PROVINCETOWN — Ruth Marie Terry was a free spirit, according to her family.
By age 20, she left the coal mining town in the mountains of Tennessee where she was born, grew up and married. In Michigan, sometime around 1957, she took a job in car manufacturing. She became pregnant, had a son and gave him, permanently, to a family there that she knew well. She left town again.
In 1973, though, she arrived in her Tennessee hometown of Whitwell with a new husband. They were traveling the country looking for antiques, they said. They may have been headed back to Massachusetts..
Her family never heard from Ruth Marie Terry again.
“I always had a bad feeling about that guy that she married,” said Carole Terry, 78, a sister-in-law.
On Oct. 31, authorities announced in Boston they had — after nearly 50 years — identified the mutilated body of a young woman found on July 26, 1974, in the dunes east of the Race Point ranger station in Provincetown. The young woman, 37 at the time of her death, known for decades as the "Lady of the Dunes," was Ruth Marie Terry.
Then, a few days later, Massachusetts State Police announced a suspect in Terry’s murder — her husband, Guy Rockwell Muldavin, who was born in New York and at various times lived in New Mexico, Washington and California. He would have been 51 at the time Terry’s body was found. Muldavin died at age 78 in California, according to online obituary records.
Police are now intent on solving what is one of the state’s oldest homicides, and are asking for information about the couple’s whereabouts in 1973 and 1974, particularly in Massachusetts and on Cape Cod.
At the same time, Ruth Marie Terry’s son, Richard Hanchett, 64, of Waterford, Michigan — the child she gave away — is making plans for her remains, buried now in a private church cemetery in Provincetown.
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FBI agents contact Ruth Marie Terry's son Richard Hanchette in Michigan
The death of Ruth Marie Terry likely came from a blow to the head that is estimated to have occurred several weeks before her body was found in the summer of 1974, according to the FBI. Her hands were missing from the body and presumed to have been cut off to prevent any tracing of fingerprints. The head was nearly severed. The left side of her skull was crushed, and the nude body had been placed on a beach blanket with the head resting on folded jeans.
For decades, identification of the body — known among police departments, true crime enthusiasts, community members and DNA researchers as the “Lady of the Dunes” — was a focus, if not an obsession.
The recent break in the “Lady of the Dunes” case came after Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe’s office in 2019 began to look at two unsolved homicides, each with a body that was unidentified, as candidates for new DNA analysis techniques.
Ruth Marie Terry's relatives search for her on Ancestry.com
Back in 2010, a niece of Ruth Marie Terry — Marilyn Renee Terry Hill — began a genealogical search for family members on Ancestry.com. In 2017, Hill and Hanchett learned they were related.
The next year, Hanchett attended a family reunion in Whitwell. But the question of Ruth Marie Terry’s status remained open.
Hill, who died in 2021, was a point of interest for investigators working on the "Lady of the Dunes" case because of her genealogic research, according to Hanchett. In late October, the FBI contacted Kenneth Terry, an uncle of Hill and a half-brother of Ruth Marie Terry, who told them about Hanchett’s existence.
When the FBI called him in late October, Hanchett thought he was in trouble with the law.
“As I was talking to the police officers, they didn’t want to tell me anything,” he said. “But I talked to them for quite a while, and they understood, I am her son.” Then, according to Hanchett, an agent said, “Well, we’ve located a body and we need your help.”
In Michigan, Ruth Marie Terry finds herself pregnant, unmarried
In the 1950s in Michigan, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler factories were opening and needed workers and auto parts. Ruth Marie Terry went to work at Fisher Body in Livonia, Hanchett said.
At the time, Richard Hanchett Sr. was a superintendent at the plant and his wife, Thelma, and their daughter, Patricia, worked there.
It was through Patricia Hanchett that the elder Hanchetts met Ruth Marie Terry and they hit it off very well.
The Hanchetts were in their late 40s and looking to adopt, which Ruth Marie Terry knew. At age 21, Terry was unmarried and expecting so she approached the Hanchetts about paying for her expenses, and in turn, she would leave the child with them, permanently.
“That’s exactly what happened,” Richard Hanchett said.
