New Hampshire Union Leader / New Hampshire Sunday News

October 28, 2007

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Missing Maura Murray - [Four years] 45 Months and countless questions

By Nancy West

The longer Maura Murray is gone, the more it looks like the worst may have happened to the then-21-year-old nursing student after she crashed her car the evening of Feb. 9, 2004, on the edge of wilderness in northern New Hampshire.

Nearly four years after she disappeared from Haverhill without a trace, leaving not even a footprint in falling snow, police again are asking the public to search memories of that night for something overlooked -- anything that could be a possible clue.

Why did Maura withdraw $280 from an ATM, lie to professors that she would be gone a week because of a death in the family, buy her favorite liquor, pack all of her school books, a few clothes, a book about dying in the White Mountains, and head north with no word to any of the many people who love her?

Did Maura, a dean's list student at University of Massachusetts, travel to the White Mountains to commit suicide?

Did she drink too much during the first leg of her secret getaway and fall prey to the elements with 2 1/2 feet of snow on the ground?

Was Maura upset because she had crashed her father's new Toyota Corolla about 40 hours earlier, causing $10,000 in damage?

Or did something even more sinister happen, something her family and friends have feared since soon after they received word Maura was missing: that she trusted someone to help her and then died at the hands of a stranger.

Adding to the mystery, her then-boyfriend, Billy Rausch insisted a sobbing, shivering Maura placed a calling-card call to him 36 hours after her disappearance, then hung up.

"We don't know if Maura is a victim, but the state is treating it as a potential homicide," said Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin. "It may be a missing-persons case, but it's being handled as a criminal investigation."

Strelzin said adults have the right to leave and not let family and friends know their whereabouts. But the longer she is gone with no trace, the higher the level of concern for Maura.

Maura's dad

Her father, Fred Murray of Weymouth, Mass., wants the FBI to take over the case. He believes the searches came too little, too late to save Maura, that more should have been done the night she crashed the Saturn.

"The police in New Hampshire can't do it. They've had three and a half years of nothing happening; that proves it," said Murray, a persistent critic of New Hampshire State Police Troop F and Haverhill police. "It's similar to a situation with a fire burning out of control. If the locals can't handle it, they call for help, and 'F Troop' is overmatched."

Murray said police waited 11 days to interview some of the people who lived near the accident site and then did so only after they were prompted. And, he said, police waited months before heeding pleas to call Dominic and Linda Salamone, who rent a condominium in Bartlett, even though Maura's phone records indicated she called their number at 1 p.m. the day she disappeared.

"Why would anybody have a reasonable belief (the police) were going to investigate at all?" Murray said.

It took at least 40 hours before a police brought a dog to track Maura's scent, he said. And then, Maura's scent ended in the road 100 yards from the crash with no hint of foul play, leading police to believe she took a ride away from the scene.

"I can't get it out of my mind that something stinks. I want to know what state trooper John Monahan was doing after the (dispatcher's) call when my daughter was walking down the street in pitch black with no one to ask for help, nowhere to run and nowhere to hide," Murray said.

The accident scene

Butch Atwood, a school bus driver who lived near the accident site, told police he drove past and stopped to help Maura after she crashed the Saturn into a stand of trees. She declined help, saying she had called AAA on her mobile phone, even though there was no cell reception in that location.

Maura pleaded with Atwood not to call police, according to one police news release. According to another release, Maura appeared impaired by alcohol.

Atwood, whose home was near the crash, called police anyway, as did another neighbor. But by the time police arrived about 10 minutes later, Maura was gone, leading authorities to believe at first the driver of the crashed car had fled the scene to avoid a drunken driving arrest.

The Bailey's Irish Creme, Kahlua and vodka Maura reportedly bought for the trip had been removed from the car, as had her black backpack and cell phone. A box of wine was still in the car.

Route 112 is a 56-mile stretch that connects Bath and Conway, winding through the scenic -- but largely remote and at times harsh -- White Mountain National Forest. Police believe she left Amherst, Mass., that day and traveled north on Interstate 91 in Vermont.

