Penny Dey's "Lost In Nevers Land" Recounts Disappearance Of Margaret Kilcoyne At Nantucket Film Festival

Jason Graziadei •

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The island's greatest unsolved mystery - the disappearance of Dr. Margaret Kilcoyne in 1980 - will be retold on the big screen this week at the Nantucket Film Festival.

Island resident Penny Dey spearheaded the short film that will screen on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. as part of the festival's "Shorts: Views From Nantucket" program at The Dreamland theater.

"I felt this story was disappearing," said Dey, who produced the film with Dee White and the support of Nantucket Community Television. "I thought about these stories that are vanishing because people weren't here when they happened." 

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Dee White and Penny Dey, co-producers of "Lost In Nevers Land"

Kilcoyne, a 50-year-old seasonal resident of Nantucket who owned a home in Tom Nevers, disappeared from her home in January 1980 and was never seen again despite a massive search undertaken by island authorities. Today, the cold case still has 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.

"I remember it clearly when it happened," Dey said. "It was the first time we felt we had to lock our doors. I thought 'I'm going to tell this story so it doesn't get forgotten. I like things that don't have neat endings and this, clearly, doesn't have a neat ending."

When Dr. Kilcoyne made her fateful final trip to Nantucket 43 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.

"Because it's not been solved, my whole approach to the film is what could have happened," said Dey. "We don't solve it, obviously, but we raise all the possibilities."

A page from the original police file on Kilcoyne's disappearance.

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. 

Dr. Margaret Kilcoyne in her college graduation photo.

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. It also 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.

"What’s happened, so many of the people involved first-hand are no longer with us," Dey said. "Or they chose, for various reasons, not to speak about it. One of the key people is George Rezendes who was the police captain in charge of the investigation. I met with him at his house in the spring of 2023 and he died a few months later. I thought this is disappearing." 

Dey interviews a number of Nantucket residents who were living on the island and/or involved with the search at the time, including Bob Garrabrant, who flew the search plane over the island, and Jim Perelman. 

"People ask me often what I think happened to her, and I answer it two ways," Dey said. "What I'd like to think, that her brother spirited her out of here to get help. She clearly needed some help and was having a mental/emotional experience. But I think that’s highly unlikely. I think it’s more likely that she, for whatever reason, had to go into the ocean." 

Read more about Dr. Kilcoyne's disappearance in N Magazine's 2016 story "Cold Case." 

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