On Feb. 9, 2004, Maura Murray vanished without a trace.
The 21-year-old nursing student emailed her supervisor and professors at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to inform them there had been a death in her family and she would be missing work and class. She emailed 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.” She packed a bag, withdrew $280 from an ATM, bought $40 worth of alcohol and hit the road. Her last known call was to check her voice mail at 4:37 p.m.
It was a cold, snowy night and, between 7 and 7:30 p.m., Murray’s black 1996 Saturn skidded off the road and hit a snowbank off of Route 112 in Haverhill, N.H. She was about 140 miles away from where she’d started her journey. A passing school bus driver asked if she needed help. Murray said no, AAA was on the way. The man, who lived nearby, called 911 anyway, knowing full well there was no cell phone service in the area.
Murray wore jeans and a dark coat and was carrying a black backpack. That’s the last anyone saw of her.
Police arrived at the scene within 10 minutes. A box of Franzia wine—one of her liquor store purchases—had spilled in the car. Her textbooks were there, as was a MapQuest printout of directions to Burlington, Vt. There was no wallet, keys or cell phone.
There were also no apparent signs of a struggle and, with authorities at first suspecting she was a troubled kid who had wandered off to escape her issues, Murray’s family wasn’t informed that she was missing until 24 hours later. Moreover, an all-hands-on-deck search—dogs, helicopters, people combing the woods—didn’t begin until 36 hours after the crash. A search dog followed her trail for about 100 feet, then lost the scent. There weren’t even any footprints in the snow. Her credit cards remained unused. Two days after the accident, a Haverhill Police press release called Murray “possibly suicidal.”
For years afterward, her father, Fred Murray, went out every weekend walking that same road, searching for clues, trying to get a sense of what his daughter was doing, where she was going.
Because there had been no death in the family.
“She was in good spirits and had no worries or reason to run away from her life,” her dad told CNN in 2008. A $40,000 reward was still on offer at the time for any information leading to her whereabouts or the arrest of someone involved in her disappearance.
But the days leading up to Feb. 9, 2004, had been a mixed bag for Murray.
Some reports say she had recently gotten engaged to her boyfriend, Bill Rausch, a U.S. Army lieutenant who was stationed in Fort Still, Okla. They had met at West Point, where Murray was a cadet for two years before transferring to UMass. She had reportedly secured a summer nursing job in Oklahoma for the upcoming summer. She was on the dean’s list and worked part time as a security guard at an art gallery. In high school she was a star athlete on the basketball and track teams. Those close to her said she had no history of mental illness.
Four days before she disappeared, she left the gallery early after receiving a phone call from her sister and becoming visibly upset. Fred Murray said his other daughter told him she had called Maura to talk about a “monstrous” fight she’d had with her own boyfriend, but he didn’t think that would have distressed Maura so much.
Two nights before she went missing, on Feb. 7, Murray had dinner with her father in Amherst and late that night, or technically 3:30 a.m. Sunday morning, while driving back from a campus party she caused $10,000 worth of damage to her dad’s new Toyota Corolla when she hit a guardrail.
A New Hampshire State Police officer told a local news station that they found a note to Rausch in Murray’s Kennedy Hall dorm room, where she had also boxed up her belongings before she left. The note indicated they were having problems as a couple, he said.
Maura’s mom, Laurie Murray, and Billy’s mother, Sharon Rausch, later told the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the university paper, that the couple had had problems back in 2002 but patched things up and everything had been great since. Moreover, Sharon told the paper in January 2005, her son had gone to Maura’s dorm room upon his arrival in town and found no recent notes written to him. “There is no note,” she said.
What was actually atop the boxes, according to James Renner, author of True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Disappearance of Maura Murray, was a printout of an email Rausch had sent to Murray that was part of a thread about Bill apparently seeing another woman.
Meanwhile, Rausch got a leave of absence from the Army and took off for New England after learning Murray was missing, joining the search and driving across New Hampshire and Vermont stopping at police, bus and gas stations asking if they’d seen his girlfriend. Friends and family put up missing posters and called local news outlets to get the word out. “Obviously, we’re hoping for the best,” Rausch told the Boston Globe at the time. “If I just got some news, although I guess no news is good news.” Noting the spilled wine, he speculated that, while he never knew Murray to drink and drive, maybe she fled the scene out of fear she had broken the law.
Days later he told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien that he got a voice mail from Murray while he was en route from Oklahoma.
“I could hear only breathing and then towards the end of the voice mail, I heard what was apparent to be crying and then a whimper, which I’m certain was Maura,” he said. The number the person called from turned out to be a prepaid calling card.
