Bill Waeckerle woke up when the young man in the airplane's bathroom called out for help. Republic Airlines Flight 967 was droning between Watertown and Rapid City, S.Dak. on the night of Sunday, Sept. 11, when the commotion roused Waeckerle, 35, a school administrator and amateur boxing referee returning from a match in Michigan. "The bathroom door was open," he recalls. "He had opened the door and asked for the stewardess. He wanted assistance. He was in his white socks, without his boots, sitting a little bit off balance on the toilet with the seat down, slipping a little bit as the plane bounced along. He was nervous, almost overactive, jumpy and chatty and incoherent. He appeared very ill."
Waeckerle and another of the 45 passengers on the Convair turboprop tried to help the young man back to his seat, but he didn't want to move. After five minutes of cajoling, Waeckerle convinced the man, wearing blue jeans and a striped short-sleeved work shirt, to lie down on the empty seats directly in front of the bathroom. They placed pillows under his head, spread blankets over his body and administered oxygen. "He was white as a sheet, cold as an ice cube and large beads of sweat were pouring off him," Waeckerle remembers. "There was a loss of muscle control. The eyes were wide open and fully dilated. His pulse was weak. I couldn't get it from his wrist, so I took it from his neck. It was 30 and weak, which concerned me."
Although the young man refused Waeckerle's offer to summon a doctor, the pilot radioed ahead to Rapid City for an ambulance. Meanwhile, Waeckerle tried to keep the nodding stranger awake by talking to him. "We talked about boxing and he said that he had boxed some and liked it a lot," he recalls. "He was coherent at this point and appeared to be a very intelligent young man." Gradually, the color returned to the man's face, his pulse rate picked up and the cold sweats subsided. When the plane landed about 9:45 p.m., he was much improved. He slipped on his boots and reached for his tan leather carry-on bags. The stewardess informed him he would have to stay until the others got off. Outside, two police cars and an ambulance pulled up, lights flashing. Paramedic Dave Hodgson, 34, found the passenger in good condition: blood pressure 122/70, pulse 72, normal. Escorted by police, the young man walked off the airliner. "The stewardess had asked me to get his name," says Waeckerle. "He told me his name was Bobby Francis. He spelled it out for me."
Actually, as police discovered when they had him in a conference room at Rapid City's small airport, the young man's full name was Robert Francis Kennedy Jr., and they had a problem on their hands. A small knot of friends was waiting anxiously for the arrival of the 29-year-old scion of America's most famous political family. One of them, a slim, sandy-haired woman, tried to run to RFK Jr. when she heard there were police cars there. As the police questioned Kennedy, phone calls began going in and out of the room at a furious pace. For part of the three-hour detainment he sat quietly, reading a book about the Middle Ages. After midnight the cops released him but kept his flight bag. (A search warrant was not obtained until two days later.) A Rapid City lawyer, John Fitzgerald, 50, hurried into the terminal. (Once a Boston lawyer, Fitzgerald had moved to the South Dakota town after a 1968 car bomb explosion, thought to have been planted by the Mob, cost him his right leg.) By that time only the sandy-haired woman was still waiting for Bobby. They drove off in a vintage Thunderbird.
Kennedy reportedly spent that night in the nearby, picturesque Black Hills town of Deadwood, where his friend Bill Walsh, 43, an ex-Catholic priest, owns an old hotel that Kennedy had frequently visited. The next day, for unexplained reasons, he reportedly drove into neighboring Wyoming and then returned. By that time the Kennedy family "crisis management" team, headed by in-law Stephen Smith, was in full swing. On Tuesday, accompanied by hastily summoned companion Don Juhl, Kennedy flew by private jet to Minneapolis. Juhl is known as a high-priced, California-based counselor for celebrities—mostly rock stars—with drug problems. The family had considered checking Bobby into Hazelden, a Minnesota drug treatment center, but then decided he should return East. On Wednesday he entered Fair Oaks Hospital, a treatment center in Summit, N.J., whose pioneer director of research, Dr. Mark S. Gold, once had treated rock star John Phillips and his actress daughter, Mackenzie.
Bobby then issued a statement, released by his uncle Sen. Edward Kennedy, admitting his drug troubles. "With the best medical help I can find, I am determined to beat this problem," he said. On Thursday, more than four days after the airplane incident, Rapid City police charged Kennedy with possession of heroin (authorities said that slightly less than a gram was found in his bag), a felony punishable by up to two years in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Despite the young Kennedys' scrapes over the years—the car wrecks, the carousing, the marijuana busts, even younger brother David's 1979 heroin problem—the news about Bobby was especially shocking. As much as any of the family's new generation, he was heir apparent to the Kennedy legacy, the standard-bearer of their '60s social conscience. Interviews with friends and acquaintances across the country, however, reveal a different, frightening story.
