Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Mysterious Death of Karen Silkwood


Karen Silkwood (inset), Silkwood's car after the accident
Karen Silkwood (inset), Silkwood's car after the accident

It was 7:30 p.m. on November 13, 1974, and driver James Mullins was driving down Highway 74, from Oklahoma City, Okla., toward the neighboring small town of Crescent. He caught a glimpse of a car on the side of the road, crashed in a ditch.

He pulled over his truck and got out. A small white Honda was smashed to bits, the front and left side of the car crunched like a soda can. A woman, motionless, was slumped over, one arm hanging over the side of the window. Her purse and a novel she had been reading—covered with blood—had flown out of the car and lay stuck in the mud.

Mullins noticed a paycheck, too: Kerr-McGee, the energy company with a nuclear plant located just a mile down the road.

This was not just any car crash. And the woman wasn't any accident victim. She was Karen Silkwood, who in death became one of the most famous whistleblowers in history. She would be portrayed by her generation's most famous actress, Meryl Streep, in an eponymous Academy Award-nominated movie; numerous books, magazine articles, newspaper stories, documentaries, would be dedicated to uncovering the mystery around her car crash.

Her death, on the surface, appeared to be a simple fell-asleep-at-the-wheel car crash. There were traces of Quaaludes in her blood stream, and more pills were found in her stomach, ready to dissolve. Marijuana cigarettes were found in her pocket. To the Oklahoma police, it was easy to file it as an accident, an open-and-shut case.

But because Silkwood had been collecting allegations about the health and safety conditions at the Kerr-McGee plant, where she worked, for several months, because she had just been so seriously contaminated herself that her home had been stripped of all possessions due to the radiation exposure, and because at the time of the crash she had been on her way to meet a reporter from The New York Times, allegedly armed with a manila envelope stuffed with evidence of corporate misconduct, the official conclusion was doubted by everyone who knew Silkwood personally.

Though she was hailed as a hero posthumously, in real life, she was a seemingly ordinary woman, fighting for her fellow workers health and safety, an unlikely hero who unwittingly found martyrdom.

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