And Then She was Gone…
Maura Murray was just 21 years old when she vanished without a trace in 2004. The University of Massachusetts student was driving through rural New Hampshire at night when she lost control of her vehicle and ploughed into a snow bank. Her vehicle had slid, spun, and then came to a stop facing the wrong way on the opposite side of the road. By the time the police arrived on scene, Maura was gone. And ever since that night thousands of people on the internet has been obsessed with her disappearance.
Blogs, Reddit threads, a podcast, and a book, have all been dedicated to the search for answers in the disappearance of Maura Murray.
Some have referred to Maura as the gone girl before Gone Girl. She was the original all-American girl, who was hiding dark secrets and a troubling past, behind her perfect grades and track star exterior.
There are many conflicting theories about what happened to Maura. Did she run off into the woods and die from exposure? Was she driving into the White Mountains to commit suicide? Did she successfully evade the police and start a new life in Canada? Was she abducted by an opportunistic serial killer? Is she still living in New Hampshire under a different name? Was she murdered by a group of locals and did the police cover it up?
Maura’s remains have never been found and she hasn’t accessed her bank accounts or reached out to her family or friends since.
There was only about a 3-5 minute gap in between the time Butch Atwood, a local school bus driver, last saw Maura and when she vanished.
So where did Maura go?
On the afternoon of February 9, 2004, nursing student at UMass Amherst named Maura Murray sent an email to her professors: There was a death in the family, she wrote, and she’d be gone for a few days. Then she gathered up her text books—she’d always been a good student, scoring 1420 on her SATs—and climbed into her Saturn sedan. A 5-foot-7 brunette, she was a native of Hanson, Massachusetts, and had spent three months as a cadet at West Point before transferring to UMass. She packed toiletries, a week’s worth of clothes, exercise gear—she ran track and cross-country—a stuffed animal given to her by her dad, and a necklace from her boyfriend, whom she’d met at West Point and was now stationed in Oklahoma. Murray planned to spend the following summer with him, and she may already have known that he intended to propose.
There were other items in the car, many of which would be obsessed over for the next decade: some alcohol; a MapQuest printout of directions to Burlington, Vermont; and a book, titled Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire, which tells the tales of more than a dozen hiker tragedies in the White Mountains. Maura’s parents separated when she was six, and though she lived with her mother, her father would often take her hiking in those mountains. By all accounts, she loved going up there.
By 7 p.m, it was dark and Maura was zipping along on a black stretch of Route 112 in Haverhill, New Hampshire. She took a shaky turn and crashed into a snow bank. Not long after, a passing motorist pulled up to the disabled car and asked Maura if she needed help. She declined. Mere minutes later, a police officer arrived at the scene and found the car locked, its windshield cracked, the air bags deployed—and not a soul in sight. In just those moments, Maura Murray had disappeared into the New England night.
The last person believed to have had contact with Murray was a local school bus driver, a large-bellied gregarious man by the name of Butch Atwood. Atwood, returning home from work, saw Murray’s car facing west in the eastbound lane of route 112. As he approached, Atwood noticed Murray’s car resting, with the headlights off and without hazards flashing. Atwood later told police that it seemed to him that the driver, presumably Murray, wasn’t trying to bring attention to herself — something you would probably want to do in such a remote area. Especially on a cold New Hampshire night.
On the surface, Maura Murray appeared to be the quintessential All-American Girl: track star, former West Point cadet, nursing student, and cute as a button. Then a series of strange events began one night while Maura was working the security desk at Melville Hall, on the campus of UMass, Amherst. This was Thursday, February 5, 2004. A shift manager found Maura at her desk in a catatonic state. All she would say was, “my sister.” The manager escorted her back to her room. The next day, school was cancelled due to snow. That Saturday, Maura’s father, Fred, came to visit, with $4,000 in cash, to find her a new car, he says, though they never purchased one. On Saturday night Maura wrecked Fred’s car on the way back to his motel room around 3:30 a.m. On Monday morning, Maura sent an email to professors, stating that she would not be in class that week due to a death in the family – this was a lie. Nobody had died.
That afternoon, Maura got into her car, stopped by an ATM to empty out her bank account, and then drove north into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where she got into another accident, this time smashing into a snow bank.
