A Shocking Crime on Cape Cod: Is this the Lady of the Dunes?

Nearly forty-five years ago a horrific crime scene was discovered in the pristine sand dunes of Provincetown.  It was an event which sickened and baffled locals and law enforcement alike.  To this day it remains one of the most shocking unsolved crimes not only on Cape Cod but in the United States as well.  A young woman had been brutally murdered and in the attempt to conceal her identity her body had been savagely mutilated.  To this day her identity remains unknown though a recent event might give hope that the crime will not stay unsolved forever.  She is known only as The Lady of the Dunes and this is what is known of her story. 

On the hot afternoon of July 26, 1974 a teenage girl was walking her dog in the remote dunes near Race Point in the Cape Cod National Seashore.  She came upon something unspeakable, a dead body.  The girl then alerted police.  There was a claim that author Sandra Lee as a child had discovered the body first yet never spoke of it, however those claims have never been substantiated.  

In an area approximately a little over a mile east of where the Old Harbor Life Saving Station sits today at Race Point Beach the young woman was found resting on a green beach towel, the left side of her skull had been crushed; no murder weapon or fingerprints were found at the scene.  More shocking than the murder itself was the lengths the killer went to cover it up.  The woman’s hands were missing, as were some of her teeth, and her head had been nearly removed as well.  There had been no signs of a struggle and no drugs or alcohol in her system.  Police believed the woman’s body had been in the remote area for anywhere from ten days to three weeks.  Sadly the woman had no real form of identification due to this.  All police had found at the scene was a rubber elastic band in her reddish-blonde hair and a pair of folded up Wrangler jeans and a blue bandana upon which her head had been resting face-down.  It was a disturbing and unsettling scene for the peaceful and fun-loving Provincetown. 

In the weeks and months which followed the ghastly discovery as many as thirty police detectives combed the area around the murder scene with no luck in finding any clues.  When looking for relatives, or those who may have seen the woman in the time before her death, the police could only give a vague description. She was anywhere from 20-40 years old, roughly 5’6 1/2” 145 pounds, had reddish-blond hair in a ponytail and toenails painted pink.  Besides the basic physical characteristics there was not much else to go on.  The investigators checked her description against thousands of missing persons nationwide with no luck.  They found the owners of every deserted bicycle and vehicle in the area, as well as every vehicle which had legally driven out on the dunes in the weeks prior to the body being found, still no luck.  

On October 19, 1974 the unidentified victim was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Provincetown with a marker simply reading: ‘Unidentified Female Body Found Race Point Dunes; July 26, 1974.’  Over the coming months and years police came up with few suspects, none of which were ever charged or even deeply investigated.  It baffled the police that no family or friends came forward looking for the victim.  After the first exhumation of her body in 1980 revealed no new information it sadly became a true cold case. 

Picture Courtesy of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

In 2000 her body was exhumed a second time in a new attempt to match her DNA against that of Rory Gene Kessinger, an inmate who had escaped from a Plymouth prison months before the murder.  It was not a match  In May 2010 new facial recognition software allowed forensic experts from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Smithsonian Institution to create a composite of what the victim looked like. 

In 2018 Joe Hill, son of famed author Stephen King, revealed that he believed that he had possibly found the Lady of the Dunes in a clip from the movie Jaws filed on Martha’s Vineyard in 1974.  Hill claims that the unidentified woman, wearing a blue bandana similar to the one found underneath the victim’s head, appears briefly in the movie approximately fifty-four minutes in. Despite the hope created by Hill’s revelation it still remains a long shot.  Even if the woman was an extra, and not simply caught in a crowd shot, records for extras in movies forty years ago are spotty at best.   

Forty-four years after the mutilated body of a young woman was found in a remote area of the dunes near Race Point the case remains open and unsolved.  The Lady of the Dunes has become something of a sad legend.  Though unsolved that does not mean that the case has not had its share of theories and rumors.  There are thoughts that famed mobster Whitey Bulger should at least be a person of interest. This is due to the similarities between the victim’s identity cover up which resembled Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang’s style, and Bulger’s connection to Provincetown’s Crown and Anchor in the 1970’s.  There was also a prison confession by convicted murderer Hadden Clark that he had killed The Lady of the Dunes, however no evidence has come from that either.  Unfortunately as the days and years pass it becomes harder and harder to find new leads.  The Lady of the Dunes’ legend continues to grow even as the hopes of finding her true identity grow fainter.   

As of today the case is still open and being worked on by the Provincetown Police Department.  Detective Meredith Lobur has asked: “Please encourage anyone with any information to please reach out.  All possible leads will be investigated.” 

If you have any information concerning this case, please contact:
Provincetown Police Department
Detective Meredith K. Lobur
[email protected]

By Christopher Setterlund

737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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