Son of Whitwell woman identified as cold case victim returns to Tennessee

Contributed photo by the Hanchett family / From left are Richard Hanchett, Wendy Hanchett, Ken Terry, Jan Terry, Jon Terry, Marsha Terry and Jim Terry in a family photo taken in Tuesday in Tennessee.

For the Terry family in Whitwell, Thanksgiving 2022 was bittersweet, a reunion drawing members together in loss as they bring the latest chapter of the "Lady of the Dunes" in Massachusetts to a close and open another one in Tennessee.

Richard Hanchett is the biological son of Ruth Marie Terry, who at 37 years old became Provincetown, Massachusetts' Lady of the Dunes, a nameless redheaded woman whose nude, mutilated body was found in Cape Cod in July 1974.

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. In 2000, Terry's remains were exhumed from a cemetery in Provincetown to extract a DNA sample, but it wasn't until recently authorities were able to identify her through genetic genealogy, the same technique used to identify California's Golden State Killer, among many others.

A single mom working at Ford's Fisher Body in Lavonia, Michigan, the 21-year-old mother gave her son up for adoption in 1958 to friends she worked with at the plant. Hanchett grew up in Northern Michigan and had a family and career without knowing his mother or where he came from.

(READ MORE: Nephew speaks about Whitwell, Tennessee, woman identified in 1974 Massachusetts cold case)

Sixty-four years later during Thanksgiving week, Hanchett found himself surrounded by newly found family in Whitwell, where his heart soars and breaks anew as every memory shared of his mother is yet another loss. But the losses are countered by a warmth and sense of belonging he never knew until meeting his family in Tennessee, he said Wednesday in a phone interview.

  photo  Contributed Photo by Hanchett family / Ruth Marie Terry, of Whitwell, Tenn., was identified recently as the "Lady of the Dunes," the woman whose body was found mutilated in the dunes on Cape Cod in 1974. She was 37.

Hanchett spent Thanksgiving week in Terry's Tennessee hometown of Whitwell, not far from her birthplace on Suck Creek Mountain, a place and community to which the Lady of the Dune's son feels a deep connection that began with a DNA match in 2018.

"I just literally found out who my ma was back in 2018," Hanchett said. His newfound Tennessee relatives hosted a family reunion in 2018 for him and a couple of cousins who also weren't acquainted with the family, he said.

"What a beautiful place," he said. "Not only is this place beautiful, all the family I've met are nothing but beautiful people."

In the hills of the Cumberland Plateau, Hanchett found himself surrounded by faces as familiar as the one in the mirror.

"I look just like her," Hanchett said of his resemblance to his mother. Hanchett had been used to life in his adoptive family, where he didn't resemble anyone, but now even the Terrys he just met are obviously related.

"That was the first time in my life I'd ever been anywhere where everybody looked like me," he said of his 2018 trip. "We all had the same color of eyes, the same structure of the nose, our freckles," he said.

He was also struck by how welcoming his family and their community were.

"People down here, Southern people, are really warm and friendly, and I've been brought in here with loving arms," he said.

"I'm from Detroit. Things are a little different there. 'Yankees' aren't as friendly," he said with a laugh. "For me, it's just unbelievable. It answered all the questions."

For Ken Terry -- Ruth Terry's half-brother and Hanchett's uncle -- the mystery of those connections wasn't answered until Oct. 31 when he found a note from the FBI on his door.

"When I went to visit with the FBI, I didn't know what to think," he said. "When he told me what he was working on, it just floored me."

On Nov. 2, authorities announced they were seeking information about Guy Rockwell Muldavin, who Ruth Terry was believed to have married not long before she was killed, The Associated Press reported.

Ken Terry said his last memory of his sister, Ruth, was from a small family reunion in the early 1970s, when she and her new husband stopped in Tennessee to visit on a cross country trip from California.

"They were driving a Jeep International Scout," he remembered.

(READ MORE: Dunlap, Tennessee, cold case to be featured on 'Cold Justice' TV show)

Terry said he understood Muldavin, his new brother-in-law, was an antique dealer, but he knew little else.

The more recent reunion of Hanchett and the Whitwell Terrys has helped both sides of the family fill in gaps, Ken Terry said.

"We found out quite a bit of stuff," he said. "Everybody's got a little piece of the puzzle."

Before 2018, Hanchett only knew his biological mother from the stories he'd heard from his adoptive family, he said. Dick Hanchett, his adoptive father, was a superintendent at the plant. His adoptive mother Thelma, sister Patricia and other Hanchett family members worked there, too, he said.

"Ruth came to work to there and became friends with my older sister, and then Ruth became pregnant," Hanchett said.

"The Hanchetts, Dick and Thelma, were trying to adopt a baby,, but they were in their late 40s, and the government wouldn't let them -- said they were too old," Hanchett said. For Ruth Terry, a single mother in the 1950s, the Hanchett family offered hope.

Hanchett said Ruth Terry and the Hanchett family made an agreement for the family to cover medical expenses in exchange for the adoption.

Hanchett said he was angry for a long time until he matured enough to understand.

"Ruth was smart enough to know she couldn't raise me. She gave me to the best people in the world," he said.

Though Ruth Terry left Lavonia soon after the birth, she stayed in touch with the family through his sister, Patricia, Hanchett said.

But in those days, Hanchett didn't try to maintain contact with his mother. She would reach out to him once more.

"She tried to get ahold of me in the early '70s," he said, emotion filling his voice.

"But I was messed up. I was in the hospital messed up," he said. Hanchett said it's a period of his life he doesn't discuss now.

If he had a chance to take that call now, what would he say?

"I love you," he said hoarsely. "I love you, and I'm sorry."

Now, Hanchett wants to bask in the warmth of his Tennessee family and to work to bring his mother back home to Tennessee. His mother's likely killer, Muldavin, died in 2002.

Muldavin, born in 1923, 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.

Court records indicate that Muldavin married Ruth Terry in Reno, Nevada, in February 1974, just months before she was killed.

While the case isn't officially solved, Hanchett looks ahead to closure and a new chapter in his life in Tennessee.

"I think we're coming to the end," he said. "The police are out investigating. They've tracked everything back to Provincetown, where they found her. We'd all like to have that closed out."

Hanchett said he hopes to bring his mother's remains back to Tennessee to be buried near her parents and other Terry family members.

"Now that I know everything, nothing else really matters now," he said. "The guy that did is dead, thank God. And we can't bring my mom back.

"For me, I want to get to know my family. I've met some great people down here -- they've all taken me in with open arms like I've been here my whole life," he said. "I've never been this happy in my life. It's awesome.

"This is where I belong."

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.