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Police hope second exhumation will identify ‘Lady of the Dunes’

This story is from the Globe archives. It was originally published April 2, 2000.

To the Lady of the Dunes, who holds the ignominious distinction of having one of the oldest files in the Massachusetts State Police Cold Case Unit, comes a new distinction, no less flattering.

Her exhumation last month was the second time in Massachusetts history that a body has been retrieved from the grave solely for identification purposes. The first time was in 1980 - same body, same intent, but the effort to no avail at the time.

“We have no record of another case such as this,” said State Police Sergeant Richard Nagle. “This is a first.”


On March 23, a small granite marker in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Provincetown was moved aside so the remains of a grisly murder could be tapped for DNA material. The woman was found naked in 1974 in sand dunes on Race Point at the tip of Cape Cod. Her assailant had tried unsuccessfully to chop off her head, but had succeeded in removing her hands.

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

Police surmised at the time that the murderer had wanted to deny any possibility that fingerprints could be traced to a name that, by association, might help solve the crime.

But that was a dozen years before forensic DNA would become a legal tool in criminal court.

“And if we can get a match with DNA, this will be a big break in the case,” said Philip A. Rollins, district attorney for Barnstable County. “We figure out who she is, then we’ll start to work figuring out who did it.”

If her identity is confirmed - Rollins expects results in one month or less - a murder that has cast a quiet but needling spell over the outer Cape, will begin inching its way toward closure.


“No mystery around here has had quite the longevity as this one,” said Warren Alexander, a 60-year-old lifelong resident of Provincetown who serves as both the building inspector and the assistant fire chief. “It will feel nice to have this one solved.”

But solving it is by no means a sure thing.

The woman’s body was found on a hot July day by a 13-year-old girl walking her dog. Pathologists thought the victim had been dead for a few days, blaming heat and dune flies for the poor condition of the corpse. Her Wrangler jeans were left folded beside her body.

Investigators had few clues. There was no sign of a struggle, leading police to believe that the woman knew her attacker, and that she may even have been killed somewhere else. Police believed the mutilation was more crafty than perverse: The victim must have had a criminal record, they reasoned, and her killer must have feared that the fingerprints would pave an easy path to pursue.

Related | From 1987: Cape murder haunts police chief

Provincetown police, who have declined to discuss the case, did much of the early legwork.

“I don’t believe she was a poor innocent,” Detective Warren Tobias told the Globe several years after the killing. James J. Meads, the police chief who would retire in 1992, was described back then as a man who pursued this case “like a bulldog with lockjaw.”


A few years after the murder, Tobias and Meads began to suspect the victim was Rory Gene Kesinger. Kesinger, 24, had been arrested in 1973 for robbery and assault in Plymouth County, but had escaped from Plymouth County Jail while awaiting trial. Someone had slipped her a hacksaw blade, awaited her descent from a window using tethered sheets, and driven her away. Then Kesinger, known as a heavy drug user to police, disappeared.

When Provincetown police learned about Kesinger’s physical characteristics, they suspected she might be the woman local lore had begun to call the Lady of the Dunes. The body was first exhumed in order to extract blood samples and use the skull to create a facsimile sculpture of the victim’s face. Blood tests proved inconclusive, but the sculpted bust strongly resembled photographs of Kesinger.

Police, however, were unable to get confirmation after sending photographs of the bust nationwide. Nor could they figure out where to start checking dental records for a victim who had had an estimated $7,000 in crown work. Eventually, the State Police Cold Case Unit was invited to assist.

About two years ago, Sergeants Nagle and Paul White located Kesinger’s mother in a western state - they declined to be more specific - and persuaded her to proffer a saliva sample for DNA matching. But laboratory crime technicians were unable to extract DNA from the skull to prove heredity.

So on March 23, the body was reexhumed so samples of marrow from other bones could be extracted for a type of DNA matching that could prove - or disprove - that the mother and daughter are related.


Some reports have said one Hadden Clark may have been on the Cape at the time of the murder. Clark, 47, is serving time for killing a 6-year-old girl and a 23-year-old Maryland woman in 1992, according to the Cape Cod Times.

Clark apparently has told police he killed at least 11 other women and buried some of them near his grandparents’ former home on the outer Cape. Clark’s brother is serving time in California for the dismemberment murder of a co-worker, according to the Times.

On March 24, the Lady of the Dunes was reburied, and the stone replaced that reads: “Unidentified Female Body Found Race Point Dunes July 26, 1974.”