No one who spoke to authorities about Murray seemed to know why she was upset the day she left work early, or what she wanted to talk to Rausch about. Renner, who was working as a freelance journalist when he started devoting himself full-time to the case in 2010, also reported that Maura used a stolen credit card number to charge $79.02 worth of pizza deliveries to her dorm, and three months before she disappeared, police gave her a warning to stay out of more trouble or else face charges. Renner was of the belief that Maura was still alive.
And now, with the 14-year anniversary of her disappearance fast approaching, Oxygen is revisiting the still baffling cold case with the six-episode series The Disappearance of Maura Murray, part of a new franchise that launched last month with the The Disappearance of Natalee Holloway. (The 18-year-old from Alabama disappeared on a post-graduation trip to Aruba in 2005 and her body was never found. The person authorities most suspect was involved, Joran Van Der Sloot, is in prison for murder in Peru. Human remains were discovered during a more recent 18-month investigation that was chronicled on the show, and DNA testing was underway when it premiered to try to determine if they belonged to the missing teen, whom her father had declared legally dead in 2012 so he could access money he had locked away for his daughter’s college fund to pay tuition for Natalee’s brother.)
The Maura Murray case also remains very much open, her father and siblings having never given up hope that, even if Maura is gone, they can still get answers and perhaps even justice. Maura’s mom, Laurie Murray, died of cancer on May 4, 2009—her missing daughter’s birthday.
AP Photo/Jim Cole
“I wake up. It takes just a few seconds and then it crosses my mind,” Fred Murray, who never retired because working helps him focus on something else besides Maura’s disappearance, told the Boston Globe in February. “I’m aware. It hits me. It’s a constant pall. To tell you the truth, it really isn’t any better than it ever was.”
“And there’s no answers,” sister Julie Murray told the Globe. “There’s that constant churning of your brain like: Well, what if this happened? Or: What if that happened? There are not a lot of answers. Was the timing absolutely perfect for someone to be there on the spot and snatch her up and do something bad to her? What are the chances of that? So I try to weigh that with reality and common sense.”
Added her brother, also named Fred, “There’s so many things that could have happened. It’s going to take someone coming forward with a piece of information to solve it and it’s probably something simple. The likely scenario is that she got picked up by someone. Maura is very smart but she’s not street smart. She grew up in Hanson, Mass.”
“My dad’s 74. I don’t want much more time to elapse without him knowing something,” Julie also said. “I want some answers for my dad’s sake. Somebody knows something. Somebody doesn’t just disappear literally without a trace. This case and my sister are in his every waking thought. It never leaves him. Thirteen years is long enough. We need some answers.”
Journalist and public radio producer Maggie Freleng—who was a journalism student at UMass when Maura went missing—is the one spearheading the deep dive into the Murray case on The Disappearance of Maura Murray. The case is also the subject of the Missing Maura Murray podcast, which, according to hosts Lance Reenstierna and Tim Pilleri, has been downloaded more than 8 million times since it began in July 2015.
Reenstierna and Pilleri joined Freleng in her search for answers, which included walking the woods near the crash site in New Hampshire to personally look for clues. On the series’ premiere episode, talking to retired U.S. Marshal Art Roderick, who knows Fred Murray and the ins and outs of the case, Freleng was told that question No. 1 was, What was Maura doing on that road on Feb. 9, 2004? Answer that, and the rest of the puzzle pieces may just fall into place.
But years before Freleng and Oxygen got involved, Maura’s disappearance had long since been a case for more than just the police—thanks to the Internet.
According to Boston magazine, a second cousin of Maura’s started MauraMurray.com in November 2004, armchair detectives from WebSleuths.com got involved in February 2005 and by 2007 there were Facebook and MySpace pages dedicated to the case. In summer 2013, a young Massachusetts attorney launched the website Not Without Peril, named after a book about the dangers of hiking the New Hampshire woods that was found in Murray’s car.
Murray also happened to have disappeared the same week that Facebook (or “The Facebook,” as Mark Zuckerberg first called it) launched at Harvard; soon after, the service arrived at other Boston-area colleges, branched out to the entire Ivy League and then ended up at pretty much every U.S. university. Even though it was a student-only social media network until September 2006, Internet message boards provided more than enough of a platform for those who had theories about what happened to Maura Murray: the police were covering up their own botched investigation, her family wasn’t telling the whole truth, Maura was cheating on her boyfriend, was mixed up with drugs, was suicidal, was picked up after the crash and OD’d at a party… the list went on.
Questions remained about why it took police so long to start searching for Maura. Fred Murray drove to Haverhill immediately after getting the call, relieved at first that a state trooper was on the scene in addition to the local cops, but when he got there, “evidently, they had not done anything,” he told the Caledonian Record in 2009. “My first question was, ‘You had an officer at the scene. What did your guy say?’ Five years later I have the same question. He was the best chance Maura had. Why can’t they say?”
