Boston Magazine

January 28, 2014

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Will the Internet Find Maura Murray?

By Bill Jensen

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.

Over the next couple of days, as she and her father tried to figure out the car’s insurance situation, Maura started to make travel plans: Just before 1 p.m. on Monday, she called the owner of a condo rental in Bartlett, New Hampshire; she also dialed 1-800-GOSTOWE, but did not make a reservation at one of the hotels in the area. The same day, she sent an email to her boyfriend:

“I love you more stud. I got your messages, but honestly, i didn’t feel like talking to much of anyone, i promise to call today though. love you,Maura”

Hours later she left him a voice mail, promising to talk. And she sent emails to her professors and supervisors, informing them—falsely—of a death in her family.

When she left her dorm room, did she hint at what lay ahead? Some reports claim she had packed her belongings and taken art off her walls—evidence, perhaps, that she was leaving for good. Her father says the floors had been cleaned over Christmas break, which explains why some of her things were still in boxes. But almost everyone agrees that Maura was planning to leave campus for at least a few nights. She withdrew $280 from an ATM—almost all of the money in her account—and purchased, according to police, Baileys, Kahlúa, vodka, and box wine from a nearby liquor store. She checked her voice mail at 4:37 p.m., her last known call. She told no one where she was going.

On the Internet, Maura’s disappearance is the perfect obsession, a puzzle of clues that offers a tantalizing illusion—if the right armchair detective connects the right dots, maybe the unsolvable can be solved. And so every day, the case attracts new recruits, analyzing and dissecting and reconstructing the details of her story with a Warren Commission–like fervor. The late-night car accident after the party. The father visiting with $4,000 cash in his pocket. The crying episode. The box of wine. The MapQuest printout. The rag in the tailpipe.

Online sleuthing stepped into the spotlight this past April, when the FBI asked for the public’s help in identifying the Boston Marathon bombers. The agency, though, was drawing on a long tradition of crowdsourcing investigations—one that stretches from Wild West wanted posters to TV’s America’s Most Wanted. But it was also tapping into the more recent tradition of independent, online, open-sourced sleuthing: citizen detectives, often strangers living miles or continents apart, sharing information and working in unison. The practice can lead to stunning revelations, as when crime-blogger Alexandria Goddard uncovered details of a high school rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, by screen-grabbing the tweets of partygoers. And, famously, it can lead to false accusations: Some Reddit users helped identify the brand of hats worn by one of the marathon bombers, but others famously implicated numerous innocent standers-by.