PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — For the nearly 50 years since hikers found the body of a deceased woman in the dunes of Provincetown, the mystery of the “Lady of the Dunes” has been foiling investigators.
Now the mystery is beginning to unravel.
The “Lady of the Dunes” has been identified as Ruth Marie Terry from Tennessee, who was 37 years old at the time of her death, according to a Monday announcement from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Boston Division.
The news was announced at Bureau press conference, and included Provincetown Chief of Police James Golden, Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Josh Levy, as well as state and federal law enforcement authorities.
Investigative genealogy was used to help identify Ruth Marie Terry
Terry’s identity was discovered using investigative genealogy, said Joseph Bonavolonta, a special agent with the Boston bureau, a unique method that can generate new leads for unsolved homicides, as well as help identify unknown victims.
“This is, without a doubt, a major break in the investigation that will hopefully bring us all closer to identifying the killer,” Bonavolonta said. “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.”
The partnerships in the investigation have been key, Golden said.
“There are generations of investigators that we need to appreciate for their continued support and dogged efforts,” he said.
“Today, we can finally say her name: Ruth Marie Terry,” Massachusetts State Police Col. Christopher Mason said. “To the people of Provincetown, Cape Cod and the Commonwealth who never forgot her: thank you.”
The method by which investigators identified Terry, investigative genealogy, is a blend of traditional DNA analysis and genealogical research, O’Keefe said at Monday’s conference, and was used by California investigators to identify two serial murderers in that state.
What do we know about the ‘Lady of the Dunes’?
On July 26, 1974, 12-year-old Leslie Metcalfe and her parents were hiking back to the Province Lands Visitors Center in Provincetown after a day at the C-scape dune shack when they came upon a gruesome discovery: the handless, nearly headless body of a woman.
Leslie and her parents doubled back to the shack to tell everyone there, and then someone took a Jeep to find park rangers and bring them out, Leslie’s sister Alyssa Metcalfe told the Times in 2019.
The woman’s head was nearly severed from her body, and she had been in the stand of scrub pines for at least a week, having died from a blow to the head, police said at the time.
The case has captivated police chiefs and detectives in Provincetown ever since.
In 1980, the body was exhumed from the burial plot at a church cemetery for blood samples; 20 years later it was exhumed again for DNA sampling, to see if it matched that of a woman who came forward as possibly the mother of the victim. A clay model was made of the woman’s head, and age-regression drawings were completed in 2006.
In 2019, prosecutors were examining a new method for the use of DNA evidence and genealogy to generate leads in cold criminal cases on Cape Cod and the Islands. The “Lady of the Dunes” was one of two cases that were primary targets of the effort, O’Keefe said at the time.
Until today, the case was the oldest unidentified deceased person in the state’s clearinghouse records.
What’s next for the ‘Lady of the Dunes’ case?
Now that investigators have identified Terry, they are reaffirming and redoubling their efforts towards solving the case, Mason said at the conference.
They are calling upon the public for assistance, and encourage anyone who has any information about Terry or her murder to reach out to either the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Massachusetts State Police.
“Today’s identification is not the end of the case, or even the beginning of the end, but it does mark an important milestone,” Mason said. “What we need to do now is to learn everything about Ruth Terry’s life; what she did, where she went, who she associated with, all in hopes that those details and that timeline will lead us to her killer.”
This has been a cold case since O’Keefe joined the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s office. Now that he is leaving the job, he said “it was a satisfying day, it was Friday, when we got the word,” but added, “We haven’t solved anything yet.”
O’Keefe is certain the next district attorney, to be elected on Nov. 8, will continue to aggressively investigate the case.
Cape Cod Times staff writer Anne Brennan contributed to this story.