Reopening one of Nantucket’s greatest unsolved mysteries: The disappearance of Dr. Margaret Kilcoyne.
Few people on Nantucket remember her name all these years later, but for those that do, Margaret Kilcoyne is an enigma. She was a brilliant doctor with horn-rimmed glasses. A loner who built her summer home in a secluded corner of the island. A devout Catholic who believed she was facing a spiritual test. A fiercely competitive researcher of hypertension with delusions of grandeur. A fifty-year-old physician with, perhaps, her own undiagnosed psychiatric disorder. But then she was simply the woman who vanished.
The disappearance of Dr. Margaret Mary Kilcoyne on a frigid Nantucket night in January 1980 remains one of the island’s great unsolved mysteries. It is a cold case with no definitive answers or explanations, and it still haunts the Nantucketers who were responsible for finding her. To this day, they don’t agree on what exactly happened to Kilcoyne that night. And the curious circumstances both before and after her disappearance have never fully been explained. “The whole thing, right from the beginning, was strange,” says retired Nantucket Police Department captain George Rezendes, one of the lead investigators of the case. “You’d have to say it was just bizarre from the beginning.”
When Dr. Kilcoyne made her fateful final trip to Nantucket thirty-six years ago, she was telling her friends and family that she had made a significant medical discovery that would win her a Nobel Prize. An assistant professor of medicine at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, Kilcoyne left her laboratory in New York City flying high and planned to unwind and celebrate with a brief getaway to the island. She was met on Nantucket by her brother Leo, an executive with IBM in Canada. On the evening of January 25, 1980, she dined at her home in Tom Nevers with Leo and two friends, Nantucket residents Richard and Grace Coffin. They were the last people to ever see Dr. Kilcoyne.
The next morning Leo Kilcoyne called the Nantucket Police Department at 7:15 a.m. to report that his sister was missing. Her winter coat, boots, wristwatch and purse had been left behind in the home, but Dr. Kilcoyne was nowhere to be found. An extensive search began almost immediately, as police officers scoured the acres of dense scrub oak that surrounded Kilcoyne’s home, as well as Tom Nevers Pond and the southeastern shoreline of the island. But nothing turned up. There were no footprints or anything to indicate where she might have gone.
The island authorities checked in at the airport and the Steamship Authority to see if she had left on a departing flight or ferry. They stopped by Nantucket Cottage Hospital on the chance she had been admitted. Still, nothing. The search expanded into the moors, cranberry bogs and out to Polpis and Sankaty. By noon that day, a Coast Guard helicopter had been called in to assist the search team on the ground, which had grown to include State Police troopers and island firefighters. For two days they searched Nantucket with forty-five public safety personnel who covered the entire east end of the island on foot, checking unoccupied houses and even sending divers into Tom Nevers Pond before the effort was called off on January 28th. Rezendes continued to check the beach for Kilcoyne every morning over the next few days, but he and other investigators found no signs of foul play and concluded that the doctor must have committed suicide by walking into the Atlantic Ocean.
The first mention of Kilcoyne’s disappearance in the press came on January 31, 1980 when The Inquirer and Mirror published a brief story about the doctor going missing and the subsequent search. The article appeared on page eleven of that week’s newspaper. “She was a brilliant lady, a lady on her own, and she just disappeared,” said former Massachusetts State Police Trooper Jack McGrady, who assisted the island police department with the Kilcoyne investigation. “It was very strange, very unusual.”
