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.

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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.

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  • jamesrenner

    If you’re interested in reading the police reports related to Maura’s disappearance and other info, including her affair with a UMass track coach during which she spoke about starting a new life, following this link: http://mauramurray.blogspot.com/p/what-weve-learned-so-far.html

    • Phaerisee

      Thanks for that information. I thought it was interesting that the dogs apparently lost the scent within 100 yards, and that the bus driver lived within 100 yards of the site of the accident. I am not saying he had anything to do with it, but I wonder if he was asked to voluntarily take a polygraph. The rag in the tailpipe seems like it could be the key to the case or just one of the seemingly endless anomalous coincidences. If it were not for the rag, I would not suspect the father at all. But since he was the one who apparently introduced the rag according to his words that throws suspicion on him. I really get the feeling though, just based on the statistical probabilities, that perhaps they ought to consider a more comprehensive interrogation of the bus driver.

      • jamesrenner

        The bus driver took two lie detector tests. Supposedly he failed the first one but passed the second. He had a lot of health problems and died a few years ago. IMHO, I don’t think he had anything to do with her disappearance.

      • dnelliganvisionlandscaping

        Was the bus driver’s property ever thoroughly searched? If not, why? I thought I heard the father was not allowed on his property, (not sure if this was accurate or not). My first suspicion was with the bus driver also. What questions varied on the polygraph? This has haunted me from the beginning; if a search party is put together, count me in!

      • j23o

        I’m sure you cannot drive a car with a rag shoved in the exhaust,the engine would die pretty quickly because of back pressure.Did they analyse the rag to see if there was carbon deposits on it? or was it shoved in to stop her getting away?was the car driveable after the accident or was there major mechanical damage.I think she was a bit drunk and just lost control.

  • Glenn Adams

    http://onlineathens.com/local-news/2012-09-17/familys-perseverance-social-networking-led-recovery-missing-athens-woman

    Family’s perseverance, social networking led to recovery of missing Athens woman

    By JOE JOHNSONupdated Monday, September 17, 2012 – 9:11pm

    After several harrowing weeks out on her own while authorities considered her an endangered missing person, 25-year-old Ivy Dawn Merck recently returned home with her parents.

    Steven Merck on Monday described how he and his wife, Sally, found their daughter while passing out missing person fliers in Florida as they searched for the University of Georgia graduate who intentionally disappeared from her Athens home.

    “It’s unbelievable,” Steven Merck said via telephone from his home in Camden County. “We were riding down the road in Miami when we saw about five or six police officers on bikes, and Sally said we should stop and give them some fliers.

    “They told us to go to the police station and leave fliers there, and when we got to the Miami police station, Ivy was just there, sitting on the steps,” Steven Merck said.

    “We just kind of stared at her, and she was in a state of shock. Then we all started running to her, and we all must’ve hugged for 10 minutes before we started talking.”

    When she went missing, Merck was struggling with personal problems. Authorities who investigated her disappearance concluded from notes she left and other evidence that the woman might be suicidal.

    Authorities spoke with Merck’s family members on Thursday and prepared them for a possible tragic outcome.

    That same day, Merck’s sister-in-law got an idea from Websleuths.com, an Internet virtual community that follows and comments about missing persons cases and unsolved crimes. She and her husband, Chad Merck, both had registered with Websleuths.com to spread the word about the missing woman.

    Someone posted on the website that the family should create a Facebook page devoted to the search. Stephanie Baker-Merck responded, “Excellent idea. I’m going to start working on this right now.”

    The page was up and running that night. Because Merck’s birthday was the following day, authorities and family members urged people to post birthday greetings with the hope Merck might read them and realize how many people cared for her and were concerned.

    “We created this page to give people a place to express their concern for Ivy and show her how much she is loved and valued by family, friends and the community,” Baker-Merck said. “We made this page with her birthday in mind, but we would have done it regardless.”

    Ivy Merck actually saw the special Facebook page and read Websleuth.com discussions about her, which got her thinking about contacting her family.

