’s Carolyn Blackburne sat down with Kopechne’s family who still lives in the area. She shares their story.
There are some things in life, that no matter how much time passes will never fit into place.
Georgetta Potoski said the death of her first cousin Mary Jo Kopechne is one of them.
“We were all still so stunned when someone that young dies. But we were all still very much in the mind that, well, he'll tell us what happened,” Potoski said.
Kopechne was a passenger in the car in 1969 with then-Senator Ted Kennedy behind the wheel. He veered off a narrow bridge in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, killing the Forty Fort native.
Kopechne was a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy before his assassination. She was meeting with Ted and others to mourn Robert’s passing in Chappaquiddick when she too, passed away.
At the time, Mary Jo’s family said everyone thought it was a horrible accident.
It was later revealed, Kennedy called police ten hours after the crash. All the while, Kopechne was still alive, breathing in a small air pocket in the car.
When Mary Jo’s parents, Gwen and Joe Kopechne found that out, Potoski said they were absolutely devastated.
“She could've lived for three hours in the back of that car and my Uncle Joe went crazy. He had to go through the whole grieving process all over because if she had died instantly, at least she died instantly. She didn't have to suffer. But can you imagine being locked in that car for three hours?” Potoski said.
The movie is touted as the untold story.
Newswatch 16 went to Jim Thorpe to meet Potoski’s son William Nelson.
He said Mary Jo’s true character hasn’t been featured in any national stories until now.
“For 49 years whenever you mentioned Chappaquiddick it was always about Ted Kennedy and the focus has now shifted towards Mary Jo and rightfully so. She's the one that lost her life that night,” Nelson said.
“I'm very glad they did the movie. I think these men are men of integrity. I think that the people who portrayed the main characters in the movie did a great job,” Potoski said.
Before Chappaquiddick hit the big screen, there was a private showing for Mary Jo's family here at Movies 14 in Wilkes-Barre.
“We thought, oh this is wonderful. This gives us something to share with our family in a private time,” Potoski said.
Potoski and Nelson made sure the movie accurately represented the woman who they loved so much by sending producers a book they wrote titled, “Our Mary Jo”. It even made some scenes for the family especially hard to watch.
“There's a tough scene when she's in the car and she's doing the act of contrition and she's praying and that goes back to her upbringing,” Nelson said.
Kennedy did attend the funeral in Luzerne County but was never prosecuted for anything in relation to Kopechne’s death.
Ultimately, he pleaded guilty to one count of leaving the scene of a crash.
Even still, Kopechne’s family keeps her legacy alive through a scholarship in her name at Misericordia University.
“Her life still has great meaning. Through her scholarship she can also help other people advance in their life and help them through their education,” Nelson said.
Her family has one hope for the movie.
“If you know something that happened that night that is not the official inquest version of it, we'd love to hear it. The only thing that makes me sad is that Gwen and Joe died without knowing exactly what happened that night,” Nelson said.
You can see “Chappaquiddick” in theaters on Friday.
For more information about Mary Jo, here is a link for Potoski and Nelson’s book “Our Mary Jo.”
If you’d like to contribute to Mary Jo Kopechne’s scholarship fund, you can send checks payable to:
Mary Jo Kopechne Scholarship Fund
301 Lake Street
The movie “Chappaquiddick” is in theaters on Friday.