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For almost half a century, generations of investigators have worked to give a name to the woman who was found brutally murdered in the dunes of Provincetown in 1974, the oldest unidentified homicide victim in Massachusetts.
On Monday, federal, state, and local authorities announced that 48 years after the discovery of her dismembered body, the woman who for decades has only been known as the “Lady of the Dunes” has been identified as Ruth Marie Terry of Tennessee.
During a press conference, Joseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division, said Terry was a daughter, sister, aunt, wife, and mother. Born in Tennessee in 1936, she was 37 years old at the time of her murder.
He said she had ties to California, Massachusetts, and Michigan.
Investigators identified her using investigative genealogy, a technique that combines DNA analysis with traditional genealogical research and historical records to generate leads for unsolved violent crimes, officials said.
The positive confirmation of Terry’s identity came through last week and her family was notified Monday morning, Bonavolonta said.
“This is without a doubt a major break in the investigation that will hopefully bring all of us closer to identifying the killer,” he said.
Terry’s naked body was found on July 26, 1974, in the dunes about a mile east of the Race Point Ranger Station, discovered by a little girl walking her beagle, according to The Boston Globe.
Her body was found on a light green, cotton beach towel, her head resting on folded jeans. Her toenails were painted pink.
Over the years, authorities described her hair as reddish-blond, her build as athletic. They estimated her age to be between 20 and 40 years old.
“There was no sign of a struggle and the woman lay on half the towel, as if she’d been sharing it with a companion,” a description of the crime reads from the Town of Provincetown website.
Authorities said she had been dead between 10 days and three weeks when she was found, and her hands were missing. Authorities have said they believe her hands were removed by the killer so she could not be identified by her fingerprints.
Her head had been nearly severed from her body by what investigators determined was an instrument similar to a military entrenching tool. The left side of her skull was crushed.
The cause of her death at the time was determined to be a blow to her head.
No weapon was found at the crime scene.
For decades, investigators have searched for answers in the case, consulting everyone from dentists to psychics, according to the Globe.
“We can finally say her name: Ruth Marie Terry,” Massachusetts State Police Col. Chris Mason said in a statement Monday. “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, so we keep them in our thoughts today during this difficult time.
“Certainly during the years that they were in contact with her they never envisioned the outcome for the child, the teenage girl, the young woman they knew, loved, and cared about,” he continued.
Authorities vowed during Monday’s press conference that the step of identifying Terry is just the beginning of the ongoing work in the case, pledging that their mission to identify and bring to justice her killer is redoubled.
The work going forward turns to learning everything they can about Terry’s life with the hope that those details and a timeline of her days will lead investigators to her killer, Mason said.
“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 said.
He and other officials urged the public to continue to help investigators resolve the case.
“If you know anything about the victim or the murderer, please contact either the FBI or the Massachusetts State Police,” he said.
Bonavolonta stressed Monday that investigators “are not getting access to any DNA results stored within private databases.”
“We have no interest in obtaining actual DNA results from these companies,” he said.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe pointed out that if Terry hadn’t met her assailant in 1974, today she would be 86 years old.
“If the person responsible for the crime was in his or her 20s or 30s, he would be in his late 60s or 70s,” he said. “If he was a little older, he may well be dead. But we will assume he is not. And we will pursue every lead and every clue to bring this person to justice.”
Asked whether Terry had been reported as a missing person, O’Keefe said a member of her family undertook efforts “many, many years ago” to find her after they concluded in 1974 that she was missing.
Provincetown Police Chief Jim Golden said he was profoundly grateful that some measure of closure could be given to her family.
“Many of us who are working the case today were in grade school when this horrific crime happened,” he said. “But there have been generations of investigators both at the state and local level that we need to appreciate for their continued support and dogged efforts with regard to this investigation.”
Mason expressed gratitude for the tireless work done by investigators through the decades and the members of the public who “never forgot” the Lady of the Dunes through the years.
“For many police investigators, at the end of their careers there is often an unresolved case that haunts them, that intrudes upon the days, years, and decades for the rest of their lives,” he said. “This case has been that for generations of Provincetown police officers and Massachusetts state troopers.”
Bonavolonta said the identification of Terry should serve as a message that law enforcement investigators will never give up in their efforts to obtain justice for victims of violent crime.
It is also a warning to “every murderer, rapist, and violent offender out there,” he said.
“The FBI and our law enforcement partners will not rest,” Bonavolonta said. “It may take years, or even decades in some cases, but we are determined, and we will be dogged in our search for justice for victims and their families.”
Over the years, the grisly details of the “Lady of the Dunes” case have become part of local lore on Cape Cod and drawn the interest and speculation of true crime sleuths, becoming the subject of podcasts and earlier this year, a documentary. Thriller and comic-book writer Joe Hill, the son of Maine’s Stephen King, is among those who have been drawn to the case, sharing a theory that the victim had a connection to the movie “Jaws,” which was filmed in the area the same year of the murder. Others have put forward theories of a connection to Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger.
Bonavolonta declined to address any of the speculation associated with the case on Monday.
“Now we move forward aggressively, hopefully with the help of the public,” he said.
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