As the calendar turned to February 1980, Kilcoyne’s disappearance might have faded into memory as an unfortunate but relatively unremarkable missing persons case, but a discovery just a short distance away from her home in Tom Nevers was about to turn the investigation on its head and make it a national story. On February 3rd, just over a week after Kilcoyne vanished, Nantucketers David Cocker and Lisa Ladd were out running their dog along with two friends visiting from Cape Cod when they spotted something in the Philips Run swamp area east of Tom Nevers Road. Neatly piled at the edge of a clearing they found Kilcoyne’s passport, savings book, and sandals, along with her wallet containing a single one hundred dollar bill. The items were found in plain sight in an area about a mile northeast of Kilcoyne’s home that had already been thoroughly searched a week earlier. The unsettling discovery prompted another full-scale search of the area by law enforcement officers, firefighters and volunteers. About 150 yards away from the neat pile of the doctor’s belongings, search teams found a brown, long sleeved blouse in the scrub oak that was later identified as belonging to Kilcoyne. The new developments forced investigators to reconsider their initial conclusions and led many to believe that something other than suicide was afoot.
“We had gone through that swamp,” said former Nantucket fire chief Bruce Watts, who took part in the search for Kilcoyne. “To me, it felt like a set up.” On February 7th, the case made the front page of The Inquirer and Mirror with the news of Kilcoyne’s newly found belongings and the renewed search effort. The story kicked off a period of frenzied media attention including coverage by Boston newspapers and television stations, along with The New York Times, the Associated Press and New York Magazine. “There was no good explanation,” said former Nantucket resident and writer Gary Holmes, who covered the story for The Inquirer and Mirror as a cub reporter. “It definitely wasn’t your usual missing persons case.”
Leads began pouring in as the story spread, and alleged sightings of Kilcoyne were reported on Cape Cod and in Boston. Nantucket police officers and the town prosecutor, the late Bob Mooney, chased down those leads and followed up on the sightings. They travelled to New York City to search Kilcoyne’s apartment and interview her colleagues at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. But they continued to come up empty even as they learned more about the woman they were seeking.
Kilcoyne’s disappearance became the talk of the town on Nantucket and the fascination of the press, both on-island and off. “In the middle of winter, it captured the island’s imagination and it became gossip driven and very salacious in a way that I look back on now and think where was the compassion and empathy for this woman?” said former island resident Rosie Ruley, who was a student at Nantucket High School at the time Kilcoyne went missing. Ruley has since spent years researching Kilcoyne’s disappearance and is writing a fictional book based on the case. “Maybe she did make her way to the beach and walked into the ocean,” Ruley said. “But my biggest problem was how quickly people bought into that theory.”
The theory that Dr. Kilcoyne had committed suicide by walking into the ocean in the midst of some type of mental breakdown emerged just a few short hours after she went missing, and was first put forward by her brother Leo. He told Nantucket police that his sister was “very upset and in a somewhat confused state,” and that he had come to the island in an effort to get her some psychiatric help.
Kilcoyne’s mental state and what some considered strange behavior in the days before her disappearance became a focal point of the investigation. She had indeed made comments and behaved in a manner that raised eyebrows among some of her colleagues and friends. Richard and Grace Coffin described her to police as being “hyper” the day before she disappeared. Investigators discovered that Kilcoyne had also taken a taxi to the former A&P in downtown Nantucket that day and purchased $645 worth of groceries and $200 in liquor — huge sums in 1980 — allegedly for a party she planned to host in order to announce her medical discovery.
Police also learned that while she was on her way to Nantucket, Kilcoyne made a pit stop in Connecticut where she approached a stranger, 26-year-old Andrea Principe, as she was getting off work. Kilcoyne told Principe that she was a “nervous wreck” and asked the woman if she knew of a hotel in the area. They proceeded to a nearby Marriot together, and Kilcoyne was so appreciative that she invited Principe to have dinner with her. Kilcoyne purchased an expensive bottle of wine and spoke of her “major” medical discovery as they dined. Principe later told police that Kilcoyne started a conversation with the waitress, and even offered her a job in her laboratory in New York. When they learned that there was no vacancy at the hotel, Principe invited Kilcoyne to spend the night at her home. She awoke the next morning at 5:30 a.m. to find that Kilcoyne was already gone.
