In the summer of 1974, the vibrant Cape Cod community of Provincetown, MA, was shocked by the discovery of a woman's body near one of its famous beaches. Since her remains had lain undiscovered for more than a week at the time of her discovery, and the culprit purposefully obscured her identity, police were unable to determine who she was or what happened to her. She was nicknamed "The Lady of the Dunes," and her case has haunted law enforcement, locals, and observers ever since.
Thus far, none of the myriad theories attempting to explain the woman's identity - some people believe she was the target of a notorious serial killer, and others think she was an extra in Jaws - have offered definitive proof for their claims, and the woman's background remains a mystery. Here is the baffling story of the Lady of the Dunes, one of the most notorious cold cases in recent memory.
On July 26, 1974, 12-year-old Leslie Metcalfe was walking her friend's dog in Provincetown, MA, when she discovered a badly decomposed, unclothed female body along the shoreline, about a mile from Race Point Beach. The left side of her skull had been crushed, and police later determined this was her cause of death. The woman also appeared to have been sexually assaulted with a block of wood.
For decades prior, the small Cape Cod community was both a popular summer tourist destination and the home of a thriving counter-culture scene. At the beginning of the 20th century, Provincetown, lovingly nicknamed "P-town," was home to the largest artists' colony in the US. By the 1970s, the town's history of progressivism and tolerance had attracted a sizable LGBTQ+ community, and today it's one of the most popular spots for LGBTQ+ tourism on the East Coast.
This pleasant, small-town reputation is part of what made Metcalfe's 1974 discovery so shocking. "It was a horrific, brutal murder," said former Provincetown Police Chief Jaran, who was the fourth police chief to investigate the slaying. "It would be awful for any time, any place. But for the Cape, for Provincetown?’’
The woman came to be known as "The Lady of the Dunes," and her remains were buried in a Provincetown cemetery under a headstone that read, “Unidentified Female Body Found Race Point Dunes July 26, 1974.”
Several details indicated the culprit wanted to keep the woman's identity a mystery. Most notably, her hands were gone and have never been recovered. Police believe this was likely an attempt to prevent fingerprinting. Her head was almost completely separated from her body, and authorities believe the killer accomplished this with an object similar to a military entrenching tool. Finally, several of her teeth were removed, which could have been an effort to thwart identification through dental records.
Other details about her remains were also unusual. There were no indications that a struggle took place, and the sand around her body appeared undisturbed, although someone placed small piles of pine needles on the sand where her hands had been. Her head was resting on top of her neatly folded blue jeans and a blue bandana, and she was lying on a beach towel, as if she had been sunbathing; however, she only took up half the towel, as if she had been sharing it with another person. Police theorized that she may have known her killer, or she may have been asleep at the time of the attack.
With few solid leads, police developed alternate theories to help identify the Lady of the Dunes. One theory was that, because the hands had been removed to prevent fingerprinting, she may have had a criminal past. In the late 1980s, authorities hypothesized that the Lady of the Dunes was a woman named Rory Gene Kesinger.
Kesinger ran away from home at 15 years old. She used illicit substances heavily and robbed banks under five different aliases before she was arrested. Kesinger escaped from jail in nearby Plymouth, and she had been missing ever since. She even matched the Lady of the Dunes's physical description: between 5'6" and 5'8", and anywhere between 25 and 35 years old (Kesinger would have been 25 in 1974).
But in 2000, police exhumed the Lady of the Dunes and tested her DNA. It was not a match for Kesinger.
The Lady of the Dunes was most likely slain more than a week before her body was discovered - based on the body's advanced state of decomposition, authorities theorized that she had passed anywhere from 10 days to three weeks prior to Metcalfe's discovery. This lost time made retracing her final movements even more difficult. Police tried to locate her relatives, or anyone who might have seen her when she was alive, with no success.
Crime writer Sandra Lee, who was 9 years old in 1974, claimed she discovered the woman's remains two days before Metcalfe did when she was vacationing with her family in Provincetown. “I looked into the brush, and I saw at that point in my life, the single most gruesome sight I had ever seen," Lee later said. “She was [unclothed]. I could see an injury to the right side of her head and a little bit of a slice, which I believe they tried to cut her head off, police later said.”
At the time, however, Lee was too afraid to report her discovery to anyone, and her claim has never been substantiated.