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Maura Murray disappearance: what happened to missing UMass student?

Maura Murray hasn't been heard from since vanishing from the scene of a car accident in 2004 – and her case has become an obsession for the true-crime community.

Maura Murray disappearance: what happened to missing UMass student?

"The driver was not located"

At around 7:25pm on Monday 9 February 2004, 21-year-old nursing student Maura Murray lost control of her car and span off the eastbound lane of Route 112 in a rural, sparsely-populated area of the US state of New Hampshire. By the time the responding police officer arrived on the scene of the accident minutes later, he found a badly dented 1996 Saturn – but no sign of its owner. Maura had vanished, and she hasn’t been heard from since.

Seventeen years on, it’s not only law enforcement and Maura’s family who continue to seek out the truth about her disappearance. The mysterious events of that winter evening have spawned an ever-expanding community of online sleuths who dig for, pore over and debate detail upon detail about the case – a case which comes down to not one, but two key questions. What happened to Maura? And why was she in New Hampshire?

Raised in Hanson, Massachusetts, Maura was a student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, some 150 miles from the crash site in the New Hampshire village of Woodsville. Late on Sunday, she had emailed her UMass tutors to say she would be away for a few days as there had been a death in the family (this was not true). On Monday, she then packed a bag – according to her family, it contained “toiletries, make-up, work-out attire, school books, and several days’ worth of clothes” – took $280 out of her bank account, all but emptying it, bought around $40 of alcohol, and set off in her Saturn at around 4:30pm.

In the immediate aftermath of Maura’s crash some three hours later, the first person on the scene was Butch Atwood, a local school-bus driver. Passing by the accident on his way home, Atwood stopped and asked Maura if he should call the police. She told him not to, saying she had already spoken to roadside assistance on her mobile phone – an assertion which, given the lack of reception in the area, he knew was unlikely to be true. Atwood continued 100 yards up the road to the house he shared with his common-law wife, Barbara, and called 911. After initially failing to get through, he reported the accident at 7:43.

Just over a quarter of an hour earlier, at 7:27, another Woodsville resident who had become aware of the crash, Faith Westman, had also telephoned law enforcement with news of the incident. Curiously, Westman reported seeing a man smoking in Maura’s car – although her husband, Tim, contradicts this statement, and she has since conceded that she may have mistaken a mobile-phone light for the lit end of a cigarette. Given that Maura tended to wear her long hair up, this may explain why, from a distance and at a time of the year when darkness has fallen by 7pm, Westman thought she had seen a male.

Following Westman’s call, Haverhill Police Sergeant Cecil Smith was dispatched to the scene at 7:29, arriving, per Smith’s accident report, at 7:45. He found a locked car with both airbags deployed and damage to the windscreen and the front end, noting in his report: “[The] evidence at the scene indicated the vehicle had been eastbound and had gone off the roadway, struck some trees, spun around, and come to rest facing the wrong way in the eastbound lane.” Smith, who would also report recovering a “coke bottle that contained a red liquid with a strong alcoholic odor”, continued: “In plain sight behind the drivers [sic] seat of the vehicle I could see a box of Franzia wine. I could also see red liquid on the drivers [sic] side door and ceiling of the car […]. The driver was not located.”

The lead-up to Maura's trip

Before Maura left Amherst that Monday, things had happened in her life which, in the years since, have come to be seen as indicators of her state of mind at the time of her trip, and her motivations for taking it.

In November 2003, she had had a run-in with the law, when a low-level police sting caught her using a stolen credit-card number to buy pizza. She was charged with improper credit-card usage, but because she had committed fraud of a relatively trivial scope – her purchases amounted to just under $80 – she was told in December that no action would be taken if she negotiated a three-month probationary period without getting into further trouble. (It’s worth noting this was not the first time she had found herself in hot water for a misdemeanour of this kind: in 2002, while in her second year as a cadet at the prestigious West Point Military Academy, she had faced internal disciplinary proceedings after stealing lip gloss from the commissary. She transferred to UMass soon after.)

