The Patriot Ledger

February 28, 2004

A family waits and wonders: What happened to Maura?

Joe McGee

WELLS RIVER, Vt. - Kathleen Murray scatters the belongings on a motel room floor like pieces of a puzzle. The bag of stuff is what her sister, Maura Murray of Hanson, left behind when she was last seen Feb. 9 in Woodsville, N.H. - clothes, CDs, makeup and a copy of Not Without Peril," journalist Nicholas Howe's story about people who died hiking New Hampshire's Presidential Mountain Range.

For Kathleen Murray, the book is unnerving because it talks about the rural region of northern New Hampshire where Murray was last seen.

My father gave it to her. I don't know what it could mean," the Hanover resident said.

The conditions couldn't have been worse for 21-year-old Murray when she disappeared. It was dark and freezing on the stretch of Route 112 that runs along the Wild Ammonoosuc River near the Vermont border. Police believe Murray was on her own. Nobody knew she left the campus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where she was a junior studying nursing.

Then she crashed. The only roadside help was a 350-pound man named Butch Atwood, an imposing figure whose presence wouldn't be that welcoming to a young woman in the dead of the night, according to his wife.

Murray's family has lived in a nearby motel ever since, trying to piece together the mystery of her disappearance. After two weeks, there are few good leads. All they have are the bag of items she didn't take with her, wherever she went.

I know she was up here on her own will, but something altered her plans along the way and it could've been foul play. Nothing else makes sense," said Fred Murray of Hanson, Maura's brother.

The scene of the accident in the Woodsville section of Haverhill, N.H., is at a sharp bend of Route 112, which is marked by an old red barn that at one time was a gift shop for summer travelers visiting the White Mountains. Police believe Murray left UMass that afternoon, possibly upset over cracking up her father's car days earlier, or for some other reason nobody knows about.

It's not certain if she was going west on Route 112 toward Vermont, or east into New Hampshire, but the car went off the road into some brush at about 7 p.m.

The accident couldn't have been that bad. One little nick on a tree is all that marks the scene other than the missing" posters family and friends stapled up. Damage to the Saturn sedan was minimal, but Murray's head cracked the windshield. The front of the car was pushed in.

Bus driver Butch Atwood was coming around the bend in his school bus after dropping off a group of skiers who had been in North Conway for the day. He stopped, offered Murray help, and kept going when she said she had called AAA. Atwood parked the bus at his home, about 100 yards up Route 112, walked inside and told his wife Barbara what happened.

Another neighbor called police, who arrived within minutes. They found the bag, some bottles of alcohol, and that was it. Maura Murray was gone.

Police searched the area for days but there were no obvious clues. There were no footprints and a bloodhound lost a scent on the road near the Atwoods house. Ever since, Fred and Kathleen Murray and other family members have been staying at a motel in Wells River, a town just over the border from New Hampshire.

Police are treating the disappearance as a missing persons case, and a stagnant one at that. The only significant lead turned up in Burlington, Vt., but it went nowhere. Authorities said Murray had downloaded Internet directions to Burlington. Fred and Kathleen Murray say they're growing frustrated but won't give up.

The chapter of Howe's book titled "A Question of Life or Death" is book-marked with a Hallmark card and a photograph of Maura's brother Kurtis in a Little League uniform. Kathleen Murray got emotional looking it.

"We have to find something just to get this going again. We need every lead followed up," she said.

For the family, trying to find the clue that will escalate the search is literally like trying to find a needle in a haystack in such an open, rural area. Every morning Murray family members search snowmobile trails, snowy fields, general stores and frozen ponds to look for footprints, and people to talk to. They're looking for anything.

It's all anyone's talking about these days around the area, and everybody has a theory.

"Without fail, everybody who comes in here asks, "Have they found her yet?' One kid came in telling me, "They found her in Berlin (N.H.).' I would've known that if they did," said Bill Matteson, owner of Swiftwater Stagestop, a general store on Route 112, close to the accident scene.

"Many people who live in this part of the state are immigrants" from Massachusetts, who came here to get away from stuff like this," said Jeannette Wrigley, a Dorchester native and manager of the McDonald's in Haverhill.

"Personally, I think somebody picked her up," Wrigley said.

Butch and Barbara Atwood are from Raynham and Taunton, respectively. They consider Haverhill much safer than where they grew up in Southeastern Massachusetts.

"I might be afraid if I saw Butch. He's 350 pounds and has this mustache," Barbara Atwood said.

But she said there would have been no reason for Murray to fear anyone in an area where people know and look out for each other.

Said ice fisherman R.O. Richards of Lisbon, N.H., in his ice shanty on French Pond in Haverhill, "We have some thieves that might steal the teeth off a billy goat, but maybe that's it."

Matteson said people know not to mess with each other" in this part of rural New Hampshire. Nearly everyone has a gun, he said. Matteson said he thinks that Murray walked away on her own, and got lost in the woods. It has happened before, according to locals.

An armed society is a safe society, that's why we have no crime," Matteson said.

In my opinion, it's a numbers game. On a Monday at 7 at night, maybe three cars went by here, at best. What are the odds that one is a predator?" he said.

Locals are conditioned to deal with the weather, but wandering off could be fatal for a tourist. This week it was considered mild, even though the temperatures were below freezing and even colder with fierce winds. Without a good jacket and supplies good luck," log cabin builder Mark Hesseltine said.

Not if you're not from around here, no way you're going to survive," Hesseltine said.

New Hampshire State Police and FBI agents in Massachusetts are now focusing on Murray's reason for leaving school. Nobody is thinking harder about Murray's state of mind than her sister Kathleen, one of her closest confidantes. The Saturday before Murray left school, she and her father, Frederick Murray of Weymouth, were shopping for a new car in Amherst because her Saturn was running on three cylinders.

It is also known that Murray got a phone call the Thursday before she left that disturbed her to the point that she needed to be escorted to her dormitory room by a supervisor. Friends in Amherst told the family they don't know what the call was about. Her father didn't think she seemed upset that weekend.

Looking at her sister's personal effects, Kathleen Murray wondered what went wrong.

She always told me everything. At school she had a few friends, but the people she was closest to was her boyfriend, or me, or my sister Julie. We would've known," Kathleen Murray said.