    In a Websleuths.com post Sunday afternoon, Chad Merck explained the rest:

    “(Ivy) had gone to the (University) of Miami library the day before, because it was a safe place to go during the day,” Chad Merck posted. “She used a computer and had seen the ‘Find Ivy Dawn Merck’ Facebook page and the Websleuth blog posts.

    “She realized that she needed to come home at that point. She said she set out (for) the police station this morning, but went the wrong way and got lost. She passed several pay phones, but could not bring herself to make a call.”

    That was at about the same time Ivy Merck’s parents ran into the bicycle officers in Miami.

    “(Ivy) had arrived at the station 10 minutes prior and was trying to bring herself to head inside. You can imagine her shock at seeing my parents in the flesh,” Chad Merck said in his Internet posting.

    “I am not a statistician, but the odds of us arriving at the same location in Miami at the same time must be incredible,” he wrote. “There is no other way to explain such an amazing coincidence, other than as an answered prayer.”

    The family initially searched in the Deerfield Beach area, because that’s where authorities found the missing woman’s car. Chad Merck explained on Websleuths.com that the family decided to expand the search to Miami because a “generic” address in Miami was the last location his sister had entered into her car’s GPS.

    The Merck family’s ordeal started shortly after Aug. 21, when she told her roommate and supervisor at Good Hands Veterinary Hospital in Oconee County that she was leaving to visit her parents.

    She boarded her dog in the Camden County community of Kingsland on Aug. 23, but never arrived at her parents’ house. That’s when Steven Merck filed a missing persons report with Athens-Clarke police.

    Authorities listed Merck as a missing person in state and national law enforcement databases, and on Aug. 30, a sheriff’s deputy in Florida’s Broward County found Merck’s car in a parking lot in Deerfield Beach, just south of Boca Raton and about 350 miles from Kingsland.

    The car had just about run out of gas, authorities said, and the tires were so bald the car couldn’t be driven and had to be towed.

    According to Chad Merck’s Websleuths.com postings, his sister appeared to have lived in the car because blankets were inside.

    After learning his sister had entered a Miami location in her car’s GPS, Chad Merck decided the city’s South Beach would be a good place to continue the search, he said in his online post.

    “I had visited Miami a few times and figured that you find your way to South Beach at some point,” he said. “If Ivy did come to Miami, then it was worth a shot.”

    There was no parking available, so the man dropped off his parents on South Beach’s main drag, and they later went to the beach and left fliers at lifeguard stations before their son picked them up, Chad Merck said in his post.

    The family felt frustrated and was about to drive back to Deerfield beach when Sally Merck spotted the officers on bicycle patrol.

    “We headed over there, and I dropped my parents off,” Chad Merck said. “I called my wife and was lamenting how futile our search had been that day. We had no leads at all. My mom then called me, so I switched over, and she said the words, ‘We found Ivy. Come now.’

    “I then ran towards the police station, and there were my parents hugging and sobbing over a very stunned Ivy,” he said. “She looked the same, except she had cut her hair shorter and dyed in blondish. She was tanner and a bit sunburned from overexposure to the sun, and was visibly trembling. All she had with her was a ratty knapsack with some clothes in it.”

    On the drive to their hotel room, the family members learned about Ivy Merck’s ordeals over the previous three weeks.

    “Ivy … survived sleeping on the beach and had several people that helped her at key times with food and protection,” Chad Merck said in his Websleuths.com posting.

    “I am sure there were many harrowing experiences over these weeks on the street, but God provided protection for her to leave unharmed physically,” he said.

    “Ivy had her laptop, money and most of her belongings stolen in separate instances, but she survived the experience and was reunited with family. Our family is overjoyed with the outcome.”

    Steven Merck did not know if or when his daughter would return to Athens, because seeing to her emotional needs comes first.

    “We’re going to take care of her and do whatever it takes to get Ivy back to society and back to just being Ivy,” he said.

    • Follow Criminal Justice reporter Joe Johnson atwww.facebook.com/JoeJohnsonABH or http://www.twitter.com/JoeJohnsonABH.

