Hunt on for 1974 killer of Lady of the Dunes

One of the pictures of Ruth Marie Terry on an “information wanted” FBI poster this week after she was identified nearly 50 years after her body was found.

One of the pictures of Ruth Marie Terry on an “information wanted” FBI poster this week after she was identified nearly 50 years after her body was found.

Published Nov 5, 2022


Jonathan Edwards

For nearly half a century, the murdered Lady of the Dunes held on to her secret.

After her battered, lifeless body was discovered on the sands of Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1974, investigators spent years canvassing neighbourhoods, pouring over missing-persons cases, creating facial reconstructions out of clay and sketching age-regression drawings of the unknown woman they estimated was 25 to 30 years old. They even exhumed her body multiple times over the decades in repeated attempts to solve her mystery.

Still, the Lady of the Dunes remained nameless.

Until now.

On Monday, the FBI announced it had identified the woman discovered 48 years ago amid the dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore, as Ruth Marie Terry. She had been the oldest unidentified homicide victim in Massachusetts, according to Joseph Bonavolonta, chief of the FBI field office in Boston. The FBI received confirmation of Terry's identity last week and notified her family soon after.

“This is, without a doubt, a major break in the investigation that will, hopefully, bring all of us closer to identifying the killer,” Bonavolonta said at a news conference.

Terry’s body was found on July 26, 1974, on the Cape Cod National Seashore. The left side of her skull had been crushed, her head nearly severed and her hands removed, which police believed was an attempt to thwart them from identifying her. Her nude body was lying on a beach blanket with her head resting on a pair of folded jeans.

Investigators believe she had been dead several weeks before her corpse was discovered by a 12-year-old girl walking her dog.

“It was a brutal death,” Bonavolonta said.

Detectives tried a slew of techniques over the decades to identify the woman, but it was forensic genealogy that allowed them to crack the case. The relatively new investigative tool combines DNA analysis with traditional genealogical research to generate leads that can turn law enforcement on to suspects or help them identify victims.

Investigators in California used the technique in 2018 to identify Joseph James DeAngelo as the Golden State Killer, who killed at least 13 people and committed dozens of rapes for more than a decade in the 1970s and 1980s.

Investigators have since learned that Terry was born in 1936 in Tennessee, Bonavolonta said, and that she was “a daughter, sister, aunt, wife and mother”. She had ties to Massachusetts, California and Michigan, according to authorities, who declined to provide any additional information about her, citing the ongoing investigation and the privacy of Terry’s relatives.

“We also realise that while we have identified Ruth as the victim of this horrific murder, it does not ease the pain for her family. Nothing can. But hopefully it answers some questions while we continue to look for her killer,” Bonavolonta said.

And that’s what's next, authorities said.

The “identification of the Lady of the Dunes is not the end of the case, or even the beginning of the end," said Massachusetts State Police Colonel Chris Mason.

“Now, almost half a century since her own voice was silenced in the most horrible of ways, we focus our work entirely on determining what Ruth Marie Terry did in life, on what led her to the easternmost point of our state to the dunes of Provincetown, and to who did this to her,” he added. - The Washington Post

The Independent on Saturday