Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Mysterious Death of Karen Silkwood


Several posthumous investigations were launched in both public and private spheres. The press picked up on Silkwood's story; The New York Times had a front-row seat because Burnham had literally been at the scene of the accident a few hours after it happened. He and Steve Wodka had been waiting for Silkwood at the nearby Holiday Inn. When she was uncharacteristically later than usual, at 10 p.m., they started making phone calls and learned of the accident. After Burnham's stories appeared in the Times, Rolling Stone picked up on the story and ran a series of articles on the plant and Silkwood.

Silkwood's Honda after the accident
Silkwood's Honda after the accident

And locally, people were still trying to hash out what had happened. An accident investigator, A.O. Pipkin was hired to investigate the accident by the union. Pipkin found that the rear bumper of Silkwood's car showed concave markings on the left side that neither Drew Stephens nor the mechanic who had previously worked on Karen's car remembered. That fender also tested positive for rubber, as if a bumper from another car had hit her from behind. Kerr-McGee and police contended that any dents in the metal fender were from the tow truck hauling the car from the ditch.

Kerr-McGee accepted the narrative put forth by the police department, and when questioned, went on the offensive. Company representatives suggested that Karen had been a drunk, drug-addicted floozy who perhaps had even gone so far as to poison herself to get the plant in trouble. To Silkwood's friends, this was a plainly preposterous notion, considering how much of a nervous wreck she had become over the last few month, but it was a version repeatedly put forth in the lawsuit that soon followed her death.

Art Angel, one of the lawyers for the Silkwood estate, in the Biography documentary, Karen Silkwood: A Life on the Line, recalled: "[Kerr-McGee Chairman] D.A. McGee regarded the trial as an outrageous intrusion and a slur on his company. As far as he was concerned, Karen Silkwood was a slut who brought all this on herself and had probably staged everything to embarrass his company."

The FBI and the Justice Department had also investigated the car crash and concluded that there was no foul play.

But because her coworkers knew that she was on her way to blow the whistle, they couldn't understand how Silkwood would have driven her car off the road into a ditch. The timing was particularly suspicious, especially considering the seriousness of her contamination episodes.

It also turned out that, happening on the scene of the crash, just after James Mullins found the car and before the police turned up, were Fred Sullivan and Law Godwin, non-union Kerr-McGee employees. It was suspiciously convenient, and it made for the perfect conspiracy theory.

But David Burnham, the reporter who had a bird's eye view of the whole affair, said in Life on the Line, that he wasn't so sure she had been purposely killed. "Oklahoma is pretty flat and there are not a lot of culverts, and for someone to have planned this as a way of murdering, I think it's just impossible as a planned murder," he said. But he allowed that, "I think it's possible someone set out to scare her."

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