    Wolfscratch/Foxfire

  • LP29

    Seriously show her face, this is a ridiculous joke and disrespectful to the family. Why would you not show her face, she is MISSING!!!!

  • Polly Penwell

    Wow!! THAT’s INSULTING!! It’s a perfect example of the IGNORANT and ARROGANT attitude that makes law enforcement so unpopular in this country.

    “DIY detectives” have solved cases more than once where law enforcement have failed to do so. In fact, a “DIY Detective” just this past month solved a 30-year-old missing persons case in TEN MINUTES that somehow managed to elude law enforcement for over three decades.

    And while we are busy “not being fruitful” do you want us to “contact the authorities” with information? Or do you want us to “not interfere in the investigation?” PICK ONE!!!!

    ——-

    Re: quote:

    In Maura Murray’s case, Strelzin will not say how often law enforcement monitors online forums, but concedes that the police are “aware of things that are said.” He adds that “nothing fruitful” has ever come from the DIY detectives.

    “All we ask is that they do not interfere in the investigations,” Strelzin continues. “You would expect that if people had information they would contact the authorities.”

  • Polly Penwell

    Undo. Undo. (Sigh)

    Sorry. Too much caffeine, not enough reading.

  • Jo Anna Lee Ball
  • Epter

    Good article on a vexing case. I couldn’t help but notice that notwithoutperil was deleted today. Was “samledyard” expecting to be identified by name, or was this a doxxing? In any event, there would be news value to naming interested websleuthers and contextualizing their interest, but I wonder if work as an atty is complicated by a sleuthing hobby. In any event, I’ve been following this for the past few months as an objective observer and this was a really balanced, informative take on the multiple perspectives on the case that acknowledged the weird online turf wars in the weeds without getting stuck in them.

  • johnallore

    Fascinating piece. Some thoughts:
    1. If theorists really do believe Maura went to Canada, specifically Sherbrooke, I wonder if they are aware there is a monastery there, Abbaye St. Benoit Du Lac, that might have provided refuge. In fact, my father knocked on their door 35 years ago when my sister went missing.
    2. Maura’s father, Fred Murray and I have corresponded over the years. He may now feel she was abducted by “a local dirtbag”, but for a time he took the notion of her fleeing to Canada very seriously. I know because I put him in contact with some police investigators with the Quebec police.
    3. I have also corresponded with James Renner. I respect James’ tenacity, but his comment that Fred Murray must be hiding something because, “In the history of missing women, what father has ever not wanted more publicity about their missing daughter?” is unfair, irresponsible, and simply not accurate. When my sister disappeared, authorities accused her of being everything from mentally disturbed, to a runaway, to a “lesbian” (heaven forbid). At that point, the very LAST thing my parents wanted was more publicity. They felt betrayed by the people they supposed were there to help them, and so they shut up. This is exactly what Fred has done, and I don’t blame him one bit.
    4. I am pretty sure I was one of the first blogs to start covering this story beginning around 2004.
    J Allore
    http://www.theresaallore.com

  • j23o

    Having watched the programme more than once I think the whole case was kicked off by that 1am upsetting phone call she received which she never confided to anyone the of the content.She became irrational after that.We know there was no family problems so could that phone call have been a secret love interest.Was she being told it was over?or a death?At the accident scene she had obviously been drinking alcohol mixed with coke while driving and threw it away afterwards. Why did she purchase so much alcohol in the first place.?I think she fell victim to an opportunist sexual abduction.Why did the police not let loose the scent dogs on that bus that passed?anyone would feel safe being picked up in a well lit bus.Wasn’t Ariel Castro a bus driver?something to dwell on.This case was always intrigueing because there was a lot of unexplained things going on before the disappearance.

    • Throckmorton

      The bus driver that “passed” lived within one hundred feet of where her car was found. I think you have the right idea.