In fact, there were two Bobby Kennedys. The public one was diversely talented. He worked as an assistant in the Manhattan office of District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, a family friend, with a splendid political career ahead of him. At 24, he had turned his 1976 undergraduate Harvard thesis into a well-publicized biography of maverick Alabama judge Frank Johnson, whom he admired for his courageous compassion (and who taught him to chew tobacco). His vigor and thirst for adventure had led him from the touch-football fields of Hickory Hill to white-water rafting on raging South American rivers, skiing the virgin powder of Andean mountains, appearing in an African wildlife documentary and learning the fine points of falconry.
The private Bobby, though, was a desperate young man, an adventurer who courted danger in other ways, some of them chemical. One source says he had become a "binger." One night he might overindulge in alcohol. Another night, with another group of friends, it might be cocaine. Then it was Valium to round off the jagged edges. And increasingly it was heroin, which he would score on dangerous forays alone into nighttime Harlem.
Few of his friends ever saw the full problem—he rotated his nights with them to keep it private—and he was terrified of seeking help in case his family would hear of it. "Everyone would tell him not to use drugs, but that doesn't really help someone who's sick," says one intimate. "He always said he was wrestling with it. It was an agonizing struggle for months, but he felt he couldn't go to a doctor or hospital. He felt it was just too dangerous for him." Going to the family directly was out of the question: "With the Kennedys, it's a live-or-die situation. You either make it or you don't. They don't really believe in these kinds of diseases. Seeking help would ruin his life, betray his father."
His double life and his struggle against it go back at least to his law school days. One fellow Virginia student remembers an idealistic speech Bobby delivered in jurisprudence class on a favorite topic. "He talked about the '80s and how self-indulgent they were and how, in the '60s, people cared," she recalls. "He got up and made this incredible comment about the loss of ideals since the '60s. At that point I think we realized—hey, this kid really is Bobby Kennedy's son." During the same period, however, another friend remembers, he went to a university clinic to see a doctor about his drug problems. "But when he got to the waiting room, a big public room, and saw the receptionist, he knew she'd call out his name," the friend says. "He turned away at the door."
That name, of course, represents a concentration of wealth, power, fame and tragedy unique in American history. Given the $400 million fortune amassed by his grandfather Joe, Bobby Jr., like all the 28 other Kennedy cousins of his generation, was born a millionaire. He was 9 when his uncle President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. He was 14 when he stepped out the door one morning in June 1968, picked up the paper and learned his father had been shot during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He turned back into the house and fed the newspaper, crumpled page by crumpled page, into the fireplace.
Bobby felt the loss most keenly. His mother, Ethel, had 10 other children to care for. "His mother had a lot of concern for the younger children who needed her mothering, and she couldn't give a lot to the older kids," says one source close to the family. "Besides, Bobby needed a dad." He soon found a surrogate father in longtime family friend LeMoyne Billings, an advertising exec who had been John Kennedy's Princeton roommate in 1935 before JFK transferred to Harvard. Billings took Bobby Jr. on a six-week tour of Africa. Bobby sometimes lived in Billings' E. 88th Street Manhattan duplex for months at a time. He took it hard when Billings died at 65 in May 1981. "It was like reliving the death of his father," one source says. "That aggravated his drug problems."
Despite the turmoil, Bobby rallied. He graduated from law school. He married Emily Black, 25, a beautiful fellow Virginia Law School graduate from a middle-class family in Bloomington, Ind. They moved into the large, expensive East Side home that Billings had left him in his will, and he went to work. The pressures—and the temptations—multiplied in Manhattan. His failure of the bar exam last summer (by one point, friends claim) got wide publicity, and he withdrew from another exam scheduled last February. He loved his job, but the pressure on him in it was more than professional. "He felt a huge obligation, a tremendous family obligation to give something back to society," says an observer. "He thought a lot about his work, staying up late to work on briefs."
