Will the Internet Find Maura Murray?
Ten years ago, a 21-year-old UMass student vanished without a trace. For an army of amateur sleuths across the Internet, that was just the beginning.
On the afternoon of February 9, 2004, a 21-year old 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.
This month marks the 10th 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 traveling, 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.
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.
Maura left the party at 2:30 a.m. and headed back to Fred’s hotel. At 3:30 a.m., while driving through Hadley, she crashed into a guardrail. The police showed up, but no charges were filed—and by all accounts Maura, though visibly shaken, was not given a Breathalyzer test. Close to $10,000 worth of damage was done to the car.