Two months on from the resolution of her credit-card fraud charge, in the early hours of 8 February 2004, the day before her accident in Woodsville, Maura crashed a brand-new Toyota Corolla borrowed from her visiting father, Fred, while driving it back to his motel from a dorm party on UMass campus. The incident, which saw her collide with a guard rail on Route 9 in Hadley, does not seem to have had any bearing on her probation: there is no indication police believed she had been drink-driving or was guilty of any other type of traffic offence. However, it caused around $10,000 of damage to the car and, according to Fred, left his daughter distraught. “Maura was upset – it haunts me. I think she felt she let her father down,” he told the documentary Miles to Nowhere in 2010.

On the previous Thursday, meanwhile, there had been another incident of apparent significance. While working her part-time job on the security desk at Melville Hall, one of the residential buildings at UMass, Maura was unable to complete her shift and had to be escorted back to her dorm after her supervisor, Karen Mayotte, found her in a distressed, quasi-catatonic state seemingly provoked by a phone call with her oldest sister, Kathleen, who was experiencing addiction issues. “She was just looking right past me, it was very weird,” Mayotte told the Missing Maura Murray podcast in 2018. “She was just staring out of the window, wouldn’t even engage with me […],” Mayotte added. “Eventually she just said, ‘My sister’ […]. She wouldn’t tell me anything except those words.”

On the Sunday after the Hadley accident, Maura was comforted on the phone by her long-distance boyfriend, Bill Rausch – Bill, who Maura had met at West Point, was stationed with the US Army in Fort Sill, Oklahoma – before going online to look up rental properties around the White Mountains in New Hampshire. On Monday, she telephoned Linda Salamone, the owner of a condo in Bartlett, NH, where she had previously stayed with her family, but did not make a reservation. She then called a booking hotline for hotels in Stowe, Vermont, a ski-resort town located at the foot of Mount Mansfield – again without reserving. She also conducted internet searches for directions to Burlington, Vermont.

Fred, who has been the indefatigable spearhead of the Murray family’s search for Maura, is convinced her destination was Bartlett – a place where his daughter, a keen hiker and talented cross-country runner, had been going “since she was born” on family holidays spent walking in the White Mountains. “She was going to Bartlett – there’s no question,” he told Miles to Nowhere. “That’s where she knows and is familiar with.”

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Police arrow in on suicide theory

Given how eventful the period prior to her trip had been, and taking into account the pressure she was under in UMass’ demanding nursing course, it’s not unreasonable to suppose Maura may have simply wanted to get away from it all for a few days. Investigators came to the conclusion there was something more permanent about her departure from Amherst, however. “It was clear from a search of her [dorm] room that she had packed her belongings and had intended to leave school,” Lieutenant John Scarinza of New Hampshire State Police told a 20/20 documentary on Maura’s disappearance in 2006.

And a theory favoured by police, certainly early in the investigation, is that Maura had resolved to end her life or, amid suicidal thoughts, was pushed over the edge by her second car accident in under 48 hours. This belief was motivated in part by a comment Fred made to Sergeant Smith in February 2004. In an interview on the 2017 Oxygen documentary The Disappearance of Maura Murray, Smith claims Fred felt Maura may have abandoned her car, walked into the woods surrounding Woodsville, and committed suicide. Smith recalled: “He said, ‘Well, she had an accident a couple of days ago, she’s all depressed, she might have done the ‘old squaw’ […]: you go out into the woods, you step off the trail and you die.’” Smith added: “Fred knew something I didn’t know about Maura and her mental state.”

Speaking to the Maura Murray (107 Degrees) podcast in 2017, Fred explained that the ‘old squaw’ reference came from a film he and Maura had seen about native Americans. “The winter came and they filed into the woods, the whole tribe, and the real old squaws, the real old, old people, when they’re at the end of the line, they knew they were going to be a drag on the column, they would get last and just drop off the end and die in the snow in the woods, when it was their time,” he said. “That was the ‘old squaw walk’.”