The aftermath of the crash has fuelled speculation for thirteen years. A school bus driver returning home from work saw Murray and stopped. He later told police that she said she’d already called for help and asked him not to call 911. He acquiesced, but said he offered her a ride to his house, within sight of the crash.
Again, she declined.
He drove away.
And then she was gone.
The time between the accident and the moment the first officer arrived on scene was between five and seven minutes. Sometime in that window, Maura vanished.
It’s a confounding mystery because of all the weird circumstantial evidence. A rag was found in the wrecked car’s tailpipe. Before she vanished, Murray had a breakdown at work, the cause of which has never been publicly explained.
February, 2017, marks the 13th anniversary of Maura’s disappearance. At the time, the case was a national sensation. Investigators began looking for her, with search dogs combing the area in a half-mile radius around the accident and helicopters deployed overhead. The media flocked to the scene: first the local television stations and the press up from Boston, and then the national media horde. Montel Williams and Greta Van Susteren covered the story, and on February 17, eight days after the disappearance, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien interviewed Maura’s father, Fred Murray, and her boyfriend, Bill Rausch, who flew in from Oklahoma.
Rausch told O’Brien that, while travelling, he received a voice-mail message: “I could hear only breathing and then towards the end of the voice mail, I heard what was apparent [sic] to be crying and then a whimper, which I’m certain was Maura.” The number was from a prepaid calling card. Two weeks later, as leads remained elusive, the Globe asked, “Where Could Maura Be?” Ominously, the paper noted, “The more details are revealed, the more baffling the case becomes, police acknowledge.”
By the end of fall 2004, the TV crews and newspapers were gradually fading way. Still, Fred Murray would travel to the area every weekend, pressing authorities for more answers than they could provide. Maura’s family and friends felt like they were out in the mountains alone. But they were about to get a lot more company than they ever bargained for. Maura had gone missing just as the social Web was being born, and there was a small chorus beginning to get louder in an unexpected place: Internet message boards.
So many questions surround her life and disappearance, and they fuel the online discussions among strangers, most of whom have never met her but find themselves nonetheless entranced by her story. Maybe she was kidnapped; maybe she was murdered. Maybe she fled to start a new life. Maybe she doesn’t want to be found. Maybe she is alive or dead, but her story, for many, remains unresolved—and perhaps unresolvable.
For Maura Murray, the weekend prior to her disappearance had been a whirlwind. She was in the middle of her nursing program, as well as going on the clinical rotations that were part of her junior-year curriculum. She also worked as a security guard at an art gallery and in the dorms. At around 10:20 p.m. on the Thursday before she disappeared, she received a phone call, and later in her shift that night, she became so upset that her supervisor escorted her back to her dorm room.
That weekend, her father came up from his job in Connecticut to help Maura find a new car. Maura’s 1996 Saturn “kind of blew a cylinder” and was “smoking something fierce,” according to Fred Murray. “I said, ‘You can’t drive this car. The cops will pull you over in a heartbeat,’” he recalls. As a temporary fix, Fred says he suggested she put a rag inside the tailpipe to hide the smoke. He says he withdrew $4,000 over the course of eight ATM transactions and that on that Saturday he took Maura to purchase a car in Northampton. They ended up a couple of thousand dollars short, though, so Fred figured he’d go home, round up some more money, and come back another time. Father and daughter drove back to campus and went to dinner at a brewpub in Amherst with one of Maura’s friends. Later, Maura dropped off Fred at his hotel and drove his new Toyota Corolla to an on-campus party, where she drank with friends.
An hour after the leaving the party at UMass, Maura got into her father’s car, alone, and at 3:33 AM, early Sunday morning, Hadley Police receives a phone call from the UMass Campus Police about a car crash involving Maura, who crashed her father’s vehicle into a T-junction on route 9 in Hadley, Ma. Just outside the perimeter of the UMass campus proper. The crash was serious enough to have reportedly caused $10,000 in damage — so much damage that the vehicle was considered totaled by the insurance company.
But Maura wasn’t arrested or charged with any crime. Instead, the car was towed by AAA at 4:29 AM with Maura hitching a ride with the tow truck driver to the Quality Inn, where she would arrive at 4:45 AM and spend the rest of the morning in her father’s motel room.