When he went out, social climbers sought an "in" with him by offering a gram of coke, booze, Valium, whatever. It was hard for him not to accept. And a more vicious drug, heroin, had become readily available in the social circles he frequented. For the privileged young, heroin was the last danger. For Bobby, the drug connected the two worlds long associated with the Kennedys—that of wealth and power and that of the underclass. More and more he began to slip away alone, sometimes by bicycle, sometimes in his car, to the Harlem ghetto, in almost a perverse reflection of his father's devotion to civil rights. "Bobby Jr. has a great affinity for poor people, and he would spend his free afternoons in Harlem, playing football. As a Kennedy, he felt safe. He had no fear of black people or ghettos," one acquaintance says. "He felt very much at home with them. He helped kids up there."
At night they helped him: In that blasted urban shambles, he bought smack. "He would go to 116th Street," says an acquaintance, citing a block where suburban chippers frequently buy drugs. "You pay $10 or $30 at one end of the block and get your drugs at the other end of the block. Sometimes he would visit a 'shooting gallery' and be the only white person there. He's the bravest person I've ever met." One friend remained unimpressed: "It was just insanity."
His work began to suffer. One observer reports he was almost unable to function while handling a routine arraignment a few months ago. "He wasn't really coherent," the observer says. "His line of reasoning was impossible to follow. He kept talking about how people in jail try to change their names, and it had nothing to do with what was going on."
Meanwhile, he intensified his sporadic efforts to clean himself up. He requested and got several brief leaves of absence from Morgenthau's office to straighten out. He changed his phone number several times to try to avoid dealers. He would stay with friends for days on end, using them as "bodyguards" to help him go straight. He kept working. "It was an awesome, monumental task to keep going," says one friend. "He was never like a straight junkie for a year. There were some courageous attempts to clean out. Then he would succumb again."
Observers say his wife, Emily, was "in a frenzy" about how to help him. Unfamiliar with the drug user's world—or even with the moneyed class that suddenly surrounded her after their marriage—she didn't know where to turn. As the problem got worse over the past year, one source says, "His friends had pulled back. His problems were becoming obvious, and they just didn't want to get involved. They all began to realize the stakes were real. It was a pretty solitary thing."
Then, in May, Bobby got a big scare. Two close friends—Eric Breindel, now 28, a Capitol Hill aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Winston Prude, 32, a former Justice Department lawyer—were busted for heroin possession in Washington. Both had been invited to be attendants at Bobby's wedding a year before. Authorities say his "name came up" during the investigation. He determined to change.
He took another leave of absence from his job (he would resign the following month) and in June began a two-month stay with Bill Walsh in Deadwood, studying to take the bar exam again and exercising daily. "We started working out at about 11 a.m.," says Walsh of their daily regimen. "We ran four or five miles together in the hills, then we'd lift weights for about 20 minutes, followed by a swim at the Dead-wood recreation center. After our workout," Walsh adds, "Bobby spent most of his time studying. Then, late at night, he would come down and have a few beers at the bar and throw darts." In July, Walsh says Bobby returned to New York to take the bar exam yet again. Then he and Emily jetted to Jamaica for a week of sunshine and relaxation, returning tanned and fit.
The fall that followed was sudden and unexpected. On Sept. 9 he joined other young members of the Kennedy clan at Rockabout, a night spot in Manhattan's punk-chic Tribeca, to mark cousin William Kennedy Smith's 23rd birthday. The next night there was another party, a bachelor blowout at JP's restaurant on the Upper East Side to celebrate the upcoming wedding of Peter McKelvy to Sydney Lawford. By the time of the Sept. 17 nuptials, however, Bobby was in Fair Oaks Hospital, and Emily was in seclusion in New York with friends. By all accounts, his drinking at the second party started a slide into harder drugs, and this slide he could not, or chose not to, control. Indeed, a friend reflects, Bobby's Sunday flight to South Dakota was a desperate "cry for help. He wanted to get caught. He had binged. He knew he had started again. He was scared and he bolted."
Both friends and strangers have said they hope that new strength will grow from the latest Kennedy tragedy. "Bobby came awfully close," says Bill Waeckerle, the man on the plane who possibly saved his life. "It's too bad it had to go that far." A friend who knows him well says he is "relieved Bobby's finally getting the help he needs." Adds another, "Of all the grandchildren, he was the best. He carried one of the names. He didn't mean to bring dishonor on the family. I think this situation will destroy certain parts of his life, but if he gets help his opportunities are unlimited to be a father, a husband, somebody who can really contribute. Bobby needs a break from his family," the friend continues. "If you follow everyone else's route to the mountain-top, you don't develop confidence in your ingenuity to get there yourself. Bobby will now have to find his own way of fulfilling his family's destiny."