However, Fred insists Smith is being selective in his recollection of their conversation; he is adamant he also stressed to police that Maura “wouldn’t do that”. He also says he was pushed into speculating about suicide. He believes New Hampshire law enforcement were eager to avoid an investigation into possible foul play and, in the process, protect the reputation of a state heavily dependent on attracting tourism. “Suicide was their thing, because if a bad guy grabbed her, they’ve got some explaining to do, they’ve got a case on their hands,” he told 107 Degrees. “But if she walked into the woods and committed suicide, [police could say]: ‘What are we going to do about that, Mr Murray? We can’t help that. We’ll try to find her for you, but we can’t stop people from doing that.’”

For 17 years, a blue ribbon tied to a tree marked the spot where Maura's accident took place. However, the tree was this year cut down.
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For 17 years, a blue ribbon tied to a tree marked the spot where Maura's accident took place. However, the tree was this year cut down.mauramurraymissing.org

Searches suggest Maura didn't go into the woods

It’s also theorised that Maura walked into the woods before Sergeant Smith arrived so as to escape being caught driving under the influence. The evidence found on the scene certainly suggests she could have been drinking, and as she had been told to stay out of trouble if she wanted the credit card-fraud charge against her to go away, she had extra reason to want to sidestep a DUI. Yet despite being described by police as having “appeared impaired due to alcohol consumption” during her interaction with Atwood, he later insisted this was not the case; she merely seemed cold and shaken up.

And at the time of Maura’s crash, there was a thick layer of snow covering the side of the road and beyond. If she had gone into the woods, she would surely have left footprints – yet none were found in the days after she disappeared, despite there being no change in the temperature in the area, or any further snowfall. Todd Bogardus, who supervised early New Hampshire Fish and Game search efforts, told Oxygen: “We had about a foot and a half, two feet of snow. There was a very thin crust on the top and if you or I were to walk off this road and into the snow, we would very easily leave a footprint.” Fish and Game found “no human foot tracks going into the woodlands off of the roadways that were not either cleared or accounted for,” he added. “The consensus was she did not leave the roadway.”

Searches of the woods using police bloodhounds, as well as helicopters with thermal-imaging technology, also turned up no sign of Maura. However, tracker dogs did follow a scent – given to them from one of her gloves – a couple of hundred yards east up Route 112, before coming to an abrupt stop. This suggests she could have got into a vehicle.

The starting-a-new-life theory

One theory this fits with is a possible explanation proposed by the author James Renner in his controversial book True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray. Renner writes that he believes Maura “was running away from her life”, potentially to Canada, and was doing so with the help of someone else who was driving in tandem with her. When she crashed on the side of Route 112, “the other driver doubled back, picked her up, and they continued on their way”, he suggests. Contrary to indications elsewhere, he claims that Maura was about to find herself in trouble with the police over the Hadley crash. “I believe she thought that her credit card fraud and the identity theft associated with it were about to bury her,” Renner says. “The charge would stick since she was going to be cited for the late-night accident in her father’s car. She would never be able to pass the background checks required to become a nurse. It was time to start over."

Renner backs up his theory by quoting Megan Sawyer, a friend of Maura’s from West Point, who says: “If she wanted to make up another identity, she could do it. If she wanted to disappear, she could […]. I believe she’s alive. It’s just a feeling I’ve always had.” However, Maura’s other sister, Julie, insists she was too close to her family to run away and break off all contact. She says it’s particularly inconceivable that Maura would have stayed away from her mother Laurie’s funeral following her death from cancer in 2009. “Maura was very sensitive and loving caring; she would not miss my mom’s funeral,” Julie told the Killer Babes podcast. “She was just not that type of person. If she was able to come, she would have been there.” It’s additionally worth noting that if Maura had no intention of returning to Massachusetts – be it because she was starting a new life or had decided to commit suicide – it seems odd that she chose to take her school books with her, and that she submitted homework by email in the early hours of the day she left. “If it were me and I was done with nursing school, I wouldn’t do my homework assignments,” Maura’s UMass classmate Erin O’Neill told Oxygen. “That would be the last thing I’d waste my time doing.”

