Sunday, March 31, 2013
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A Decade Lost and the Spotlight Gone, a Father Searches For His Daughter
By Jeremy Blackman
Fred Murray is running out of options.
Nine years ago, his 21-year-old daughter, Maura, vanished from a dark, snowy stretch of Route 112 in Haverhill. It happened in an instant: One minute the Massachusetts college student was spotted near a crashed, crumpled black Saturn sedan; a few minutes later, when a local police officer arrived on the scene, she was gone.
In the years, months and days since, Murray has been scrambling to piece together what happened that night in those pivotal, awful minutes.
In the beginning, there was hope. Tips and leads streamed in, search dogs were unleashed, helicopters took to the air. Sightings were reported to authorities – inside a church in Vermont, at a convenience store in central New Hampshire, at a bar in Rochester – but never confirmed. The FBI questioned college acquaintances. Local and national news outlets published stories about the disappearance, about the strange personal events leading up to it, about Fred’s disdain for the New Hampshire police’s handling of the initial search. Fred went on daytime television to discuss the case. Strangers on the internet theorized endlessly about Maura’s fate: Had she been kidnapped, murdered? Was it suicide? Did she freeze to death in the woods or run away to a new life? Is she still alive?
But months turned to years and the tips stopped pouring in. Now, nearly a decade out, the prospect for resolution is dimming for the 70-year-old father.
“It appears I’m going to go to my eternal reward not knowing what happened on that night,” Fred said last month at the home in Hanson, Mass., where he raised Maura and his other two daughters. He no longer lives there – he hasn’t in years – but he visits often and says he’s fixing it up, with the intention to one day move back. The house is beautiful but dated, its interior dusty and carpets cluttered with bric-a-brac. Two small oval portraits hang on the living room wall: one of Maura and the other of her older sister Julie, both in soft gray West Point uniforms, standing tall, proud.
Maura disappeared on Monday, Feb. 9, 2004, at approximately 7:30 p.m. No one can say for sure why she was in New Hampshire; at the time she was a nursing student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (she had transferred from West Point). The family used to camp near Bartlett, and one of Maura’s last known phone calls was made to the owner of a condominium there, according to Fred, so it is plausible that was her destination.
But the manner in which she left Massachusetts was cryptic. The morning of the disappearance she packed all of her belongings in boxes, placed them neatly on her dorm room bed, withdrew most of her money from her bank and emailed a professor and work supervisor that she would be taking a week off because of a death in the family. There was no such death.
About 4 p.m., Maura purchased about $40 worth of alcohol and set out, presumably on Interstate 91, headed north. According to police statements, she told no family members, friends or classmates where she was going, or why.
Authorities said Maura had been struggling with several personal troubles at the time, including a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend in Oklahoma. Four days before the accident, she had received a phone call at work that left her so distraught she had to be escorted back to her dorm by a supervisor, according to police accounts at the time.
Sometime shortly before 7:30 p.m., while driving along the northern edge of Haverhill, her car veered off the road, hit a guardrail and smashed into a stand of trees.
A bus driver who lived within 100 yards of the accident scene told authorities he had spotted Maura on his way home from work, standing near the car. He had offered to call for assistance, but she told him she was fine and that she had already called for a tow. According to her phone records, she made no such call.
The bus driver returned home and phoned 911, and a local police sergeant arrived within the next 10 minutes. But Maura was gone. The sedan was locked, its windshield smashed and airbags deployed. A near-empty box of wine was found inside. Outside, there were no signs of struggle, blood or other indications of a crime. No clear human tracks were found in the thick snow surrounding the highway.
According to a 2004 article in The Caledonian Record, which covered the disappearance extensively in the months after it occurred, the bus driver said he was unable to see Maura’s vehicle while he phoned for help but had watched several cars pass by his house in the minutes before the police sergeant arrived.
Emergency volunteers and a state trooper eventually arrived. They searched the immediate area but found nothing.
Hope turns cold
Late on Tuesday, the Haverhill Police Department declared Maura missing, and Fred, who had been working all day, got a phone call from one of his other daughters, Kathleen, explaining what had happened. He said he was sitting in a parking garage when he heard the words.
He contacted the sergeant who had first arrived at the scene and then drove through the night, arriving in Haverhill early Wednesday, shortly before New Hampshire Fish and Game, the police, family members and other volunteers began the first of several extensive searches of the area around the crash. A police dog traced her scent a short distance from the site before losing it in the snow.
By Thursday, the search had expanded into Vermont. Fred and Maura’s boyfriend held a news conference that evening. Just over a week after the disappearance, the FBI began assisting with investigation by interviewing friends and family in Massachusetts, trying to ascertain anything that would clarify Maura’s decision to leave without telling anyone.
Fred said he thought then – as he does today – that a local “dirt bag” took her.
As the months passed, Fred and the family grew more desperate. In November he appeared on the Montel Williams Show to publicize the case. On the first anniversary of the disappearance a service was held at the site of the crash, and Fred met briefly with then-Gov. John Lynch to ask for help in the search effort.
Fred was relentless. In 2005, frustrated and irritated with having been denied access to certain police records, he filed a lawsuit against various law enforcement agencies, including the state police, which he said – and insists to this day – botched the initial investigation by not acting quickly enough.
In the suit he requested thousands of pages of records, including accident reports, an inventory of items taken from Maura’s vehicle, a copy of her computer hard drive and the surveillance tape from the liquor store she visited before leaving. The court denied most of his requests, and much of what he did get was redacted or already known, Fred said.
He and others demanded that the FBI take over the investigation (the federal agency had helped briefly and only in Massachusetts). But the agency only gets involved if there is evidence of a federal crime, such as a kidnapping or murder on federal land. And Jeff Strelzin, senior assistant attorney general for New Hampshire, said the state had – and still has – no reason to believe that was the case.
The ground searches continued but produced little. In 2006, a team of retired state police officers and detectives started looking at the case, interviewing witnesses, re-examining evidence and combing over publicly available documents. In 2007, a national missing persons organization offered $75,000 to anyone with information leading to Maura’s whereabouts.
But nothing led directly to Maura.
By 2009 her still-active case had been added to a newly established New Hampshire cold case unit.
‘Missing in the wrong place’
Spend any time with Fred Murray discussing his daughter’s disappearance or the events that have unfolded since and one thing will become abundantly clear: He harbors a deep mistrust of New Hampshire law enforcement, citing the way the state police handled its initial investigation, the attorney general’s office withholding of information and, as he describes it, its stubborn refusal to ask the FBI for help.
The initial investigation was “amateurish” at best, he said – slow, sloppy and irrational. It should never have taken state police a day and a half to become fully involved in the search, he insisted.
“You can’t blow off the first 36 hours of an investigation like this and have any structure and integrity to it,” he said. “You’ve lost a hot trail.”
Nor should it have taken investigators 10 days to finally approach and interview neighbors near the crash site, he added. And when his daughter’s car was discovered, someone should have called ahead to notify the police department in Woodstock, the nearest town in the direction Maura was likely headed, in case she had gotten a ride from someone.
And investigators should have consulted family members before conducting the first search; Fred said they used a pair of gloves from the Saturn as a scent, gloves that were a Christmas gift which Maura wore infrequently if at all.
The police eventually did conduct a respectable investigation, he said, investing hundreds of hours into ground and air searches, but the critical part, those first precious hours, was “botched.” At that point, “the horse was out of the barn.”