But it’s unsure how Maura actually got into the motel room. Lance Reenstierna, cohost of the Missing Maura Murray podcast, thinks that Maura ended up sleeping on the couch in the lobby of the motel, eventually being let into her father’s room by the manager on duty. Her father, Fred, has said to police that he never heard Maura come in and didn’t know she was there until he woke up hours later.
At 5:38 AM, though, Maura called her boyfriend, Billy. She used her father’s phone.
In the overnight hours leading into Monday morning, Maura used her computer around 4 AM, according to N.H. State Police Lieutenant John Scarinza, to make several questionable internet searches. Two were for driving directions; to the Berkshires, and Burlington, VT.
The other search was about the effects of excessive drinking on an unborn baby, fueling speculation that she may have been pregnant at the time of her disappearance.
Over the next couple of days, as she and her father tried to figure out the car’s insurance situation, Maura started to make travel plans: Just before 1 p.m. on Monday, she called the owner of a condo rental in Bartlett, New Hampshire; she also dialed 1-800-GOSTOWE, but did not make a reservation at one of the hotels in the area. The same day, she sent an email to her boyfriend:
“I love you more stud. I got your messages, but honestly, i didn’t feel like talking to much of anyone, i promise to call today though. love you,Maura”
Hours later she left him a voice mail, promising to talk. And she sent emails to her professors and supervisors, informing them—falsely—of a death in her family.
When she left her dorm room, did she hint at what lay ahead? Some reports claim she had packed her belongings and taken art off her walls—evidence, perhaps, that she was leaving for good. Her father says the floors had been cleaned over Christmas break, which explains why some of her things were still in boxes. But almost everyone agrees that Maura was planning to leave campus for at least a few nights. She withdrew $280 from an ATM—almost all of the money in her account—and purchased, according to police, Baileys, Kahlúa, vodka, and box wine from a nearby liquor store. She checked her voice mail at 4:37 p.m., her last known call. She told no one where she was going.
The last activity on Maura’s cell phone was around 5 PM when somebody called her. A cell phone ping confirming that the call came from within twenty miles of Londonderry, NH., a town just north of the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border.
Investigators have speculated that the person calling Maura was perhaps travelling on route 93 north, the main interstate running from Boston to northern New Hampshire, before connecting onto route 91 and heading into Canada.
Coincidentally, it takes a couple of hours to drive from Londonderry to Haverhill, NH., where Maura crashed, and the cell phone ping was approximately two hours prior to the accident, with Maura vanishing some twenty minutes after the crash.
7:05 PM, two people listening to police scanners hear a call about a car driving off the road on Swiftwater Road (not route 112), and that the driver left the scene in a private vehicle. That scan, for whatever reason, never made it onto the official police log of the Grafton County Sheriff department.
On the Internet, Maura’s disappearance is the perfect obsession, a puzzle of clues that offers a tantalizing illusion—if the right armchair detective connects the right dots, maybe the unsolvable can be solved. And so every day, the case attracts new recruits, analyzing and dissecting and reconstructing the details of her story with a Warren Commission–like fervor. The late-night car accident after the party. The father visiting with $4,000 cash in his pocket. The crying episode. The box of wine. The MapQuest printout. The rag in the tailpipe.
Maura was not the angelic young woman presented in early media reports. At the time of her disappearance she was in trouble for credit card fraud and identity theft. She left West Point in the middle of a judicial inquiry that was launched when she stole makeup from the commissary at Fort Knox. And she had been having an affair with her track coach and sometimes told him that she wanted to run away and start a new life.
Where was Maura going when she crashed her car in New Hampshire? What happened to her afterwards? Was she heading into the White Mountains to commit suicide, to go off and die “like an old squaw,” as her father suggested to police. Was she picked up by a serial killer? Or did she use an underground railroad for abused women to aide her escape into Canada?
Butch Atwood was driving his school bus back to his home just after 7 p.m. when he spotted a black Saturn stopped in the eastbound lane of Route 112, but facing west. He later told police that he pulled up beside the wreck and asked a woman fitting Maura’s description if he should call for help. The woman told him no, and that she had already called AAA. That seemed strange to him, since cell-phone reception in the area was weak to nonexistent. When he reached his house—it was within view of the accident scene—he called the police anyway.