Suggestions made about Fred: "It's just sick"

Renner has also suggested Maura wanted to escape from Fred and Bill, telling Oxygen: “I think she was running from the men in her life.” In True Crime Addict, and in blog posts prior to publishing his 2016 book on the case, he strongly hints at a belief that Maura had been sexually abused by Fred – insinuations that her father emphatically refutes. “To contrive an allusion to the worst thing that a person could possibly be accused of in the history of mankind is beyond despicable,” Fred wrote in an open letter to Renner in March 2016. Julie has dismissed suggestions of sexual abuse by her father as “just sick”. “It’s really upsetting,” she told a 2020 interview with the podcast True Crime Garage, “because obviously whoever’s spreading this doesn’t know my dad and to say those things about a father with a missing child is nothing other than sick.” Erinn Larkin, the host of the 107 Degrees podcast and, together with Renner, one of the most prominent citizen sleuths covering the case, has described his innuendos about Fred as “reprehensible”.

As for Bill, Renner has asserted that Maura had a “poisonous” relationship with her boyfriend. So what of this claim? In truth, it’s very hard to gauge how well, or otherwise, Maura and Bill were getting on. Rumours of mutual infidelity do abound, yet Sharon Rausch, Bill’s mother, and Fred insist the pair were happy together and making plans to get married. And while it comes with the not insignificant caveat that it is merely a single snapshot of their relationship, Maura’s final email to Bill on the Monday she disappeared, in which she says she’ll phone him later that day, smacks of a person unhappy about something, but, on the face of it, not 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”.

In the years since Maura’s disappearance, Bill has been accused of sexual misconduct against other women; in April 2019, indeed, he was indicted on one charge of felony third-degree sexual abuse against a co-worker. The case is yet to be resolved. Clearly, these are very serious allegations and if Bill is guilty, justice must be served. However, with the information available, it is very difficult to evaluate their significance as specifically regards his relationship with Maura. Speaking to True Crime Garage, Julie maintained that she had never encountered “any evidence” that Bill was abusive towards Maura. As for the idea that Bill was not only the reason for Maura’s disappearance, but was the direct perpetrator of it, Julie says she won’t “consider anyone cleared” until the case is solved, but points to evidence that indicates he could not have been with her sister on the day she went missing. “Look at his phone records: he was in Oklahoma,” she explains. “He was in the Army! You can’t just go where you want to go. Could he have been off post in Oklahoma? Yeah, of course, certainly. But could he have been in New Hampshire? There’s no way.”

New theory about Maura's presence in New Hampshire

To go with the fleeing-legal-trouble and fleeing-abuse theories, there are a wealth of other dramatic hypotheses out there as to why Maura was in New Hampshire. She was running away because she was pregnant, she was evading justice having been the driver in an as yet unsolved hit and run... However, a rather more prosaic, and wholly believable, potential reason for her trip has emerged within the last couple of years. Had she travelled to New Hampshire to pay an administrative fee at the Department of Motor Vehicles, relating to a speeding ticket she had been given in the state? According to Larkin, who proposed the theory after obtaining police and court records relating to the incident, Maura was fined and given a 30-day driving ban – applicable only in New Hampshire – when she was caught doing 99 mph on a 65-mph road in Hooksett, NH, in July 2003. “In New Hampshire, you don’t just have to pay the fine when your licence is suspended, you also have to pay a reinstatement fee […],” Larkin explains, arguing that it is eminently plausible that, months after her suspension, Maura had only just become aware that there was an extra charge to reactivate her licence in the state. “It’s pretty nominal, but a lot of people don’t know about it,” Larkin adds. “I’ve heard from people in New Hampshire that get pulled over and don’t realise that their licence is [still] suspended”. She says she “wasn’t able to find any indication” in the records she obtained that Maura had paid this fee.

Maura might have been taking advantage of a New Hampshire DMV trip to enjoy a brief rural getaway, Julie told an interview with Larkin. She also believes Maura might have planned to drop her car off at home in Hanson on her way back to Amherst, then find alternative transport from there to UMass. The Saturn wasn’t running well, and she and Fred had spent his Amherst visit on the weekend before her disappearance looking for a replacement at used-car dealerships. A suitable candidate had been identified and a purchase was imminent, Julie told True Crime Garage. The problem for Maura, however, was that she only had a permit to park one vehicle on campus at UMass. She would therefore need to get the Saturn off her hands before the new car was bought.

