One detail in an enduring mystery on Cape Cod has now been revealed: After 48 years, the murder victim dubbed the “Lady of the Dunes” has a name.
She was Ruth Marie Terry, 37, who was born in Tennessee and had ties to California, Michigan, and Massachusetts, officials announced Monday morning. She was identified using forensic genealogy, and officials said it’s a major break in the investigation that they hope will bring them closer to finding out who her killer was.
The identification comes after decades of investigation — and detours along the way.
How did the mystery begin?
The mystery began July 26, 1974, when a 13-year-old girl chased her dog into the dunes on Race Point Beach and stumbled across a woman who at first appeared to be sunbathing. But adults summoned to the scene quickly realized she was the victim of a homicide.
Her hands had been cut off and she had suffered a massive wound to her neck, apparently as her killer tried to separate her head from her body. The woman was unclothed when found and lying on a bed of pine needles that was undisturbed despite the violence she endured, officials have said.
She was found lying sideways on a light green, terry cloth beach blanket. Her dungarees and blue print bandanna were folded neatly under her head as though used as a pillow, the Globe reported in 1987. Her hair, described as long and reddish-brown, was held back with a barrette. She had been sexually molested with a wooden object, evidently after her death.
Why has it been so difficult to identify her?
In addition to the loss of her hands, which meant no fingerprints were available, police faced multiple barriers — barriers that kept her name off her gravestone for the past 48 years.
While her clothes were recovered, there were no labels in the clothing, no laundry marks, and no fingerprints on them, the Globe reported in 1974.
When a person is murdered inside a residence or even on a city street, forensic evidence can, and is, often recovered. Two sets of footprints were found leading toward her body — but “they disappeared in the sand a few steps away,’’ the Globe wrote.
The woman was killed violently, but when the medical examiner conducted the autopsy, there was no indication among her remains that she had undergone a specific medical procedure or had a distinctive surgical implant that could have then, and now, given a focus for the search for her name.
The one area police were long hopeful would lead to her identity was her dental work. She had seven gold crowns, worth about $5,000 to $8,000 at the time. Police sent dental records nationwide, but no dentist ever responded with a positive match.
Who have police thought the victim might be?
A few years after the murder, police developed a theory that the victim might have been Rory Gene Kesinger.
Kesinger, 24, had been arrested in 1973 for robbery and assault in Plymouth County but had escaped from Plymouth County Jail while awaiting trial. Someone had slipped her a hacksaw blade, awaited her descent from a window using tethered sheets, and driven her away. Then Kesinger, known as a heavy drug user to police, disappeared.
In 2018, author Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son, advanced the theory that the victim had been an extra on the movie “Jaws,” which was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard that summer. Hill based his theory on a scene in the movie where an extra can be seen wearing a bandanna. The extra resembled the picture of the “Lady of the Dunes” reconstructed by police from CAT scans of her remains.
What theories have been advanced about the murderer?
A number of theories have been floated over the years.
One tantalizing lead hasn’t panned out: Serial killer Hadden Clark, who is serving time in Maryland for killing a 6-year-old girl in 1986 and a 23-year-old in 1992, said he had also killed the “Lady of the Dunes.”
In a 2000 interview with The New Yorker, Clark said he was visiting his grandfather’s house in Wellfleet when he “came across a beautiful girl in Provincetown” and “went into one of my episodes.” Clark, who is now 70, also claimed he committed other murders, including the murder of Sarah Pryor of Wayland, who disappeared in October 1985. (There is a different prime suspect in the Pryor case now.) Police took Clark seriously enough to bring him to Massachusetts to help look for bodies he had buried.
They weren’t able to find bodies. They did find a bucket of jewelry buried at his grandfather’s house that he said came from his victims.
But Clark’s history of paranoid schizophrenia led police to doubt his credibility, the Cape Cod Times reported last year.
Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.
John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe. Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.