Then there was the tape recording that turned up at Kilcoyne’s home the day she went missing. The tape contained nearly two hours of a telephone conversation between Kilcoyne and her brother in which only her side of the conversation can be heard. In a rambling stream of consciousness, Kilcoyne spoke of her medical research, the “prominence” and “power” she could wield from her discovery. She spoke, too, of her belief that both she and Leo were being spiritually tested and said that she had received a message from his late wife, Julie. Many of her comments on the recording were downright bizarre and difficult to decipher. But then again, some of her closest colleagues said that’s how Kilcoyne always talked.
The tape was found by Leo Kilcoyne in his sister’s Tom Nevers home and delivered to Trooper McGrady. To some, it represented the last words of a woman suffering from a manic episode who was potentially suicidal. To others, including a few of her friends, it simply sounded like the Dr. Margaret Kilcoyne they knew. “They said it was a typical conversation, with rapid fire talking where you couldn’t get a word in edgewise,” then-Nantucket Police chief Paul Hunter told The Inquirer and Mirror in March 1980. The article also noted that “Hunter said Dr. Kilcoyne’s close friends and relatives found nothing unusual with her talking about being on a higher spiritual plane or receiving messages from her dead sister-in-law.”
As Dr. Rosamond Kane, a former colleague of Kilcoyne, told New York Magazine in 1980, “That’s why I can’t figure this whole thing out. Because it can’t have been suicide. Tell me someone has committed suicide and I’ll say, ‘Well, yes, maybe he was depressed. Or worried about something the rest of us didn’t know about.’ But not Margaret.”
Ruley, who has actually had an opportunity to listen to the recorded telephone conversation, is unconvinced that it indicated a woman in a manic episode or someone on the verge of suicide. “It didn’t sound to me like someone unhinged,” she said. “It was someone concerned and upset about something that she cared about.”
Kilcoyne’s alleged strange behavior in the days leading up to her disappearance, Ruley believes, might simply be a case of misinterpretation on the part of investigators and those she encountered. The $600 shopping spree? For a woman who had a summer house on Nantucket, shopping at the A&P in the winter probably meant finding bargains on items she wanted to stock up on.
“When you start putting it together through a different lens, it becomes a different story,” Ruley said. “It becomes a story about a woman who was misunderstood by the people who were trying to find her. If you take the whole narrative with a different lens, she wasn’t crazy, she was different from the prevailing culture.”
She was, certainly, a woman ahead of the times in which she lived. Kilcoyne was the first woman accepted to the University of Vermont Medical School, where she graduated with an MD in 1964. She practiced and excelled in the then male dominated field of medicine and earned a prestigious post at a leading academic medical center. At fifty years old, she was unmarried and owned apartments in New York and Boston, as well as the house on Nantucket.
In the years before her disappearance, Dr. Kilcoyne kept a relatively low profile on the island. She had purchased the secluded property in Tom Nevers in August 1970. At that time, Tom Nevers was largely undeveloped, a wasteland of scrub oak notable only for the Navy Base that was still in operation and the Kennedy bunker, a relic of the Cold War and Camelot. In October 1972, The Inquirer and Mirror noted that Dr. Kilcoyne had been approved to build a 1,456 square-foot home on Parsons Lane. Four years later, she was named president of the newly formed Tom Nevers Head Civic Association. The only note of controversy in her adopted summer home came in 1977 when Dr. Kilcoyne joined twelve other Tom Nevers property owners in filing a class action lawsuit against a developer, Albert W. Seifert, who had received approval for a four-lot subdivision abutting her home.
Jumping into the Kilcoyne case nearly forty years after the fact was like entering an episode of the Twilight Zone that just happened to have taken place on Nantucket. As I went farther and farther down the rabbit hole of her disappearance, the strange coincidences and twists in the case continued to accrue and grew more baffling.
