Have you ever wanted to just disappear?
Maybe life has gotten hard, or things just aren’t working out and you want a blank slate. For some, just walking into the ether and becoming a ghost is endlessly appealing.
To some, Maura Murray did just that.
In 2004, the 21-year-old nursing student crashed her car on Route 112 in Woodsville, New Hampshire. By the time police arrived at the scene, she was gone. And she’s never been seen since.
The investigation has gone on for 15 years now, detailing dozens of searches and catching the attention of millions across the globe as the Internet age began to take hold.
There are literally hundreds of theories about what happened to Maura – did she really just walk away from her life and start anew somewhere else, anonymous? Did she hit her head in the crash and wander out into the wilderness, eventually succumbing to the elements?
Or was someone else there that night – someone with bad intentions? The possibilities are endless.
Here’s what we do know.
Who is Maura Murray
Maura was the fourth of five children born to Fred and Laurie Murray in Hanson, Massachusetts.
After graduating from high school as a star athlete on the track team, she was accepted into the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.
She studied chemical engineering in her first year before violating the honor code by stealing makeup from a commissary at Fort Knox during a training expedition. She was allowed to leave the academy without being officially expelled, allowing her to transfer to UMASS Amherst’s nursing program, where she was enrolled at the time of her disappearance.
In the days leading up to her disappearance, there were several unusual events surrounding Maura.
On February 5, she was on the phone with her sister Kathleen while on duty at her job as campus security when she burst into tears. When her supervisor approached her desk to ask her what was wrong, she “just completely zoned out. No reaction at all. She was unresponsive.”
When she came to and was asked what was wrong, she simply said, “My sister.”
The actual contents of this conversation remained a mystery until 2017 when Kathleen offered an explanation publicly. Kathleen was a recovering alcoholic and had been discharged from a rehab program that very day, only for her fiancé to take her to a liquor store on the way home, causing her to have an emotional breakdown.
On February 7, Maura’s father was in Amherst – they went car shopping together and had dinner with a friend of hers before dropping him off at his motel so she could borrow his car, a Toyota Corolla.
She went to a dorm party on campus and left at 2:30 am. At 3:30, she struck a guardrail on Route 9 while going back to her father’s motel, causing $10,000 worth of damage to the car.
The officer who responded to the scene filed an accident report but failed to conduct any field sobriety tests on Murray – she was taken back to her father’s motel, where she remained for the rest of the morning.
Later that day, Fred learned that his insurance would cover the damage to his car, so he dropped Maura off at the university and departed back to Connecticut. He called her that night to remind her to pick up accident paperwork from the Department of Motor Vehicles, and they had plans to talk again on Monday night, February 9, to fill out the paperwork over the phone.
Pre – Disappearance
After midnight on February 9, 2004, Maura used her computer to look up MapQuest directions to the Berkshires – the Vermont portion of the Green Mountains – and Burlington, Vermont.
The first reported contact she had with anyone that day was an email to her boyfriend, which read, “I got your messages, but honestly, I didn’t feel like talking to much of anyone. I promise to call today though.”
She also called someone to inquire about renting a condo in Bartlett, New Hampshire, where her family often rented when they vacationed there. This call only lasted three minutes, and the owners did not rent a condo to Maura.
At 1:24 pm, she emailed her professors and work supervisor to say that she would be out of town for a week due to a death in the family. However, when her family was questioned, they said that no one had died.
At 2:05 pm, she called a number providing pre-recorded information on hotel bookings in Stowe, Vermont – this call lasted about 5 minutes.
Lastly, she called her boyfriend at 2:18 pm, leaving a message and promising that they would talk later.
She packed her car with toiletries, clothing, college textbooks, and her birth control pills and left campus at around 3:30 pm in her black 1996 Saturn sedan. She withdrew $280 from an ATM at 3:40, and CCTV footage of that transaction indicated that she was alone.
At a liquor store nearby, she purchased around $40 of assorted alcohol, including Bailey’s Irish Cream, Kahlua, vodka, and a box of Franzia wine – security footage shows that she was also alone for this purchase. She also picked up accident report forms at some point like her father asked, a detail that becomes confusing as the events of the day unfold.
