Former Whitwell, Tennessee, resident Ruth Marie Terry is nearly as much a mystery to most folks in her home county as she was as an unidentified Jane Doe in a 1974 Massachusetts cold case.
Investigators recently named Ruth Terry as the "Lady of the Dunes," the woman whose mutilated body was found in Cape Cod in July 1974.
She left her Marion County, Tennessee, home in her 20s during the mid-1950s.
Her nephew, Jim Terry, 60, said he remembers the last time he saw "Aunt Ruth" around March 1974 at his sister's house across the street from his in Whitwell. He was 12.
She was with her husband at that time, Guy Rockwell Muldavin, her nephew said. It was just three months before her body would be discovered in the dunes of Provincetown, Massachusetts. She was 37.
"Aunt Ruth came to see my sister and actually held my niece, who was a newborn, just days old," Jim Terry said Friday in a phone interview. His late sister, Reneé Terry, was very close to their Aunt Ruth, he said.
"The last time I saw her was the last time anybody saw her," he said of his aunt's visit.
(READ MORE: Dunlap, Tennessee, cold case to be featured on 'Cold Justice' TV show)
Reneé Terry had looked for their aunt for years but died last year without knowing her fate, he said. Reneé had striking red hair much like their aunt's.
Ruth Terry was identified after nearly 50 years in a recent Massachusetts cold case investigation using new DNA information that led to Tennessee and a name.
Ruth Terry's nude body was found on a beach blanket on Race Point Beach on July 26, 1974, by a girl who was hiking with her family. The FBI said Terry's hands were missing, presumably removed by her killer so she could not be identified with fingerprints, and her nearly severed head rested on folded jeans, according to New York Times reports.
Investigators at the time of the grisly discovery said she had been killed by a blow to the head, probably several weeks earlier. In an ensuing investigation, despite a large effort by local detectives, they were unable to identify the woman they called the Lady of the Dunes, the paper reported, and her case haunted a generation of investigators and Cape Cod residents. The FBI said Ruth Terry was the oldest unidentified homicide victim in Massachusetts.
In 2000, authorities exhumed her remains from a cemetery in Provincetown to extract a DNA sample, the New York Times reported, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to identify her through genetic genealogy. The technique used is the same that was used to identify California's Golden State Killer, among many others.
On Wednesday, authorities announced a new development in the investigation, saying that they were seeking information about Muldavin, now deceased, who Ruth Terry married shortly before she was murdered, according to the New York Times and state police statements. Muldavin died in 2002 at age 78 in Salinas, California, according to an obituary in The Monterey County Herald.
Muldavin was a former antiques dealer who was arrested in 1960 in connection with the disappearance of his former wife and her daughter after mutilated remains, believed to be theirs, were found in their Seattle home, United Press International reported that year. Muldavin was given a suspended sentence in the case and was freed in 1962, the Associated Press reported.
(READ MORE: Search for information ongoing in 2020 Grundy missing person case)
Jim Terry recalls his aunt's first husband but said he was too young to remember much about him.
A marriage record in Marion County Clerk's Office shows Ruth Terry and Billy Ray Smith were wed Oct. 21, 1956, in a service conducted by the Rev. W.J. Morefield. Terry was 20, and Smith was 25.
As adults, the couple didn't list any next of kin on the record, but they acquired their health certificates for marriage three days prior, the record shows.
Jim Terry said he remembers Smith mainly because he lived in Whitwell and his parents talked about him periodically.
"I'm sure I met him and saw him several times, but I can't remember," he said. "They, of course, divorced and that's when she ran off to California."
But Ruth Terry's next husband, Muldavin, Jim Terry remembers well as a man who came bearing foreboding news in 1974.
"Guy came back and told my sister that Aunt Ruth was missing," he said. "He came back by himself."
In the wake of this visit, Jim Terry said his father hired a private investigator to look for the missing woman, and the investigator went to California to find Muldavin.
"Evidently he (Muldavin) said she sold all her things and left, and he didn't know where she was," Jim Terry said of the recalled account from his father and the private investigator.
Jim Terry said the family suspected foul play all along, and Muldavin's behavior made him suspicious.
"I don't know why her husband would come back by himself and say she was missing and not stick around to find out what was going on," he said.
(READ MORE: Tennessee woman's sleuthing helps identify Georgia man's body after 37 years)
Meanwhile, Muldavin remains at the center of investigators' radar.
Massachusetts State Police, the Cape & Islands District Attorney's Office and the Provincetown Police Department issued a statement Wednesday seeking information related to Ruth Terry's late husband from 1974.
Muldavin, born Oct. 27, 1923, was described as a white man who also used the names of Raoul Guy Rockwell and Guy Muldavin Rockwell, according to the statement.
Anyone with information related to the case can call 800-KAPTURE, text 226787, or email MSPTips@pol.state.ma.us.
Marion County Mayor David Jackson said the Terry family in the Whitwell area had grown smaller over the years, but he believed family members would gain closure from the cold case identification.
"It's tragic when something like this happens," Jackson said Friday in a phone interview. "It's a cold case that's been solved. I've been to the Cape a couple of times. It's ironic that a body from Marion County would be found in that part of the country."
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.