FBI identifies ‘Lady of the Dunes,’ woman whose mutilated body was found on beach towel

CHELSEA, Mass. — Investigators on Monday revealed the identity of a woman whose mutilated body was found on a beach towel in Provincetown nearly 50 years ago.

Federal, state, and local officials gathered at FBI headquarters in Chelsea, where they identified the oldest, unidentified homicide victim in Massachusetts as 37-year-old Ruth Marie Terry, of Tennessee.

“This is, without a doubt, a major break in the investigation that will, hopefully, bring all of us closer to identifying her killer,” said Joe Bonavolonta, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Boston Division.

Terry was nicknamed “Lady of the Dunes” after her body was discovered in the dunes near the Race Point Ranger Station inside the Cape Cod National Seashore on July 26, 1974. At the time, her cause of death was determined to be a blow to the head, and it was estimated to have occurred several weeks prior.

Provincetown police say Terry’s hands were missing, presumably removed by the killer so she could not be identified through fingerprints and her head was nearly severed from her body with an instrument similar to a military entrenching tool.

In a news release in 2010, the department wrote, “The left side of her skull had been crushed. No weapon was found at the crime scene. Her nude body was discovered lying on a beach towel with her head resting on her folded jeans. 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.”

Terry’s body was exhumed in 2000, in an attempt to confirm her identity. It proved unsuccessful. In May 2010, a new composite was created using state of the art technology and computer analyses.

The FBI last week identified Ruth using investigative genealogy, solving a mystery that had stumped investigators for decades, according to Bonavolonta. This unique method combines the use of DNA analysis with traditional genealogy research and historical records to generate new leads for unsolved violent crimes, as well as help identify unknown victims.

“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, including neighborhood canvasses; reviews of thousands of missing persons cases; clay model facial reconstruction, and age-regression drawings,” Bonavolonta said.

Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said similar technology was used to identify a serial rapist turned serial killer who terrorized Californians in the 1970s and 1980s.

Terry was a daughter, sister, aunt, wife, and mother, Bonavolonta noted. Investigators have also determined that in addition to Tennessee, she had ties to California, Massachusetts, and Michigan.

“Now that we have reached this pivotal point, investigators and analysts will turn their attention to conducting logical investigative steps that include learning more about her, as well as working to identify who is responsible for her murder,” Bonavolonta added.

The FBI is now asking the public to review Terry’s Seeking Information Poster, and if anyone has any information concerning this case that could help the investigative team, they are urged to contact Massachusetts State Police or the FBI.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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