The slaying, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1974, is back in the spotlight thanks to author Joe Hill, son of Stephen King
The “Lady in the Dunes” was naked and decaying — her head almost decapitated, both wrists lopped off — by the time she was discovered dead in July 1974 in a cluster of trees near Race Point Beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
She was lying face-down on a green towel. A blue bandana had been tucked beneath her head, which had been bashed in, along with a pair of Wrangler blue jeans, “folded up like a pillow.”
At the end of each arm, where the lady’s hands should have been, were piles of pine needles.
Despite her gruesome state, whoever killed the lady had left her body in a serene scene just a few dozen feet from the sand roads where people usually came to explore the coast. The area was marked with blood, but authorities suspected the lady had been slain somewhere else days earlier, if not weeks.
“She was definitely posed there,” recalls Warren Tobias, retired acting police chief in Provincetown. “She was lying out on a beach towel as if she was sunbathing.”
In absence of the lady’s real identity, she was nicknamed for the the place where she was found. But, even with the advancement of DNA technology, her name and her killer have never been confirmed.
“After 44 years we still don’t have that answer,” says Tobias, who has been involved with the case, as an investigator and more recently as a civilian, for decades.
The lady’s death remains a mystery — and a magnet for countless theories about who could be responsible. (Some even speculate that the notorious South Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, convicted in myriad other murders, had something to do with it.)
Now the case is back in the spotlight thanks to author Joe Hill, son of horror novelist Stephen King.
HIll’s hypothesis about the lady, which he first detailed in an August 2015 blog post, has recently gained national attention, partly because of the podcast Inside Jaws, which delves into the making of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster.
His theory? Before she died, the Lady in the Dunes may have appeared as an extra in the film, about a rogue shark eating his way through the waters around Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
Specifically, Hill highlighted a moment about 54 minutes and 2 seconds into the film during a crowd sequence set on the Fourth of July, when he spotted an extra — a fit, young-looking woman with brunette hair wearing a blue bandana — who bore a “startling resemblance” to a composite sketch of the lady herself.
He wondered, “What if the young murder victim no one has ever been able to identify has been seen by hundreds of millions of people in a beloved summer classic and they didn’t even know they were looking at her?”
“What if,” he wrote in 2015, “the ghost of the Lady of the Dunes haunts JAWS?”
In that same post, Hill also acknowledged multiple issues with his “out there” theory, such as the extra not wearing the same type of Wranglers found with the lady.
What’s more, he noted, blue bandanas were worn by six other women in the following sequence in the movie.
Still, production on Jaws had attracted a lot of local curiosity and filming was relatively close to where the lady’s body was eventually found (about 100 miles) and occurred not too long before.
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Drawing on his authorial roots, Hill wrote, “It would be no surprise at all if a girl summering on the Cape decided to take a few days to explore the Vineyard… especially with the added bait of celebrity to draw her in.”
Later, according to Hill’s blog post, he talked to an FBI agent he knew about his idea. The agent, he wrote, told him: “You know, it might be worth going forward with your theory. There might be something in it. Odder ideas have cracked colder cases.”
Hill said it was just a hunch, and a bizarre one — but even so.
“My thing is writing ghost stories,” he told the Washington Post this week. “I can’t tell if this is my imagination just doing the thing that it always does or if there’s actually something there.”
Speaking with PEOPLE, the case’s lead investigator, Provincetown police Detective Meredith K. Lobur, declined to go into detail about her work but says, “Anything that generates interest is always good.” (A prosecutor’s spokeswoman was equally succinct, telling PEOPLE: “If any evidence surfaces it will certainly be looked at.”)
Detective Lobur says, “We follow any lead and any theory we will follow up on. If any of your readers have any information, I follow up on everything.”
Hill agrees. He told the Post, “There are people alive today who were in that shot in Jaws and know they’re in that shot.”
“Two astonishing things happened on Cape Cod in the summer of 1974,” he continued. “One is that Steven Spielberg filmed Jaws, and other is that someone murdered this woman in the dunes outside Provincetown and got away with it. Anything that stirs people’s memories could potentially be productive.”
The case has perplexed investigators for decades, ever since the lady’s body was found by a young girl walking her beagle. Her hands were severed in an effort to prevent her identification.
Her hair, reddish-brown, was worn in a ponytail and she weighed between 140 and 150 lbs., standing between 5-foot-6-inches and 5-foot-8-inches tall.
Tobias, the retired police chief, says she was in her mid to late 20s. Notably, she had about $10,000 worth of gold crowns in her mouth and the dental work she had done was in the “New York style.”
Through the years authorities have exhumed the lady’s remains twice, as DNA technology has progressed, and reconstructions have been done to try to capture what she looked like before she was slain, Tobias says.
Ground-penetrating radar has been used. Mob ties were probed, motorcycle gangs were investigated. Psychics have even been contacted, purely out of desperation.
Tobias says a Maryland murderer even confessed, about 20 years ago, but police didn’t believe him — his story didn’t add up.
Tobias, who joined the Provincetown police the same summer the lady was found dead, later took over the case in 1989 and worked on it until retiring in 2009. He is still involved as a civilian, he says, and is actively working on promising angles, but he declines to elaborate.
Asked about the possible scenarios that led to the lady’s death, Tobias says he could “talk for hours.”
He’s appreciative of the interest Hill’s theory brings to the case: “I have thought a long time that is what it is going to take, a lot of exposure, for somebody to finally come forward with some sort of information.”
But he’s personally skeptical it holds the answer to the mystery.
“Do I think it is her? I don’t know. Is there a resemblance? Yeah, I think some, but it was the ’70s. I mean hundreds of thousands of young women dressed that way — blue jeans and bandanas, with their hair down. Is it possible? Sure. Is it likely? Probably not. Just the mathematical odds.”
Studio records may not be helpful. The Post reports that, decades ago, extras were not as meticulously tracked by the productions who hired them and an Entertainment Weekly reporter was unsuccessful in gaining more information from the Universal archives.
The film’s casting director has also passed away, according to Esquire.
Tobias thinks that perhaps the lady “wasn’t from this county and [was] from somewhere else completely, cut off news from here. Perhaps she was an orphan and maybe she didn’t have any family.”
“So many things about it you would think we would be able to solve it and identify her,” he says. “I can tell you that the Provincetown Police Department is not giving up on this.”
Anyone with information about the case is urged to contact Detective Meredith K. Lobur at 508-487-1212 or email@example.com.