For starters, Kilcoyne never reappeared on the island or elsewhere, and her body was never found. There is no explanation for how her belongings and blouse showed up a week after she went missing in an area of the island that had already been searched. And the deeper you dive, the more implausible coincidences you find. Take, for instance:
– In the week after she went missing, a search plane piloted by island resident Bob Garrabrant crashed as it was scanning Tom Nevers for any sign of Kilcoyne (luckily, Garrabrant survived).
– The Nantucket Police Department’s lead investigator in the case, Paul Hunter, started his new job as police chief on the island the very day Kilcoyne went missing.
– Nantucket police eventually brought in a psychic to assist in the case.
– And to top it off, I submit- ted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Nantucket Police Department for the case files on the Kilcoyne investigation. As it turns out, the records are missing, too. The case files, Lt. Jerry Adams said, disappeared several years after the initial investigation.
But, as I found out, that didn’t mean the records were unobtainable. Copies of the lost case files were still floating around the island, and thanks to a few sources willing to share them, I managed to get a peek at some of the missing documents. Perhaps the most intriguing was a pair of confidential reports dated March 9, 1980 and March 23, 1980, authored by Deputy Sheriff Peter Robbins of the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Office, Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
According to his reports, Robbins travelled to Nantucket more than a month after Kilcoyne’s disappearance with K9 Zeus, a cadaver dog specially trained to detect human remains. On both visits, the police dog was drawn to a wall in Kilcoyne’s bedroom, at one point even scratching and biting at the wall. Robbins then conducted a series of chemical tests using sodium chloride irrigation solution, as well as luminol solution, in an effort to detect the presence of human blood – remember, this was well before the days of DNA evidence. But not only did the wall that got K9 Zeus’ attention show positive results for the presence of blood, but so did the baseboard and floor below the wall, as well as the bathtub and bathroom sinks.
Robbins reported his findings to Nantucket police and Bob Mooney, but it appears the new information did not lead them to believe Kilcoyne was the victim of foul play. “Due to the sensitivity of the testing reagents and the fact that no large masses of blood stains were found, it would appear, and it is the opinion of this officer, that each stain and/or positive reaction could have been produced under perfectly normal circumstances,” Robbins concluded in his report. The fact that the dog had detected blood on the wall of Kilcoyne’s bedroom, and that it had tested positive for the presence of blood, never made it into the press reports about the case, and it is unclear what the authorities did to follow-up on this information.
While authorities may not have believed that the blood evidence was indicative of something sinister, I found that some of the people directly involved in the original investigation do not believe the prevailing theory that Kilcoyne, in the midst of a manic episode, had walked into the ocean and committed suicide.
“My theory for this whole thing, and I still stick to it, is that she flew out undetected and went somewhere and just disappeared,” said Watts, the former fire chief. In fact, Watts once called the Kilcoyne case “the biggest scam ever perpetrated on this town.”
Former Nantucket Police officer Paul Smith, who was also involved in the Kilcoyne investigation, said he still believes Kilcoyne is out there somewhere, very much alive. “I feel Dr. Kilcoyne was depressed but is still alive somewhere today and that the suicide was staged between her and her brother Leo,” Smith said. “That is why her things were found at a place that was already searched… She probably was having some sort of mental breakdown and didn’t want to receive the prestigious award she was nominated to receive for her work. But I feel she is still alive and living in Canada or someplace under false identity.”
McGrady, the state police trooper, offered an alternative scenario. “We found that a light aircraft had left the island early that morning, before the airport opened, and we don’t know where it came from, whose it was, or where it was going,” he said. “There was no record of it because the airport wasn’t open, and the FAA wasn’t working at the time. Look, I think she was a confused lady, and her brother came down to help her and he helped her get away from the island to get some [psychiatric] help.”
Even Rezendes, who told me right off the bat that Kilcoyne had simply “walked off” later revealed that in the decade that followed her disappearance he had entertained the possibility that the conspiracy theories might be true. “For years I kept an eye on the town report in Worcester, where one of Kilcoyne’s brothers lived, to see if her death certificate would ever show up,” Rezendes said. “That [would prove] her brother scooped her up and put her in an institute. I did that for ten years or so but nothing ever showed up.”
