For nearly 50 years, Carol Jones has never spoken publicly about the strange encounter she had with a speeding white car on the night of July 18, 1969.
Now Jones is sharing her story in Episode 6 of Cover-Up, PEOPLE’s podcast series exploring the mysterious death of 28-year-old political aide Mary Jo Kopechne, who was killed when a car driven by Sen. Ted Kennedy crashed off a bridge on the tiny Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick.
That night, Jones, then 17 years old, was driving on Chappaquiddick Road back to her grandmother’s house, a little after 11:30 p.m.
“I noticed a car coming up behind me very quickly, and I thought, ‘Oh my God. They better slow down,’ ” Jones recalls. “And instead of slowing down, they passed me … and then pulled in back in front of me … and my headlights shone in to the back of the car, and I could see two men dressed in white shirts on either side of a small person that looked like a young woman with short hair. She was squished in between them.”
There were two cars at the reunion party that Kennedy and Kopechne attended in Chappaquiddick on the night of the accident — Kennedy’s black Oldsmobile and a rented White Plymouth Valiant, which was the car Kennedy later said he, his cousin Joe Gargan and former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Paul Markham took to the Dike Bridge in an attempt to save Kopechne. But Jones doesn’t know if the white car she saw was the Valiant or not. Nor does she know if the encounter is related to Kopechne’s death.
“I didn’t really want to see what I saw and I didn’t know what it meant, the significance of it,” she says now. “All I knew was that it didn’t fit in with the tale that was being told.”
Jones says she never shared her story publicly before because she “was intimidated by all those men and the power. I was intimidated. It was scary, really.”
Jones’ account is also featured in a self-published book by her cousin Bill Pinney, Chappaquiddick Speaks.
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Pinney’s book explores his theory that the car accident was orchestrated to cover up an earlier accident in which Kopechne was seriously injured.
Pinney, who grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, is one of the many who have tried to make sense of what happened that night.
There was also Leo Damore (pictured below) — the man who tried to solve the mystery of Chappaquiddick and who got closer to the truth than anyone. Yet Damore was a mystery himself.
The late Damore was the author of Senatorial Privilege, the definitive book on the case. But as it turns out, there was more to his story than what he wrote.
Back in July 1969, Damore was a reporter working for the Cape Cod News and selling shoes at a local shop in Hyannis Port to help pay the bills. His friend, Massachusetts State Police Lt. George Killen, was the lead investigator in the Chappaquiddick case and he told Damore the case had been the “biggest mistake” of his career.
Right before his death in 1979, Killen sent Damore a package, the contents of which the author described in a 1990 radio interview:
“It’s 10 copies of documents out of the District Attorney’s Office having to deal with all the interoffice memorandum of letters from Kennedy lawyers demanding Mary Jo Kopechne clothes … and sandals be burned, and destroyed, and the fact that George does not want to do this because he regards this evidence as belonging to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and so, but ultimately he has to do it,” Damore said.
He later managed to convince many key people to talk about what really happened on the night of the accident: including Ted’s cousin Joe Gargan — the man who told Damore that Kennedy had asked him to lie and say Kopechne was driving the car that night when it went over the bridge.
Damore’s book, which was published in 1988, was a condemnation of what he called “the Kennedy apparatus.” He said his first publisher, Random House, ultimately canceled his contract and refused to publish the book due to the Kennedy family’s powerful influence.
“Not because the information wasn’t true, not because the information wasn’t relevant, not that it wasn’t a good book. It was for other reasons and the other reasons were that the Kennedy political apparatus had received a copy of the opening 280 pages of this book, and did not want this information published,” Damore said in a 1990 interview with radio host Art Bell.
Eventually, a small publishing house in Washington, D.C., Regnery Inc., agreed to publish Damore’s book, and it became an instant bestseller.
In response to the book, a Kennedy spokesman said at the time: “The charges about Sen. Kennedy are false. The book is an irresponsible rehash of all the old rumor and innuendo and we have no intention of making any further comment.”
Damore would later take on another mysterious story involving the Kennedy family. After Senatorial Privilege, Damore investigated another mysterious story involving the Kennedy family. That of President John F. Kennedy’s mistress, Mary Pinchot Meyer, whose 1964 murder remains unsolved to this day.
But Damore claimed he’d found Meyer’s murderer, whom he described as a “professional hit man, connected to the CIA.”
Damore also claimed that he had found Meyer’s missing diary, in which she apparently wrote about her affair with the president. But Damore’s son, Nick (pictured as a child, above), doubts that his father really had the diary — and wonders now whether Damore was beginning to lose his grip on reality.
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At the time, Damore had been growing desperate and increasingly paranoid, beginning a downward spiral that would eventually end with his suicide on Oct. 2, 1995 at age 66. Nick was nine years old at the time.
Now, 23 years later, his son Nick, and his creative partner and longtime friend Matt Cascella, are making a documentary about Damore, trying to piece together his life and answer their many lingering questions. Among them: What led Damore to take his own life and where is the manuscript of his book about JFK’s murdered mistress?
“A lot of the project focuses on the theme of seeking the truth, which relates back to the epitaph on his gravestone: ye shall seek the truth,” Nick says now. “It also centers on protecting his legacy, making sure he is recognized for the investigative work and personal sacrifices he made to seek the truth. Ultimately diving into what it possibly cost him (his life).”