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A decade lost and the spotlight gone, a father searches for his daughter

  • Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Maura Murray

    Maura Murray

  • Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Fred Murray’s daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill in February 2004. He is still looking for answers. (Concord Monitor - John Tully)

    Fred Murray’s daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill in February 2004. He is still looking for answers. (Concord Monitor - John Tully)

  • Marc Johnson, center, treasurer at Open Hands Resource Center, helps load tents and sleeping bags onto a truck en route to the center. The supplies was first passed out to Concord's homeless at the cold weather shelter at the First Congregational Church on Saturday morning, March 30, 2013. What remained was heading down the road to the Open Hands Resource Center. Rise Again Outreach also helped to give tents and sleeping bags away to Concord's homeless. John Moretto, director at Open Hands, estimated they would distribute around 70 tents to people throughout the day.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Marc Johnson, center, treasurer at Open Hands Resource Center, helps load tents and sleeping bags onto a truck en route to the center. The supplies was first passed out to Concord's homeless at the cold weather shelter at the First Congregational Church on Saturday morning, March 30, 2013. What remained was heading down the road to the Open Hands Resource Center. Rise Again Outreach also helped to give tents and sleeping bags away to Concord's homeless. John Moretto, director at Open Hands, estimated they would distribute around 70 tents to people throughout the day.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Maura Murray

    Maura Murray

  • “It appears I’m going to go to my eternal reward not knowing what happened on that night,” Fred Murray said recently at the home in Hanson, Mass., where he raised Maura and his other two daughters. (Concord Monitor - John Tully)

    “It appears I’m going to go to my eternal reward not knowing what happened on that night,” Fred Murray said recently at the home in Hanson, Mass., where he raised Maura and his other two daughters. (Concord Monitor - John Tully)

  • Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Maura Murray
  • Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Fred Murray's daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill, New Hampshire on Monday, February 9, 2004. He was photographed at his property in Hanson, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 21, 2013, and is still looking for answers.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Fred Murray’s daughter, Maura Murray, was last seen at the scene of a one-car accident in Haverhill in February 2004. He is still looking for answers. (Concord Monitor - John Tully)
  • Marc Johnson, center, treasurer at Open Hands Resource Center, helps load tents and sleeping bags onto a truck en route to the center. The supplies was first passed out to Concord's homeless at the cold weather shelter at the First Congregational Church on Saturday morning, March 30, 2013. What remained was heading down the road to the Open Hands Resource Center. Rise Again Outreach also helped to give tents and sleeping bags away to Concord's homeless. John Moretto, director at Open Hands, estimated they would distribute around 70 tents to people throughout the day.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Maura Murray
  • “It appears I’m going to go to my eternal reward not knowing what happened on that night,” Fred Murray said recently at the home in Hanson, Mass., where he raised Maura and his other two daughters. (Concord Monitor - John Tully)

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.

Gone

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.”

As the years have passed, Fred’s mistrust has boiled into outright suspicion. He is especially critical of how the first state trooper who arrived on the scene dealt with Maura’s disappearance, and the fact that he hasn’t seen that trooper’s report has fed his suspicion that the case was mishandled. Given his training and jurisdiction, the trooper was Maura’s best chance, he said.

“The locals did what locals do everywhere,” Fred said. “Maybe they’re outmanned. Maybe they don’t have experience. But the state police, they are supposed to be the real deal.”

So he wonders, endlessly: What did or didn’t the trooper do?

“I can’t accuse anybody of anything because I don’t know anything. I don’t know, but I want to know,” he said.

Fred believes that everything would be different if the FBI were holding the reins. The tough questions would be asked. Family members would be tapped for relevant information that could lead to tangible results. Every lead and speck of evidence would be upturned.

“My daughter just went missing in the wrong place,” he said. “If I had the FBI and I got new information, then I’d have the confidence something would happen with it. The other way is a black hole. I’m left to just let my imagination wander.”

But, listening to Fred lay out his critiques, it’s evident that he constantly struggles to balance two conflicting streams of thought: one based on logical reasoning, the other on desperation.

“These types of situations are hard,” Strelzin said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t reached a point where we can give Fred or the family any sort of closure. They’re in a tough spot. It’s terrible not to have definitive answers.”

Strelzin said the state could not comment on numerous assertions Fred has made because most are part of an ongoing investigation. But he described the state’s effort as “thorough” and ongoing. He also said it would be detrimental if the state unsealed all its evidence because withholding certain information helps officials discern what new leads are credible and ensures that any potential criminal trial is not contaminated by the premature release of documents or testimony.

“If you put your whole case file out there, you’d never be able to prosecute a case,” Strelzin said.

Turmoil without end

What does nine years of not knowing the fate of your child do to a father?

