How Investigative Genealogy Helped The FBI Identify The Lady Of The Dunes

The crime scene suggests what might have once been a lovely day in the sun. The woman's body was found lying on a beach towel, shifted to one side as though she had been lying with a partner, a folded pair of jeans serving as her pillow (via the Provincetown Police Department). But the tableau was anything but idyllic. Not only was the woman stripped entirely naked — part of her head was crushed and her hands were severed and missing. And if that wasn't enough, her head had nearly been severed from her body, too.

Found in July of 1974 near Provincetown, Massachusetts, the identity of the woman and the truth of what happened to her has baffled citizens and detectives alike for decades (via NBC Boston), though there have always been theories. She had likely been dead for at least a couple of weeks before she was discovered, according to the FBI, and they had difficulty finding out even basic aspects of the crime. Though they identified the cause of death as a blow to the head, for years, the woman's identity remained a mystery, in part because her missing hands prevented fingerprints from being taken. A nickname was eventually dubbed to refer to her: the Lady of the Dunes.

Now, a major step has been taken in progressing her case. Investigators have finally uncovered her real identity, using an increasingly popular tool called investigative genealogy (via the FBI).

What is investigative genealogy?

In the past several years, DNA analysis websites like 23andMe have become household names. These sites, which take a sample of your DNA and spit back information about your ancestors as well as potential health-related genetic tendencies can be cool as a way to learn more about yourself. But they're also a potential boon to law enforcement.

That's because they can be used for investigative genealogy, a form of investigation that takes samples of genetic material left at a crime scene -– either by a perpetrator or from a victim -– and compares it to DNA that has been shared publicly online (via The New York Times). If they're lucky, investigators can find a DNA profile that's a cousin to their DNA sample, and from there, work backward to identify a potential killer or victim.

It doesn't always work: Though you share about 50% of your DNA with your parents and siblings, you share only 12.5% with first cousins and less than 1% with third cousins, meaning you have to have close relatives who have offered up their spit in the name of science to be caught by the police (via Science Direct). Still, the number of people whose DNA is available online is quickly growing, and more and more people are able to be identified through family links. For instance, the Golden State Killer was caught in 2018 after a family match was found using his DNA, according to the New York Times.

Who was the Lady of the Dunes?

So what did the investigative genealogy reveal about the Lady of the Dunes? By using family matching, investigators were able to reveal that the woman's name is Ruth Marie Terry (via NBC Boston). Previously estimated to be between 20 and 40 years old at the time of her death, per the Provincetown Police Department, investigators now know that Terry was 37 years old when she died. Originally from Tennessee, Terry also "had ties to" other states including California and Michigan, according to the FBI. Not much information has been released about Terry online, but it is known she was married and had at least one child, according to NBC Boston.

The identification of Terry's remains is clearly a win for investigators. Still, the case isn't closed just yet. Though the victim has now been identified, her killer remains unknown. The FBI is currently seeking leads from anyone with information about Terry's murder (via the FBI).