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Vicki Gifford and Michael Kennedy at the fifth Kennedy Center Honors in Washington D.C., Dec. 5, 1982.

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The Kennedys in Aspen: A New Year's Tragedy

By Matthew Malone

Photo by Ron Galella /Getty Images

11.27.17

On its 20th anniversary, writer Matthew Malone recounts a day Aspen will long remember.

"FRONT DESK TO a driver. A guest needs a ride to Aspen Valley Hospital.”

The call buzzed my transceiver around 6pm Dec. 31, 1997. I was 23 and had just started my shift as a bellman and driver at the Aspen Club Lodge (now the site of the future W Hotel/former Sky Hotel).

As any local knows, working New Year’s Eve is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because there are plenty of tips to be made from the glittering, Champagne-fueled crowds packing every bar, hotel and restaurant in town. A curse because you miss one helluva party.

So as that call came across the radio, my fellow bellmen and I were looking forward to a busy—and profitable—night. This would be a quick, easy run before the madness really started. As it was, the request for a ride to the hospital wasn’t unusual. It’s a ski town, after all, and injuries are part of the game.

I pulled up in front of the hotel in a green Suburban with Aspen Club Lodge stenciled on the doors, and opened the door for the woman waiting on the sidewalk. I spared her the idle chitchat—it was a hospital run, after all—and we passed the 10-minute drive in silence. As we pulled off Castle Creek Road and into the hospital entrance, I asked, “Should I drop you off at Admissions or Emergency?”

“He’s dead,” she replied, her tone sharp with anger and sorrow. “Wherever you go for that.”

At 4:20pm that afternoon, Dave Blaine, an investigator with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, was driving home when he heard a radio call requesting an ambulance to the base of Aspen Mountain. An injured skier was being given CPR.

Blaine called the coroner to let him know of a possible fatality and waited. Forty-five minutes later, Blaine got word that the skier had died. His name: Michael LeMoyne Kennedy.

It’s fair to say that as he skied Aspen Mountain that day, 39-year-old Michael was looking forward to putting 1997 behind him. In April, news surfaced that he, the sixth child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, and husband to Victoria Gifford, the daughter of now deceased football great Frank Gifford, had been caught having an affair with the family babysitter.

As with any Kennedy scandal, it became a media frenzy, this one compounded by the fact that Michael’s older brother, Joe Kennedy, was then running for governor of Massachusetts. According to news reports, prosecutors were looking into claims that Michael, a father of three young children, started the relationship with the babysitter when she was 14, which would constitute statutory rape.

In July, after the woman—by then 19 years old after the five-year relationship—refused to cooperate, prosecutors declined to file charges. Joe, facing a wave of bad publicity that included the accusations against his brother, quit the governor’s race in August.

As they had many times over the years, the extended Kennedy family and friends spent that Christmas vacation in Aspen. Among their traditions was “playing football” as they skied. That New Year’s Eve afternoon, as the lifts began to close and ski patrol ushered skiers down the mountain, the Kennedy clan—some 20 in all—descended in two groups via Copper Bowl, a groomed intermediate run that’s among the main top-to-bottom routes funneling into Kleenex Corner and The Little Nell.

The conditions were typical of late December—a 23-inch base of packed powder. The sky was sunny with scattered clouds, and temperatures hovered around 30 degrees. Michael was skiing with a group of about 10, just behind the first group. They were about halfway down the run, at the point where the double-black trails Back of Bell #1 and #2 terminate into Copper Bowl, when Michael and the second group skied down the left side of the trail alongside family friend Blake Fleetwood.

Fleetwood, who goes by the nickname Harvey, held the football.

“Pass me the ball, Harve!” Michael said.

Fleetwood passed the ball to his friend. Michael caught it and looked uphill over his right shoulder for someone else to pass it to.

He didn’t notice that he was near the edge of the groomed trail, heading straight for densely packed trees.

Michael’s sister, Rory, screamed, “Stop! Stop!”  

The Kennedy family members carry the casket of Michael Kennedy out of Our Lady of Victory Church following the funeral mass Jan. 4, 1998. Among them are Michael (front), Douglas, Max and Bobby. Photo by Bethany Versoy/ZUMAPRESS.com

Around 7:30am the next morning, Blaine stood on the side of Copper Bowl. The ski patrollers present told Blaine that the scene had been untouched, with two exceptions. They had removed the yellow “caution” tape and covered over the blood that stained the snow where Michael had collided with the tree. Given the public’s fascination with the Kennedys, the patrollers felt both would attract undue attention.

Patrollers pointed Blaine to three trees on the side of the trail, which appeared to have grown out of a single trunk that showed just above the snowline. The trees were Englemann spruce and towered 65 feet tall.

Several broken branches still hung from the tree; others littered the snow. Blaine saw a mark at the base of the tree that looked like it might have been made from a ski tip. Other than that, there were no clear markings or evidence to show the point where Michael’s head collided with the tree. Blaine took a best guess at where Michael, at 5 foot 9 inches tall, would have made contact. At that point, the tree measured approximately 3 feet in diameter.

Blaine looked up the trail and saw ski tracks beginning about 16 feet above him, where the groomed trail met otherwise untracked snow. The tracks ended at the tree. It appeared that Michael, who, like most skiers at the time, wasn’t wearing a helmet, never saw the accident coming.

After crashing into the tree, Michael had landed on the edge of the trail with his skis pointing downhill. Blood streamed from his nose and mouth. Rory performed CPR as others shielded the view from several children. Michael was rushed downhill and to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His body was transferred to Community Hospital in Grand Junction for autopsy. The cause of death was multiple injuries from blunt force trauma.

That next day, as Blaine walked around the scene taking photographs, he noticed something hidden among the trees, a bright object resting in the snow.
A black and yellow Nerf football.

“Front desk to a driver. Pick up at Aspen Valley Hospital.” It was about 12 hours before Blaine made his trip up Ajax to investigate, and the second hospital call of the night. New Year’s Eve was in full swing.

News of Michael’s death had begun circulating through town, so when the call came in, I felt a flash of anxiety. I wasn’t looking forward to picking up a group of people so freshly in grief, so lost in a world now tragically, irrevocably, changed.

Maybe it wasn’t them, I thought. But as I pulled up to the entrance of the hospital, their faces told the story. I wound up spending the rest of the night driving around town as they gathered belongings and visited relatives. All the while, my radio crackled with requests for rides. I eventually turned it off.

It’s a strange thing, being an unsuspecting witness to what, in the case of the Kennedys, was a new chapter in a tragic history—a history that so magnetically attracted public attention. It’s not hard to understand the fascination. Days later, I read about Michael’s funeral, held in Centerville, Mass., Jan. 4, 1998. My 24th birthday.

Joe gave the eulogy. Letters from Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King were read aloud. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-wife Maria Shriver were there. So were John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn, the glamorous, star-crossed couple that, 18 months later, would add their own sad chapter.

Twenty years have passed since I drove in silence through Aspen’s streets with the Kennedy clan as the city loudly rang in 1998. The finer details are fuzzy, but I do remember two things as clear as yesterday.

I helped one of the men load a bag into the Suburban. As I tossed it in, I noticed a name scrawled in marker across the handle: Kennedy. And as I dropped the last passenger off in the early morning, he handed me a wad of bills. $100.

To this day, I regret taking it.

Note: This story is based on the writer’s first-hand experience and news and police reports.