January 28, 2014
(2 of 3)
Will the Internet Find Maura Murray?
By Bill Jensen
Now, at least online, it often seems as there’s no such thing as a cold case. But when Maura Murray disappeared, the social Web was in its infancy. There was no YouTube and no Twitter. On the day Maura went missing, Facebook was five days old. And so you can read the history of her case as a parable about the evolution of online sleuthing. In the months after Maura vanished, one of Rausch’s friends launched a site in an attempt to publicize the case. Long-gone sites like alt.true-crime and crimenews2000.com began reposting newspaper articles, as well as the standard details. In November 2004, nine months after she vanished, a second cousin of Maura’s started the website mauramurray.com. A Maura Murray string was even created on justiceforchandra.com, a site set up to discuss the case of Washington, DC, intern Chandra Levy, who had gone missing three years earlier.
In February 2005, members of the DIY detective message board websleuths.com jumped into the fray. Anonymous posters with names like Grassyknoll2 and CyberLaw attempted to piece together a time line, wondering why Maura would have partied on Saturday night, or what made her so upset at work. In 2007, pages on Facebook and MySpace were created in hopes of gathering tips. And in the Franconia city forum on the small-town message board topix.com, more than 42,000 comments have been posted on a Murray thread in just the past four years.
Just as with anywhere else on the Internet, the discussion can run from constructive to abusive. Debates range from the backgrounds of the neighbors along Route 112 to whether Maura was trying to use the rag in the tailpipe to burn her car. The forums are awash with theories: Some believe she was taken by a serial killer monitoring the police scanner. Others think she faked the accident and bolted for Canada. The most obsessive even make pilgrimages to the curve on Route 112—snapping photos, taking measurements, attempting to reconstruct the accident.
Within the past year, a few users have broken off from the free-for-alls of the message boards and launched stand-alone sites with a sole focus on finding Maura. One of them, called Not Without Peril, was created by Joseph Anderson, 30, an attorney from Whitman, Massachusetts, who came across Maura’s case in early 2013 while researching another missing person. He became fascinated, and began commenting on sites under the pseudonym “Sam Ledyard.” In the summer of 2013 he launched his own site with a few other regular commenters, naming it after the title of the book that was found in Maura’s car. In just a few months, it has racked up more than 22,000 comments, Anderson says. The contributors to the site have come to know one another, and have taken on roles—for instance, one is known for his connections on other Maura Murray sites; another is a real estate agent, adept at pulling useful info from the MLS database. Anderson spends hours per day on Maura’s case. When he gets home from work, he usually hops on the computer and starts digging. “It could go on from 7 till midnight,” he says.
Butch Atwood was driving his school bus back to his home just after 7 p.m. when he spotted a black Saturn stopped in the eastbound lane of Route 112, but facing west. He later told police that he pulled up beside the wreck and asked a woman fitting Maura’s description if he should call for help. The woman told him no, and that she had already called AAA. That seemed strange to him, since cell-phone reception in the area was weak to nonexistent. When he reached his house—it was within view of the accident scene—he called the police anyway.
In a house steps away from the Saturn, resident Faith Westman had also called the police. She said she saw what looked like a man smoking a cigarette in the car; her husband later said it could have been a woman on a cell phone. Another neighbor said that from her kitchen window she saw the car stopped, with lights flashing, and someone walking around the vehicle.
The first police officer arrived at 7:46 p.m. He found a car, but no woman. Inside the Saturn, police later detected the smell of alcohol, and found stains on the driver’s-side door and the ceiling that looked like red wine. Red liquid was found on the ground, as well as an empty soda bottle, which smelled of booze. “It was obvious that she had been drinking,” says Jeff Strelzin, chief of the homicide unit at the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and the lead prosecutor in the investigation. There was no sign of a struggle or foul play. Police found no footprints heading off the road into the woods.
