How Texas lab Othram helped identify the Lady of the Dunes

For nearly 50 years, the Lady of the Dunes case was shrouded in mystery and legend.

On July 26, 1974, the naked and mutilated body of an unidentified woman was found near Provincetown’s Race Point. Without a name, she became the Lady of the Dunes, the anonymous epithet even appears on a gravestone in Provincetown.

On, Halloween 2022, everything changed.

At the Boston office of the FBI, Special Agent in Charge Joseph Bonavolonta made a startling announcement: “We have identified the oldest unidentified homicide victim in Massachusetts, known as the Lady of the Dunes. She is Ruth Marie Terry from Tennessee, who was just 37 years old at the time of her death.”

FBI identifies ‘Lady of the Dunes,’ woman whose mutilated body was found on beach towel

The identification of Ruth Marie Terry as the Lady of the Dunes broke this legendary case wide open, leading Mass State Police investigators to appeal for more information about Ruth Marie Terry’s husband, whom she married only months before her death.

All of it made possible by the work for a private DNA lab in Texas, called Othram.

‘Lady of the Dunes’: Mutilated woman found on beach in 1974 ID’d through genetic genealogy

“We work with evidence that most people would say DNA can’t be read from,” Kristen Mittelman, Othram’s Chief Development Officer told me.

Mittelman explains that Othram has developed a technique that can develop a DNA sequence from even the most difficult and degraded samples.

“We identified a murder victim from 1881 and those bones were found outside of a barn,” Mittelman said. “Degradation that happens over time, we seem to be insensitive to that now. We’ve identified a victim that was inside a sewage tank.”

In the Lady of the Dunes case, the odds were stacked against finding any useable DNA. The Lady’s remains were 50 years old, her body was left in the elements for weeks before it was found, and most critically of all, somewhere along the line, the chemical formaldehyde was used on the Lady’s bones.

“This DNA was not useful by any other lab. It was just intractable,” Mittelman said.

“What physically was sent to your lab in Texas?” I asked.

“Her bones. Her actual remains. Because, there were no copies of DNA from before that could be readable by a sequencer,” Mittelman added.

Othram ran into the formaldehyde issue in an earlier case, and its researchers spent a year and a half developing a system to overcome it.

“This was honestly, a long shot. And the FBI told us that, when they sent us the evidence,” Mittelman remembers. But the team at Othram got to work..

Despite the potential pitfalls, they built a useable DNA sequence from the Lady of the Dunes for the FBI to enter into a genealogical data base. From there, after a half century, Ruth Marie Terry finally emerged from the dunes of Provincetown.

“We were able to get all the way from evidence arriving at the doorstep, to the FBI being able to provide her identity in less than a few months. That’s amazing,” Mittelman said. “Everyone deserves to have their name matched back to reality. Everyone deserves their story told. And I can’t imagine doing anything more purposeful than what we do here at Othram.”

Kristen tells me researchers did not find any foreign DNA on Ruth Marie Terry’s bones, but their job was focused on identifying the Lady of the Dunes. Forensic science has unlocked that secret of restoring the Lady of the Dunes’ name. Now, detectives are working to unearth the remaining mystery of who killed Ruth Marie Terry.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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