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The Kennedys in Aspen: A New Year's Tragedy

BY Matthew Malone | November 27, 2017 | Feature Features

On its 20th anniversary, writer Matthew Malone recounts a day Aspen will long remember.
Vicki Gifford and Michael Kennedy at the fifth Kennedy Center Honors in Washington D.C., Dec. 5, 1982.

"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!”

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