She left Amherst at 3:50 pm, presumably via Interstate 91 north. She last used her cell phone at 4:37 pm, when she called to check her voicemail. No one knows where she was going, or if she, herself, knew.
At 7:27 pm, a resident of Woodsville, New Hampshire called the Grafton County Sherriff’s Department to report a car accident near her house. She’d heard a loud thumping noise, and when she looked out her window, she could see a car against the snowbank lining Route 112, or Wild Ammonoosuc Road.
According to the 911 logs, she claimed to see a man smoking a cigarette inside the car, but she’d later say that she hadn’t seen a man at all, or even a cigarette. Instead, she’d seen a red light glowing inside the car that could have come from a cell phone.
Other neighbors reported seeing the car, but only one stopped – a bus driver that was returning home from work. He pulled up next to the vehicle and noticed that the young woman inside was not bleeding or visibly injured, but she was shivering.
He offered to call for help, but she asked – some reports use the word “pleaded” for him not to call the police, and assured him that she’d already called AAA. Although, there was no record of this call, or any others, from Maura’s phone at the time. Knowing that there was no cell reception in the area, the bus driver continued to his home and called police at 7:43 pm. He couldn’t see Maura’s car while making the call.
Another local claims to have seen a police SUV parked nose-to-nose with Maura’s car at around 7:37 – she said that she pulled over, but didn’t see anyone in either car, so she continued to her home. This report directly contradicts official police reports, in which the police arrived at 7:46 pm.
According to these records, when police arrived, there was no one in or around the Saturn.
The car had hit a tree on the driver’s side – the headlight was severely damaged, the windshield was cracked, and both airbags had deployed. Additionally, the impact had pushed the car’s radiator into the fan, rendering the car entirely inoperable. The doors were locked.
In and around the car, police discovered stains that appeared to be red wine, likely coming from the damaged box of Franzia that was discovered in the backseat. In addition, an AAA card issued to Maura, blank accident report forms, and two sets of driving directions to Vermont were discovered in the car, as well as gloves, CDs, makeup, diamond jewelry, Maura’s favorite stuffed animal, and a book about mountain climbing called Not Without Peril.
Notably, her debit and credit cards and her cell phone were missing. None of these have been located or used since she disappeared. Later, police would reveal that some of the liquor that she had purchased earlier that night was also missing, though its unknown whether it was in the car when it crashed or she’d consumed it earlier.
Between 8 and 8:30 that night, a contractor returning home from Franconia saw someone moving quickly on foot eastbound on Route 112, about 4 or 5 miles from where Maura’s vehicle crashed. He noted that they were wearing jeans, a dark jacket, and a lighter colored hood – this description resembles what Maura was known to be wearing that night.
Unfortunately, this witness didn’t report this sighting to police immediately because he confused the dates – it was only three months later, when he was going through his work records, that he realized that he’d seen this person the same night that Maura Murray disappeared.
It has never been confirmed whether this was really Maura or not. If it was, then this was the last ever sighting of her.
When police searched her dorm room shortly after her disappearance, they discovered that many of her belongings had been packed in boxes and the art had been taken off the walls, as though she was intending to move out.
On top of the boxes, they found an email printout from her boyfriend, indicating turbulence in their relationship. It’s unclear whether or not she packed that day, but police assert that she probably packed sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning before she disappeared.
At 12:36 pm the following day, on February 10, police issued a Be On the Lookout or BOLO alert for Maura Murray. She was reported to have been wearing a dark coat, jeans, and a black backpack – the latter has been a focus in the investigation and later tips.
A voicemail was left on Fred Murray’s answering machine at 3:20pm that day, stating that Maura’s car had been found abandoned. Tragically, Fred was working out of state and didn’t know anything about what had happened until one of Murray’s older sisters contacted him at 5pm.
Fred called the Haverhill Police Department and told them that if his daughter wasn’t found safe by the next morning, he would have the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department begin searching for her. At 5:17pm that day, Maura Murray is referred to as “missing” by police for the first time.
On February 11, her father Fred arrived in Haverhill before dawn. At 8am, a search of the surrounding area was conducted by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department as promised, as well as the Murrays themselves and other volunteers.