As the days stretched on, Fred Murray came to feel that the police were botching the search. He was upset that the Haverhill, New Hampshire, police hadn’t immediately alerted other departments along Route 112 of Maura’s disappearance, that they hadn’t interviewed all the residents within eyeshot of the scene, and that they waited so long to talk to the last people Maura was known to have spoken to, including the owner of the rental condo. He was even more upset when the Haverhill PD issued a press release, two days after Maura’s disappearance, claiming she was “possibly suicidal.” Fred, his ex-wife, Laurie, and Bill Rausch’s mother, Sharon, all became increasingly, and very publicly, critical of the official investigation. (Laurie died of cancer in 2009.)
Fred claims that police gave their search dogs a new pair of gloves—found in the back seat of the car, but never worn—as a scent for Maura, instead of something that would have been more identifiable, like her running shoes. He also alleges that on the night of the accident, the police failed to search the direction Maura was headed. “I knew she was headed east,” Fred says. “She was headed to Bartlett. She was up there as an infant. I remember changing her diapers in a tent up there, for Chrisssakes.
“It’s freezing cold out, there’s a crack in the windshield, there’s a potential head injury, there’s arguably evidence of drinking, which would promote hypothermia. A young person. In a state of shock. You have danger. And you don’t go down the street the way she was going?”
Even after a decade, Fred wants more answers about what the police were doing—or not doing—in the two days after Maura’s disappearance. This year, he’s renewing his call for the FBI to investigate the officers who conducted the original investigation.
“Fred has been a difficult person to deal with from the beginning,” Strelzin says. “I understand a lot of where he is coming from, but I feel his anger is misplaced.”
With no trust in local law enforcement, Fred welcomed volunteer citizens to join in the search. A year into the case, former New Hampshire state police lieutenant John Healy met a relative of Maura’s named Helena Murray at a conference on missing persons. Having a college-aged daughter himself, and knowing he had the tools to help, Healy organized a group of experienced private investigators and began to make trips to Route 112, even bringing cadaver dogs to the scene.
Fred Murray initially worked closely with Healy’s group. In 2005, though, he sued the state police in an attempt to make public all of the reports pertaining to the investigation. He was unsuccessful, and what’s more, Healy and his volunteers publicly disagreed with his effort. Fred says more conflicts arose, so he stopped working with them. “He shut the door on me and the whole group of volunteers ever since,” Healy says. Healy’s group is still trying to find Maura and, by his estimates, has spent thousands of hours following leads. “We’re doing this for their whole family,” Healy says.
Sometimes, even after all these years, someone thinks they’ve found a new clue.
On November 1, a man calling himself “Tom Davies” logged onto Anderson’s site and asked, “What color was Maura’s backpack?”
“Black,” was the reply. “Why do you ask?”
“I ask because about a year after Maura disappeared, I found a black backpack in the woods behind the bathrooms at the Pemigewasset Overlook.”
Davies went on to say that after he found the backpack, he informed a state trooper, but had heard nothing since. Could the backpack still be up there? “Being a father with several daughters,” Davies wrote, “I’ve been haunted by Maura’s disappearance.”
A week later, a commenter named NHRider asked, “Was the area not far from the road? I am going to take a ride up there today and look.”
An hour and a half later, NHRider posted again: “Holy Crap!! I almost crapped my pants! Tom is legit. I just got back from the Pemi overlook and I found the black backpack.”
NHRider said he contacted the authorities and gave them directions to find the backpack, which was around 30 miles from where Maura was last seen. He said he didn’t have a camera with him so he didn’t take any photos, but reported that the bag was empty and “frozen solid.” He claimed that when he went back to the scene the following day the backpack was gone, presumably taken by the cold-case unit. All Strelzin will say is that “we are aware of the backpack.” It’s impossible to know whether it was a real clue, a red herring, or part of some loony Internet game—no different from a bizarre YouTube video, featuring a bespectacled man cackling into the camera, that surfaced in 2012 on the eighth anniversary of Maura’s disappearance, but proved to be just a disturbing false lead.