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thomas farragher

The mystery of Provincetown’s Lady of the Dunes, 40 years later

In July 1974, a woman’s remains were found in the National Seashore in Provincetown. Her hands were amputated, and she had been nearly decapitated.

Globe photo/File

In July 1974, a woman’s remains were found in the National Seashore in Provincetown. Her hands were amputated, and she had been nearly decapitated.

Who killed her?

Who bashed in her skull and cut off her hands? Who left her lying naked and face down on a green beach towel, Wrangler jeans and blue bandana folded neatly into a crude pillow beneath her head?

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Across four decades now, those questions have bedeviled investigators of one of the state’s oldest cold murder cases.

But it’s no simple whodunnit. The most bedeviling question is this: Who is she?

The identity of the so-called Lady of the Dunes, whose badly decomposed body was found about a mile east of Provincetown’s Race Point Beach 40 years ago Saturday by a little girl walking her beagle, is a Cape Cod murder mystery worthy of Truman Capote or Dennis Lehane.

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For half a lifetime now, Provincetown detectives have ridden an investigatory roller coaster trying to solve this macabre riddle.

They’ve consulted dentists and psychics. They’ve exhumed the body and extracted DNA samples. They’ve used ground-penetrating radar. They’ve made a plaster reconstruction of her face. They’ve watched as suspects have tantalizingly presented themselves, only to have the trail grow cold again.

“How does someone end up here, of all places, not to be identified for 40 years?’’ the lead investigator, Provincetown police Detective Meredith K. Lobur, said the other day, standing at the site where the body was found under a small cluster of scrub pine trees.

It’s a question that haunts and drives Lobur, a former public defender in Boston, who joined the P-town police force 3½ years ago precisely to pursue this case.

“She’s always some part of my day,’’ Lobur said. “Some murders are never solved. I refuse to believe this is one of them.’’

RELATED | 2000: Police hope second exhumation will identify victim

To say the case is cold describes the results of the so-far fruitless search, not its intensity.

As Lobur and one of her predecessors, retired Acting Chief Warren Tobias, review details of the brutal killing and the search for the killer, you get the feeling the search has become personal. “I know there’s a murderer out there somewhere loose,’’ said Tobias, who led the search for 22 years. “There’s a family out there that needs closure.’’

The victim’s hands were severed at the wrist and taken to thwart identification. She had long, reddish-brown hair, and seven expensive gold crowns. She was between 25 and 35, possibly older. She weighed 140 to 150 pounds, and stood 5 feet 6 to 5 feet 8 inches.

She had been dead for up to two weeks, her body ravaged by a searing summer sun and dune flies. “A year and a half ago, we absolutely thought we knew who it was,’’ Lobur recalled. “Nope,’’ Tobias said.

Lobur has marshaled an impressive amount of scientific firepower and has assembled a case file stored in a bookcase next to her desk that groans under its heft.

The latest DNA evidence was collected last summer and now forms the basis for the forensic scavenger hunt.

It is not a passing fancy for Lobur. She works on the case on her days off. She finds her mind wandering to it when a ‘70s song plays on the radio: Did she like this song?

She is convinced the killer will be found once, and if, the victim is known. The two were closely linked, investigators agree.

But 40 years have passed now. If the killer was about the same age as the victim, he, or she, could be pushing 70. “That window is closing, and it’s closing rapidly,’’ Lobur said.

For now, she’s trying to raise funds for a new coffin. After 40 years, the Lady’s thin metal casket is rusting out and falling apart.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.
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