Joe Hill was watching his favorite film, Jaws, at the beginning of the summer when he noticed something startling in a crowd scene: A woman in a blue bandana and jeans looked eerily like a woman he'd just read about, an unidentified murder victim whose body was found in Cape Cod the same summer Jaws was being filmed.
"I prickled all over," Hill told VICE News. "I had this throb of horror and thought, it was her, she's right there, but it was just a brief shot. I couldn't rewind. I didn't even know what I had seen. I felt like she had loomed out of the crowd at me, and then was gone."
The figure in the film, a woman in a scene full of extras crowding onto the fictional Amity Island for Fourth of July weekend, looked similar, he thought, to a composite image made of the infamous "Lady of the Dunes," a woman about 30 years old who was found mutilated, wearing a blue bandana and jeans, in the dunes outside of Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1974. Jaws was filmed on Martha's Vineyard the same summer.
"It's a pretty wild bit of speculation," Hill admits. "But it's also kind of interesting. There is this woman who died on Cape Cod, and there is this figure who can be seen briefly in the movie who matches the reconstruction… Was she in the right place at the right time? Or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it."
Hill, who writes thriller fiction novels, said he considered fictionalizing the story, but instead wrote about it honestly — if skeptically — in a Tumblr post over the weekend. He has since received responses from people who agree that the woman in the sketch and the extra in the film look alike. Some have even offered to help vet and verify the theory by searching for payroll records for Jaws extras, or by hunting for other data that could help solve the mystery.
It's the wisdom-of-the-crowd reaction that Hill hoped for after reading MIT science writer Deborah Halber's 2014 bookThe Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America's Coldest Cases. Halber examines online communities, including Reddit and Web Sleuths, that analyze thousands of cold cases simultaneously, with users poring over details trying to figure out missing clues in cases with unidentified victims or missing persons.
Halber's book is also what introduced Hill to the Lady of the Dunes case, which has been the subject of investigations and conjecture since it occurred in 1974. In fact, Hill said he finished Halber's book just a few weeks before the viewing of Jaws when he noticed the lookalike, and he admits he may have been "primed" to see it.
"Coming up with spooky unlikely tales is what I do for a living, it's just that in this case I've managed to tell myself one I half-believe," he said. "As far fetched as it seems, this woman was alive in Cape Cod the summer they filmed Jaws."
Provincetown police detective Meredith Lobur, the investigator who is now assigned to the Lady of the Dunes case, told VICE News she hadn't heard of Hill's theory but would be interested in seeing it. Lobur declined to talk about any recent leads on the case.
"There's a DNA profile for the victim, and we're hoping someone with information will come forward and we can proceed from there. That's pretty much all I can say," Lobur said.
Halber, the author of the book about online crime solvers, said she wouldn't be surprised if Hill and his armchair gumshoes are able to crack the case. "It seems interesting," she said of Hill's theory. "Honestly, I have to say with all the people I talk to in my book and cases that were solved decades later, I could believe anything is possible."
Investigators and forensic specialists warned Halber repeatedly that web sleuths often rely too heavily on photos, comparing them to computer-generated or artist-drawn reconstructions or to forensic details. Photos are "really, really deceptive," Halber said.
What has been useful to some investigations, she said, is the work that users put into combing over details, comparing cases across state or county lines and making connections that law enforcement officials might miss because they don't have the time or resources.
"It is really painstaking to go through it all," she said. "The people I spoke to with the most success with this were really just willing to spend time on this needle in a haystack effort."
The folks who typically take the time to work through details of cold cases online, she said, are often retirees, or people who are underemployed or undereducated — the type of person who has the spare time and brainpower to piece together enough clues to identify a victim, or provide a breakthrough that helps solve the case.
"Once you start looking into details of one of these individuals, you get sucked in, like you know this person, their dental work, their height and weight and age and how they wore their hair, and you start thinking this is somebody I could have known, that anybody could've known, and you feel like you have to give them back their name," she said.
'Once you start looking into details of one of these individuals, you get sucked in.'
Adam Wandt, an expert in digital forensics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told VICE News that online sleuths can be helpful, but they also run the risk of incriminating the wrong people.
"If we're talking about cold cases, the ability of the internet to keep up the motivation to solve these cases is a very good fit," he said. "But there is the stress of them making bad determinations, and that can be extremely harmful."
Wandt noted that after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Reddit users and other would-be crime solvers analyzed hundreds or thousands of images and ultimately fingered the wrong suspect, a situation that he said runs the risk of ruining an innocent person's life.
But Wandt also pointed out that the wild popularity of the podcast Serial, which focused on the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee and the possibility that Lee's ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was wrongfully convicted, led to new evidence being uncovered, and a court ruling that allowed an appeal by Syed to move forward. "That's something that never would have been done if not for the online community forming around it and demanding the court of appeals take another look at the case," Wandt said.
Hill hopes that the web sleuths will be able to vet his theory, dig through more detailed records of who was involved in Jaws, scan B-roll footage of the extras on Amity Island, or re-watch other scenes in the film to see if the mystery woman appears elsewhere. The ultimate goal, he said, is to say definitively whether or not the extra was actually the Lady of the Dunes.
"In 1974, a lot of people were young and having the time of their lives on Cape Cod and remember it very clearly," he said. "Someone saw her. She was there. There's always the chance to stir someone's memory."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen
Top photo via Flickr/Kurtis Garbutt
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