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Cape murder haunts Provincetown police chief

Provincetown Police Chief James Meads held a drawing by forensic artist Mary Mize based on the smashed skull of the murder victim known as the "Lady of the Dunes."Stephen Rose for The Boston Globe

This story is from the Globe archives. It originally appeared Sept. 6, 1987.

PROVINCETOWN -- Thirteen years ago, a beagle sniffing around the dunes of Provincetown, its young owner nearby, made a gruesome discovery: the body of a young woman who had been brutally murdered.

The body -- badly decomposed, its skull crushed, the head severed at the neck, the hands cut off and missing -- has never been identified, the killer never found.

But now, the first leads in several years have rekindled interest in the case, and Provincetown Police Chief James J. Meads is ready to tackle again a mystery he has always vowed he’d solve.


Related | Farragher: The mystery of Provincetown's Lady of the Dunes

Earlier this summer, a woman in her early 20s who lives in Canada told an acquaintance a bizarre tale: she said she remembered seeing her father strangle a woman in Provincetown about 15 years ago, Meads said.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were notified and they, in turn, called Meads and the Massachusetts State Police. In the meantime, the woman moved from western Canada to the Montreal area, and police are trying to track her down. When she is found, a member of the State Police Crime Prevention and Control Unit in South Yarmouth and Meads plan to travel to Canada to interview her.

Then, last week, a woman from Maryland called Meads to say that she had not heard from her sister since the sister moved to Boston in 1974 -- the year of the murder. She also said her sister had auburn hair, the same color as the murder victim's.

Meads didn't question her too closely as to whether she had tried to locate her sister before this. Instead, he told her to do what he has told hundreds of others over the years: get dental charts of the missing woman and send them to him.


Since the dead woman's face was crushed and decomposed and her hands -- and therefore, fingerprints -- were missing and have never been found, dental records are the only way of identifying her.

"It's no use wasting my time extensively interviewing this woman about what she's been doing to find her sister for the past 13 years if the dental charts don't match up," Meads said last week. "She said she could get the dental records. I'm expecting them in the mail any day."

As for the tale of the woman in Canada, Meads is skeptical.

"From what I've been told, she said she saw her father strangle somebody. If that's true, then it's not our victim because she wasn't strangled. Then again, if she were a child, maybe her perception of what happened is off. But no matter what, when they find her, I'll go to Canada to talk to her."

RELATED | 2000: Police hope second exhumation will identify victim

It is that relentless pursuit of any and all leads, tips and hunches that has marked Meads’ investigation of the only unsolved murder case out of the handful he has encountered during his 17 years as police chief.

"Ever since this happened, Jim won't leave a stone unturned," said Dr. Stanley M. Schwartz, head of diagnosis at the Tufts University Dental School and the state dental forensic examiner who pieced the murder victim's skull and teeth back together.


"He has told me that he'll never quit, and he never has. He'll follow any lead. He's a very intelligent, well-trained and experienced police officer. And very dogged."

Meads was 41 years old and had been Provincetown's chief of police just four years when the body of "The Lady in the Dunes" was found in a dense grove of scrub pine trees about 2 1/2 miles east of Race Point, on July 26, 1974.

The woman, estimated to be 25 to 30 years old, about 5 feet, 8 inches tall with a big-boned, athletic build, had been killed by a blow to the left side of her skull.

She was found nude, lying sideways on a light green, terrycloth beach blanket. Her dungarees and blue print bandanna were folded neatly under her head as though used as a pillow. Her blouse has never been found.

Her long, reddish-brown hair was held back with a barrette. On her teeth were seven gold crowns, worth about $5,000 to $8,000 at the time. She had been sexually molested with a wooden object, evidently after her death.

Although pathologists said she had been dead only four or five days, the July heat and dune flies had left the body badly decomposed.

Since there was no sign of a struggle, and the bed of pine needles on which she lay was undisturbed, Meads believes she knew her assailant and was asleep when attacked.

Schwartz reconstructed the teeth, jaw, and skull, and Dr. Clyde Snow, a renowned forensic anthropologist for the Civil Air Medical Institute of the Federal Aviation Administration, now retired, created a clay model of the woman’s features.


Photographs of the model and artists' renderings of the sculpture, were circulated worldwide. Desperate for leads, Meads got articles on the case published in dental journals and police and detective magazines. Thousands of dentists were contacted in an effort to locate the one who had done the expensive dental work. Meads appeared in national magazines and on network television. He has traveled extensively following leads.

In the intervening years, Meads has received thousands of letters and phone calls. About 50 have been able to supply dental records, but none have matched.

There have been seemingly promising leads. There was the man in prison in Maine who kept drawing pictures of women without hands; the women at a Provincetown campground who reported their friend missing -- she later turned up.

Meads even consulted psychics; one told him he would find the hands buried under a building at a certain address. It turned out that a cellar had been dug just the previous year.

On one side of Meads' office, the stack of papers on the case stands 2 to 3 feet tall. In another corner, the victim's skull sits in a cardboard box, waiting for an identity. A chunk of the skull about the size of a hand is missing, and a jagged 8-inch crack runs across the top.


Meads, now 54, is the only law enforcement official who has worked on the case continuously since the body was discovered; everyone else has either retired or been reassigned. He is contemplating retiring in three years when he will have 30 years of service.

"With most murders, you try to figure out who the murderer was," he said quietly. "I've spent years trying to figure out who the victim was."

Today, Meads is more resigned. "As the years dwindle on, more dentists will retire or die, more dental records will be lost and the opportunity for identification will diminish," he said. "Maybe someone on death row will decide to cleanse his soul before he dies and confess to this murder.

"It appears that someday I'll retire and the case still won't be solved. But I'm sure whoever follows me in this job, if they get a lead, they'll call me. And I'll be ready."

Meanwhile, every so often he pulls out the file and thumbs through it. Or stares at the skull.

"There's always been something special about this case to Jim Meads," Schwartz said. "He looked at it like, this is a human being that had something horrible done to her. He wants to identify her so the perpetrator can be brought to justice. He has always felt a contact of some sort with that young woman."

Meads had the body buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Provincetown. The stone reads, “Unidentified female.” Schwartz said that for years, somebody placed a small vase containing flowers at the marker every July 26.