The Hanchetts rented a house for Ruth Marie Terry across the street from the plant during the last 2½ months of her pregnancy. They got to know her well then, Richard Hanchett said. On the day of the delivery, Thelma Hanchett, who had red hair and blue eyes like Terry, gave her driver's license to Ruth Marie to use as ID when she was admitted to the maternity ward and then the three of them went to the hospital.
After giving birth to a baby boy in 1958, and giving the boy to his new family, Ruth Marie Terry left town.
Guy Muldavin arrives in Whitwell with Ruth Marie Terry
For the Terry family in Whitwell, Ruth Marie Terry was never considered “missing” until 1974.
Ruth Marie married and divorced a local man when she was still a teenager and then left the area, but she still came back periodically to visit family, said her half-brother Kenneth Terry, 78.
In 1973, she came to Whitwell for one of those visits — with her new husband, Guy Muldavin, according to her family.
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The couple came to Carole and Kenneth Terry’s house in Chattanooga, Tennessee, most likely after they’d stopped in Whitwell for a family visit, Carole Terry said.
“She was just the same sweet Ruth," she said. "They didn’t stay very long. They were leaving. They said they were going to travel the United States. He was an art dealer. They were going to look for antiques.”
Kenneth Terry said he recalled the couple saying they were returning to Massachusetts after they left.
Muldavin suspect in mutilation death of second wife and her daughter
By that time, Guy Muldavin had already been involved in criminal activity that could have kept him behind bars for more than a decade.
In 1960, Muldavin was suspected in the deaths of his second wife and her daughter in Seattle, Washington, according to a 1961 story in the Erie Times-News.
Muldavin also faced larceny charges for swindling his third wife’s family out of $10,000 around the time his second wife went missing, according to an Associated Press account.
Muldavin was convicted in 1961 on the larceny charges and sentenced to no more than 15 years, according to the Erie Times-News. But in March 1962, a judge suspended the sentence provided he repay the money — and Muldavin walked free, according to the Associated Press.
By 1974, though, when Ruth Marie Terry hadn’t shown up again in Whitwell for a visit, her brother James went to California to find her, relative said.
“They couldn’t find anything,” Hanchett said. “They confronted that Muldavin guy, and he just said she just left, you know, free-spirited, this, that and the other.”
But never returning to visit her family in Tennessee was not in her character, Hanchett said.
“The more I hear about this Muldavin person, the more I hate him. He was not a nice person, and my mom wasn’t the only one that he abused.”
The foresight of Provincetown Police Chief James Meads
The gravestone for Ruth Marie Terry in Provincetown has for years noted the date her body was found with the engraved message: “Unidentified female body found Race Point dunes.”
Over the years, small stones, shells and other mementos have been found at the gravesite.
“I did a lot of research about missing people, and in most cases, bodies are cremated after a length of time,” Hanchett said. “The communities just can’t afford to support, you know what I mean?”
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In Provincetown, though, “for them to do what they did and give her a proper burial, pretty much make her their own, none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for them,” he said.
Provincetown Police Chief James J. Meads Sr. was head of the department at that time and made it his mission to solve the case. That mission eluded him. Meads died in 2011. But each Provincetown police chief since then has dedicated time and staff to attempt to solve the case.
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Hoping that Ruth Marie Terry might be in a witness protection program
In Terry family obituaries in the last two decades, Ruth Marie Terry is listed as among the family members who are deceased.
After the family no longer heard from her, Carole Terry said she had a theory that she stuck with — that Ruth Marie Terry might be in a witness protection program and unable to call anyone from the family.
“I prayed that she wasn’t dead, you know,” Carole Terry said. “I prayed all these years she wasn’t.”
Learning what happened to his half-sister has been hard to believe, Kenneth Terry said.
“It tore me up,” he said. “To find out that that’s what happened and how she died.”
The telephones have been ringing night and day, due to the high interest in the case, Carole Terry said.
“The way things ended like they did, we’ll never be able to accept that,” she said. “We just hope and pray that the death was like they told us. It was that quick, before all the torture and everything. We just pray for that.”
Contact Mary Ann Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Lady of the Dunes' update: Ruth Marie Terry's family gets answers