“The frustration makes me mad, and you can burn on that,” he said. “When (the disappearance) first happened there was so much going on that I would take the first thing that was on my front porch, boom, and do the next thing, boom, and do the next thing. Always staying busy. Trying, trying, trying, one thing after another, to register everything in my mind.

“The way I’ve progressed in nine years is I don’t have as much to do,” he continued, “because there isn’t as much happening in the case, so I’m not as frantic. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not always with me. When I wake up in the morning it doesn’t take long for this to pop into my mind. Doesn’t take long at all. Wham, it’s constantly there. When I get new information, I make sure (the) cold case (unit) and the police have it. And I wait for something to happen. And it never does. Nothing ever happens.”

In person, Fred is polite and composed, albeit assertive when discussing his daughter and her disappearance. He does not want to talk about what was going on in Maura’s life before she vanished. According to him, it’s not relevant.

Fred has aged considerably from pictures taken around the time of the incident, but he’s still fit and active. He lives on Cape Cod and works part time at a hospital. He could retire, but he said he prefers to have a distraction. He said he’s trying “to be as normal as I can.” But even that has its challenges.

“People at work know who I am, they know the story,” he said. “And they don’t know what to say. It makes them anxious. They’re uncomfortable. I play it down, I tell them I don’t want to talk about it, and they’re relieved.”

His daughters – Julie, 33, and Kathleen, 35 – say the disappearance has brought them closer to their dad and to each other. (Maura’s mother, Laurie, was divorced from Fred at the time of their daughter’s disappearance and died of cancer a few years ago – on Maura’s birthday.)

Still, it’s difficult on everyone. At gatherings Maura’s name isn’t mentioned all that much, “but it’s on everyone’s mind,” Julie said.

“For me, it’s just been a complete roller coaster of emotions since the day this began. I have a lot of sadness, experiencing so many life events without her – growing up, getting a new job, maturing,” she said. “And there is regret, for something I didn’t say or do. You start questioning, if I had answered the phone that one time, done this or that, maybe it would be different.”

Fred acknowledges that at times his comments and actions, particularly those toward the state police, may seem abrasive. But he doesn’t apologize for that. He can’t.

“If I make people uncomfortable, I have no option,” he said. “You put me in this situation. If you told me nine years ago what was going on, I wouldn’t be still pounding away with the FBI. But you didn’t, and so here I am.

“I’m not going away because I can’t. It’s impossible as a human being to let this rest. I owe it to my daughter to do everything I can.”

Helpful, to a point

Maura’s case, like so many, has been amplified through the internet. Articles and documents bounce from one website to the next. 20/20 and Montel clips get posted and re-posted. There is a Facebook group dedicated to her disappearance, where friends and strangers post comments, theories and links to news on serial killers and other missing persons cases.

“Just watched the case of Maura on Disappeared,” one user wrote. “My prayers are with her and her family and friends! I hope she is found soon!”

Kathleen said the online community that has formed around the case has helped in many ways, by knowing there are others out there who sympathize or who may be dealing with a similar tragedy. She said she reads web forums about Maura and constantly watches television shows about vanishings and other unsolved mysteries.

The online attention, though, has also created some headaches for the family, particularly Fred, because some comments and accusations seem insensitive and intrusive, Kathleen and Julie said.

A few years ago an Ohio-based journalist and crime writer named James Renner started a blog and began collecting information about Maura’s disappearance for a book he is now writing. His blog has become a hot spot for alternative theories about what happened. Was Maura driving in tandem with another car at the time of the crash? Was she running away for good? Did Fred have something to do with the case?

Nothing appears off limits on the site, including details about Maura’s past – and that doesn’t sit well with the family.

“People say mean things about my family, my dad,” Julie said. “I take it that they have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Renner writes on the blog that he’s made many attempts to interview Fred for the book but has been stonewalled, and he questions Fred’s motivations for not talking to him.

Fred said he doesn’t like to discuss the book but has refused to participate in the project because he doesn’t trust the angles Renner might take, and because he doesn’t think Renner will “dig up anything I haven’t.”

Toggling between the Facebook group and Renner’s blog, it’s as if two camps have formed: the former for sympathy and the latter for pointing fingers.

“There are some people who have become obsessed with Maura’s case, for whatever reason,” said Helena Dwyer Murray, who is related to Fred through marriage and who curates the Facebook page. “Some are wonderful, some are questionable.”

But despite the divide, it’s also clear that everyone wants the same thing: answers.

“It’s time,” Helena said. “People don’t realize how many lives something like this actually affects. It’s not just the immediate family. So many people have been following it for nine years. Looking to find something, hoping to find something.”

That something: What happened to Maura Murray?

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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