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.
Strelzin knows firsthand how citizen sleuths can solve a mystery. In 2003, he worked the case of a Concord, New Hampshire, man who kidnapped and killed his two children. Once apprehended, the man refused to divulge the location of the buried bodies, and hanged himself in his jail cell. After his death, private citizens formed search groups and traveled to the area authorities believed the children were buried. “I would communicate with some of those groups, share information, send pictures back and forth,” Strelzin says. Eventually, one of the searchers found the children’s bodies just off the highway in Hudson, Ohio.
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.”
From the sprawling online world of the Maura Murray mystery—filled with anonymous commenters, trolls, and theorists—a freelance journalist, using his real name, had emerged, determined to crack the case. In the summer of 2010, James Renner, a former reporter for a weekly newspaper called the Cleveland Scene, saw an episode of 20/20 on Maura. “I just thought, Wow, I wonder if I could figure it out,” Renner says. He began posting on message boards, and launched his own blog, My Search for Maura Murray, in June 2011. Eventually, he had so much information up on the site—from minuscule facts to big theories—that he decided to begin working on a manuscript.
Renner has just completed a 300-page book about his search for Maura, and can rattle off minute details about the case as if they were baseball stats. During his investigation, Renner wrote on his site that he discovered that just three months before her disappearance, Maura was visited by police officers at her dorm on account of $79.02 she had spent on pizza deliveries with a stolen credit card number. He also wrote that records indicated the charges would be dropped within three months under one condition: Maura would have to stay out of trouble until then. Could her late-night car accident, after drinking at a party, have brought those charges back into play? Renner believes that Maura ran away—and that she may still be alive. This past December, he traveled through Quebec following up on a lead he read on a message board in 2009 about Maura being in Sherbrooke—a town near the New Hampshire border. He posted flyers with Maura’s photo along the way, and while he says he got some tantalizing leads, none panned out. Sherbrooke joined places like Montreal; Toronto; Hillsboro, New Hampshire; and Barton, Vermont on the long list of spots where Maura had supposedly been spotted, but never found.
Renner also questions whether Fred may be standing in the way of finding his daughter. On his blog, Renner has speculated that the father knows more than he is letting on, and he theorizes that Fred may know why Maura went to New Hampshire, even if he may not know where she is now. “Whether he helped her or not, I don’t know,” Renner says.
After hearing about numerous accusatory posts on Renner’s blog, Fred refused to cooperate for the book. He 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.”
The feud between Renner and Murray has become personal.“What I think he’s trying to do is create characters for a screenplay,” Fred says of Renner. “I have spent countless hours. Every possible trail. You wouldn’t believe the places I’ve been in.” For his part, Renner finds Murray’s behavior suspicious.
“In the history of missing women, what father has ever not wanted more publicity about their missing daughter?” Renner says.
Fred says he’s waiting to see the book before he responds to it. “From what I hear,” he says, “there’s a lot of false insinuations.”
Renner says he would welcome a lawsuit from Fred Murray. “There’s nothing that would please me more than to depose Fred in court under oath,” Renner says. “Everything in the book is factual and backed up with documentation.”
“He wants me to be a subplot, ’cause I didn’t talk to him,” Fred counters. “I can take temporary hits. That’s losing battles. But there’s a war.”
For Helena Murray, the downsides of citizen sleuthing have come to outweigh the benefits.“It’s terribly, terribly sad to see what they do to [Fred] online,” she says. Helena even took down the message board on her site, mauramurraymissing.com, when visitors’ attacks became too sharp.
“I don’t really give a shit about that crap,” Fred says. “That’s a sideshow. The deal is: Where is my daughter?”