Lady killer

10Sep22

Tony Costa is the most vicious serial killer you never heard of, which is all the more remarkable considering he plied his trade right here in Massachusetts.

He didn’t just murder his victims. He eviscerated and dismembered them. And like so many other serial killers, Tony Costa was a real tough guy. He preyed on girls. He was suspected of killing at least eight young women.

Costa’s story is the subject of Helltown, a new book by Casey Sherman, who takes a novel approach to telling this tale of horror on Cape Cod.

Helltown, if you don’t know, is Provincetown. As Sherman explains, the name dates back to the seaside village’s earliest days, when its rooming houses, taverns and bordellos were crawling with pirates, whalers, smugglers and other ne’er-do-wells. According to Sherman, a sea captain was once asked why the place was called “Helltown.” He replied, “Because of all the helling that goes on there.”

In 1969, many years after the last pirate downed a tumbler of rum in a Provincetown pub, Tony Costa made sure that the name “Helltown” would stick.

Like a lot of serial killers, Costa was a charmer. He was handsome in a hippyish way, and the local girls loved the pretentious 24-year-old, especially the younger teenyboppers, who referred to him reverently as “Sire.”

He was big into drugs of all kinds, using and selling everything from marijuana to prescription medications and LSD. This also made him popular with the late-60s P-town youth. Tony was well-known to the Provincetown cops. He would rat out other local drug dealers. It got the competition off the streets.

But when girls started vanishing off the streets of Provincetown, circumstantial evidence kept pointing to Costa. He always had a ready explanation – also known as a lie. Conscience and morality were not things that troubled him. He cared only about Tony Costa.

When he took the easy way out rather than serve a life sentence for two of the murders, few were surprised. Tony was not one to accept responsibility much less pay any price for his own deeds.

When I say that Sherman takes a novel approach to telling Costa’s story, I mean that literally. As he explains in his Author’s Note, “Helltown is a work of fact told with elements of fiction storytelling.”

I admit that I was skeptical at first. As a devoted reader of true crime, I place a lot of stock in the “true” aspect. All true crime authors speculate to some degree about the thoughts and conversations of the killers, victims, cops and prosecutors. Sherman takes it a step further, trying to get into the heads of real-life characters and even attributing to them thoughts and dialog that are, at best, informed speculation.

For the most part it works. Sherman had access to all of the court transcripts, police interviews and Costa’s psychological evaluations. The author even got hold of the transcript of a book written by Tony Costa in which he described the murders, but blamed them on his alter-ego. Sherman was also able to interview surviving investigators and relatives of the victims.

Sherman benefited from the fact that, at the time of the murders, two famous literary rivals were living on the Cape and became obsessed by the case. Both Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut published accounts from their perspectives. The writers play major roles in Helltown, contributing much to the story’s atmosphere.

Despite all the records and contemporaneous accounts that he had access to, when Sherman recreates a conversation in a Provincetown bar between two of Costa’s future victims, Patricia Walsh, and Mary Anne Wysocki, there’s no way the author could know the exact dialog. But there’s also no one better positioned than Sherman to make that dialog ring true.

“Everything you read about Costa’s crimes in this novel is true,” Sherman explains in his Author’s Note. He refers to the book as a “novel.” But it is much more a work of nonfiction than fiction.

Despite the horror of Costa’s crimes and his determination to become rich and famous (or at least infamous) for his deeds, Tony couldn’t catch a break.

In June 1969, he was arraigned for the murders of Walsh and Wysocki. On July 19, just as the story of the “Cape Cod Vampire” was starting to get traction in the media, Ted Kennedy drove his car off the Dike Bridge in Chappaquiddick, killing his 28-year-old passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. On the following day, July 20, NASA landed a man on the moon. Suddenly there were two huge national stories vying for the media’s attention.

The final nail in the coffin of Tony Costa’s dreams of fame and fortune came from 3,000 miles away. In August, a hippie serial killer even more menacing and sinister than Costa orchestrated the murders of actress Sharon Tate, pregnant wife of Hollywood director Roman Polanski, and three of their friends. The next night, Charlie Manson’s followers killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their Los Angeles home.

So you can see why Tony Costa never got his due. His story has been the subject of two previous true crime books, but with Casey Sherman’s Helltown, Costa’s story may finally get the Hollywood treatment he so longed for.

Two of Sherman’s previous 15 books, Boston Strong and The Finest Hours, were made into major motion pictures.

Could Helltown be next?

[This review originally appeared in the September 9, 2022 Wakefield Daily Item.]
Photo of the Pilgrim Monument used under the terms of a Creative Commons License.



2 Responses to “Lady killer”

  1. 1 John Breithaupt

    Excellent column! I’d never heard of the book — thanks for the tip.

  2. 2 Ed Cutting

    What strikes me about the late ’60s and early ’70s (historical to me) is that 14-year-old girls were routinely sleeping with adult men — and no one seemed to care. (And remember that the age of majority was 21 until the 26th Amendment in 1971.)

    Where were these girl’s parents? Where were the police? For that matter, where was society in general?!?

    Jeffery Epstein didn’t kill anyone (that we know of), yet he went to prison. But back then, statutory rape appears to have been ignored on a wholesale basis.

    I’m not justifying what this schmuck did, only stating that had the statutory rape (and drug) laws been enforced, had parents done a better job supervising their children, these girls wouldn’t have been murdered.


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