Maura knew the other end of Route 112 -- the Kancamagus Highway, east of Interstate 93 -- well, having hiked and camped there with her family since she was a child, even after her parents, Fred and Laurie Murray divorced when she was 6.

Maura's loved ones and police have disagreed on many issues regarding what happened just before and after the crash. Her father insists Maura would be alive today if not for what he sees as a botched investigation.

To date, there is one verifiable fact at the heart of her story: Maura Murray vanished on Route 112 in Haverhill on Feb. 9, 2004, as snow fell in pitch darkness on a cold winter's night.

The boyfriend

Sharon Rausch of Marengo, Ohio, loved Maura like a daughter. She said her son, Billy Rausch, was planning to become engaged to Maura. Though the young couple's relationship had been rocky at times, in early 2004 it was headed toward wedding plans, Mrs. Rausch said.

Billy was an Army lieutenant stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., when Maura disappeared. They had met as cadets at the U.S. Military Academy and continued a long-distance relationship after Maura left West Point and transferred to UMass.

(Billy graduated with Maura's older sister, Julie. Maura has another sister, Kathleen, and two brothers, Fred and Kurt.)

Billy Rausch spent time last week with his parents at their Ohio home, having recently returned from a year and a half in Iraq with a promotion to captain, Mrs. Rausch said. He was also awarded the Bronze Star, she said. He is scheduled to leave the Army in December.

Sharon Rausch had been very active in the search for Maura, reaching out to many media outlets and anyone who might be of help. The story has been told with talk-show hosts Montel Williams and Greta Van Susteren and on the TV news magazine "20/20."

Mrs. Rausch responded to an e-mail request to interview her son saying: "Billy is out of town on a job interview. However, even upon his return, he has decided that he does not want to comment. I agree with Fred (Murray) about Billy "getting on with his life.' I know that each time (Billy) becomes actively involved with the media that it truly re-opens his intense heartache from Maura's missing.

"If Fred ever wants/needs Billy's input, he will be glad to participate, but until then, he wants to remain out of the picture."

Police initially pointed to difficulties in Maura and Billy's relationship to support the theory of a possible suicide, but Mrs. Rausch said the couple was very happy together.

Maura's mother

Laurie Murray believes her daughter is alive. A former nurse, she has battled throat cancer and a bladder tumor during more than three and a half years of fear and hope, waiting for word from Maura.

"I won't give up hope," Mrs. Murray said. "My gut feeling is she was abducted and she is being held against her will. If she gets a chance, she will get away."

Or maybe Maura suffers from amnesia from hitting her head in the accident, her mother theorized.

Either way, "She had to get into a vehicle, in my mind," Mrs. Murray said.

Laurie Murray said Maura's survival skills were honed at West Point before she transferred to UMass. The Murray home is filled with trophies and awards Maura earned in cross-country and track, in high school and college. She ran at least five miles a day and enjoyed long, grueling mountain hikes with her dad.

Asked about suggestions Maura may have had a drinking problem, Mrs. Murray said she didn't believe Maura drank a lot.

"She had just turned 21; sure, she liked to party. It's like a big deal when they turn 21. I don't put too much weight on it," she said.

Mrs. Murray also doesn't believe Maura could have committed suicide.

"She was doing great; she was getting high honors in nursing," Mrs. Murray said.

Since Maura's disappearance, her sister Kathleen has married and her sister Julie, a West Point graduate, has started a new government job in Washington, D.C.

"I'm most proud of Maura for everything, not one thing. She's young, beautiful, with brains, personality -- everything -- and a million friends," Laurie Murray said.

As for the work done by police, Mrs. Murray said: "I think they did what they could. They were limited. It's a very small police department in Haverhill.

"They went out . . . Maybe if they searched more that particular night, it would have been a different outcome. I don't know," she said.

Maura had often camped with the family at Jigger Johnson campground on Route 112.

"Maybe she was heading to Woodstock. I know her cell couldn't work. She knew the area like the back of her hand. She certainly knew how to survive in wilderness," Mrs. Murray said.