In the months following Maura’s disappearance, Fred wrote to the New Hampshire governor’s office, pleading for his assistance in urging the State Police to accept help from the FBI. He said he never heard back and in the meantime had filed a Freedom of Information Act so that he could see what authorities were doing about his daughter’s case. He told the Daily Collegian in January 2005 that he would even hang out in local bars, hoping to overhear any snippet of info in case anyone was talking about Maura.
He enlisted a team of private investigators and they too had a falling out over disagreements about the way information was being shared, or not shared, but the PIs continued to work the case on their own.
Fred alleged that the police refused to properly investigate the possibility that Maura had been abducted. “There’s a bad guy on their turf in their backyard,” he said. “The skunk is on their doorstep.”
Authorities didn’t want to badmouth a grieving father, but they became frustrated by Fred Murray’s continued insistence that they screwed up the investigation and haven’t done their due diligence over the years.
“Fred has been a difficult person to deal with from the beginning,” Jeff Strelzin, chief of the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office homicide unit, told Boston magazine in 2014. “I understand a lot of where he is coming from, but I feel his anger is misplaced.”
Strelzin said he didn’t mind the case’s massive Internet following, so long as the conspiracy theorists or the earnest amateur sleuths didn’t actually interfere with the investigation.
A decade ago, police probed a possible link between Maura’s disappearance and that of 17-year-old Brianna Maitland—like Murray a pretty, young brunette—who was last seen in Montgomery, Vt., on March 19, 2004. Maitland had clocked out of her job at 11:20 p.m. and less than two hours later, her abandoned car was found backed into the side of an empty farmhouse, the headlights still on.
In May 2004, Vermont State Police Lt. Thomas Nelson said in a statement, “We have looked at [the possible connection] and talked with the New Hampshire State Police about both cases. We have not found anything that connects the cases in any way.”
Police also shot down speculation that the missing girls may have fallen prey to a serial killer. But the Maitland and Murray families shared similar grievances about how the cops were working their respective cases.
AP Photo/Jon-Pierre Lasseigne
“Just because there isn’t any evidence is not a reason to close the door on that theory, or any other,” Brianna’s father, Bruce Maitland, told World Net Daily in 2006. “If you look at the vital statistics on all of these missing women, you’d see right away that most are startlingly similar. If none are related, then that means there are a good 100, or so, individual murderers out there roaming about free to do anything they want.”
Similar to Fred Murray’s outrage when local police publicly claimed that Maura was possibly suicidal, Maitland’s friends and family were incensed by Lt. Nelson’s assertion at a press conference that Brianna had gotten involved in the local rural drug culture and “made unhealthy lifestyle choices in her life prior to her disappearance.”
“Nelson’s statement in my view was an exercise in character assassination,” Bruce Maitland told WND. “It was a calculated effort to paint my daughter out as a bad person that got what she deserved. It was an effort to draw the heat away from the police. It made me sick to hear it. No teenager deserves to be portrayed that way by a public servant, especially when they are missing and nobody knows the facts or their fate.”
Brianna Maitland has never been found, either. The unsolved case has been featured on Dateline and on the Discovery (and now Discovery ID) series Disappeared.
At the same press conference where Nelson made those comments, New Hampshire State Police Lt. John Scarinza said about Maura Murray, “What’s also clear is she did not want to tell any of her family what her intentions were. And she did not tell any of her friends.”
“It does not matter why she left or if she told anybody about it,” Fred Murray also told World News Daily. “She had an accident and this presented her with a completely different set of circumstances, any other plans went out the window. I believe that my daughter would be home safe and sound right now if the police had not ignored the case until it was way too late. They would have known where she was heading if they had bothered to check the last phone call she made three hours before she left Amherst. I told the police where she was going two days after the accident but they didn’t check that either. The police failed to follow their own procedures and are now striving to prevent this from coming to light. Maura probably did get a ride with one or more of the area’s multitudinous sex offenders who law enforcement can’t catch because they waited too long to get started.”
On The Disappearance of Maura Murray, premiering tonight on Oxygen, podcasters Reenstierna and Pilleri told Maggie Freleng that the Murray family wouldn’t speak to them when they tried to get in touch “because of the James Renner factor.”
Fred Murray wouldn’t speak to Renner for his book, and Renner has been of the opinion that Fred hasn’t shared everything he knows about his daughter’s disappearance. Reenstierna and Pilleri had Renner on their podcast.
But despite his reluctance to work with certain people, Fred Murray hasn’t given up his search, nor does he crave justice for Maura any less than he did 13 years ago.
“The case has to stay alive,” he told the Globe in February. “That’s the only hope I have. I can’t help Maura now. The only thing I can do for Maura is to grab the dirt bag who grabbed her. That’s all I can do. I must find her and bring her home.”
The Disappearance of Maura Murray airs at 7 & 9 p.m. on Oxygen.
(E! and Oxygen are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)