Boston Globe

February 27, 2004

Footprints in the snow

By Brian McGrory

Haverhill, N.H. -- They say the hardest thing that any parent can ever be called upon to do is bury their child.

But standing amid the glorious scenery of the White Mountains this week, where an uneven layer of snow coated the meadows like vanilla frosting on a homemade cake, I had to think there might be something even worse. And Fred Murray is living it right now.

Murray is from the South Shore. His daughter, Maura, a 21-year-old nursing student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, vanished into the thin air of the northern New Hampshire wilderness this month. She had a minor car accident along a pitch black stretch of rural road on Feb. 9, and in the 10 minutes it took police to respond, she was gone.

Her cellphone hasn't been used since. Her credit cards haven't registered any purchases. She left most of her clothing in a suitcase in the back of the disabled car. And her father, her sister, her brothers, her friends have no idea what they're supposed to do now.

Immediately, they descended upon this hamlet en masse. They scrambled through the dense woods nearby. They drove a hundred miles in every direction, tacking fliers to telephone polls and bulletin boards of local stores. They stopped at bus stations in hopes that someone might have seen something. "I followed footsteps through the snow," Fred Murray said this week. When he saw a set of prints, he took off after them.

This much is known: At UMass, Maura received a call on the evening of Feb. 5 that reduced her to tears. A couple of days later, she told professors she'd be gone for a week for a family emergency. On Feb. 9, she left her boyfriend of three years, an army lieutenant in Oklahoma, an e-mail and voice mail in which she indicated nothing wrong, packed her car, and headed north.

The next time she was seen was in this tiny valley town, by Butch Atwood, a 58-year-old local school bus driver who passed her car as it sat in the snowbank. He said he stopped and asked if she needed help. She declined. He drove the 100 yards to his house and called the police. When they arrived, she was gone.

Authorities sent a heat-seeking helicopter along the treetops as recently as yesterday. They used dogs to try to trace her steps away from the accident scene. They dispatched cadaver-sniffing canines into the forest, all to no avail.

Eventually, life continues, bills need to be paid, and last weekend Fred Murray had to get back home. "The worst part was driving home alone," he said. "Then I stopped in her room at UMass, and that was pretty awful."

The two were uncommonly tight since she was a young girl. Both avid runners, they trained together. They hiked regularly in New Hampshire. "I was looking for some hint that she might have left for me, something that I'd understand that would say goodbye," he said of her room search. "But there wasn't anything."

"We weren't strangers; we were very close. I can't see her not saying goodbye to me. That's why I suspect foul play."

Her father acknowledges that she was fleeing school for reasons that he said are still unclear. He also believes that once she crashed, only two scenarios remain: She was picked up on the road by someone who wanted to help her or by someone who hurt her. If it was the former, they would have already come forward to let authorities know where she went.

Butch Atwood, the last witness to see her, has been questioned several times by police. Worried that he should have helped more, he told me outside his cabin this week, "I have some sleepless nights now."

If Maura Murray is alive and well, she ought to know that hearts are broken. She should know that no mistake is insurmountable. People forgive. Time and attention heal feelings and wounds.

These days, when Fred Murray's phone rings, he jumps. Minutes drag like hours. Shady psychics and gumshoes keep offering help. "I just want to get my little girl back," he said.

Hopefully, there's a happy ending. It's just tough to see it now.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at