A police dog tracked the scent from one of the gloves about 100 yards east from the car, but lost the scent after that. This suggests to many that she could have gotten into a car at this point and left the area, but there are differing opinions on this – we’ll talk about those later.
At 5pm that day, her boyfriend and his parents arrived for questioning. He was interrogated both in private and with his parents present. He had turned his cell phone off during the flight to Haverhill, but he discovered that he had received a voicemail sometime during that period. It contained what he believed to be the sound of Maura sobbing.
Police traced this call to a calling card issued to the American Red Cross, but it’s unclear whether or not any leads ever came from this, or if its related to the disappearance at all.
At 7pm, police made statements indicating that they believed that Maura had come to the Haverhill area to either run away or commit suicide. Her family and friends think that both options were unlikely.
On February 12, police reported that they thought that Maura could have been headed to the Kancamagus Highway area and said that she was “listed as endangered and possibly suicidal”. They also stated that she was likely intoxicated when she crashed her car, though the bus driver said that she hadn’t appeared impaired.
Murray’s family eventually expanded their search into Vermont, expressing dismay that the authorities there had not been informed of the disappearance despite clear evidence that she could have been intending to head in that direction from the MapQuest printouts in her car.
Ten days after she disappeared, New Hampshire Fish and Game conducted another search of the area surrounding her car, including a helicopter with thermal imaging cameras, tracking dogs, and cadaver dogs. There was still no sign of her.
At the end of February, police returned the items found in her car to the family, and they checked out of their hotel on March 2, completely exhausted. Fred Murray returned to New Hampshire almost every weekend to search for his daughter, to the point that he was informed of several complaints that he’d been trespassing on private property in April.
Later that March, another girl went missing under mysterious circumstances, close to the area where Maura was last seen. Brianna Maitland disappeared from Montgomery, Vermont, and her case immediately sparked comparisons with Maura’s disappearance. However, state police have stated repeatedly that the cases were not connected, and they dismiss the possibility of a serial killer being involved. Brianna has also never been located.
On July 1, police retrieved the items found in her car from the family for forensic analysis, but the results of any of these tests don’t point to where she could be. Authorities conducted many searches in the area around the crash site, and they were most interested in locating the backpack Maura was said to have had when she left.
Accusations And More Investigations
In late 2004, a man is alleged to have brought a rusty knife to Fred Murray – he said that it belonged to his brother, who had had run-ins with the law before and lived less than a mile from where her car was found. He also said that his brother and his brother’s girlfriend acted strangely after Maura disappeared, and the man believed that his brother had used the knife to kill her.
Family members of this man claimed that he had made up the story to try and receive reward money in the case, and that he had a history of drug use.
On November 1, 2005, a user called “Tom Davies” logged into a message board devoted to Maura Murray’s case. He claimed to have seen a black backpack that possibly matched the one that Maura had taken with her that night behind a public restroom at Pemigewasset Overlook, around 30 miles from Woodsville and where her car was found.
Senior Assistant Jeffery Strelzin, who would be very involved in the case, stated that law enforcement “was aware of the backpack.” However, there is no word on whether it was connected to Maura, or whether it had even been taken for testing.
In 2006, the New Hampshire League of Investigators, ten retired police officers and detectives, and the Molly Bish Foundation began working on the case. Tom Shamshak, a former police officer within this team, said, “It appears…that this is something beyond a mere missing persons case. Something ominous could have happened here.”
That October, volunteers conducted a search in the area where her car was found that spanned two days. In a house nearby, cadaver dogs apparently “went bonkers” while inspecting a closet, possibly identifying the scent of human remains. The house had previously been owned by the man that had been implicated by his brother, who brought a knife to Fred Murray in 2004. Carpet samples were taken, but there were no conclusive results.
The case of Maura Murray’s disappearance was added to a newly established New Hampshire cold case unit in 2009. Jeffery Strelzin made a statement about the case’s active status: “We don’t know if Maura was a victim, but the state is treating it as a potential homicide. It may be a missing persons case, but it’s being handled as a criminal investigation.”