If reinstating her licence was the relatively mundane reason for her presence in New Hampshire, though, isn’t it odd that she seemingly didn’t breathe a word about it to anyone close to her? No, says Julie. Any member of Maura’s immediate circle would have told her a long-distance journey in the struggling Saturn, particularly in wintry conditions, was a “dumb idea”, Julie explained to Larkin. “It makes sense for her not to tell anyone.” If Maura’s licence was suspended in New Hampshire at the time of her accident in Woodsville, this might also have been a reason for her to want to avoid the authorities in its aftermath.

Abducted by a "local dirtbag"?

Whatever the motives for her trip, Fred is convinced Maura was taken by a “local dirtbag” after crashing the Saturn. This fits with the tracker-dog evidence that suggests she got into a vehicle, but the timeline of her disappearance, with just minutes between her accident and Sergeant Smith’s arrival on the scene, means a would-be abductor had only a short window to persuade her into his car, and had to do so without being seen by the Westmans or the Atwoods. That said, if Maura left her car on foot and – again, unnoticed by the nearby residents aware of the crash – made her way east along Route 112, getting further than the dogs indicate, to a stretch of the road where local inhabitants had less cause to be looking out of their windows, a passing driver may have had longer to pick her up outside the view of witnesses. If she went west, law enforcement may well have spotted her first: that’s the direction from which Smith drove to the scene, and New Hampshire State Police Lieutenant John Monaghan conducted an initial westbound search in his vehicle. Why police seemingly didn’t drive east that night is a source of anger for Fred, who says Monaghan was Maura’s “only hope” of not being “subject to whatever dirtbag rolls by – and there are plenty”.

Lance Reenstierna of the Missing Maura Murray podcast agrees with Fred that Maura’s accident took place in a location brimming with individuals who posed a threat. “I keep imagining a drain, and that little screen that catches the crap in your sink after you do your dishes, and it drains down to this little vortex,” Reenstierna told the podcast. “And that area, that five-mile area […] that’s sort of the vortex of the drain. What we have there is probably the worst place in that particular region that she could have disappeared.”

As the last-known person to interact with Maura, Butch inevitably came under police scrutiny and did in fact initially fail a polygraph exam. However, he then passed a second test, and appears to have been ruled out as a suspect before his death in 2009. Police have also looked at another local resident who, months after Maura’s disappearance, raised eyebrows by revealing he might have seen her running down Route 112 on the night of the crash. He said he did not tell law enforcement about this potential sighting when interviewed in the days after 9 February 2004 because he got his dates mixed up. In 2006, meanwhile, private investigator John Smith, a former New Hampshire police officer who has assisted the Murray family in their efforts to find Maura, led a search of a nearby A-frame house – a search that saw cadaver dogs get “a big hit […] for human remains” in an upstairs closet, Smith told Oxygen. Carpet samples from the closet were sent to the police, but it is unclear whether or not they were tested and, if they were, what the results were.

The A-frame house had come to Fred’s attention in 2004, after the brother of its then-owner told him he had found a bloody knife in his sibling’s car and was convinced he had been involved in foul play against Maura. The knife was turned over to law enforcement, who haven’t revealed where this clue led, either. In 2016, Reenstierna and his Missing Maura Murray podcast co-host, Tim Pilleri, then joined Smith in another search of the house, the trio finding apparent blood stains on wood panels in a closet. Tests conducted on the wood as part of the Oxygen documentary the following year found it was indeed blood, but after the results were shared with police, the programme’s hosts, Maggie Freleng and Art Roderick, were told by Chuck West of the New Hampshire Cold Case Unit that the blood was too degraded for DNA testing to link it to her.

In April 2019, police conducted an unsuccessful search of another home in Woodsville, based on a tip-off Fred had received that a body had been buried underneath the house. Although privately-funded searches using ground-penetrating radar did indeed indicate the potential presence of human remains, police investigators’ examination of the home found “no evidence” relating to Maura’s case, New Hampshire Associate Attorney General Jeffrey Strelzin said, concluding: “We’re confident there’s nothing there”.

