Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Mysterious Death of Karen Silkwood


If it weren't for the circumstances in which she'd died, if she'd not accumulated her cluster of documents, if she hadn't been on her way to communicate them to areporter for The New York Times, perhaps Karen's car accident would have been viewed differently. Perhaps the explanation that the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the coroner had put forward would have been generally accepted. But because Karen Silkwood was no ordinary person, her accident was no ordinary accident. Because she had a reputation for being fiery, because she was known to smoke pot, because she had been on Quaaludes to calm her nerves, because she had the drug in her system and pills in her stomach, because two joints were found in her purse, because she had been branded a "loose" woman by detractors, it was easy for the police to sum it up: Silkwood died because she fell asleep drugged at the wheel.

Karen Silkwood
Karen Silkwood

To her compatriots in the union and her other friends, the accident didn't make sense. She had veered from the far right of the road to the far left; tire tracks could be seen in the road and the grass. As an autocross racer, her Honda, though not fancy, was tricked out for racing. She was a better-than-capable driver. Several other details were troubling. She had last been seen at the Hub Cafe, where there had been a union meeting. There, it was noted by Wanda Jean Jung, Silkwood had had iced tea and had not seemed sluggish or tired. "Karen had all this stuff she was going to take to Oklahoma City," Jung said in the Biography channel documentary. "She had all of it and she had a big manila folder. It was just about that thick —two inches."

And there were other discrepancies. As noted in a press conference with Oklahoma Highway Patrol, a drunken or semiconscious person's body upon impact is often less damaged in an accident than that of a person who is awake and bracing for the crash. Karen's injuries were inconsistent with a drunk or sleepy person getting hit. The details suggested that she may have been awake upon impact, which even the officer being questioned admitted was possible.


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