      • http://festivals4fun.com/ Viveta Mentze

        This still doesn’t make sense you guys.. if you use Occam’s Razor correctly, you’d see this isn’t the most likely theory at all.. In fact its very UNLIKELY… You are basically saying its likely that within minutes of the crash, the bus driver in the small window of time kidnapped and killed the girl, somehow had her disappear without a trace, and rather than spending time to go over what he would say called police to report it, rather than making working on clean up, an alibi, etc. you are saying the most likely scenario was that he did all that, and called police as soon as he got home. If this is the most likely scenario, how did he do all this in a short period of time, why was he the one who called the police, why haven’t police or the girl’s family expressed belief that he is hiding something, how come we haven’t heard of a failed lie detector test by him; or a refusal to take one (which would be the “most likely” possibilities if he were involved.. I could go on and on… The point is, all the things I mentioned above highlight why this is not the MOST LIKELY SCENARIO and why you aren’t using Occam’s Razor correctly if you think the bus driver was most likely involved…

  • Throckmorton

    Some friends and I have been taking a look at this. Everything is pointing to the bus driver in our opinion, and the theory is that he tampered with the car, and anticipated the accident and was waiting for it.

    • elizabeth

      nah…. read more about it. the bus driver was completely cleared by police. i think if he were at all suspicious they would have been completely on him from the get-go

    • http://festivals4fun.com/ Viveta Mentze

      I agree with Elizabeth, it doesn’t seem at all likely it was the bus driver at all. He was the one that called police as soon as he got home, and the timeline backs up his story; the lady who first heard the crash was minutes prior, not enough time to do anything sinister. Also, the first call was made by the woman so you know the time roughly that the crash initially happened, the bus driver comes across the crash talks for a few minutes, then heads straight home and makes the SECOND call to 911 and dispatchers arrive there. He would have had no time to take her anywhere if he was involved and then call 911 so quickly from his house (which would have been idiotic if he was involved besides to call the police right away),

  • Samuel Ledyard

    We’re rebuilding the blog.

    The first post is a response to this great article. Please feel free to share your thoughts. http://notwithoutperil.com/2014/02/17/the-internet-will-find-maura-murray/

  • joeb

    Fred knows more than he’s saying like why she was going where she was going.
    However it does not take alot of crime solving skills to know that she was abducted, listen people dont vanish within 10 minutes. We may never know the abductors identity.
    But clearly she didnt abduct herself!

    • http://festivals4fun.com/ Viveta Mentze

      Joeb has it all figured out! lol. moron. Fred is the guy pressing to have ALL the information released and went to court for this to happen! Also he visits the area every weekend and was on countless tv shows to keep the story alive in hopes of finding his daughter.. Yet JoeStupid here believes the father is hiding info.. Yawn. They did this to John Walsh too when his son was kidnapped and murdered.. you people are really sick to go after a family in mourning without SOLID evidence! Great work Sherlock!

  • jenn

    I think they should go to a psychic a legit one to give them some answers.. Idk that’s what I would do..

  • phychics arent real

    Yes jenn, that’s a great idea! Because there is totally a big difference between a legit psychic and a regular old
    Phychic …… right? Ha ha

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  • Kat

    I have a genuine question: She was drinking and crashed her car. She pleaded with a passer-by not to call police and lied by saying she had already called AAA. She left the scene of the accident, probably concerned that she would be arrested for DUI. When police arrived, they found her car smelling of alcohol and found the interior stained with wine. She is drunk, irrational, just had a car accident wherein the airbags were deployed. She was probably frightened and disoriented and desperate not to get arrested after her recent legal troubles. Why is it so inconceivable that, upon seeing the lights from the police cars, she hurried into the woods to escape detection, became disoriented in the dark, got lost and then eventually succumbed to exposure? It was the middle of winter in New Hampshire, at night, and she could have been in the woods for hours. Perhaps she had hit her head during the accident or was stunned by the violence of the deploying airbags, which would have worsened her judgment and made it easier for her to become disoriented in the woods in the dark. Why is it inconceivable that she died in the woods that night from hypothermia? A body can be overlooked in the woods for years and possibly never found. It would have decomposed, been scavenged, covered by snow and leaves and debris, etc. The simplest explanation is often the correct one.