"A citizen sleuth's dream"

A case that throws up so many questions and offers so few answers, Maura’s disappearance has developed into one of the most obsessively discussed cases in the online true-crime community. “It’s a citizen sleuth’s dream,” Pilleri told the Truth and Justice podcast. There are reams – and I mean reams – of discussion threads to be found on internet forums such as Reddit, Websleuths, Facebook (now Meta) and Twitter, as people pick apart the minutiae of the case in forensic detail. (In comparison, this article barely scratches the surface.) Scores of theories and rumours are debated there, and on the numerous podcasts that cover her case. Was Maura murdered by the serial killer Israel Keyes, who is known to have been in New Hampshire in 2004? Is her disappearance related to that of Brianna Maitland, which took place just 80 miles from and five weeks after Maura’s, and also involved an abandoned car? Was Maura the victim of a police cover-up? This final theory stems from the testimony of Karen McNamara, initially known only as ‘Witness A’, a woman who believes she saw a police car on the scene of Maura’s accident some 10 minutes before Cecil Smith’s stated arrival time. This alleged inconsistency in law enforcement’s account of its investigation has led internet detectives to ask: Is there something police are hiding from us?

As so often occurs online, people’s passion for the case has had a tendency to turn ugly. It’s not uncommon to see a post about Maura’s disappearance descend into a full-blown spat, battlelines drawn between competing viewpoints and versions of events. Speaking on the Riddle Me That! podcast earlier this year, Freleng talked of being “sucked into this really unhealthy world online” and having to take a step back from it. “I really learned to just detach from that and I haven’t been in any of the online communities for at least a year,” she said. “And man has my mental health improved a lot!” Full-on animosity has developed between participants in the online search for Maura; notably, Larkin and Renner have established a bitter, public enmity, the latter accusing the former of spreading false tips and belonging to a group of “true crime terrorists”, the former accusing the latter of giving voice to a “perverse inner monologue” and exploiting Maura’s disappearance to produce “salacious clickbait”. In December last year, Maura’s younger brother, Kurtis, joined Julie in releasing a statement that urged the true-crime community to “refocus” on their sister.

"This could be very huge": a break in the case?

Now, as the 18th anniversary of Maura’s disappearance edges closer, a new discovery close to the accident site has provided what is, potentially, the biggest step forward yet in solving her case. In September, bone fragments were found at a construction site on Loon Mountain, some 25 miles from Woodsville. The news immediately brought to mind another popular theory about what happened to Maura, involving a group of unidentified individuals who have come to be known as the ‘Loon Mountain Three’. On the Oxygen documentary, John Smith explained: “One of the local rumours is that Maura was supposedly picked up at the vehicle by two or three guys that were headed to the mountain resort, and they grabbed her from the scene, told her they could get her out of there and they ended up at this party, and during the party Maura ended up OD-ing. And they didn’t know what to do…”

Speaking to WBZ-TV, Julie admitted the discovery on Loon Mountain offers greater hope of a break in the case than previous, similar leads. “My family has experienced these types of situations before but this one feels a little bit different because of the proximity to where Maura’s car was found,” she said, adding: “We haven’t had any physical evidence discovered in relation to my sister’s case so this could be very huge.”

In a statement, New Hampshire State Police said: “A search of the area has been conducted, an investigation is ongoing, and diagnostic testing is pending to determine age and possible sex of the bone fragments”. For now, all Maura’s family can do is wait. “This is gut wrenching. This is really, really hard […],” Julie told WBZ-TV. “I’m hoping this is it, but it’s not going to destroy us if it isn’t. We’ll just keep looking.”

UPDATE, Wednesday 10 November: Loon Mountain bone fragments aren't Maura Murray, investigators confirm

If you have any information regarding Maura Murray’s disappearance, please contact the New Hampshire Cold Case Unit by telephone at (603) 271-2663 or by email at coldcaseunit@dos.nh.gov