Earl Zimmerman, a neurologist who worked closely with Kilcoyne at the then-Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, dismisses such conjecture. At the time Kilcoyne went missing, Zimmerman was collaborating with her on a grant from the National Institutes of Health in which they were attempting to determine whether the human brain can regulate blood pressure through a peptide hormone called angiotensin. Their discovery in the weeks before her disappearance — that angiotensin was indeed present in the brain — was Kilcoyne’s crowning achievement in her research on hypertension. It was what led her to believe the Nobel Prize might be within her grasp. Today, Zimmerman practices behavioral neurology in Albany, New York. When I reached him by phone, he said that in the years since his colleague disappeared, he began to see the case in a different light as his research expanded to Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
“In retrospect, I realized what happened to her was really a medical tragedy,” Zimmerman said. “Since that time we’ve become aware in the field that people can become psychotic at forty-five or fifty for the first time, and there’s a suspicion that they have dementia. I think I now realize that I lost a colleague because she had a brain disease and presented this way.”
Yet for Ruley, it’s not Dr. Kilcoyne’s actions in the days leading up to her disappearance that deserve the most scrutiny, but rather the subsequent behavior of her brother, Leo Kilcoyne. “Quite quickly after her disappearance the brother started talking about suicide,” Ruley said. “I found that to be striking. If a loved one disappears, the last thing you want it to be is that. But he got there quite quickly… And he left the island the next day. He plants a theory and leaves and is never really challenged on it. And he’s someone who stood to gain from this.”
Leo Kilcoyne filed a petition in Nantucket Probate Court in June 1980, six months after his sister’s disappearance, seeking to be appointed the receiver of her property. A month later, the petition was granted and he took control of the Nantucket home, along with his sister’s bank accounts, cars and other belongings. On July 13, 1989, The Inquirer and Mirror’s front page headline announced: “Mystery ends, Kilcoyne declared dead,” after Leo Kilcoyne’s second petition to have his sister declared legally deceased, was accepted by the court.
Throughout the initial investigation, there are occasions when his behavior sticks out as unusual. Don Smith, a friend and neighbor of Dr. Kilcoyne on Nantucket, told police that he went to see Leo after his sister had gone missing. “Leo seemed cold and more or less ignored him,” according to a report written by Rezendes on February 15, 1980. “He did not ask Don about his visit with Margaret on Thursday night even though Don told him he had been over at that time.”
When police tracked down the waitress who had served Dr. Kilcoyne in Connecticut as she travelled to Nantucket before her disappearance, they found that Leo had called the woman the day after his sister went missing and was “intent on convincing her that Margaret was very depressed and suicidal.” The woman, Susan Price, report- edly told Leo “Mr. Kilcoyne, there is no way she took her own life!”
Watts was somewhat skeptical too. “I would put it this way: if it was my sister or brother who disappeared, I would have been hysterical. It’s your kin, your blood, and I would have been frantic, getting everyone in, hiring private detectives. His actions were not the way I would have reacted. Everyone reacts to situations differently but in my opinion, what can I say?”
Perhaps Leo Kilcoyne’s reaction was merely his own way of dealing with his sister’s disappearance. Or maybe he knew more than he was letting on. But if he was holding any secrets, he took them to the grave. Leo Kilcoyne was killed on June 20, 1992 when the car he was driving slammed into a guardrail on I-495, about a mile south of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Police told the Milford Daily News that he had fallen asleep at the wheel.
Leo Kilcoyne is gone now, as are many others who once knew or searched for Margaret Kilcoyne on Nantucket. Island prosecutor Bob Mooney, former police chief Paul Hunter, and one of her few Nantucket friends Richard Coffin have all since passed away. The mystery of Dr. Kilcoyne’s disappearance may never be solved, but it remains an intriguing chapter of Nantucket history that isn’t easily forgotten.