In 2010, Fred Murray began publicly criticizing all of the previous investigations for treating her as a missing person, rather than a victim of something criminal right off the bat. This is despite compelling evidence that Maura was intending to go somewhere, even if her original plan was to return. He called for the FBI to return to the investigation.
In early 2012, followers of the case began taking note of a YouTube user known as Mr112dirtbag who began posting a series of cryptic, offbeat videos that some believe contain clues to Maura’s whereabouts. Most of these videos are not available on YouTube in their original state, but clips still exist, and many have tried to analyze them and find Maura.
However, there is little hope that these videos are credible – both professional criminologists and Maura’s family have dismissed them as “cruel and hideous” ploys for attention.
There are three main theories about what happened to Maura Murray on the night of February 9, 2004. The most common theory seems to be that she met with foul play and is deceased. Many Internet theories like throwing around the term “opportunistic serial killer”, but law enforcement thinks that it was a crime of opportunity, full stop.
Maura crashed her car and got into a situation that was dangerous – she just got into the wrong car or walked up to the wrong door. Her father has stated repeatedly that this is the theory that he ascribes to. He thinks that his daughter was somehow abducted from the crash site the night she disappeared and that she’s no longer with us.
Another more optimistic theory is that Maura ran away to start over and is living happily somewhere, perhaps with a child. This is quite a feat, especially considering that none of her information has been used since she disappeared and there have been no sightings. Even for those who plan meticulously, disappearing completely is almost impossible. Many circumvent these difficulties by saying that she met with a type of women’s underground railroad that arranged for her to receive a new identity, sort of like witness protection. Most theories place her in Canada, but if she really did run away, then she could be anywhere by now.
The last theory is both bleak and implausible. Some think that Maura was very stressed after the accident – it was her second in a matter of days, after all – or that she suffered head trauma during the crash and was confused. In any case, she wandered out into the woods and eventually died of exposure.
There are a few problems with this theory: one, it was unseasonably warm the night she disappeared, and thus a death by exposure is less likely than one would think. Two, it is very unlikely that she got too far from her car in this scenario, and the five-mile radius around the crash has been searched extensively by all manner of law enforcement and volunteers almost a dozen separate times. If her body was out there, it very likely would have been found by now.
Many of these theories hinge on the scent dog results, and that directly informs how realistic – or not – they are. Some think that, because the dogs initially tracked her scent but lost it, there is evidence that Maura got into another car and left the area. Others think that the dogs didn’t have a good scent to begin with because they were given Maura’s gloves from the car – according to her father, they were a gift, and she never wore them.
Where Are We Now?
Despite extensive examinations of all the available evidence, there has been no sign of Maura Murray since that night in 2004. The case has lain almost entirely dormant for a long time, though there was a little movement earlier this month, when the house where the cadaver dogs hit was excavated.
Fred Murray had reiterated his desire to have the house searched in February, saying, “That’s my daughter, I do believe.” However, the excavation turned up “absolutely nothing, other than what appears to be a piece of old pottery or piping.”
The disappearance of Maura Murray is regarded as the “first mystery of the social media age” because she disappeared mere days after the launch of Facebook, and much of her case has played out in online forums.
Bill Jenson wrote this in Boston in 2014: “On the Internet, Maura’s disappearance is the perfect obsession, a puzzle of clues that offers a tantalizing illusion – if the right armchair detective connects the right dots, maybe the unsolvable can be solved. And so, every day, the case attracts new recruits, analyzing and dissecting and reconstructing the details of her story with a Warren Commission-like fervor.”
She was referenced in two episodes of Disappeared, in Season 1, Episode 6 and Season 4, Episode 7. An episode of 20/20 compared her case to that of Brooke Wilberger, who went missing in Oregon a few months after Maura did and was later found murdered. As with Brianna Maitland, no concrete connections have been drawn between the cases.
Her case is also the subject of the non-fiction true crime thriller True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray by James Renner. His theory is that Murray traveled into New Hampshire with a tandem driver and disappeared willingly to start a new life somewhere.
In the end, the theories don’t matter – no one really knows what happened to Maura Murray after she left her car that night. And, despite the dreams of many armchair detectives and Internet sleuths, we may never know. She just walked into the night.