For nearly half a century she was known only as the “Lady of the Dunes,” an auburn-haired woman who was brutally murdered and left in the dunes on Race Point in Provincetown by a killer who cut off her hands in an apparent effort to prevent authorities from using fingerprints to identify her.
On Monday, authorities announced that through DNA analysis, genealogy research, and painstaking police work, the victim at the center of one of the state’s most baffling mysteries now has a name: Ruth Marie Terry, a Tennessee native, wife, and mother. She was 37 years old when her body was discovered by a young girl walking her dog in July 1974.
“This is without a doubt a major break in the investigation that will hopefully bring all of us closer to identifying the killer,” Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston division, said at a news conference.
The woman had been sexually assaulted and her head was nearly severed from her body, according to authorities. Bonavolonta said the cause of death was a blow to the head, and that the killing was estimated to have occurred several weeks before the body was found.
“It was a brutal death, and for the last 48 years, investigators with the Massachusetts State Police and Provincetown Police Department have worked tirelessly to identify her through various means,” he said. “We also realize 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.”
Terry was born in 1936 in Tennessee. She was “a daughter, sister, aunt, wife, and mother,” Bonavolonta said. She had ties to Massachusetts, California, and Michigan, according to authorities. They declined to provide any additional information about her, citing the ongoing investigation and the privacy of Terry’s relatives.
Bonavolonta said investigators hope that identifying Terry will help lead them to her killer and urged the public to notify the FBI or State Police if they have information about her, who she was associated with, or where she may have been in the days and weeks leading up to her slaying.
Authorities declined to comment on potential suspects, saying it would be speculation at this point in the investigation.
Investigators determined her identity through investigative genealogy, which combines DNA analysis with traditional genealogical research and historical records, he said. The FBI received confirmation of her identity last week and notified her family Monday morning, he said.
“This is a unique method that can generate new leads for unsolved homicides, as well as help identify unknown victims,” Bonavolonta said.
In 2017, a New Hampshire case leading to the identification of a serial killer who murdered a woman and three girls decades ago and stuffed their bodies in barrels in the woods of Allenstown was at the vanguard of genetic crime solving. It’s an emerging field that uses the latest DNA technology and online ancestry databases to identify suspects — and victims — through even-distant genetic relatives.
The technique has proved a major breakthrough in solving cold cases, but has also faced criticism from civil rights advocates over whether it’s an invasion of privacy.
On Monday, Bonavolonta said, “We would like to emphasize that we are not getting access to any DNA results stored within private databases and we have no interest in obtaining actual DNA results from these companies.”
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said techniques used to identify Terry mirrored those used by California investigators to identify a serial killer known as the Golden State Killer. He credited Melissa Parisot, an FBI intelligence analyst, with helping confirm Terry’s identity.
One of Terry’s aunts “launched her own investigation” into what happened to her after she vanished in 1974, according to O’Keefe. But, the aunt is now deceased and investigators are hoping to retrieve records she gathered at the time, he said.
“It’s very likely that the person who did this is dead,” O’Keefe said. “But they may not be and so the message to them if they’re still out there is, ‘We’re coming.’”
State Police Colonel Christopher Mason said, “We know Ruth had family and friends who loved her. And we are aware that this development has not been an easy one for them.”
Mason said the unresolved case had haunted “generations of Provincetown police officers and Massachusetts state troopers.”
“Today’s identification of the Lady of the Dunes is not the end of the case, or even the beginning of the end,” he said. “But this achievement does mark an important milestone towards identifying Ruth’s killer. It represents a critical discovery that makes possible the rest of the work that lies ahead.”
At the time her body was found on sand dunes at Race Point Beach, officials estimated the woman was between 25 and 30 years old, and about 5 feet, 8 inches tall with a big-boned, athletic build. She was found unclothed, lying sideways on a light green, terrycloth beach blanket, The Boston Globe reported in 1987. Her dungarees and blue-print bandanna were folded neatly under her head as if used as a pillow, authorities have said.
Her long, reddish-brown hair was held back with a barrette. On her teeth were seven gold crowns, worth about $5,000 to $8,000 at the time. Investigators determined she had been sexually molested with a wooden object, apparently after her death.
With her hands cut off, police surmised at the time that the murderer had wanted to prevent any possibility that fingerprints could be used to identify the body and give her a name that might help solve the crime. But that was a dozen years before forensic DNA became a legal tool in criminal court, giving investigators another avenue to identify the victim.
The body was found on a hot July day by a 13-year-old girl walking her dog. There was no sign of a struggle, leading police to believe she knew her attacker, and that she may even have been killed somewhere else.
The body was exhumed multiple times over the years as authorities tried to determine her identity. After one exhumation in 2000, she was reburied at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Provincetown with a headstone that read: “Unidentified Female Body Found Race Point Dunes July 26, 1974.”
“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 eastern most point of our state to the dunes of Provincetown, and to who did this to her,” Mason said Monday.
Material from prior Globe stories was used. John R. Ellement and Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.