Steve Huff's Crime Blog

July 21, 2005

(1 of 3)

Maura, Brianna, and the Valley Killer?

(NOTE: My entries about the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Groene murders/abduction and alleged killer, kidnapper and child rapist Joseph Edward Duncan III can be found here—The Groene Murders…)

If you click the thumbnail on the left it will take you to a map of the Vermont/New Hampshire border. The map you will see once you’re there is best viewed by pressing F11 on your keyboard to render it full-screen. Pressing F11 again, by the way, will render your screen back to normal, unless you like the full-screen effect in general.

On the map I’ve marked the approximate locations where victims of a still-unsolved series of murders committed by a killer local press dubbed the “Valley Killer” were found. In addition to the known victims of the Valley Killer I have also marked the approximate location in northern New Hampshire where, on a wintry February night in 2004, 21-year-old Maura Murray disappeared.

On the surface, there appears to be little reason to connect Maura Murray’s disappearance with a series of apparent abductions and murders that seemed to cease in 1988. In fact, there seems to be an attitude on the part of authorities responsible for investigating Maura’s disappearance that Maura might have even made a conscious decision to vanish that February night, over a year ago.

It is true that events leading up to Maura’s disappearance are puzzling. From a column in the Boston Globe by Brian McGrory published February 27, 2004, titled, Footprints in the Snow:

(...)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 (Haverhill, New Hampshire), 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…

The weather that night was, as it can be in that part of New England in February, cold and nasty, the roads freezing. Maura had already had a wreck earlier that week, on February 8, at 3:30 a.m. She’d run her father’s new Toyota into a roadside post.

The morning of Monday, February 9th, 2004, the day Maura vanished, she is known to have done the following:

Some time after midnight on the ninth Maura performed a Mapquest search of the Berkshires and Burlington, Vermont.

At 3:40 p.m. that afternoon, Maura Murray withdrew $280 from an ATM and later made a stop at a local liquor store in Amherst, where she was attending the University of Massachusetts. Surveillance cameras recorded her movements at both locations and she appeared to be alone.

The next time anyone saw Maura Murray was on that icy road in Haverhill, New Hampshire. It was about 7 p.m. when Butch Atwood asked the young woman if she needed help.

In the 10 minutes between Atwood driving 100 yards to his home and the police arriving at the scene, Maura Murray vanished.

Maura had no known health issues, physically or mentally, and her grades were good. Her relationship with her boyfriend was solid. There were no tracks leading into the woods by the road where she had the mishap in Haverhill, tracking dogs found no scent, and aircraft with heat-seeking devices found nothing in the area.

Ten minutes to most of us doesn’t sound like much time at all. Yet in that brief span of time, Maura Murray vanished without a trace.

Why even assume that Maura’s disappearance has anything to do with a pattern of murders that seemed to stop about 16 years ago? Why assume that her disappearance was part of a pattern at all? People young and old do disappear, and they disappear at random, sadly. Natalee Holloway is the first middle class white American girl to disappear in the manner she did from the island of Aruba in recent memory, perhaps ever, and no one has disappeared since Natalee vanished. No one is murmuring warnings of serial murder down there.

Well, they shouldn’t. And perhaps if Maura was the only young woman to vanish in the winter of 2004 from that northern border area between New Hampshire and Vermont there would be no reason to suspect any pattern at work.

But on March 19, 2004, just under 100 miles due north along Interstate 91, Brianna Maitland vanished.

One month and ten days after the mystery of Maura Murray began, Brianna Maitland left her job at a restaurant in Montgomery, Vermont in her 1985 Oldsmobile 88. Her car was found abandoned later against the side of a barn one mile from Brianna’s workplace. Brianna left behind a couple of paychecks in the vehicle, as well as contact lenses and medication she apparently needed.

In this article published on May 6, 2004 in the St. Johnsbury, Vermont Caledonian-Record, a meeting between the parents of Maura Murray and Brianna Maitland was detailed. From the article, titled, Police Have New Lead In Maura Murray Case:

The Maitlands and Murray believe there may be a connection between what has happened to their daughters. And they want that connection explored.

However, state police from Vermont and New Hampshire have discounted any connection between the disappearances of Brianna and Maura…

Often law enforcement agencies dislike efforts to link crimes in this manner. The term used by some who study serial crime for this problem is linkage blindness. Serial killers depend on linkage blindness—it is the achilles heel of local law enforcement, and can permit a killer clever enough to understand the problem years of anonymous freedom. Jurisdictions don’t exchange information, have separate and proprietary databases they use to track criminals and types of crime. Some departments, quite simply, compete, and try to outdo one another in percentage of crimes solved, number of perpetrators arrested.

There are many problems with mentioning Maura Murray and Brianna Maitland and then thinking about any connection between these girls disappearing and a serial criminal prowling the interstate that marks the border between Vermont and New Hampshire. If we want to go ahead and wonder about a connection to the Valley Killer from the late ‘70s and ‘80s and these girls, we have the gap of 16 years between the Valley Killer’s last known murder and the winter of 2004. The initial tendency is to doubt such a gap, since we know serial criminals either tend to keep killing or die, most of the time. If anything, amateur cybersleuths like me are guilty of the opposite of linkage blindness, if we are honest with ourselves—amateur sleuthing can lead to a bit too much of a conspiratorial mindset. It can be too easy to fall prey to what we’ve learned from crime fiction, and forget that the movies, novels, and fact are often as different as night and day.

But is it a rule that serial criminals only cease their favorite pasttimes when they get too sick to move or die? Nope. They age like the rest of us, and sometimes they just slow down. My favorite example at the moment—if “favorite” is the right word—Dennis Rader, the BTK Strangler, just recently confessed to 10 murders. Until March of 2004 Wichita authorities were fairly certain BTK’s murders had ceased in 1977. Only after Rader started talking did we find that he simply became more patient, more careful. More deliberate. In 1985, his neighbor Marine Hedge. In 1986, a murder the squad actively hunting BTK actually declared shortly after its discovery to definitely not be his—Vicki Wegerle. And if Rader is to be believed, finally, in 1991, Dorothy “Dee” Davis.

Rader’s method of operation changed. Not much—but just enough. He ceased his communication with authorities and the press. He abducted two of his later victims, where he’d killed people inside their homes before. Small changes, in retrospect. His victims, too, seemed to age with the killer—Hedge and Davis both in their fifties while Rader was still in his forties.

The point is, Dennis Rader proved to us all that even when we think they’ve gone away, sometimes they haven’t. Robert Graysmith, in his comprehensive book about the Zodiac Killer, may have discovered more than 40 murders beyond those for which Zodiac took credit in his many letters to the San Francisco press and northern California authorities. Those authorities have never been able to back Mr. Graysmith up, and some of them seem to prefer strongly the idea that Zodiac either died or moved from his habitual killing zone—that if Zodiac kept killing it was so far removed that law enforcement couldn’t adequately connect the crimes and recognize the signature of a single criminal.

I am saying, I suppose, that it isn’t as crazy to think the Valley Killer went away as it might seem at first glance. The link in the killer’s moniker in the preceding sentence will take you to verbal_plainfield’s comprehensive geocities site about serial murder, and the breakdown of the Valley Killer’s known crimes there is pretty succinct. A quote from verbal_plainfield: