For 46 years, the identity of the woman known as the Lady of the Dunes has gone unknown. Since she was discovered near Province Town, MA, on July 26, 1974, what happened to her has remained a mystery still on people’s minds decades later. Despite efforts, including the exhumation of her remains in 1980, 2000, and 2013, the identity of both the Lady and her killer has continued to allude investigators (Wikipedia).
The Lady’s remains were discovered by a 13-year old girl, Leslie Metcalfe, who was following a friend’s dog when she came across the remains approximately 15 feet from the closest road. Metcalfe told an adult, but later Sandra Lee, who was 9-years old at the time and is now an author, claims to have found the body a couple days prior but been too scared to come forward (Leigh 2020). Near her remains there were two sets of footprints and tire prints, possibly belonging to those who committed the crime. There was significant insect activity at the scene and it is estimated that she had been dead for approximately two weeks when she was found. She was found half on a beach blanket and with a blue bandana, possibly used to hold back her long, auburn hair. Her hair was held back in a ponytail with a gold elastic band and her toenails were painted a pink color when she was found (Wikipedia).
The Lady is described as having been approximately 5 foot 6 inches tall, weighing in at approximately 145 pounds with an athletic build. She had quite a bit of dental work – approximately $5,000 to $10,000 worth. The form of dental work done on the Lady was known as “New York Style” among dentists and included crowns. At the time her remains were recovered, she was missing a hand and forearm. While most reports have her aged 25 to 40, some people believe she could have been as young as 20-years old and as old as 49-years old (Wikipedia). That being said, it is believed that she is most likely in the age range of 25 to 35-years of age (Leigh 2020).
The Lady had been strangled, to the point of near decapitation (Wikipedia), though there are some reports that her head was nearly decapitated using a shovel (Puente 2018). Her head was partially crushed, likely by some form of entrenching tool. Her cause of death was noted as the blow to her head (Wikipedia). A postmortem suggested that she had been sexually assaulted after death, possibly with a block of wood (Leigh 2020). No further evidence was found at the scene and no drugs or alcohol were found in her system (Capecod.com 2019). The blanket was mostly undisturbed, leading investigators to believe that she had been killed somewhere else. Despite an extensive search, the car that had made the nearby tracks was not found, no other location was found, and attempts at identification futile. In October 1974, the Lady of the Dunes was laid to rest when the case was officially considered a cold case (Wikipedia).
When she was exhumed in 1980, an attempt was made to find more evidence on her person, but none was found. However, her skull was not reburied with the rest of her remains and instead kept out for further investigation. When she as exhumed again in 2000, it was to search for DNA, though no results have been announced. In 2010, her skull was sent through a CT scan and images were generated to be sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to have another reconstruction done. A Canadian woman told a friend in 1987 that she had seen her father strangle a woman in Massachusetts back in 1972, but attempts by police to find this woman were for naut. Another woman came forward after a reconstruction was released of what the Lady may have looked like, claiming that the reconstruction looked like her sister who had disappeared in Boston in 1974. Rory Gene Kessinger was also a possible victim, having broken out of jail in 1973 and gone missing. She would have been 25-years old at the time the murder occurred, but she has since been struck from the list of possible victims. Her mother’s DNA was tested and did not match with the DNA of the Lady (Wikipedia).
In 2015, son of Stephen King, Joe Hill, became aware of the case after reading the book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. After reading the book, he watched the movie Jaws (filmed in Massachusetts in 1974) when it was in the cinemas again for the 40-year anniversary with his sons, when he spotted a young woman in the background of one scene wearing a blue bandana and jeans that were similar to the bandana and jeans found with the Lady’s remains. Unfortunately, records on extras were not well kept back then and it is possible she barely even knew she was being filmed, if the extra in the crowded scene 54 minutes into the movie is truly the Lady of the Dunes. The theory gained traction for a while after being brought up on a podcast about the movie, and has since been covered in other videos such as the one done by Buzzfeed Unsolved. One way of proving this would be to see if the woman in the scene comes forward. Being an extra in a movie as iconic as Jaws is not something someone would forget, and it is likely that, if the woman is still alive, she would come forward to declare that she is the extra (Puente 2018). While the theory that this extra in Jaws was the mysterious Lady of the Dunes, many have found the theory to be too far fetched and have written off this possibility (Wikipedia).
Several suspects have been named in various theories, including the infamous Whitey Bulger. A woman matching the description of the Lady was seen with Bulger around the time that the murder occurred and Bulger had a history of removing the teeth of his victims. The removal of teeth is often used to make identification of remains harder. Tony Costa, a serial killer active in the area, was a suspect at one point, but after it was uncovered that he had died the May before, he was removed from the list. Serial Killer Haden Clark confessed to the killing, but is known to have paranoid schizophrenia and be more likely to confess falsely to crimes. He was known to have told others that what the police needed was in his grandfather’s garden. In 2004, Clark reached out to a friend with a confession of killing a woman in Cape Cod, along with a map pointing to where the remains could be found and a drawing of a naked woman lying on her stomach with no hands. Four years earlier, in 2000, Clark lead investigators to a place he claimed to have buried two victims more than 20 years earlier (Wikipedia)
In 2019, it was announced that a new kind of DNA test was going to be used in an effort to identify the Lady. In 2018, a long cold case was solved using this technique and the victims of the Golden State Killer found some modicum of peace knowing Joseph D’Angelo was no longer free. The DNA test is genealogical. Like with the Golden State Killer, DNA from the Lady could be taken and run against an anonymous database to search for possible relatives. While this was used to find relatives of the Golden State Killer in that case, in this case it could be used to finally identify the young woman murdered brutally all those years ago. Genealogical DNA has opened a door in crime investigation that could solve an untold number of cold cases, despite the reservations some have about the possibilities (Bragg 2019). Joe Hill has stated that he would like to see her DNA submitted to one of these databases in hopes that she could be identified as well (Puente 2018).
Who was the Lady of the Dunes? Was she the extra spotted in Jaws? Or was she someone else, perhaps a hitchhiker who met the wrong person? 46 years later, we are closer to answers than ever with the advent of genealogical databases, but we are still so far. It is possible that someday in the next few years, we will get a name for the Lady. We will be able to say, “she was the Lady, and we finally have a name.” Perhaps, with a name, will come more suspects. Perhaps we will be able to look at the name and say, “we know who the Lady was around” and be able to narrow down the suspects. Perhaps. For now, the case unfortunately remains unsolved, and the Lady remains unidentified.
. “Lady of the Dunes.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 July 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_of_the_Dunes.
Leigh, Cat. “Lady of the Dunes.” Medium, True Crime by Cat Leigh, 2 Mar. 2020, medium.com/true-crime-by-cat-leigh/lady-of-the-dunes-623d5d723030.
“A Shocking Crime on Cape Cod: Is This the Lady of the Dunes?” CapeCod.com, 3 Oct. 2019, www.capecod.com/lifestyle/a-shocking-crime-on-cape-cod-is-this-the-lady-of-the-dunes/.
Bragg, Mary Ann. “New Look at Old ‘Lady of the Dunes’ Mystery.” Capecodtimes.com, Capecodtimes.com, 14 Apr. 2019, www.capecodtimes.com/news/20190414/new-look-at-old-lady-of-dunes-mystery.
Puente, Maria. “’Jaws’ Mystery: Did Long Unknown ‘Lady of the Dunes’ Cape Cod Murder Victim Appear in Movie Scene?” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 8 Aug. 2018, http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2018/08/07/jaws-mystery-did-unidentified-cape-cod-murder-victim-appear-scene/923860002/.