In a house steps away from the Saturn, resident Faith Westman had also called the police. She said she saw what looked like a man smoking a cigarette in the car; her husband later said it could have been a woman on a cell phone. Another neighbour said that from her kitchen window she saw the car stopped, with lights flashing, and someone walking around the vehicle.
Investigators would administer two polygraph tests to Atwood throughout the investigation. The first was inconclusive. The second he passed.
The first police officer arrived at 7:46 p.m. He found a car, but no woman. Inside the Saturn, police later detected the smell of alcohol, and found stains on the driver’s-side door and the ceiling that looked like red wine. Red liquid was found on the ground, as well as an empty soda bottle, which smelled of booze. “It was obvious that she had been drinking,” says Jeff Strelzin, chief of the homicide unit at the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and the lead prosecutor in the investigation. There was no sign of a struggle or foul play. Police found no footprints heading off the road into the woods.
While inspecting Maura’s car, Officer Smith noticed that the doors to Maura’s car were all locked. The keys were taken. The car had a near full tank of gas. The windshield had been compromised, or cracked, with a large spiderweb crack breaking from the inside and on the driver’s side, indicating contact. But the point of impact on the windshield was too high for it to have been caused by Maura, who, at 5’7″, was too short and would have been restrained by the seat belt.
The investigation and search for Maura Murray wouldn’t fully be implemented until 36 hours after the crash. DNA samples taken from a nearby home that at the time was being rented by a local man known to police to have had a violent temper and possible sex addiction, weren’t tested for two years.
In late 2004, Larry Moulton, now deceased, gave Fred Murray a bloody knife that had belonged to his brother, Claude, who had a criminal records and lived less than a mile from where Maura crashed her car. The knife would eventually make its way to the New Hampshire State Police.
When campus police searched her dorm room days later, they found her belongings neatly packed in boxes and all of her wall art had been taken down.
As the days stretched on, Fred Murray came to feel that the police were botching the search. He was upset that the Haverhill, New Hampshire, police hadn’t immediately alerted other departments along Route 112 of Maura’s disappearance, that they hadn’t interviewed all the residents within eyeshot of the scene, and that they waited so long to talk to the last people Maura was known to have spoken to, including the owner of the rental condo. He was even more upset when the Haverhill PD issued a press release, two days after Maura’s disappearance, claiming she was “possibly suicidal.” Fred, his ex-wife, Laurie, and Bill Rausch’s mother, Sharon, all became increasingly, and very publicly, critical of the official investigation. (Laurie died of cancer in 2009.)
Fred claims that police gave their search dogs a new pair of gloves—found in the back seat of the car, but never worn—as a scent for Maura, instead of something that would have been more identifiable, like her running shoes. He also alleges that on the night of the accident, the police failed to search the direction Maura was headed. “I knew she was headed east,” Fred says. “She was headed to Bartlett. She was up there as an infant. I remember changing her diapers in a tent up there, for Chrisssakes.
“It’s freezing cold out, there’s a crack in the windshield, there’s a potential head injury, there’s arguably evidence of drinking, which would promote hypothermia. A young person. In a state of shock. You have danger. And you don’t go down the street the way she was going?”
Even after a decade, Fred wants more answers about what the police were doing—or not doing—in the two days after Maura’s disappearance. This year, he’s renewing his call for the FBI to investigate the officers who conducted the original investigation.
“Fred has been a difficult person to deal with from the beginning,” Strelzin says. “I understand a lot of where he is coming from, but I feel his anger is misplaced.”
With no trust in local law enforcement, Fred welcomed volunteer citizens to join in the search. A year into the case, former New Hampshire state police lieutenant John Healy met a relative of Maura’s named Helena Murray at a conference on missing persons. Having a college-aged daughter himself, and knowing he had the tools to help, Healy organized a group of experienced private investigators and began to make trips to Route 112, even bringing cadaver dogs to the scene.
Fred Murray initially worked closely with Healy’s group. In 2005, though, he sued the state police in an attempt to make public all of the reports pertaining to the investigation. He was unsuccessful, and what’s more, Healy and his volunteers publicly disagreed with his effort. Fred says more conflicts arose, so he stopped working with them. “He shut the door on me and the whole group of volunteers ever since,” Healy says. Healy’s group is still trying to find Maura and, by his estimates, has spent thousands of hours following leads. “We’re doing this for their whole family,” Healy says.
