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Major breakthrough in Provincetown's Lady of the Dunes mystery

Ruth Marie Terry of Tennessee was killed in 1974 in the dunes of Provincetown.
Ruth Marie Terry of Tennessee was killed in 1974 in the dunes of Provincetown.

The FBI has made a breakthrough in a notorious cold case dating back to the 1970s in Provincetown.

The bureau says it has identified the victim in the "Lady of the Dunes" case.

Boston FBI head Joseph Bonavolonta said the bureau has determined that the woman found in the Provincetown dunes in the summer of 1974 was 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," Bonavolonta said.

The FBI says it used investigative genealogy to learn the identity of Ruth Marie Terry.

Terry's body was found in sand dunes in Provincetown in July of 1974.

Cape and Islands district attorney Michael O'Keefe acknowledged that Terry's killer may be dead.

"But we will assume he is not," O'Keefe said. "And we will pursue every lead and every clue to bring this person to justice."

The FBI is asking the public to review background on Terry, including photos, posted to its website and to get in touch if they have information that could be useful.

Documentary on Lady of the Dunes to be released

Frank Durant, producer of a film about the Lady of the Dunes case that's due for release next month, said he welcomed today's news and hopes that it leads to fresh information for law enforcement to identify Terry's killer. Durant spoke with CAI's John Basile today, providing background on a case that has been a source of pain and fascination for Provincetown for decades.

Here's a transcript of their conversation.

John Basile: What was your interest in the project that drew you to make the film?

Frank Durant: Well, I have a lot of local people who knew me from a previous documentary I did on Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod. And they had asked me, would you consider doing an investigation documentary on this case, Lady of the Dunes? So I did some research, and as I started talking to more and more people, we knew with my production team that we had a good 90 minute feature. We were getting a lot more of the story, more of the investigation, more and more of the possibilities of what could have happened to her. So with the recent discovery of her name, we thought this is fantastic — that we finally have a name for this woman who's been missing for almost half a century. I'm very happy that the FBI, who's had the case for three years, have finally made a match. I really feel that when it comes to her murder, this should be solved much sooner than later. But I'd love to see law enforcement look into this and say, who was she seen with last? Why was she in Provincetown that day? And all the law enforcement I talked to from the federal level, state and local, they all told me if they had their choice, they'd rather have her identity before knowing who the murderer is. Because once we find out who she was, there's no excuse why we can't find out who murdered her.

John Basile: Of course, every murder is sad, but this was a very lonely, almost a bleak scenario. She would seem to have been out there all alone.

Frank Durant: Well, yeah. It's almost identity theft. Granted, she was murdered in a very heinous way, and part of the documentary was to put a human aspect to it, to say this is — this was — a human being. This was a person who, not only was she murdered, but then for days, weeks [her body was left there]. I truly feel she was murdered during the weekend of the 4th of July. And her body sat there from then all the way into the late days of July, 1974. And to think that she's forgotten, her name taken away, her hands, jewelry, her clothes, you know, basically not only was it murder, but she was completely just erased from humanity. But, you know, it's very hard to rehash the story because it's not just a story about a murder. We need to talk about what was happening at the time period, what was happening in Provincetown and what could have led to her untimely death. So that's a good story, as opposed to just the, you know, the who and the what. You need to ask yourself why? Why did this happen? Why was she in P-Town? Why was she murdered? And you know, I question where the family was just contacted less than a couple of days ago, if not a day ago. So why they [law enforcement] picked Halloween to announce this? It seems like they really wanted to hurry to get this out. I don't know why they couldn't have announced this on November 1st, but to do it on Halloween, it just adds to the mystique of this unsolved murder mystery. And it's a very morbid story. For it to fall on Halloween day that they announced her name… I'm happy she has her name back. And like I said, I think I'm going to repeat the state attorney general, who said, you know, this is just the beginning. There's a lot more to the story.

John Basile: One other thing I wanted to ask you about: the late Provincetown police chief, Jim Meads. This seemed to consume him to some extent. I know he made trips to various places looking for information. I think he consulted a psychic at one point to try to see what he could uncover. His story is sort of an important part of this, too, isn't it?

Frank Durant: I actually just got off the phone with James Meads, Jr., his son. And it controlled his father's life. And when the father retired, he was just shocked that, ‘I can't believe I didn't solve this case.’ And it really it took a long time. It was a long part of his professional career that he had this woman's skull. He traveled to Canada, which James Jr. reminded me of. And I said, ‘You know what? She had ties to Michigan, which is right there near Canada.’ So I think Chief Meads was close to solving this. I just think at the time, without the DNA of the genealogy data that he could have ran… He looked through every little record, under every rock to find information, even the rental contracts with all the shacks out in the dunes. He literally was looking at bike rentals. Anybody that could have been out in the dunes that day or had a connection to P-Town. So for what he did, I'm grateful to include him in the documentary, where we were able to include notes that the chief had that we looked into for the investigation. So for justice for the chief of police, who did his job at his duty, I do believe he did help to not only make the documentary what it is, but actually to light the fire to get the announcement that happened today.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

John Basile is the local host of All Things Considered weekday afternoons and a reporter.