Fred believes his daughter was abducted by “a local dirtbag” and rejects the notion that she was running away. “She didn’t have any reason,” Fred says. “She had things going for her. She was going to be a nurse. She was getting a new car—a three-year-old car—the very next Saturday. She was getting married soon. She was getting great marks.”
Some message boards allow Internet sleuths to work together, to bounce ideas off each other, in order to uncover new clues that police may have overlooked.” In other words, it might help get closer to the bare facts of the case.
But there’s a deeper allure to these true crime stories. It peels back the curtain and reveals the indifferent world in which we live. Maybe it’s a kind of existential crisis. People trying to figure things out and these stories get them closer to some truth about life. Whatever that truth may be, the search continues.
On July 23, 2011, journalist and author James Renner published a blog post titled “A New Search Begins.” In it he described spending several months investigating Murray’s disappearance and uncovering unpublicized facts in the case. “There is something about this case that resonates with so many people,” he wrote, and he hoped he’d talk to many more people while he gathered material for a book.
His book is: True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray. It’s been a long time coming, and via email he says he likely couldn’t have written it without the Internet. “Maura disappeared the same week Facebook launched. Hers is the first major mystery of the social media age,” he says. With social media he can connect with both sources and investigators, and his blog acts as a digital billboard for anyone with new information—“stories from friends, people who knew her from school, from West Point.” You can take the evidence and spin any theory you want, really –
He’s done his part to get more evidence, uploading and publicly sharing more than 500 pages of documents. The case is officially in the hands of a cold case unit, and Renner encourages his blog readers to send their tips to the authorities. He says he’s sent Freedom of Information Act requests to authorities in Murray’s hometown and around the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she attended school. He’s gathered information from her time at West Point, where she’d spent three months as a cadet; he’s successfully appealed for files on a potentially related hit-and-run. And he’s collected the many possible sightings of Murray in the years since her disappearance.
In other words, he’s provided valuable fodder for the people still enthralled by Maura Murray’s disappearance. One of those people is John Smith—and yes, that’s his real name. He’s a 57-year-old former Littleton, New Hampshire, police officer who has worked with Murray’s father since April of 2004, two months after she went missing.
He’s still working. “I dig every day,” he says via email. “And I won’t stop. So don’t think that I will.” He says he isn’t doing it for the money, and that save for $20 in gas money he received years ago, he’s hasn’t taken compensation from the Murray family. There’s no fame to be had here, and the only thanks he sees coming will be on the day he’s able to tell Fred Murray what really happened to his daughter.
The case has so consumed him that in 2008 he quit his job. And a few months after that, he lost his vehicle “and pretty much my life,” he says, including breaking up with his girlfriend of 10 years. “I pretty much spent every waking moment on the case, working the forums, driving the roads, talking to witnesses,” he says. “By this time, I was spending all of my time and money on the case.” He estimates he’s spent $12,000–$15,000 of his own money to help find Maura Murray.
Of course, he does much of his work online, under a number of aliases. “Detective Columbo was the persona used most often and have had that for 12 years,” he says. “Some call that being dishonest and deceiving, but I call it smart and resourceful.”
In October 2006, volunteers led a two-day search within a few miles of where the car was found. In the closet of an A-frame house, cadaver dogs allegedly went “bonkers,” identifying the possible presence of human remains. A sample of the carpet was sent to the New Hampshire State Police, but results were never released. In July 2008, volunteers led another two-day search through wooded areas in Haverhill. The group consisted of dog teams and licensed private investigators.
Fred Murray has repeatedly criticized the police investigation for treating the disappearance as a missing persons and not a criminal matter and has called on the FBI to join the investigation. Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin said in February 2009 that the investigation is still active. “We don’t know if Maura is a victim, but the state is treating it as a potential homicide. It may be a missing-persons case, but it’s being handled as a criminal investigation.”
In 2014, on the tenth anniversary of Murray’s disappearance, Strelzin stated, “We haven’t had any credible sightings of Maura since the night she disappeared.
James Renner is a novelist and journalist from Ohio. He’s new work of nonfiction, True Crime Addict, follows his investigation into the disappearance of Maura Murray.
The official website created by Murray’s loved ones includes a multi-part biography of Murray.